New St. Louis Cardinals manager Oli Marmol acknowledged in his introductory press conference that his lineup may look different depending on the opposition. This only provides a sliver of information and it is impossible to tell what kind of a tactical manager Marmol will be, but it is an encouraging sign that the Cardinals may be willing to play the match-up game next season.
Mike Shildt often set his lineup and did not change it based on the opposition. Even though an optimal batting order has been shown to only be worth about 5-15 extra runs over the course of the season, a ‘bad’ batting order is still something that fans get worked up over. Marmol’s comment displays an apparent willingness to tinker with the lineup, which may seem like a breath of fresh air to Cardinals fans annoyed by Shildt’s lineup construction. More importantly though, Marmol’s comment could also mean that he is willing to give more time to bench players if the match-up is right.
This is a good sign for players like Lars Nootbaar, Paul DeJong, Edmundo Sosa, Tommy Edman, and Nolan Gorman. Even though the Cardinals have a strong outfield, Nootbaar provides a left-handed bat and has shown plenty of pop in the Arizona Fall League. This makes him a good complement with Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader, who both bat right-handed, and Dylan Carlson, who is a switch hitter but had more success at a right-handed hitter.
Nootbaar gives Marmol a left-handed option who may be best utilized against right-handed pitchers who struggle against left-handed hitters. He may also be an option in parks with a short right field fence. At the very least, he should be able to spell all three outfielders when any of them need a day off. Nootbaar has only player 16 professional innings in center field (all in 2021 with Memphis), but he has 86th percentile sprint speed and played an above average corner outfield this year. This could be an asset since Harrison Bader has traditionally struggled against right-handed pitchers, though he was above average against them in 2021 for the first time in his career. Bader provides a ton of defensive value, so he will still be an everyday starter. Nootbaar simply provides another option.
Besides Nootbaar, it will be interesting to see how Marmol handles the infield. Obviously Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt are locked in at third base and first base, respectively. The middle infield is more up in the air. If Paul DeJong does not get traded, then he will still have a role on the team that is more than primary pinch-hitter. He could make an interesting platoon partner with Edmundo Sosa. Both hitters are right-handed and both hit better against right-handed pitchers this year, so they may not be obvious platoon partners. However, a weakness in DeJong’s offensive profile is high pitches. The former starting shortstop has fared worse against them every year, culminating in a 2021 season where he provided little production against elevated pitches.
To illustrate this, here is a chart from Baseball Savant of DeJong’s wOBA on contact by area of the plate.
From this, it is clear that most of DeJong’s batted ball production came from pitches belt high and below.
Edmundo Sosa, on the other hand, did not have this problem. The 25-year-old was able to produce in all areas of the plate. The following chart, also from Baseball Savant, shows his wOBA on contact over the different regions of home plate.
Because of this difference, it would be better to play Sosa against pitchers who like to stay up in the zone. High fastballs are a modern trend, and the Cardinals would get more production from the shortstop position by playing Sosa against pitchers who have such a weapon.
To back this up even further, DeJong posted an OPS+ of 13 in 109 plate appearances against pitchers that Baseball reference classified as power pitchers. Against pitchers classified as finesse pitchers, DeJong had a 104 OPS+ in 171 plate appearances.
Sosa had almost exactly the same results against either type of pitcher, tallying a 91 OPS+ against power pitchers and a 96 OPS+ against finesse pitchers.
Playing Sosa against power pitchers and DeJong against finesse pitchers allows both players to see the field, while optimizing the production the Cardinals can get from the shortstop position.
Finally, Nolan Gorman and Tommy Edman could be strong platoon partners at second base. As a left-handed hitter, Gorman should start against right-handers while Edman, who has been a much better right-handed hitter throughout his career could start against southpaws. Edman’s versatility also gives him the ability to fill in at every other position in the infield and the corner outfield. By not making him the everyday starting second baseman, the Cardinals would create plate appearances for Nolan Gorman while utilizing Edman’s unique ability to play nearly every position.
The Cardinals should explore playing the match-up game more in 2022. This can be a lot to ask of a first time manager, but Marmol seems to be more open to the idea than Mike Shildt was. This is something that could give the Cardinals a competitive advantage on other teams by optimizing production and keeping players rested.