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Best of the 2021 Season: Offense & Defense

The Cardinals best performances with the bat and glove.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Here we are! The season is over and while it was filled with up and down moments, we are focusing exclusively here on the ups: the best performances of 2021. We’ll divide this into two categories with offense and defense coming today and pitching and coaching/front office coming next week.

Instead of belaboring the point with a long introduction, let’s just jump right into the meat. Here’s the “best ofs” for the 2021 season.

Best Offensive Performance: Tyler O’Neill

The Cardinals had several offensive players who put up what we could characterize as “good” offensive seasons. That includes Dylan Carlson’s .336 wOBA as a 22-year-old and Harrison Bader’s 3.4 fWAR in just 401 plate appearances. Nolan Arenado had a “down” season based around expectations, but he still produced a quality 4.0 fWAR (and was some BABIP issues away from being closer to the top of the league.) Still, this race pretty much boiled down to two options: Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill.

Goldy produced an excellent .373 wOBA with a 138 wRC+. His positional adjustment hurt his WAR value, despite quality defense, but he still finished at 4.9 fWAR. If you prefer more traditional stats, Goldschmidt had a .294/.365/.514 stat line and an 879 OPS. It was pretty much an average season for him; his career line is .293/.389/.521. It’s the middle column that probably cost him this category. His walk rate fell to 9.9%. He’s ranged from 11.4% - 16.0% in the four seasons before 2021. Add in another 20-30 walks over nearly 700 PAs (basically an extra walk per week) and his FWAR would have climbed into the 5.5 range.

He didn’t get those walks, though, so it’s Tyler O’Neill who edges him out of this competition. O’Neill was brilliant. He produced a .384 wOBA, right on with his .388 xwOBA. His wRC+ was 144. He was terrific on the basepaths and in the field. He tied Arenado for the team lead in homers. His slash line was .286/.352/.560 with a .274 ISO and a 912 OPS.

I was trying to think of the best way to put O’Neill’s brilliance in context. Here’s the best I can do: since 2000, the Cardinals have had outfielders produce a fWAR over 5.4 twelve times. Those twelve seasons were produced by just six players: Jim Edmonds (5 times), Albert Pujols (3 times), Tommy Pham, Matt Holliday, Jason Heyward, and now Tyler O’Neill. O’Neill beat out Lance Berkman, most of Matt Holliday’s career with the Cards, Ryan Ludwick’s breakout season, Carlos Beltran, Marcell Ozuna, and Colby Rasmus. Not too shabby.

Now, the highlights. There are so many to choose from. Here’s my favorite since it showcases not only his power – two homers – but also his incredible defense.

Best Barreled Ball: Justin Williams

Justin Williams does one thing well: he can hit the ever-loving tar out of the ball. He got into one this season in a big way, producing the best barreled ball of the season based on the categories that we’ve established.

What are those categories? First, the contact has to be a “barrel” – a ball struck within a certain range of exit velocity and launch angle to produce a ridiculously high expected batting average. Most barrels don’t go for singles. They either leave the park or catch the wall as doubles and triples. Sometimes they’re outs. For our purposes, I’ve narrowed this season-long list down to just homers and only considered balls struck at over 110 mph and 25 degrees.

By the way, that last qualification eliminated a surprise contender to the list. Tommy Edman had the second hardest homer hit this season by a Cardinal at 112.5 mph. It was only 20 degrees, though. Great contact? Absolutely. But too low to qualify as a best barrel over a full season.

You might have expected Tyler O’Neill or Paul Goldschmidt to win this category. They tied for second. Both produced a 112.2 mph homer. Goldy’s was 29 degrees. O’Neill’s was 36, a mammoth shot that went 463 feet.

In the end, it was Justin Williams’ monster that held up. It came on May 31st against the Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer in LA. It is listed at just 416 feet because it hit the foul pole. That distance marker is a real travesty considering how hard it was hit with a 30-degree launch angle. It’s pretty much the perfect homer.

Too bad Williams couldn’t make more contact. He certainly can crush the ball, but nearly every other part of his game (except his good walk rate) isn’t up to major league caliber. Hey, though, no negatives in a “best of” article! We might not see him again but we’ll always have this impressive highlight:

Best Offensive Rookie: Dylan Carlson

I’m including this one as a quick-hit category mostly because I saw several people on Cards social media claiming Edmundo Sosa should be ahead of Dylan Carlson as the team’s best rookie. That seemed like an odd take to me, so I went to the stats. The argument is based on WAR produced per plate appearance. Carlson produced 2.8 fWAR in 619 PAs. Sosa produced 1.6 in 326. If you bump Sosa up to 619 PAs, yes, he finishes just ahead of Carlson in WAR produced at 3.0.

The problem here is that Sosa didn’t get those PAs – that matters – and he didn’t get that fWAR. “Best ofs” aren’t based on hypothetical statistics.

So, Carlson gets the win and the highlights. Sosa gets a nod for producing some surprising WAR rates and making the SS position interesting heading into 2022. I’ll have a lot on Carlson’s season and the improvements he made in the second half coming in the next few weeks! Improvements that led to days like this:

Best Defensive Player

I expected this to be a category with some steep competition. It wasn’t. Not even close. Harrison Bader absolutely ran away with it.

You see, there are three main defensive systems at the major stat sites: Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and Outs Above Average (OAA). The three systems are different in the way they evaluate defense so the results often vary. That can lead to players who are strong in 1 or 2 categories but weak in the third. That has forced us to some subjective analysis in picking a winner in the past.

Harrison Bader led the team with +15 DRS. He led the team with +11.4 UZR. He led the team with +14 OAA. He did all of that despite missing a good chunk of the season with injury and coming in well short of the team leaders in innings. UZR can account for that with their UZR/150 stat. This normalizes defensive performance of a player to 150 games played. When sorted by 750 IPs, Harrison Bader had the best UZR/150 in all of baseball at 15.1.

So, not only was Bader the best defensive player on a team full of extraordinarily good defensive players, he was arguably the best defender in the league when he was on the field. That’s a “best of” if I’ve ever seen it.

If Bader wasn’t Bader, who would get the nod? This is where all that statistical confusion comes into play. By OAA, the answer is Tommy Edman at second base, who provided +13 OAA. DRS liked him at +6 but UZR thought he was just ok - +1.2. Arenado is probably the second-best all-around choice. He was +10 OAA, +6 DRS, and +5.7 UZR. That’s a lot of consistency. O’Neill got high marks with +12 DRS and +6.7 UZR but was just +3 in OAA. Goldy, too, would be up there. I would go with Arenado.

None of them are as good as Bader. He produced a wealth of highlights, which you can watch here. How to pick just one? With just a 25% chance of success on this play, this might be his best of the season:

That’s it from the “Best of” desk. Enjoy your Saturday and your Halloween weekend!

My costume, you ask? Oh, I’ll be going as xwOBACON. That’s “expected weighted on-base average on contact”. I’ll dress up like a big strip of bacon and run around the neighborhood whacking trick or treaters as hard as I can with a foam fungo.*

(*Disclaimer: That’s a joke. I’m not really going to do that. You shouldn’t either.)