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Best of the 2021 Season: Pitching, System, Front Office

The Cardinals’ best performances on the mound, in the minors, and from the front office.

Wild Card Round - St. Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

We’re back for the final article in the “Best of” series for 2021! Last week we looked at offense and defense. This week we’re looking at pitchers (both starters and relievers), the minor league system, and the moves made by the front office. It’s a bit of a hodge-podge article but, hey, I like typing hodge-podge. So, that’s what you get!

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 Starting Pitcher: Adam Wainwright

A kind of hilarious and sad thing happens if you go to Fangraphs and pull up the St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher leaderboard. Only one pitcher shows up. See, that leaderboard automatically sorts players by “qualified” status – meaning they made enough starts and threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title with the league. The lone name on the list? Adam Wainwright, of course, who wins this by default as the only starter who made it through the season in the rotation.

The good thing – for this article and the Cardinals – is that Adam Wainwright had an excellent season. He landed at a 3.05 ERA with a 3.66 FIP and 3.8 fWAR in just over 200 innings pitched. You have to go back to Wainwright’s prime seasons – 2014 and earlier – to find that kind of production from the future Cardinals’ Hall of Famer.

What’s the key to his success? Modern hitters really struggle against quality curveballs. His curve was still in the 90th percentile in spin. Batters had just a .253 wOBA against that pitch. Despite throwing it over 33% of the time, Waino only had a 6.0% walk rate. High spin curveballs in the zone for strikes? Yeah, batters can put them into play – his whiff% was among the lowest in the league – but they can’t put enough on them to get struck balls past the club’s superb defense or send them out of spacious Busch.

Simply put, despite being 40 years old, Waino’s profile and stuff are still a perfect match for this club and its ballpark. That’s why the team re-upped with him early for a salary about twice as much as last year. He’ll have one more ride with his battery mate Molina and there’s no reason to expect he’ll be anything but effective next year.

Highlights? There are so many. So, let’s watch them all! Here’s a great video on the best of Waino from the second half of the season.

Best Single-Game Performance: Adam Wainwright

I did not look this category up. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but early this season I argued that Wainwright’s “Wainwright” on August 11th was not only the best start of Wainwright’s season, it’s also the best start of his career. Here’s that article in case you missed it.

In that game, Wainwright threw a 9-inning complete game shut out, allowing just 2 hits and 0 walks while striking out 7. His game score was a robust 90 – no-hitter territory. The problem with Game Score (among many) is that it doesn’t consider pitch count, which does matter. Pitcher efficiency is an important part of being a starter. In that August 2-hit shutout, Wainwright only needed 88 pitches. That’s what’s known as a “Maddux” – a complete game with fewer pitches than 10x the innings pitched (i.e. less than 90.)

As I argued at the time, a “Maddux” might be a “Maddux” but even Maddux didn’t Maddux at age 39! Age matters when it comes to pitcher performance. And if Maddux didn’t do something, then he can’t get credit for the name now, can he? That’s why Wainwright’s “Maddux” is not a “Maddux” but Wainwright’s “Maddux” has to be, instead, a “Wainwright”.

If it’s the best start of Wainwright’s career – and I think I effectively argue that it is (or at least top 2) – then it absolutely has to be the best start of the season.

Highlights? Of course, we have them!

Best Reliever (WPA): Giovanny Gallegos

Another obvious category. Giovanny Gallegos – the only reliever on the Cardinals that was good the entire season – wins the award for best reliever. We could use any stat that we want to use. He led the team in reliever WAR at 2.2 – double what Genesis Cabrera produced. He had the lowest ERA of any player who qualified for the ERA title among relievers at 3.02. If I start playing games with the innings, T.J. MacFarland (38.2 IPs, 2.56 ERA) and Kodi Whitley (25.1 IPs, 2.49 ERA) are worth mentioning. Saves? Well, Alex Reyes wins that one at 29 saves. But if you want to argue that Reyes was a better reliever than Gio Gallegos this season, more power to you. That horrendous 6.47 BB/9 rate is the kicker for me.

No, the stat we’ve used all season when we’ve held our noses and looked at relievers is WPA – Win Probability Added – and Gio has been at the top for most of the year. This season he came in at +2.40, just under a full point higher than MacFarland. Luis Garcia was next in limited action at .53. Gio was not only good, but he was also clutch in high leverage situations. He finished 22nd in the league in that category among qualified relievers. Not too shabby!

What about highlights? For a long time, Gio was ignored by MLB Video Search. Not anymore. He’s gotten into enough save opportunities to catch the videographer’s eye. Here he is closing out the club’s 17th consecutive win.

Best Minor League Player: Nolan Gorman

Now is where things are going to get controversial. I expect almost all of you to disagree with my winner for this category. That’s ok. I’m not really here to argue with you if you want to pick Jordan Walker or Juan Yepez. Walker was brilliant at age 19 – his first and only season in professional ball. He had a 205 wRC+ in A ball in 122 PAs. That’s insane. His line in A+ is stupendous - .292/.344/.487. I just wrote an entire article about how great Juan Yepez was this season and how the Cardinals should build their offseason plan at DH around him.

But just take a second and consider what Nolan Gorman did this year. The Cardinals’ “Third Baseman of the Future” and top offensive prospect found his path to the majors suddenly blocked by an impassable wall of Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger awards. Nolan Arenado was a Cardinal and was likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Right field had former top offensive prospect Dylan Carlson. Left had “what if Nolan Gorman was a Gold Glove-winning outfielder” Tyler O’Neill in it.

So, the 21-year-old – 21-years-old – picked up a second baseman’s glove and raced over to Jupiter early to start picking grounders and turning double plays with Jose Oquendo.

Some – many – fans said at the time, “fun experiment! But that’s all this is.”

Listen, folks, Gorman succeeded. This is no Skip Schumaker situation. This is no “messing around on the backlot of Spring Training”. From the reports I’ve heard, Gorman is going to be a pretty decent second baseman. He’s not Tommy Edman or Kolten Wong but it seems like most prospect-watchers believe he’ll be ok there.

That kind of radical defensive shift will probably impact offense, right? Especially when facing an aggressive promotion to AA after a season spent taking live BP for a few weeks at the Alternate Training Site? Well, forget about that. Gorman tore Springfield up, producing a .379 wOBA and a 129 wRC+ at the level with 11 HRs and a 9.2% walk rate. A patient franchise with plenty of depth – normally what the Cardinals are – would have let Gorman destroy AA and build more confidence with a difficult defensive change for most of the season. Instead, Randy LaRocque and his Player Development crew aggressively bumped Gorman up to Memphis after just 43 AA games. There he had 14 homers in 328 PAs. His walk rate dropped to 6.1% but his K’s dropped too – just 19.2%. His ISO was .191. That elite power remained. The result was a 106 wRC+. Not awesome, but considering age, experience, a position switch, etc. it’s really impressive.

All things considered for Gorman, it was a very successful season. It wasn’t as flashy as Walker and Yepez but he worked and worked to position himself to challenge for a starting role at second base sometime early in 2022 as a 22-year-old. He entered the season as the best prospect in the Cards organization, faced a challenge as difficult as anyone in the organization, and he’s ending the season still holding that title. That’s “best of” stuff, even with a few other fabulous performances that are just as worthy.

Look at this swing and the easy power!

Best Front Office Move: Nolan Arenado

It’s Nolan Arenado. Do I need to say anything else?

This deal was an absolute heist for Mozeliak. The Rockies are still giving the Cardinals money. Arenado agreed to defer money from his deal – not just once but twice. And we already know that the Gold Glove contending third baseman is going to bypass his opt out and return next year. Plan for him to do the same after 2022. (You don’t work two different deferments into your contract if you plan to opt out. Arenado is a Cardinal for life.)

It wasn’t all good for Mozeliak. He made a pretty bad decision in letting Kolten Wong go. That, though, was entirely motivated by the need to get to a hard salary floor at the early stages of the 2021 offseason. It also gave the club the financial flexibility it needed to make the deal for Arenado. One of those moves doesn’t happen without the other. So, you take the good and take the bad and something something something something the Facts of Life, the Facts of Life. (Link for you Millenials.)

On that note… highlights!

That’s it for the “best of” series for this season! I’ll have more easy-going Saturday content all offseason. Enjoy your beautiful fall weekend.