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How fast are the Cardinals?

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The Cardinals have some speedy players, but how do they stack up to the rest of baseball?

National League Wild Card Game 3: St. Louis Cardinals v. San Diego Padres Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Sometimes, I think of an article on my own and sometimes I have to actively search for something to write about. Today, a rarity: a comment on this site by STLxCardinal who asked someone to look into how fast the Cardinals are. This is both a topic that interested me, but most importantly isn’t that hard to figure out. That’s that sweet spot for me.

There are three primary ways to calculate speed, as far as I see it. The first is the way baseball speed has been judged forever: stolen bases. But Yadier Molina once stole 12 bases in a season, so clearly speed is not necessary to steal bases. The second is a relatively new statistic and is probably the best actual stat for pure speed: sprint speed. And the third is another stat that more correlates with speed than actually tells us about speed, but for the purposes of baseball stats, it’s the most important of the three and that’s BsR, which stands for Base Running. BsR is meant to be an all-encompassing baserunning stat, incorporating stolen bases, advancing the extra base, and double plays.

My next step was looking at whose speed exactly to judge and in the interest of... speed, I went to Roster Resource and looked at every starter according to Depth Charts plus anyone on the bench who had 400+ PAs, which effectively made them a starter too. For these players, I averaged their sprint speed from 2019 and 2020, plus listed their projected BsR and stolen bases by Depth Charts. I used these for the team rankings, but for stolen bases, i just collected every player projected for a stolen base.

By the way, I averaged 2020 and 2019 for sprint speed, because 2020 was such a weird year and it was a small sample anyway. Which turns out to have been a good decision because, I chronicled 271 players, and collectively, their sprint speed declined. In 2019, they averaged 27.3 feet per second. In 2020, it declined to 27 feet per second. Pretty interesting, huh? Makes sense though.

Would it surprise you to know the Cardinals are not remarkable in any single way? They are 14th on sprint speed. They ranked 12th in BsR. And they ranked 20th in stolen bases. As a team, with players expected to get at least 400 PAs, the Cardinals are a perfectly average baserunning team with average speed and just about average stolen bases.

Wait, so how can this be? We know Tommy Edman, Harrison Bader, and Tyler O’Neill are fast. Like absurdly fast. And I’m not even including Carpenter who is not projected for 400+ PAs by the way. Despite three of the fastest humans playing baseball, the Cardinals are apparently an average team with regards to speed.

...

You know that’s not the end of the story though. Because never has it been more evident just how slow Yadier Molina is than with how much the Cardinals improve if you simply take each team’s speed excluding catcher. And this affects most teams. The average sprint speed of a starting player including catchers is 27.1 feet per second (combining 2019 and 2020). The average sprint speed of a starting player not including catchers is 27.3 feet per second. There are a total of five catchers who have an average sprint speed greater than 27.1 feet per second. So with the exception of five teams, removing catchers helps everyone.

But it helps the Cardinals more than everyone. Because Yadier Molina is the slowest catcher in baseball. Which to put it in a different way, he’s the slowest starting player in baseball. Albert Pujols isn’t technically considered a starter anymore, but he’s a full foot per second slower than everyone else. In case anyone thinks it’s a good idea to sign him next year when he’ll be even slower! So Yadier Molina singlehandedly drags the Cardinals numbers down.

What about without catchers? Well, without catchers, the Cardinals are the fastest team in baseball. They’re tied with the Padres for first anyway. Yes, the Cardinals jump from the 14th fastest team by sprint speed to tied for first in sprint speed when you remove catchers. Seriously, have you ever seen a better representation of how slow Molina is? They literally jump from average to the best without him. And I’m removing every team’s catchers too.

Molina doesn’t quite have that effect on the other baserunning stats. While other catchers may not be as fast as Molina, they aren’t necessarily that much better by BsR. It says something about Molina’s baserunning talent that, despite his speed, he’s “only” the 20th worst baserunner by BsR. That stat is purely a function of his speed. There are five faster catchers worse than him by BsR.

I averaged the BsR of the starting players, which takes the Cardinals from exactly neutral to +0.2 on average. Which takes them from tied for 12th to tied for 9th. Despite the speed, nobody really has a great projected BsR, at least not by the extreme speed a few players show. 32 players have a projected BsR of 1 or greater, with the highest being Adalberto Mondesi with +5. None of them are on the Cardinals, with Edman being the highest at +0.9.

Which relates to my third stat, stolen bases, where Molina doesn’t harm that whatsoever. They go from 20th to... 20th. Really, their lack of high BsR players correlates heavily to the fact that they just don’t steal bases very much. Go back to Mondesi. He has that high of a BsR because he is projected to steal 54 bases and only get caught 15 times for a success rate of 78%. Which is not that high to be honest, but easily clears the bar you need to make stealing a base worth it, and when you do it at the rate he does, it adds up.

Which is not me arguing they need to steal more bases. It is entirely possible the rate at which they steal bases right now is the most efficient way and that by attempting more, they’d be caught at a greater rate and the Cardinals wouldn’t actually see any benefit from increased steals. For example, Bader stole more bases in the minors and... wasn’t that great at it. He had a 65 SB% rate. In the majors, he has a 79% rate. He’s picking his spots better now.

Here’s where individual Cardinals rank within their specific positions on sprint speed, again combining 2019 and 2020.

Did anybody else not know Nolan Arenado was that slow? Now to be fair, last year seems to drive that ranking primarily, and there are reasons to think that it won’t continue. His sprint speed declined from 25.9 feet per second to 24.8 feet per second. In 2018, his sprint speed was 25.7 feet per second. Add in some age-related decline, and you might have like 25.5 feet per second expectation, which would have ranked... 30th. Yeah he’s still super slow.

The Cardinals expected starting lineup got a lot faster with their offseason moves. Assuming Dexter Fowler was going to be the starter instead of O’Neill, Fowler was the 71st fastest outfielder out of 100. And Kolten Wong, surprisingly, isn’t fast! His sprint speed ranked 28th among 2B. On the other hand, Matt Carpenter is actually faster than Arenado. Or at least was faster in the last two years. His sprint speed is 25.8 feet per second. Given Carpenter’s age, I’d say they are about the same speed right now.

One player who was not factored into any of this is Lane Thomas, who has a sprint speed of 29 feet per second the last two years. Except last year saw a sharp decline, indicating COVID really did affect him. He was a 29.6 ft/sec runner in 2019, 28.3 in 2020. The average would have put him 15th among OFers, even counting 2019. If you want to ignore 2020, he takes Bader’s place as the 5th fastest outfielder. Which means the Cardinals would have the 3rd, 5th, and 6th fastest outfielders if they all started on the same day. Of course, I’m not counting players like Lane on other teams, so they are probably not exactly in those positions, but still: pretty damn fast.

I’ll end my post listing where the NL Central teams rank among each other. The lesson: the NL Central is not a fast division, not even close.

SS w/o C is sprint speed without catcher in case that wasn’t clear. The Brewers are slow but a pretty good baserunning team, although it’s worth pointing out Yelich is skewing those numbers. He has the 8th best projected BsR in baseball. Willson Contreras is one of those five faster catchers than the average... but has the same projected BsR as Yadi. I find that delightful personally. But yeah even with Yadi factored in, the Cardinals are the fastest team in the Central and the 2nd best baserunning team.

So how fast exactly are the Cardinals? They are incredibly fast... at three positions. And in the final numbers, they end up neutralized by two very slow players, as the rest of the lineup is pretty much average, or close enough. But they are a lot more interesting than an average speed team because of just how fast those three players are.

Also, completely unrelated to anything else in this post, but well, I’m pretty pumped from Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 silent Russian propaganda film, which I watched for the first time. I’m still early on my silent film journey, but this is rather easily the greatest silent film so far. So if you have any suggestions that comes close to this, I’m happy to listen. Although, if anyone actually bothers to respond to this section, I’m fully expecting Chaplin, but I’ve seen City Lights and The Gold Rush and neither are close. City Lights’ reputation baffles me in fact. So recommendations welcome, Chaplin recs I will be skeptical are better.