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Early Season “Somethings to Watch”

It’s too soon to do any real statistical analysis on the Cardinals but there are some key stats to watch for during early season action. Here are 5 “somethings to watch”.

Syndication: The Enquirer Albert Cesare / The Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Cardinals have played one game. It was a fun re-introduction to Cardinals baseball. Paul Goldschmidt didn’t hit a ball under 100 miles per hour. The outfield is awesome again. Jack Flaherty looked pretty great for a few innings and I’m in a good mood so I won’t mention the rest of his outing. Let’s do that another 161 times!

It’s way too early to make any statistical conclusions about the Cardinals and their season. Instead, I want to give you five things to keep your eye on during early season action. These are “early season somethings to watch”.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Dylan Carlson: Watch His wOBA/xwOBA Against Changeups

Last year, changeups were Carlson’s bane. He produced an abysmal .111 wOBA and a .168 xwOBA against offspeed pitches. Carlson saw a very high percentage of changeups early in the season with terrible results. If he looked like he had rarely seen quality changeups before it’s because he probably hadn’t. Not too many pitchers throw MLB caliber offspeed pitches in AA. So, the club sent him to the Alternative Training Site for a few weeks to reset. He came back looking much more comfortable against the pitch type, even if the results weren’t statistically evident.

On Opening Day, Carlson faced Luis Castillo, a starter with high-quality stuff, including a very good change. His first-inning home run was the highlight we will remember. That came on a first-pitch fastball center-in. In the third, Castillo was better able to work his strategy against the Cardinals’ rookie. He started Carlson off with a slider and a sinker. Then he threw four straight changeups. Only one of these pitches was in the zone. Carlson swung over it but his timing looked better than much of what he showed early in 2020. The rest were balls and Carlson took them for a well-earned walk.

In the 7th, Carlson faced Carson Fulmer, a reliever with an improving change. Fulmer started Carlson with a curve and a fastball before, like Castillo, going changeup the rest of the way. Carlson watched three changes – two for balls and one for a called strike on the very edge of the zone. He then swung over another at the bottom of the zone. His swing didn’t result in contact but the timing looked better than we saw last year. It was a good pitch and a well-earned K.

What can we make of this? It remains “something to watch”. The league is already showing him a lot of changeups. One game in and Carlson looks comfortable enough. Will the results follow?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler O’Neill – BABIP

There are several things to watch from Tyler O’Neill after his depressing 2020 season. His slugging% – his supposed strength – dropped below .400. His performance against breaking pitches, particularly curveballs, was not good at all. Then again, his strikeout and walk rates were both significantly improved. All of these stats warrant attention. If I had to pick one thing, though, it would probably be O’Neill’s BABIP – batting average on balls in play.

O’Neill is not known for his contact ability. He will not have a high batting average this season or any season. Still, in 2018 and 2019 O’Neill had BABIPs of .386 and .364 respectively. His corresponding batting averages were .262 and .254 – acceptable numbers for a guy with .150-.250 ISO power potential. Last year, his BABIP plummeted to .189 – one of the lowest I’ve seen for a full-time starter. Considering his history, that screams small sample size, especially from a player who was actively cutting his K rate and raising his BB rate.

O’Neill can’t just hit homers and do nothing else. His .187 ISO in 2020 resulted in just a 70 wRC+ and a .286 xwOBA because he couldn’t do anything except drive an occasional ball over the wall. In 2021, rest assured the power will be there – as the Cardinals witnessed on Thursday afternoon. He needs hits to drop in, too, to help him round out his improving offensive game.

How’s this for a series of “IF’s”? IF he keeps improving his BB and K rates. And IF he maintains or improves his ISO. And IF he gets his BABIP back over .300. THEN he’ll be a fine offensive player. All of those are “somethings to watch” but that BABIP might be the most important stat for him to be a viable starter.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Paul Goldschmidt – Exit Velocity

On Thursday, Paul Goldschmidt did something impressive. Yes, he went 4-5 with two doubles – one of which was about an inch from being an HR. That’s about as good as an Opening Day can get. Better, though, was the way he did it. Even his out was hard hit.

Goldschmidt put five balls in play. All five of them were hit over 100 mph. That’s a good day.

Why does exit velocity matter for Paul Goldschmidt? Well, exit velocity matters for everyone. The harder a ball is hit, the more likely it will be a hit. Goldschmidt, though, is 33 years old. His exit velocity has dropped steadily since Statcast starting reporting it.

Goldschmidt’s exit velocity by season (mph):
2015 – 92
2016 – 91
2017 – 91.5
2018 – 90.8
2019 – 90.2
2020 – 89.2

The trend is obvious. Along with that decline has come a corresponding drop in barrel% and hard hit% - stats directly connected to exit velocity. Is this a problem? Sort of. Last year Goldy made up for his declining exit velocity with improved walk and K rates, a higher BABIP, but lower overall power. If his power drops again and his BB rates return to normal and his BABIP heads back toward league average – the kinds of things one might expect of a player entering his mid-30s – then MVP-caliber Goldschmidt becomes incredibly pedestrian Goldschmidt. ZiPS thinks we should expect all those and’s. They have Goldy projected for a 2.2 fWAR, with a 115 wRC+ that includes a BB rate, ISO, and BABIP all below his career average. That seems like an unnecessarily punitive age penalty. But Goldschmidt’s exit velocity is definitely “something to watch”. So far so good!

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

Genesis Cabrera – Walk%

Cabrera doesn’t require quite as much verbosity. It’s simple with him. In 2020, Cabrera had some incredibly impressive statistics. First, he had the best K/9 rate of any Cardinals pitcher in franchise history – small sample size, large sample size, it doesn’t matter. Cabrera wins.

It gets better. Cabrera was just about the best in the league at limiting exit velocity. His average EV against was just 84 mph. All of that was generated from a fastball with elite velocity and vertical movement and a curveball that is just disgusting. Truly, Genesis Cabrera has some of the best pure stuff in the league.

The problem is he has no idea where his pitches are going. His walk rate was in the 2nd percentile. Just to be clear, the lower the number, the worse the performance. His BB% was 16.7%, which translates to a 6.45 BB/9. That’s about as bad a walk rate as I’ve seen from a player whose role on the roster was secure.

You probably know what happened on Thursday. Cabrera made things nervous in his one scoreless inning by walking two batters. He didn’t generate a K. This is “something to watch”. The stuff was there. The lack of control remained. Can he cut his walk totals down? If so, then he might be one of the club’s best reliever. If not? Keep the Tums handy.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Whole Pitching Staff: ERA vs. FIP

Yeah, I’m cheating here. Instead of picking one player and one stat, I’m taking the entire pitching staff and two stats. The Cardinals’ pitching success depends on the continued ability of their run prevention (ERA) to outperform their expected production. That’s the difference between ERA – runs allowed – and FIP – fielding independent pitching. FIP takes defense out of the equation and evaluates pitchers on what they can control. It essentially removes balls in play and centers itself on strikeouts, walks, and homeruns allowed.

Over time, there is a tendency for ERA to move toward FIP. Things like the impact of defense and the irregularity of batted ball data normalize given enough pitches thrown. The Cardinals’ pitching staff, though, both because of their excellent team-wide defense and Busch Stadium’s repressive run environment, have been able to consistently have an ERA notably below their FIP.

Here is the difference between the Cardinals ERA vs FIP over the last five years:
2016 – 4.08/3.88
2017 – 4.01/4.09
2018 – 3.85/3.97
2019 – 3.82/4.27
2020 – 3.92/4.58

As the Cardinals have become increasingly focused on defense, the gap between their ERA and their FIP has increased. This 2021 club is intentionally doubling down on that concept. They are trusting their defense to cover for a starting rotation that is probably mediocre at best and a bullpen built around power arms with high walk rates.

One of the reasons that the Cardinals’ computer projections are so miserable – especially Steamer – is that they are systems built around FIP instead of ERA. These systems assume that the Cardinals’ pitching staff – their entire staff – will all see their ERAs regress toward their FIPs. The Cardinals’ front office, though, built a roster with world class defense to make sure that doesn’t happen.

If it does, the team will be in real trouble. Like Steamer’s 78 wins kind of trouble. If that happens, it will mean that either the defense isn’t holding up its end of the bargain or the pitching staff is so bad at the things they can control that the defense can’t help them.

It’s “something to watch” for the whole team. After one game? You guessed it. Their team ERA is better than the FIP.

Other “somethings to watch”:

Matt Carpenter’s barrel rate
Carlos Martinez’s fastball velocity
John Gant’s ground ball rate
Tommy Edman’s out of zone swing & contact percentage