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The Cardinals Have the Most Improved Offense in Baseball*

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*Arguably

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It’s been a rough few years for Cardinal hitters. Fortunately, it didn’t prevent them from making the playoffs thanks to solid pitching, sublime defense, and good baserunning. Still, the results at the plate from the past few years paint a picture of a problem crying out for a solution. Their non-pitcher wRC+ had gone from a solid 105 in 2018, down to 100 in 2019, and finally a scant 93 in 2020. League-wide, those ranks are 11th in 2018, down to 13th, and finally 19th, and well below most playoff teams in 2019 and 2020. They were a solidly above average team overall but desperately needed a boost at the plate. That decline was made all the more frustrating by the team’s hiring of Jeff Albert to serve as the hitting coach, placing him also in charge of revamping the organization’s approach to developing hitters. Finally, just under a quarter of the way through the 2021 season, they’re seeing results. The St. Louis Cardinals have the most improved offense in baseball... arguably.

Let’s start with two very obvious places- how their OBP and SLG has changed.

  • OBP plus-minus from 2020: down .013, 18th best in MLB
  • SLG plus-minus from 2020: up .041, 2nd in MLB

OBP doesn’t exactly paint a picture of an improving offense considering they’re reaching base at a lower clip this year, but that jump in slugging sure helps. What if we look at a more holistic measure of offense, and production in general- wRC+ and ISO?

  • wRC+ plus-minus from 2020: up 7, 8th in MLB
  • ISO plus-minus from 2020: up .036, best in MLB

The wRC+ could be better, but they’re solidly top 10 in baseball in enhancing their overall production, and that’s without the benefit of the DH. The isolated slugging is a big deal. They’re suddenly hitting with thump. Now let’s take a peek at some plate discipline numbers:

  • Contact % plus-minus: up 1.5%, 9th in MLB
  • Swinging Strike% plus-minus: up 0.1% (higher than 2020), 18th in MLB
  • Called Strike% plus-minus: down 1.4%, 4th in MLB
  • Swing% plus-minus: up 3.3%, 2nd highest in MLB
  • O-Swing% plus-minus: up 2.3%, 3rd highest in MLB

They’re swinging a lot more, and chasing pitches out of the zone a lot more. That’s not inherently good or bad so long as the extra swings are on pitches where they do damage, or make contact to avoid a strikeout. They have the 7th best ISO in the game on pitches out of the strike zone this year, compared to 22nd last year, so there’s at least some evidence that the extra swings aren’t hurting them. In fairness, ISO in general on pitches out of the strike zone is very bad. The best teams in the game have an ISO of .100-.105 the last two years. For whatever it’s worth, their batting average on pitches outside the strike one is also up from .140 to .160. They’re chasing more, but at least they’re more productive when they do.

The swinging strike increase, modest though it may be, isn’t great. They’ve balanced that by making solid improvements in their overall contact percentage. Most importantly, they’ve made major improvements in reducing called strikes.

They’re hitting for a lot more power and they’re swinging (and chasing) more, for better or worse. That comes with a sharp drop in called strikes and a solid gain in overall contact. A lot of this also helps explain why the OBP is down. It’s hard to walk if you’re swinging more, chasing more, and trying to hit with thunder instead of taking a free base.

Now let’s get to the fun stuff- the Statcast metrics.

  • Exit Velocity plus-minus: up 1.5 mph, 4th best in MLB
  • True Hard Hit% plus-minus: up 4.39%, best in MLB
  • True Barrel% plus-minus: up 1.54%, 3rd best in MLB
  • True Hard Hit + BB% plus-minus: up 2.39%, 11th best in MLB

These are some major improvements. They’re hitting the ball hard much more frequently. Not only that but a significant percentage of them are barrels, the best kind of hard hit ball. They have the third best increase in barrels in baseball. Their exit velocity has surged. Their quality of contact has improved dramatically and they’ve gone from a middling or worse team to well into the top half.

Add this all up and it seems like a mostly improved offense, but is it really the most improved? Here are all teams ranked by how they’ve improved in all of the categories, omitting swing% and o-swing% since those aren’t inherently good or bad. They’re sorted by the final column- the average rank across all categories.

Team Improvement from 2020 to 2021, Offensive Categories

Team wRC+ Rk OBP Rk SLG Rk ISO Rk Contact% Rk SwStr% Rk CStr% Rk EV Rk THH% Rk THH+BB Rk TruBrl% Rk Avg Rk
Team wRC+ Rk OBP Rk SLG Rk ISO Rk Contact% Rk SwStr% Rk CStr% Rk EV Rk THH% Rk THH+BB Rk TruBrl% Rk Avg Rk
STL 8 18 2 1 9 18 5 4 1 11 3 7.27
HOU 4 7 5 9 11 8 25 11 3 6 6 8.64
COL 8 9 9 5 10 5 18 10 9 2 14 9.00
CIN 2 3 1 10 20 25 1 9 2 16 11 9.09
KCR 13 11 17 15 7 14 2 1 5 1 15 9.18
ARI 2 6 3 2 16 6 26 14 18 10 5 9.82
MIN 7 9 10 13 13 17 9 11 11 8 2 10.00
MIA 12 15 8 5 5 12 22 7 7 7 13 10.27
CHC 6 8 6 8 5 13 5 22 22 21 7 11.18
BOS 10 13 15 14 4 3 22 8 10 9 17 11.36
TEX 1 1 4 7 23 20 10 14 15 17 16 11.64
CLE 16 30 7 2 25 28 8 5 6 12 1 12.73
MIL 15 12 16 18 3 8 14 14 8 13 19 12.73
PIT 5 2 11 16 1 1 26 29 29 25 27 15.64
OAK 14 19 13 12 17 20 20 25 13 20 4 16.09
SEA 19 26 12 4 17 24 4 22 21 23 8 16.36
CHW 10 5 23 27 2 2 24 22 27 18 28 17.09
SFG 20 17 18 11 22 4 30 21 20 5 21 17.18
WSN 23 20 22 24 28 23 29 3 4 4 12 17.45
NYM 29 16 30 29 12 8 14 18 16 3 22 17.91
BAL 25 27 24 23 17 15 28 2 14 15 18 18.91
LAA 16 23 14 19 24 27 2 30 19 30 9 19.36
NYY 26 25 28 25 29 26 12 11 12 14 10 19.82
ATL 30 29 27 21 7 6 7 18 24 24 26 19.91
TOR 21 20 19 20 14 15 19 14 26 28 23 19.91
DET 22 20 21 17 21 20 11 26 28 22 20 20.73
PHI 23 24 20 21 30 30 14 6 17 26 25 21.45
SDP 27 13 29 30 14 11 20 27 25 19 30 22.27
LAD 18 4 25 28 25 19 14 28 30 29 29 22.64
TBR 27 28 26 26 27 29 12 20 23 27 24 24.45

Sorry if you’re on mobile- that’s a lot. But looky there- the team with the most consistent improvement across all of these categories is the Cardinals. They’re top 5 in six of eleven categories. I’ll admit that some of it’s double-dipping (including both ISO and SLG, for instance, or THH% and TruBrl%), but it gives an overall portrait of a team that has improved significantly. They’re hitting the ball hard more frequently, taking fewer strikes, making contact more often, and it’s all raising their production, particularly their power numbers.

Obviously going from Kolten Wong to Nolan Arenado helps explain some of this, particularly given Wong’s struggles at the plate in 2020. That’s not the whole story, though. Dylan Carlson is a much better hitter, Tyler O’Neill looks a lot like the 2018 bruiser that arrived on the scene, Yadier Molina has (so far, anyway) turned back the clock to his MVP contender years, and Harrison Bader came off of the IL on fire. Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter’s bats aren’t highly productive so far, but they’re at least hitting the ball hard frequently, indicating a good approach.

So far, this is the league’s most improved offense.