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Best of the First 2 Months

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It’s Memorial Day Weekend! Let’s see the best of what 2 months of baseball have brought us.

St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It’s Memorial Day Weekend!

You don’t want to read a long article. I don’t want to write a long article. Let’s get to it so we can get back to our weekend fun times.

As of Friday afternoon, the Cardinals are 28-22 and sitting a half-game up on the Cubs, who are entering a tough stretch of matchups. The Cards have weathered a few bouts of injuries, ineffectiveness from reserve players, and, well, let’s just call it (as the kids do these days) “bullpen variance”.

The team is a few games away from the one-third mark and things could be worse. They could be better. But the could be worse.

Along the way, they have had some pretty great performances. These are the “bests” of the first two months of the season.

Best Barreled Ball

There have been some interesting developments in this category since we last covered it. First, what’s a barrel? It’s a very, very well hit baseball. There’s a certain range of exit velocity and launch angle that results in a high expected batting average, slugging percentage, and wOBA. Usually, barrelled balls are home runs. Occasionally, they are doubles and triples. Sometimes, when hit to the wrong places, they are outs.

By definition, the “best” barreled ball probably has to be a homer. It also has to be hit very hard — a very high exit velocity — and at the right range of launch angle. For the Cardinals in 2021, I’ve narrowed that down to 110 mph and between 20-40 degrees.

Tyler O’Neill is the reigning leader in this category. In my last “best of” article, I featured O’Neill’s Opening Day home run, a 110.2 mph, 26-degree shot. Between the time when that article was written and when it posted, O’Neill topped it. On April 30th, the Cardinals were facing the hapless Pirates in Pittsburgh. JT Brubaker served up a first-pitch center-center slider. TON launched at 112.2 mph and 36 degrees. It was a thing of beauty that traveled 463 feet.

That’s the best barrel of the year.

However, I want to give a nod to perhaps the most surprising barreled ball. On May 26th, Tommy Edman popped some spinach and muscled up for two home runs. Both of them were over 110 mph. The first was 112.5 mph — yes, harder than O’Neil’s best of the season. It traveled 436 feet because of a low launch angle of just 20 degrees. We expect that kind of velocity and distance from O’Neill, Arenado, Goldschmidt, and (eventually, maybe?) Carlson. We don’t expect it from Edman. Very impressive.

Best Offensive Player

A couple of quick categories here because the answers aren’t all that controversial.

The best offensive player of the two months is, clearly, Edmundo Sosa! Why not, right? He has a .412 wOBA and a 167 wRC+, based on his completely sustainable ability to get hit by pitches.

Ok, so 55 unrepeatable PAs from the club’s backup shortstop isn’t enough to qualify for the category. Couldn’t pass up giving him a mention, though. The debate here is probably between Yadier Molina — .375 wOBA, 142 wRC+ — and Nolan Arenado — .371 wOBA, 140 wRC+. The difference in PAs, though, makes it pretty straightforward. Yadi spent some time on the IL and has just 132 PAs. Arenado has barely had any time off and sits at 212 entering Friday night’s contest. He’s on pace to have his best offensive season. Ever. He’s been everything the club hoped he would be and more. He’s the best offensive player on the Cardinals.

Best Starting Pitcher

Jack Flaherty is the obvious choice here. The Cardinals ace has a 2.84 ERA and a 3.49 FIP, with 1.0 fWAR on the season. Flaherty has several terrific starts on the season. Fangraphs has a version of Game Score (GSv2) that rates aspects of a starter’s outing. He has two scores over 70 and two more over 65. His best is a 77 on May 7th against Colorado. Flaherty went 7 innings, giving up just 3 hits, 1 walk, and 6 strikeouts. He also had a home run that game, which didn’t factor into his game score (or season WAR) but does factor in the “best of”.

Honorable mention goes to Kwang-Hyun Kim. Kim has been subtly impressive. His K rate sits just below Flaherty’s, which is a huge improvement over 2020. His BB rate is a little elevated (welcome to the 2021 Cardinals). His ERA is 3.09. His FIP is better than Flaherty’s at 3.06. He only has 32 innings on the season, though, with a stint on the IL and some inability to go deep into games. Still, what a great signing by the Cardinals!

Best Reliever

This one is also obvious. Sure, Alex Reyes has 14 saves and will probably make the All-Star game, but it’s Giovanny Gallegos and his dirty hat that’s clearly the best reliever on the club. He’s one of the best relievers in all of baseball. Gallegos is 4th in the league in reliever WAR at 1.0. He’s also among the league leaders in WPA — win probability added. (So is Reyes.)

This is as good a place as any to add a note about the little hat kerfuffle in Chicago. Clearly, Gallegos had a substance on his hat. The Cardinals claim that it was a combo of sunscreen, dirt, and rosin — everyday baseball substances. MLB has no problem with pitchers using these products. Studies have proven that they contribute to improved grip on pitches but don’t dramatically impact the spin rate, and therefore, the effectiveness of a pitch.

When Gallegos’ hat was confiscated, he lost about 30 rpm on average from his slider, compared to his league average. That’s consistent with the spin rate effect of the products the Cardinals claim Gallegos uses. So, Gallegos is the team’s best reliever. He’s earned it. He didn’t cheat. He’ll probably continue to earn it, no matter what hat he wears.

Best Fielder

This has always been the toughest category to award, largely because the most respected defensive metrics are so fluid. Let me just lay it out for you and you’ll see what I mean.

Cardinals defensive rankings by DRS (Defensive Runs Saved):
Tommy Edman - +6
Justin Williams - +5
Harrison Bader - +4

Cardinals Defensive rankings by UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating):
Tyler O’Neill - +2.5
Harrison Bader - +2.4
Nolan Arenado - +1.7

Cardinals Defensive Rankings by OAA (Outs Above Average):
Tommy Edman - +6
Harrison Bader - +3
Edmundo Sosa - +1

There are two ways I think we can go here. The first way is peak. Tommy Edman ranks very high in both DRS and OAA at 2b. His +6 in both categories is elite. He would rank as the top 2b’man in the majors in both categories. His UZR, though, is shockingly low, at just .3. What’s up with that Fangraphs? It’s impossible to watch Edman play second defensively and conclude that he’s just average.

The second way is consistency across the rankings. Here, Bader shines. He is +4, +2.4, and +3. He’s already among the league leaders, despite missing significant time with injury. Normally, the time missed would disqualify him, but Edman has also spent quite a bit of time not playing 2b.

Let’s just say that both of them have been brilliant. I gotta give this one to Edman, though. There are lots of highlights to go through here. This is one of my favorites.

Enjoy the highlights. Enjoy your extended weekend!