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The Best of the First Half

We’re back with the best of a first half that featured the worst of the Cardinals.

MLB: JUN 30 Diamondbacks at Cardinals

After a lengthy break, we’re back with more “best ofs”, and this time we’re looking at the whole of the first half of the 2021 season.

The last article in this series came back at the end of May. The Cardinals had the ultimate “June swoon” going 10-17 for the month and any “best ofs” would have likely come from opposing teams. Who wants to read about that? Not Cardinals fans.

Here we are, now heading into the All-Star Break. The team is playing a little better and there’s enough good in three months of play to justify some attention.

Enough chit-chat. On to the bests.

Best Offensive Performance

There is a distinction to make here: offense is not defense. Mind-blowing, I know.

When we measure cumulative performance – like fWAR – we typically combine offense – production in the bat – with defense – production with the glove. Those two are distinctly different. So, in this category, we are completely ignoring defense. That matters because I think most Cardinal fans would immediately peg Nolan Arenado as the Cardinals’ best offensive player. His 17 homers lead the squad. His BB rate and Ks are all in line with his career. He’s had a good offensive half-season. He does lead the “offensive” players in fWAR.

He’s not the best offensive player on the team, though. That honor clearly goes to Tyler O’Neill.

O’Neill has played in 20 fewer games (as of Friday morning) than Arenando. He has 2 fewer homers – 15. He’s way behind in doubles but still has a 46 point advantage over the Cards All-Star third basemen in slugging percentage – .557 to .511. O’Neill’s wOBA is .375. His wRC+ is 140. In some ways, he has underperformed. His expected wOBA is .396.

It’s been exciting to see O’Neill bust out in such a big way. Many of us have said that he just needed consistent plate appearances to even out the ups and downs of his talent and flaws. He’s finally getting them and he’s finally putting his raw skills together into measurable production.

Will it last? I don’t see why not. His huge power numbers – a .281 ISO – might not continue but there’s a lot of reason to think his walk rate will continue rising and his BABIP won’t falter too much. I would be surprised if he could maintain his ridiculous 18.8% barrel rate. All that will mean is that his expected stats (his xSLUG, for example, is .617) won’t remain so much higher than his actual. His expected performance could drop and his actual performance not change at all. In other words, what O’Neill is doing is real enough and games like this one should continue:

The Best Barreled Ball

After tweaking this category over the past two years, I think I’ve settled into how I will determine the “best barreled ball”. First, it has to be a home run. Sure, doubles and triples can have high exit velocities but by definition, they must be lacking in launch angle otherwise they would have left the park. A ball hit within the ideal range of exit velocity – in this case, over 105 at a minimum – and the ideal launch angle – between 25-35 – will almost always be a home run.

Considering those factors, there is only one choice for the “best barreled ball” of the first half. That came in Los Angeles with a (still gunking) Trevor Bauer on the mound. Bauer was facing the Cardinals maligned backup outfielder, Justin Williams. Bauer left a fastball at 91.8 mph middle-in, and Williams didn’t miss it. He crushed it at 115 mph and 30 degrees for a long homer into right field.

It’s a perfect home run.

At various points over the last two years, I’ve said that someone would catch a ball at 115 or higher and around 30 degrees. I assumed it would be O’Neill, but his best this season is still 112 mph. Williams’ best trait is his ability to generate high exit velocities so it’s not surprising in retrospect that he was able to produce the best barrel so far. It’s also too bad that Williams can’t generate enough contact to make that exit velocity count for something. But, hey, we’re not here to talk about the bad parts of his game. He crushed a ball. He gets his highlight.

Best Pitching Performance

Part of my just wants to write “n/a” here and leave it at that. That’s kind of how I feel about the pitching for the Cardinals this season.

It’s not fair, though, to the two or three arms who have excelled in this otherwise painful season of injuries, ineffectiveness, and walks, walks, walks from the pitching staff.

One of those was Jack Flaherty, who was on his way to a very good season when injury struck. Another one is Kwang-Hyun Kim. Injuries and an inability to go deep into games have limited his innings to just a bit more than Flaherty’s, but when he’s been out there, he’s been great. Then there’s the bullpen arms. Gallegos has been brilliant. Reyes, with his walk issues, still has an ERA under 2.

There’s only so much value a reliever can bring to the team. That’s why the best pitching has to be Adam Wainwright. He’s leading all arms with 1.4 fWAR. His K rate is as high as it has been since he had just 8 starts in ’18. His BB rates are a little up from last year, but still exceptional at 2.64 per 9. His ERA is 3.58 and he’s beating his FIP (as expected) by about .40 runs.

Where would this team be without Wainwright? I don’t even want to think about it. Curveballs still work in this league, and when you can combine a nasty Uncle Charlie with really good command, a sub-90 mph average fastball can play just enough. The 15.5% HR/FB rate might show how close that “just enough” is to “not enough” but until he can’t make it work, I’m not going to worry.

His best game of the season is debatable, but I’m going with a gem he threw in late May against Cubs:

Best Defender

Here we resume our unending debate. How do you quantify defense? I’ve always preferred to use multiple metrics – Baseball Savant’s OAA and DRS and UZR from Fangraphs. There are pluses and minuses to all these systems, but it’s when you start to see them all agree about a player that you’re really on to something.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with most of the Cardinals players. A great example is Tyler O’Neil. TON has +6 DRS and +2.9 UZR. He’s just +1 OAA, which makes me strongly question the efficacy of that new system. If Tyler O’Neill is just one out above average among left fielders – a traditionally poor group of gloves – then the system needs a recalibration.

DeJong suffers from the same syndrome. By DRS and UZR, he’s probably our winner. But Baseball Savant thinks he’s really bad: -3. By the eye test, I’m inclined to agree with OAA. Maybe not THAT bad, but he hasn’t been good this season.

Then there’s Tommy Edman, who also has a huge swing. His OAA (+8) is very hard to ignore. DRS thinks he’s pretty good (+3) but UZR has problems at -1.

Then there is Nolan Arenado. He’s the most consistent performer at +4 DRS, +4.2 UZR, and +3 OAA. He also has all that hardware on his mantle at home.

Take your pick here, but I’m circling back to O’Neill. Arenado has had his moments but he hasn’t consistently wowed me. I probably need to adjust my expectations. Edman really looks good at 2b, be he has also spent way too much time in the outfield. TON has some time on the IL that’s cutting into his overall numbers and his OAA just doesn’t pass the smell test with me. He’s looked phenomenal. DRS and UZR think he is phenomenal. He’s my winner. There are lots of great O’Neill highlights to choose from here. I’m somewhat randomly picking this one:

Best Hope for the Second Half

If you can’t tell from my writing lately, I’ve largely given up on the Cardinals in terms of making the playoffs. They have no shot at a Wild Card and their division hopes are pinned solely on an epic collapse from a Brewers team that is more than talented enough to avoid one. The Cardinals do have a lot of games late in the season against Milwaukee, so in that sense, the team kind of holds its destiny in its hand. As fans, I think we’re in position to hope for a more interesting second half and watch for things that will make a big difference in 2022.

So, who is that player? Who’s performance could make the second half worth watching and set them up for a return to competitiveness in 2022?

The best answer I have is Dylan Carlson. Carlson deserves a deep analytical dive sometime soon. For now, I’ll just say that he’s spent the season consistently holding his own, and that’s made him a shell of what he could be. The sub-.400 slugging percentage is a great example. The talent is there, lurking below the surface of a 22-year old hitter who is still overmatched at the plate but has the bat-to-ball talent and batting eye to hide it really well. There are a lot of really great hitters that looked just like him at about the same age.

When will the turn come for him? IF it comes? I, for one, would love to see him get hot in the second half and go on a power binge. It would make me feel a lot better about 2022 and beyond.

Hopefully, the next two against the Cubs will go better than this Friday flop at Wrigley that I’m watching. Junior Fernandez… not the best pitching performance of the season. Enjoy the weekend!