Not much has gone right for the St. Louis Cardinals this season. Following their loss on Saturday, the team is 9 1⁄2 games back from the Brewers in the NL Central and 7 games back from the Padres in the Wild Card. Additionally, the pitching staff fell apart for stretches this season, Paul DeJong and Tommy Edman have struggled for consistency at the plate, and Yadier Molina looks nothing like the player that went on a tear at the beginning of the season. Despite this, one of the few bright spots this season has been the Cardinals outfield. This has been a clear area of improvement from last season, and this position group is one of the few things that has gone right for the Redbirds this season.
To begin with, the Cardinals outfield is 10th in the league in fWAR with 5.1. This factors in the -1.2 fWAR that has been collected by the duo of Lane Thomas (-0.4), Justin Williams (-0.8). Without these two, the outfield’s fWAR total would rise to 6.3, which would be good enough for third in the league, behind only the Astros and the Dodgers. Additionally, if Harrison Bader had not been injured for so long, he would have had more time to add to his 1.8 fWAR.
What is even more encouraging than the strong performances of Bader, Tyler O’Neill, and Dylan Carlson is that Bader is the oldest player of the group is Bader at 27 years old. This is a young, cheap, and controllable group of players that should be able to contribute to the Cardinals for years to come.
All three outfielders are at least above average hitters as Carlson is the worst of the group with a solid 106 wRC+, while Bader and O’Neill have each posted a wRC+ of 132 and 125, respectively. On top of that, both Bader and O’Neill are strong defenders who have combined for five outs above average and ten defensive runs saved. Carlson has some work to do defensively, although he was a strong defensive player in 2020. Despite his struggles in center field, he has at least been average in right field this year.
Last season, the Cardinals outfield ranked 17th in fWAR with just 2.2, while in 2019 the group ranked 18th with 6.8 fWAR. 2018 was the last time the Cardinals outfield was in the top ten in fWAR, and that year the starting outfield to open the season was Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, and Marcell Ozuna, while Harrison Bader eventually pushed his way into a starting job and Tyler O’Neill played well in limited time.
The success of the outfield is clearly a step forward this season, and it gives the Cardinals something on which to build. Much of this step forward has been caused by improvements against breaking and offspeed pitches as Bader and O’Neill have at least learned how to punish hanging breaking balls and make better contact with them, even though they still whiff at a similar rate to last season.
All three outfielders have a different profile. All three run well, but Bader and O’Neill have elite sprint speed. Carlson’s hitting ability is based on his strong batter’s eye. O’Neill’s is based on his power and his ability to consistently hit the ball hard. Bader’s is a combination of everything as he has some power, speed, and overall hitting ability to go with a strong 8.8% walk rate.
This group has established itself as the outfield of both the present and the future and is one of the few things that have gone right for the Cardinals this season. In fact, the combined 5.4 fWAR of the starting outfield is nearly half of the entire 11.2 fWAR of the Cardinals non-pitchers.
As the Cardinals look to make improvements to the roster in the offseason, the outfield is an area that will not need to be touched. More production from the infield and the pitching staff is needed, but the outfield will simply need to prove that it can consistently be a top ten position group in the MLB.