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The Best Since the Break

The “best of” series is back with the best Cardinals offensive and pitching performances of the second half. Spoiler: it’s a lot of Paul Goldschmidt and Adam Wainwright.

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Cardinals’ “Best” series is back for the Best Since the Break! First a quick warning. I’m all drugged up on pain medication after giving birth to a beautiful baby kidney stone this week. I’ll love him and cherish him forever. Your “most mediocre” Viva El Birdos writer – me! – had a few moments when he desperately wanted to be re-assigned to the great Cardinals blog in the sky. Thankfully, modern drugs – administered legally under the care of Emergency Room personnel – are gooooooood! And probably extremely pricey. (Josey, I’m going to need a raise.) So, I’m still here. And we’ll all get to find out just how cogent I am, even when I’m doped up!

The title says “since the break” but I’ve always thought that arbitrary beginning and ending points – like the random date of the All-Star Break – was silly. So, instead, I’m going back to the not at all arbitrary date of the 1st of July for the stats below. That will include some pre-Break data but it fits nicely with the month-by-month nature of this series. With personal updates and caveats out of the way, on to the categories and winners!

Best Barreled Ball – Paul Goldschmidt

Last Saturday, in my “Stats That Matter” article, I talked about Paul Goldschmidt’s ranking in expected stats based on his power output. We see his second-half awesomeness at work in the “best barreled ball” category.

Cubs’ pitcher Zach Davies made a mistake. He threw a sinker at 86.6 mph that stayed up in zone 5 – center/center. Goldschmidt doesn’t miss that kind of slop. He crushed it at 112.2 mph (yes, the .2 matters). The angle was a hair low but more than enough to generate 441 feet and leave Wrigley to take a trip down Waveland Avenue. It is my winner for best barrel of the second half.

Goldschmidt had a second homer of 112.0 mph. That one was a bit higher (33 degrees), so he got slightly more distance out of it. But it only reached the second deck at Great American.

I like the aesthetics of my best barrel winner leaving a ballpark. And I love that it came against the Cubs. So, I’m giving more value to that “.2” mph than is justified. They are both excellent homers. The first is my winner.

Honorable mentions go to two unexpected muscle-men. Despite what I wrote about him this week, Tommy Edman crushed a homer at 110.7 mph against Rex Brothers. It had just a 22-degree launch angle, which fits so well with Edman’s profile. Even his hardest hit no-doubters have too much line drive in them. (Gotta run that narrative dry.) Lars Nootbar also smoked a homer against Brandon Woodruff at 109.5. Is he the lefty outfielder off the bench the Cards need next year? He’s making his case!

Lastly, Tyler O’Neill will forever remain in competition for this award. He was the first-half winner. His best in the second half is 111.1 also against Brandon Woodruff.

Best Offensive Performance – Paul Goldschmidt

This is the second time that the winner of the “best barrel” category has also won for “best offensive performance”. Look, I knew that Goldy was having a great second half, but I didn’t realize it was THIS good. Since July 1, here’s his stats in all their glorious perfection:

Slash line: .331/.395/.558
wOBA: .402
wRC+: 155
fWAR: 2.0
HR: 10

That’s Pujols’ levels of production for the Cardinals’ first baseman. He’s back to being his MVP-caliber self. He’s nearly erased the legitimate concerns that were raised about his production levels during the first few months of the season. Nearly, though, is not the same as fully. His wRC+ of 122 for the year is good but it’s well below his Arizona norms of 140-160. Still, this is no place to complain about a player hitting well above his career averages for the last two months.

Honorable mentions barely deserve the added word count compared to Goldy. Tyler O’Neill followed up on his breakout first half with a very solid .351 wOBA, 123 wRC+ (1.2 fWAR) in the second half. The slugging percentage is way down (.437) but his walk rate is way up (9.6%). TON has found ways to produce even when he’s not crushing everything in sight. Is he becoming a more complete player? (Was he always a pretty complete player and just needed time? Hmm… maybe so.)

Best Pitching Performance – Adam Wainwright

Normally I would offer you two categories for the starters – best cumulative performance and best single-game performance. I already covered the latter here, when Adam Wainwright provided what is (arguably) the best start of his career – Wainwright’s “Wainwright”. I should probably just retire the “best single-game pitching performance” with that outing until someone can top him.

Wainwright, about to turn 40, has been stellar this season. His performance is not only the best story on the Cardinals this season, it’s one of the best stories in all of baseball. Since July 1, Wainwright has a 2.44 ERA coupled with a 3.08 FIP. He’s walking just 1.67 batters per 9. His K rate is down, but it’s hard to argue with his efficiency.

I personally think the key to his renaissance is his, well, renaissance in HR/FB rates. We’ve talked about this frequently with regards to Mikolas and Hudson. In the not-so-distant past, Busch heavily suppressed homers. It still does. But the game’s overall reliance on the HR has caused HR/FB rates to track upward for Cardinals starters even at Busch. Is it a recoverable skill? Wainwright’s season at his age argues “yes, definitely!” His 7.6% HR/FB rate is right on with some of his prime seasons. Waino is proof that if you have good stuff, throw with command, trust your defense, and keep runners off the bases, you can be an elite pitcher at Busch. Age is irrelevant.

You want video? Here you go! It’s former Cardinals teammate John Smoltz, who knows a few things about being effective into your late 30s, talking about what makes Wainwright Wainwright:

Best clutch reliever – T.J. McFarland

We haven’t done this one in a while but it’s a good time to resurrect it: “best clutch reliever”. Now, I do not believe in a clutch gene. So-called “clutch” stats – like RBI with runners in scoring position or runners stranded – tend to regress to a player’s norms over time. This, then, is not intended to be predictive. It’s just a snapshot of what has happened. In the second half of the season, T.J. McFarland has been clutch.

WPA – Win Probability Added – is a stat that tries to tell us how much a player has added to the team’s chances of winning. That comes by pitching well in important situations. High leverage relievers tend to shine in this stat because they find themselves in the game with the game on the line.

So, on the Cardinals, you would expect that to be Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos, or Genesis Cabrera. All of them have faced high-leverage, “when it counts” moments. But their second half performance hasn’t been good enough. Chalk it up to overuse, lack of “sticky stuff” or returning to norms, but all have scuffled a bit since July.

That’s allowed the unlikely T.J. McFarland to sneak into the bullpen lead since the break in WPA with a 1.10. That’s behind Wainwright’s 1.72 but ahead of Kwang-Hyun Kim at .82.

Since July 1, McFarland has 19.1 innings. He’s not striking many guys out but, like Waino, is limiting walks and using his defense. His ground ball rate is an impressive 63%. That’s allowing his production to beat the odds. His ERA is a mighty impressive 1.86. His FIP is 3.79. Fangraphs believes he will regress, so don’t write him into the bullpen long term just yet. At the same time, when the team needed what he offered, he’s come through. And done it when it mattered. So, he gets the category win.

We have rare relief highlights from MLB video search detailing exactly what I’m talking about. Here’s a critical situation in extra innings. McFarland gets a ground ball double play. High WPA. Here’s the highlight:

That’s all I’ve got. Back to bed. Enjoy your weekend! Don’t get kidney stones.