As you may have heard, the St. Louis Cardinals have seized control of their own playoff destiny with their longest winning streak since Bud Smith roamed the earth. The development has been stunning. After losing to the Dodgers on September 7th, their fourth consecutive loss, their playoff odds on FanGraphs were at 2.8%. Fourteen games later, before Thursday’s game against the Brewers, those odds were all the way up to 94.5%, higher today after winning that game. Given the way they’ve reanimated the corpse of their 2021 season, perhaps I should have chosen Frankenstein as my horror movie pun du jour for that headline rather than the Purge franchise. Obviously, the last few weeks have been the true surge, but the turnaround goes back to the All-Star break. Even before their 14-of-15 wins since September 7th, they were a respectable 25-22 in the second half. With the surge, they’re up to 39-23 in the second half after Thursday’s wild comeback in Milwaukee. What changed for them in the second half?
Goldschmidt (and Goldschmidt Luck)
Paul Goldschmidt’s first half was fine. Not great, not even really good, but acceptable. He had 1.5 fWAR and a 111 wRC+. That changed dramatically in the second half. His 2.9 fWAR in the second half is fifth in MLB among position players, and it’s a result of a well-rounded game. Sure, his 162 wRC+ is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but his 1.9 BsR (baserunning runs) is 25th out of 217 players with 150 plate appearances in the second half. We can’t see defensive splits by half, but his OAA (Outs Above Average) on the season is 3rd best among first basemen. His 9 runs saved on the Fielding Bible site are tops among positional peers. He’s doing it all.
Even though his numbers are reflective of a turnaround in the second half, some of this is the result of dumb luck. Goldschmidt’s first half was bedeviled by great process, mediocre results. He had one of the best hard hit rates in the league throughout the first half, but without the numbers to back it up. That has changed. His first half wOBA on hard hit balls: .541. In the second half: .732. He’s also collecting more barrels- his true barrel rate is up 3% in the second half even as his true hard hit rate has slipped 6.5%. There’s less hard contact but more of it is at a premium.
Note: all of these numbers were collected before his TWO dingers yesterday
It’s hard to overstate how poor the Cardinals bench performed in the first half. Collectively, 566 first half plate appearances went to Justin Williams, Lane Thomas, Andrew Knizner, Jose Rondon, Matt Carpenter, Lars Nootbar, John Nogowski, and Max Moroff. Their combined wRC+ in those plate appearances was approximately 45. If you’d rather use fWAR, they added up to -2.9. That’s right- simply using the platonic ideal of a replacement player in those spots would have earned them about 3 wins.
Nootbar, Rondon, and Knizner figured things out to varying degrees in the second half. Carpenter saw less playing time, which has mostly gone to more of Tommy Edman and more Edmundo Sosa (more on him later). The Williams, Thomas, Nogowski outfield time has gone to a healthy Harrison Bader and more Lars Nootbar. Sosa’s emergence has allowed Paul DeJong to join the bench. Even excluding the benefit of more Bader and Sosa, if we simply look at the contributions of DeJong, Nootbar, Rondon, Knizner, and Carpenter in the second half, we find: 374 PA, an 87 wRC+, and 0.7 fWAR. That’s not great, exactly, but it’s a massive improvement over the first half. And it’s not several wins below replacement level.
McFarland and Garcia
I know I’m not pointing out anything profound here, but the addition of T.J. McFarland and Luis Garcia to the bullpen has completely reshaped the middle and back innings for skipper Mike Shildt. In 60 second half innings, they’ve combined for a 2.55 ERA and a FIP around 3. Their K rates aren’t jaw-dropping but they do something their predecessors couldn’t. They haven’t walked hitters and they keep the ball in the yard. By WPA (win probability added), the difference has been stark. The duo essentially replaced Tyler Webb, Jake Woodford The Reliever™, and Seth Elledge. (side note, I still believe in Elledge) That trio collectively had a -0.95 WPA in the first half in 53.1 innings. McFarland and Garcia have combined for 2.46, or a little more than One First Half Alex Reyes, in more innings.
Much like the bench shift, it didn’t take a massive acquisition to improve. Simply getting rid of their worst performers from the first half and getting replacement level from those spots in the second half has represented a massive upgrade. The fact that McFarland and Garcia have been so much more than just replacement level is just gravy.
Bader and Sosa
In the first half, the Cardinals had Paul DeJong at shortstop and a significant chunk of outfield playing time going to Justin Williams, John Nogowski, and Lane Thomas while Harrison Bader healed from a few injuries. DeJong’s defense was fine but his bat lagged with an 87 wRC+. He had 0.9 fWAR with fairly regular playing time. I covered the disaster from the outfield group earlier. Then, Bader got healthy. DeJong’s health gave backup Edmundo Sosa more and more opportunities, and he finally siezed the position (carpé shortstop?).
Bader’s been about a league average hitter. Combine that with his premium defense and you have an above average player with 1.6 fWAR in the second half. Sosa has upped his power just enough to post a 129 wRC+ in the second half. Like Bader, combine that offensive performance with excellent defense and you end up with an above average player. In Sosa’s case, it’s a 1.3 fWAR.
Tyler O’Neill... Sort Of
This article is about the things the Cardinals are doing differently in their second half surge. The truth is that O’Neill has only been a nominally better in the second half than he was in the first. In other words, he’s not the reason they’ve improved since early July. He’s still the same ridiculously fun, highly productive freak of nature that he’s been all year. But it’d be wrong not to mention him as part of the success. He’s been amazing all season. If he had faded even a little in the second half, the Cardinals might not have leapt toward October. Instead, he’s locked his breakout in as a full season affair, delivering some of the most fun moments the team has had in years during this streak.