With the season over, we here at VEB are in “season review” mode. There’s an exciting offseason if front of us but there’s also an exciting season behind us and there’s plenty to unpack there.
For starters, if you haven’t listened to the latest VEB podcast, I highly recommend it. The VEB writing staff got together and handed out positional grades in a wide ranging conversation. You can listen to that here.
For those of you who, like me, are still watching playoff baseball, Gabe gave us a great primer of who to root for. I’m going with his 4th ranked team, the Cleveland Guardians, being from Ohio and all, but I have also have some Padres and Braves sympathies courtesy of my brother and my dad.
Regardless, Gabe gave us some great reasons to like (or dislike each team) and it’s a fun read with the playoffs still raging. You should give it a read too and find your next team to root for.
Getting back to the piece at hand, I want to look at some of the most surprising Cardinal performances of the season. The Cardinals finishing with 93 wins wasn’t too surprising. I mean, that’s pretty much what they do every year.
What was surprising was how they got there. Let’s take a look at some of the most pleasant and most disappointing surprises of the year.
Let’s start on a positive note here. The rookies were fantastic. Plenty of young guys got playing time this year, but there was a “big three” this year. Here are the top rookie hitters.
Brendan Donovan was the real surprise. The surprise isn’t so much that he was good, but rather that he was this good. He had 60 walks and 70 strikeouts in his rookie year. I can’t recall the last time I saw a rookie walk nearly as much as he struck out.
He seems like a tailor made left-handed hitting leadoff man after not making the Opening Day roster. His starting spot is secure unless the Cardinals sign Trea Turner (and they won’t). A lot of people probably expected Nolan Gorman to be in the spot that Donovan currently is, but Donovan wasn’t fazed by the highest level of competition.
He filled a massive hole in the infield left by Paul DeJong’s struggles. Without Donovan, this infield would not have been complete.
Though Donovan exceeded Gorman, that’s nothing against Gorman. I’ve seen some disappointment about Gorman’s season and I think that’s unfair. He was playing an unfamiliar position and was still an above average hitter. That’s encouraging!
Donovan’s success shouldn’t make Gorman’s season look like a failure. Quite the contrary, in fact, since the Cardinals now have two really good young options at second base.
Any disappointment with Gorman’s season comes from expectations that were too high. He’s a power hitter with a lot of swing-and-miss who got bumped from his natural position. None of that screams 3 WAR player as a rookie.
I have a hard time saying Gorman’s season was bad when he proved that his power is for real and finished as an above average hitter as a 22-year-old. That’s a good foundation to build on.
Juan Yepez actually had the worst season of the three and he was also an above average hitter. His defense wasn’t great in the outfield but I hear there’s an open DH spot in St. Louis next season. He’s a good hitter who also proved that he has pop in his bat.
He did so on the biggest stage too, crushing a home run in the first game of the Wild Card series. It was really the only bright spot offensively in the series.
These 3 were productive as rookies and give the Cardinals great options next season.
They weren’t the only productive rookies though. How about the pitchers?
The first thing you might notice is the low fWAR totals, but I don’t think those tell the whole story in this case. There was a stretch of the season when Pallante was the only right-hander besides Helsley and Gallegos who could get outs consistently.
He was one of the most trusted bullpen options for a decent chunk of the year and he practically skipped Triple-A. The fact that he made the Opening Day roster was a surprise, but the fact that he earned so much trust so quickly was perhaps even more surprising.
Zack Thompson, too, came a bit out of nowhere this season after he finished last season with a whopping 7.06 ERA in Memphis. He went from a 7.06 ERA in Memphis to a 2.08 ERA in St. Louis. He was also the most trusted left-handed bullpen option at the end of the season fro a division winning team.
That’s quite the leap! Thompson was a huge part of the bullpen this year and a very pleasant surprise.
I started positive, but now I’m going negative. What happened to the outfield? I mean it was just last year that the Cardinals ranked 3rd in outfield WAR with a trio of Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dylan Carlson that didn’t look like it was going anywhere.
Flash forward a year and Harrison Bader is playing for the Yankees, Tyler O’Neill could replicate his success, and Dylan Carlson’s bat took a step back.
So, again, I ask, what happened? And the only answer is injuries. Dylan Carlson’s performance was clearly affected by trying to play through a left thumb sprain towards the end of the season. He also dealt with a hamstring strain earlier in the season. Neither one of those injuries are easy to play through.
Hamstring injuries tend to linger and I can only imagine how painful it is to hit a baseball with a hurt thumb.
Tyler O’Neill also dealt with a bevy of injuries that caused him to only play 96 games. At various times during the season, he dealt with a shoulder issue, a hamstring issue, a leg issue, a neck issue, and another hamstring issue.
That’s a lot of issues! And not even Harrison Bader was free from such issues. He dealt with plantar fasciitis for a long time both before and after being traded.
Injuries spelled the end of one of the best outfield trios in recent memory. Now, there’s a lot of playing time up for grabs, and another member of last year’s outfield (O’Neill) may find himself playing for another team next year.
Not 1, but 2 MVP Candidates
Paul Goldschmidt didn’t have the first season with the Cardinals that everyone expected. In fact, his 3.4 fWAR marked the lowest single season tally of his career since 2012. He bounced back in 2020 and 2021, reaching the 5 WAR mark in 2021, but it felt like that was the as good as it was going to get.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a 5 WAR player, but who was expecting the 7.1 WAR breakout he had this year. And he did it at age 34! That was the second best mark of his career. His previous season high was 7.2 fWAR and he did that at age 27.
I was expecting Goldy to be a great player this year. I was not expecting him to be an MVP caliber player.
I could say the same about Nolan Arenado. He’s better than the 4 WAR player he was last season, so I expected improvement in 2022, but I certainly didn’t see an MVP campaign coming. His 7.3 fWAR not only topped Goldy, but it also topped every other player in the National League besides Manny Machado (7.4 fWAR)
The bullpen looked solid coming into the season and after Genesis Cabrera’s emergence last year, it looked like the team finally had strong left-handed options.
Then the season happened. T.J. McFarland flopped. Drew VerHagen flopped. Aaron Brooks was bad in St. Louis and Memphis. Even Kodi Whitley has yet to deliver on his promise. Those were all middle inning options though. The real damage came from Genesis Cabrera taking a huge step back.
Cabrera’s walk rate actually improved but he simply forgot how to get strikeouts and keep the ball in the yard. With both him and McFarland combining for -1.1 fWAR, the bullpen had to find left-handed options elsewhere.
Packy Naughton filled the void for a while but he wasn’t permanent. JoJo Romero had a dominant two week stretch but then he faded away. The real answer came from Zack Thompson, but the bullpen lacked stability from the left side for most of the season.
This serves as another lesson that relievers are volatile. They can go from being ground ball machines or high-octane lefties one year to bad Triple-A players the next.
The bullpen is never stable. Even good bullpens rarely look as they were expected to. It never hurts to have too many options. Or too many pitching prospects.
In total, McFarland, VerHagen, Brooks, Cabrera, and Whitley combined for -2.1 fWAR. Simply replacing them with replacement level arms would have added two wins this season.
Now that we’ve dealt with the bullpen disappointments, we can look at one of most surprising players this season — Ryan Helsley.
The flamethrower had the 4th best ERA among relievers to throw 30 innings or more. He was also one of only 6 relievers to break the 2.0 fWAR mark.
He became a strikeout machine, fanning almost 40% of the hitters he faced. By literally every single metric, Helsley was simply one of the best relievers in all of baseball. That’s after a year in which tallied a 4.56 ERA.
Again, relievers are volatile. Helsley was a well-regarded prospect as he was coming up through the system but this still felt like it came out of nowhere.
I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him become a good reliever. But this? I wasn’t ready for it.
His breakout is one of the highlights of the season, and it may have been the highlight of the season if the retirement tour, race for 700, and Goldy/Nado MVP race hadn’t happened.
I can’t leave out the most magical baseball moment of my life. Watching my favorite player reach such a gigantic milestone will always be the best part of this season for me.
It’s even better because I didn’t think this moment would come.
As we all know, Albert Pujols needed to hit 21 home runs this season to reach 700 on his career. I was skeptical. In fact, I was more than skeptical.
The last time he cleared at least 21 home runs in a season, he got 545 plate appearances. That was in 2019 on a Angels team that was going nowhere.
I thought there was no way Albert would get that may plate appearances on a Cardinals team contending for a division title. It turned out that I was right. But, boy, was I wrong about him not hitting 700.
Pujols only took 351 plate appearances this season, but that’s all he needed to prove me wrong. And he didn’t hit 700. He hit 703. Because why not? He’s Albert.
But the surprises don’t stop with the home runs.
He was an above average hitter against right-handed pitchers with a wRC+ against RHPs of 113. The last time that happened was 2016.
Albert finished the year with a 150 wRC+. The last time his wRC+ was that high was 2010. He didn’t just crush lefties, he crushed everyone. At age 42. After 5 straight seasons of negative WAR, he was worth 1.8 fWAR. The last time his fWAR was that high was 2014.
Albert didn’t just break 700. He looked like his old self. That was the biggest, and best, surprise of the season.
Like every season, 2022 was full of highs and lows for the St. Louis Cardinals. As I look back on it, though, it seems like there would a lot more highs. Or, at least, the highs were much higher than the lows.
Goldy, Arenado, Pujols, all Helsley all reached heights I didn’t think were possible. And I didn’t even mention Edman. There were disappointing moments for sure, and the early playoff knockout was definitely the highest on that list, but when I look back on this season in the future, I will remember all of the pleasant surprises I listed, not how deep of a playoff run this team made.
Now we just need an MVP award to top things off.
Thanks for reading, VEB. I want to know what were the biggest surprises for you. Let me know if the comments!
Enjoy your Sunday!