The St. Louis Cardinals may have heated up down the stretch in 2021 and won 17 in a row, but the two best individual performances of the year actually came before the All-Star break. The best pitching performance was, of course, by Adam Wainwright against the Cubs, while the best hitting performance came from Nolan Arenado against the Reds.
Before I go any further, I should mention that to judge the best performances I am using win probability added (WPA). This is not the only way to measure a single game performance, and it is heavily dependent upon context. For instance, Tyler O’Neill’s highest WPA performance actually came in a game when he had just one hit - a go-ahead two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth against the Padres. With that one hit, he completely changed the fortunes of the team as the Cardinals jumped from having a 22.2% chance of winning to having an 85.1% chance of winning.
According to WPA, this was the only at-bat taken by O’Neill all game that increased the Cardinals’ chances of winning. In his last at-bat, he was given 0.63 WPA (increased the team’s chances of winning by 63%). In all of his previous at-bats, he totaled -0.15 WPA. So, in total, he compiled 0.48 WPA for the game after batting 1-for-4
Was his performance against the Padres better than his performance against the Mets four days earlier? There is a strong case to be made that O’Neill played better against the Mets since he was 2-for-5 with a home run, 2 runs scored, and 3 RBI. However, he ‘only’ compiled 0.40 WPA. So an extra hit, an extra run, and an extra RBI all led to a lower WPA. That’s because context matters for WPA. Tyler O’Neill’s three strikeouts against the Mets hurt his WPA while his go-ahead home run in the top of the eighth inning was worth a bit less since the Mets still had six outs to go whereas the Padres only had three after O’Neill’s home run four days later.
No stat is perfect, but by factoring in context, WPA can help determine which players had the greatest impact on the result of a given game. So, this is what I will use to determine the best individual performances of the past season. It’s possible to quibble with this definition, but it provides both a simple and effective way of determining the ‘best’ performances of the 2021 season.
Best Pitching Performance
The Cardinals pitching staff was weaker than usual, so it is not surprising that the best pitching performance lags behind the best hitting performance. It is also not surprising that the team’s best starter - Adam Wainwright - had the best outing of the season. It also came against the Cubs, before they sold heavily at the deadline, making it even more satisfying.
On May 23rd, Wainwright tossed 8 scoreless innings against the Cubs and surrendered just one walk and one hit. It was a dominant performance for the then-39-year-old in what ended up being his worst month of the season in terms of FIP (5.01).
The problem for the Cardinals was that they wasted the veteran’s great outing. It took the Cubs four pitchers — Zach Davies, Tommy Nance, Ryan Tepera, and Dan Winkler — to cover as many innings as Wainwright covered himself, but the foursome proved to be as effective, allowing no runs despite putting nine runners on base. Neither team was able to push a run across the plate until the tenth inning.
Despite the tie game, the Cardinals were favorites to win for most of the game as they were able to actually put runners on base. Before the tenth inning, the Cubs win probability peaked at 50.3% after a Wilson Contreras walk in the fourth inning.
The Cardinals on the other hand had an 82.9% chance of winning when they loaded the bases with no outs and the top of the order up to bat in the home half of the seventh. However, a Tommy Edman ground out got Edmundo Sosa thrown out at the plate before Paul Goldschmidt (before he got hot) fouled out to the catcher and Nolan Arenado struck out.
The Cardinals would go on to lose 2-1 after Alex Reyes surrendered a two-run home run to Javy Baez in the top of the tenth inning. The Cardinals got one back in the home half on a sac fly by Arenado, scoring Goldschmidt, but it wasn’t enough.
In the game, Adam Wainwright had a WPA of .532, which was the highest of any player. Unfortunately, the next three highest WPAs came from Zach Davies (.272), Craig Kimbrel (.247), and Javy Baez (.231). Interestingly, Wainwright was also one of only six hitters (22 were used in the game) to provide a positive WPA (.028), and he had the third most WPA of any hitter. So, in total, Wainwright accumulated .560 WPA in the game. Basically, Wainwright single-handedly increased the Cardinals chances of winning the game by 56%. That’s one heck of an impact in a loss.
Best Hitting Performance
The team’s best hitting performance also came from an unsurprising member of the team - Nolan Arenado. It also came against a division rival as he reached base five times against the Reds on June 6th.
Besides Arenado’s performance, this game was also significant because it saw the MLB debut of Angel Rondon, who tossed a scoreless inning and picked up his first MLB strikeout.
Arenado was having a fine game after his first three plate appearances as he had a pair of singles and walk. Despite this, the Cardinals were losing 7-0 as John Gant conceded all seven runs in his four innings of work. Where Arenado really made his mark was in his final two at-bats of the game.
The third baseman came to the plate in the home half of the sixth inning with two outs and runners on second and third. The ensuing single scored both runners and tied the game at seven, marking the first time the Cardinals weren’t losing since the very beginning of the game. The single boosted the Cardinals’ chance of winning from 26.2% to 53.5%.
Arenado struck again in the bottom of the ninth. With the Cardinals down 8-7, he hit a ground rule double which moved Goldschmidt, the tying run, to third and put the winning run on second with no outs. Tyler O’Neill then popped out to second before Edmundo Sosa and Justin Williams struck out to end the game.
In total, Arenado accumulated a whopping .718 WPA, meaning that he increased the Cardinals’ chances of winning by almost 72%. That’s an amazing impact in just five plate appearances, and especially in a loss.
The Cardinals seemed to have a thing for wasting great performances. At least they did in the first half of last season. Both the top pitching performance and the top hitting performance came in Cardinal losses at home. Failing to capitalize with the bases loaded and no outs played a huge role in both losses.
Still, it’s fun seeing Arenado have a huge game against a division rival. He is always capable of playing like he did on June 6th, and more often than not, the Cardinals will win when he plays like that. The same goes for Adam Wainwright, who is crafty whenever he takes the mound. Seeing a longtime Cardinal dominate the Cubs is always a sweet sight.
Arenado’s game on June 6th contributed to his 1.012 OPS against the Reds last season. That was his third highest OPS against any team in 2021, behind only the Royals (1.268) and the Mets (1.158). Arenado didn’t just dominate the Reds last year, though, he has dominated them in his whole career. The third baseman has a .990 OPS against the team, which is his sixth best OPS against any team in his career.
Wainwright also owned the Cubs last year, allowing just one run in 15 innings, though he didn’t get the win in either of the two games against Chicago. Over the course of his career, the 40-year-old has had more modest success against the team, compiling a 3.93 ERA in 277 1⁄3 innings. The only team he has faced more often is the Brewers (287 IP).
It was interesting to see that both the best individual pitching and best individual hitting performances came in the first half of the season when the team was really struggling. I certainly wasn’t expecting that. Still, it seemed like the entire team got hot in the second half of the season, so victories likely became more of a team effort than a monumental individual endeavor.