The St. Louis Cardinals have now played their first three Spring Training games. Most players have seen action on the field and new players have been able to make first impressions. It’s folly to place great meaning in early spring results, but there is some notable Statcast data from the first three contests.
Game 1 - Cardinals (4) vs Astros (2)
The Cardinals kicked off the spring with a lineup full of regulars. The game also saw appearances from Matthew Liberatore and Aaron Brooks.
Andrew Knizner - 105.7 mph (home run)
It’s no secret that Andrew Knizner struggled last year, but he got off to good start in the Cardinals first spring game. He hit the team’s first home run with a 105.7 mph bomb on a J.P. France breaking ball. This is notable for two reasons. First, the exit velocity on the home run wasn’t too much below Knizner’s max exit velocity of 108 mph last season. Also, the backup catcher hit just seven balls with an exit velocity of 105 mph or higher last season. With one such instance in his first game Knizner is off to a good start.
The other reason why this home run was notable is that it came against a breaking ball. Last season, Knizner had a .121 wOBA against breaking balls with no home runs. His only two hits were singles and he faced 224 breaking pitches. Of the seven balls that he hit over 105 mph last season, none came against breaking balls. Don’t put too much stock into one Spring Training moment, but it is nice to see Knizner crush a bender.
Nolan Gorman - 105.2 mph (flyout)
Nolan Gorman had the third hardest hit ball of the day, behind only Knizner and the Astros Marty Costas, who scorched a 110.2 mph groundout against Adam Wainwright. Even though Gorman’s batted ball was a flyout, it is good to see him hitting the ball hard.
Aaron Brooks - 94.4 mph
Aaron Brooks seems to have increased his velocity since going to Korea. In 2019, his four-seamer average 92 mph, but in his first Spring Training game, it averaged 94.4 mph and reached 95.9. His sinker was a bit slower, but it averaged 93.7 mph and touched 94.8 mph. This was nearly a 2 mph increase.
Spin rates weren’t available for this game, so we still have yet to see how much spin Brooks gets on his pitches. Still, an increase of two mph on Brooks’ fastball could make a big difference. His velocity may increase even more as the spring wears on. I would expect that his spin rates also increased, but that is purely a guess.
The KBO seems to have done Brooks some good, and with a pair of pitching injuries already, it is possible that he makes the team out of spring.
Matthew Liberatore - 94.5 mph
The Cardinals’ top pitching prospect sat close to 95 mph in his spring debut while touching 95.8. He has alwayshad the ability to throw this hard, but he hasn’t always shown it. Baseball America notes that Liberatore sat 89-93 on some days in 2021 and 92-96 on other days. The key for Liberatore will be keeping himself in that 92-96 range. He did it in his first appearance, but it still remains to be seen if he can stay in that range for a full year.
Baseball America also noted in their scouting report that his slider and his changeup sat in the low-80s last year. In his first spring appearance, Libby’s changeup and slider both averaged nearly 87 mph. That is definitely not low-80s.
It is important to note that the southpaw threw only nine sliders and three changeups, so don’t draw too many conclusions from a 12 pitch sample in Spring Training.
Game 2 - Cardinals (6) at Mets (4)
Both Dylan Carlson and Paul Goldschmidt homered as the Cardinals once again put out a lineup of regulars. The pitching was mostly handled by new signings (VerHagen, Wittgren, McAllister) and prospects (Fernandez, Baker, Walsh) behind Miles Mikolas.
Drew VerHagen - Velocity, Spin Rate
Drew VerHagen was impressive in his first outing, fanning three and tossing a pair of scoreless innings. Even more impressive were his Statcast readings. First, VerHagen’s four-seam fastball averaged 95.1 mph while touching 96. In 2019, his last year in the majors, his four-seamer averaged 93.8 mph. His sinker, which he throws more often, didn’t see as large of a jump, only 0.4 mph.
Where VerHagen really jumped was in spin rates. To be honest, I don’t really know what to make of his spin rates against the Mets, because it looks like Baseball Savant got some pretty terrible readings. For example, one sinker had a spin rate of 15 rpms and another had a spin rate of 3115 rpms. The pitch with 15 rpms almost certainly wasn’t picked up well by the tracker, but I don’t know what to make of the 3115 rpm sinker. J.P. Feyereisen of the Rays led the league in average sinker spin rate last year with 2708 rpms. If VerHagen’s 3115 rpm sinker is anywhere close to accurate, then he would absolutely dominate the leaderboards.
It wasn’t just VerHagen’s sinker that did this, though. His four-seamer ranged from 69 to 3000 rmps, his curveball ranged from 2154 to 3021 rmps, and his changeup was between 1694 and 3017 rpms. Quite honestly, I don’t know what to believe. It will take a few games of consistently high spin rates for me to believe that Statcast didn’t just get wonky when VerHagen took the mound. If he is touching 3000 rpms on anything, then it would mark a massive improvement from his last time in the states. It would also give him one of the highest spin rates in the league.
Is it possible that VerHagen turned into a spin rate monster in Japan? I don’t know yet. Maybe. It’s definitely something to watch this spring.
Miles Mikolas - 93.8 mph
Miles Mikolas struggled with velocity when he first came back from injury last season, as his fastball averaged just over 90 mph. He recovered his velocity as the season continued and his velocity is just fine at the start of spring.
His average four-seam velocity of 93.8 mph is right in line with his average four-seam velocity in 2019 (93.7 mph). At 33 years old, velocity may be something to watch for Mikolas this season, but he has started well and there are no initial concerns after one game.
Some pitchers start slow and build up their velocity, but Mikolas has kept his velocity from the end of last season. There wouldn’t be immediate concerns if his velocity was lower, but it is nice to see that he can still sit 94 in his first outing.
Paul DeJong - 2 batted balls over 100 mph
Paul DeJong went 0-2 in his second game of the spring, lining out twice on a pair of well hit balls. DeJong’s first lineout was 104.3 mph and had an xBA of .660. Technically, Baseball Savant ruled it a lineout but it traveled 316 feet so that’s more like a flyout to me. The shortstop’s second at-bat resulted in a ball hit 313 feet at 101 mph. The batted ball had an xBA of .430. Even though DeJong didn’t record any hits, he still hit the ball hard twice which is a good start to the spring.
In the spring of 2020, DeJong batted .458 and didn’t have a great season. Spring Training results aren’t everything, or really anything sometimes, but it’s good to see DeJong hitting the ball hard.
Game 3 - Cardinals (7) at Nationals (3)
The Cardinals defeated the Nationals to begin the spring with a 3-0 record. Unfortunately, Baseball Savant does not have the Statcast data from the game yet. If/when it gets posted, I will probably tweet about any numbers of interest.
Justin Toerner - Speed
I have no numbers or video to prove this, but Justin Toerner is fast. Like very fast. Like scored on a routine ground ball to second with the infield in fast. In the top of the ninth inning, with runners on second and third, Alec Burleson hit a ground ball right at the second baseman, who was playing on the edge of the infield grass. Toerner somehow managed to make it home safely. He got a great jump, but he was absolutely flying down the line.
This was my first exposure to Toerner outside of his Fangraphs page, so I knew that he could play center field, but I didn’t know he was that fast. I can’t wait to see him on the basepaths again.
Don’t put too much stock in these observations. Pitchers aren’t throwing more than two innings yet and hitters have only a few batted balls. It is still early in the spring, but this is our first look of the year at prospects, new signings, and established players. I am most intrigued by Drew VerHagen and his weird Statcast readings, but I am also curious to see how hard players like Gorman and Yepez can hit the ball, as well as how Paul DeJong will perform in a Spring when the shortstop job is apparently his to lose.
It’s nice to have real(ish) baseball games to write about again.