During the 2014 season, Matt Carpenter began walking a lot. He posted absurd walk rates in the minors, but he took a slightly more aggressive approach when he reached the majors. Or pitchers just challenged him more. Either way, he had 10% walk rates in his first two years. At some point during 2014, it looked like 100 walks was possible, so I started rooting for him to reach 100 walks. At the time, he had a .103 ISO, so walking that much with that little power would be inconceivable. He failed ultimately, topping at 95 walks, but did reach 100 walks twice eventually, once he was an established power hitter.
Why do I bring this up? Because sometimes, I get fixated on one stat for a particular player. Harrison Bader’s K% was absurdly low for a decent portion of last season, Tyler O’Neill’s walk rate rose from the dead, and I was worried about Paul Goldschmidt’s wRC+ after a 111 wRC+ first half. It’s usually a stat that could entirely change a player’s game. Bader doesn’t strike out anymore? Well that’s a vastly different player!
So for this exercise, I’ll be looking at one stat to pay attention for some Cardinals players. Not all, just whatever players who seem to have one stat that, if it goes well, would make them a better player.
Dylan Carlson - Isolated Power (ISO)
Carlson had a very promising debut at just 22-years-old, finishing with a 113 wRC+ and 2.8 fWAR. ZiPS and Steamer both project him to repeat that season essentially, although in slightly different ways (ZiPS with a 117 wRC+ and worse defense, Steamer with a 109 wRC+ and better defense).
So the thing about Carlson is that the reason to be optimistic about him is because of his age. If he was 26 and had the season he had, I’d feel pretty confident he was just an average player. I’m much more down on his defense than I think most people are, so while I’m fairly confident in his bat being in the 110-120 wRC+ range, with okay to below average defense in the corners, that’s... an average player.
Enter: his power. His power is going to completely determine his ceiling. This would be true even if you are a fan of his defense. His ISO his first year was .164, his second year was .172 and his projection is .185 between Steamer and ZiPS. He will also probably not have a career .332 BABIP like his BABIP in 2021. So I suspect the increase in power will be offset a little by a little less BABIP. Basically, I’ll be paying attention to his power. I’m hoping for a .200 ISO or greater.
Tyler O’Neill - K%
I used O’Neill as my example above, because when O’Neill originally went on his hot streak, he literally never walked. That’s not a strategy that is successful long-term. Eventually pitchers stopped throwing him strikes as much, and for the most part, he let them. In the 2nd half, he had an 8.1 BB%. I would bet a lot of money he beats his 7.1% BB rate of 2021 while not necessarily being any more patient of a hitter, because he’s already made the adjustment. I am completely bought into O’Neill, a dude who walks. He’s already walked twice this year. He walked for the second time last year on May 5th, his 72nd plate appearance of the year.
The next adjustment is striking out less. Can he do that? One of the positives of striking out as much as he does is that any improvement is kind of huge. Someone striking out 28% of the time for most players would be a bad thing, if O’Neill did that, he might win MVP. Few power hitters would benefit as much as O’Neill from striking out less, who hits the hell out of the ball when he makes contact and is one of the fastest players in the league. It’s why he had a .366 BABIP last year while still somehow having a higher xwOBA.
Nolan Arenado - BB%
I’m trying to think of a way to say this without getting in trouble from the Cardinal faithful so hopefully you all understand why I’m saying it: Nolan Arenado is an overrated hitter. Call it the Coors effect. It’s probably why some consider him a future Hall of Famer already even though, statistically speaking, he has enough work to do in his 30s that I would certainly not make that assumption myself. I think he is slowly being rated properly on offense, as it’s rather difficult to be overrated while hitting at Busch Stadium, where your numbers will be better than they look, by virtue of it being a pitcher’s park.
But there is a clear link between Arenado at his best and Arenado as the merely good hitter, and that’s whenever he takes walks. If you look at his stats from 2015 to 2019, he looks remarkably consistent on the classic stats: he hit between 38 and 42 homers every year, batted between .287 and .315, got at least 97 RBIs every year, and at least 110 runs scored every year. In one of those seasons, he had a 5.1 BB% including 13 intentional walks, and that was easily his worst season of that stretch, even though his 42 homers and 130 RBIs would not suggest that. His best offensive season of his career was when he had a 10.8 BB%, and though that includes 10 IBBs, it’s still a 9.5 BB% when you take out IBBs
Last year his non-intentional walk rate was a measly 6.5%. He needs to be more patient, plain and simple. Pitchers certainly avoid throwing him strikes often enough that at least 8% should be doable for anyone with his power.
Paul DeJong - BABIP
It is a simple fact that Paul DeJong had a bad 2021 because of BABIP. Ignoring whether that was deserved or not, his .216 BABIP was well below what any reasonable person might expect from an MLB quality hitter and certainly one with a career .282 BABIP. If DeJong had a remotely normal BABIP, let’s say even as low as .250, he’d be near an average hitter last year. And that’s more or less what the projections say for him. They foresee a still quite below average .269 BABIP and a dead average wRC+ at 100.
If you could somehow take the ingredients of him as a hitter and figure out a way to give him a .290 BABIP, he’s a legit All-Star. Which is why he’s still given a chance. You could blame the contract, but there’s a real baseball reason to give him more chances too. His 2021 isn’t a bad template either: 25% K rate, 9% BB rate, .190 ISO - change the BABIP and he’s a good hitter. Yes, I already know the complaints about this section and I’m aware he deserves a lower BABIP, let’s not rehash that. But his fate and future is directly connected to his BABIP.
Yadier Molina - Swinging at First Pitch
So here’s a fun fact: relative to how the rest of baseball performs on first pitch swings, Yadi is not a good first pitch hitter. In 2021, all of baseball hit for a .343/.354/.582 line, good for a .936 OPS on first pitches. Baseball-Reference has a fun stat called tOPS+, which is comparing a player’s split numbers to their actual OPS. All of MLB had a 153 tOPS+ on first pitches. To give you a reference point, Shohei Ohtani had a 152 wRC+ last year. So hitters become that much better than their normal self on first pitches.
Yadi, for his career, has a 116 tOPS+ on first pitches. Barely better than when he is in a full count (112 tOPS+). B-R also compares when hitters swing at the first pitch and when they take the first pitch. Yadi’s tOPS+ when swinging at the first pitch is a 94, compared to 104 tOPS+ when he takes the first pitch. The baseball average last year was 97 to 101.
I’m not saying Yadi needs to stop swinging at first pitches, because he’s still a better hitter when he makes contact, but he should probably not come to the plate intending to swing no matter what. He swung at the first pitch a few times in the first three games, and I’m not sure a single pitch was a good one to swing at. The idea behind why you should swing at the first pitch is that the pitch is very hittable. When it’s not, there’s no advantage to swinging at the first pitch.
Wainwright-Molina - Starts as a Battery
I am heavily invested in this stat if I’m being perfectly honest. I don’t have a comparison point on how badly I want them to break this record. This is the most I’ve ever been this invested in a record being broken. Their most recent start tied them in 3rd place with Red Faber and Ray Shalk, and 19 more starts gives them the record. And if they achieve that record, they will hold that record for a very long time I suspect. Nobody active even has 200 starts together, and they’ll need more than 325.
Anybody in the Bullpen - BB%
I’m not as big on looking at individual stats on pitchers so this is the extent of that. But I was about to write something for Genesis Cabrera on BB%, and then I saw Helsley and saw that could apply to and really Jake Woodford walks too many players too. Alex Reyes certainly. Andre Pallante, while he looked reasonably promising in his debut, strikes me as someone who will have control problems as well. Pretty much anyone who came from the Cardinals system I suppose.
None of the new additions - Drew VerHagen, Nick Wittgren, Aaron Brooks - really have walk problems. TJ McFarland doesn’t either. But walks were a huge problem last year and the strength of the bullpen rests on the returning members avoiding walks whenever possible.
Any individual stat you will be paying attention to in this coming season?