It’s the eve of Opening Day.
Tomorrow, in Busch for the first time in years, the Cardinals will open their baseball season against the Pirates. It should be quite the spectacle!
We should expect the normal array of Hall of Famers – minus a few who had unfortunately passed over the last few years. We should get Clydesdales and Ford pickups. All narrated by Public Address Announcer John Ulett’s comforting tones. The poor organist will play “Here Comes the King” on a loop.
Fans and announcers alike will swoon over Cardinals’ legends Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. They’ll give Albert Pujols the biggest ovation that any Cardinal has received since… Albert Pujols, when he returned to StL with the Angels a few seasons ago.
If you want to catch it all – and of course you do – here’s the schedule from The Athletic’s Katie Woo.
I’m supposed to be at the office Thursday. But I can feel myself (cough cough) coming down with a (sniffle sniffle) cold right now.
What are your Opening Day traditions?
Mine is as simple as can be. I’ll head out of work with enough time to make it through a drive-through or grab some carry-out before the festivities begin. I will buy the biggest coke I can get, pair that with my choice of trash foods – wings have become more and more my go-to, I don’t know why – and then enjoy the show until I fall asleep. Yup. I’m just that much fun.
Since I’ve joined the site, I’ve added “Live Tweeting” about the game to my Opening Day repertoire. If, for some reason, you want even more of me than you get here – in soon-to-be edited form (Twitter is getting an edit button) – you can follow me all season at @JPHill_Cards.
Those are my expectations for Opening Day. What about the rest of the season?
Projections & Predictions
Projections for the Cardinals are all over the map. As usual. Computer-based projection systems tend to struggle with outliers - models that sit outside of pre-established norms. Most teams win games with strong pitching and offense. The Cardinals are built for some of that. But their equation for success factors in other, more nuanced influencers – like a world-class defense and an environment that suppresses offense. The club is built to take advantage of Busch Stadium’s benefits and prop their win totals. Projection systems struggle to account for those things, particularly among young, inexperienced players and older, “decline phase” stars.
Take Paul Goldschmidt. Godly will play this season at age 34. His average fWAR as a Cardinal, when adjusting his shortened COVID season to 680 PAs (about the same as ’19 and ’21), is 4.3. He won a Gold Glove last season and earned it. This year, ZiPS has Goldy losing dropping all the way to 2.9 fWAR. Why? Because age models say it has to do that. It does like his defense, though.
STEAMER, on the other hand, has Goldy’s offense holding up well-enough – a 130 wRC+ – but it believes his defense will drop back substantially – again, because of age – and the result is him missing well-established production metrics by a notable amount.
Could Goldy decline? Of course. The age models are there for a reason.
But the Cardinals have a bunch of players like Goldy who, in a variety of ways, break from established norms. Like Dakota Hudson and his insane ground ball rates. Adam Wainwright and his unparalleled reliance on a dynamic curveball at age 40. Miles Mikolas. Harrison Bader. Even, to some extent, Nolan Arenado.
The result is a team with strengths that the projection systems prefer not to measure and weaknesses that projection systems amplify. Some systems deal with these better than others. Most, though, continually underestimate the Cardinals’ win totals.
ZIPS (Fangraphs): 89-73 (as of Feb 1.)
DEPTH CHARTS (Fangraphs): 81-81
PECOTA (Baseball Prospectus): 80-82
The Cardinals have not been under .500 since 2007. PECOTA thinks this team is nearly as bad as the 2007 Cardinals. They’ve also projected the Cards to come in well under their actual win totals for nearly a decade. Depth Charts, based largely on the STEAMER projection system, believes they’ll be the worst Cardinals team of the decade. ZiPS seems more reasonable when considering recent Cardinals’ history.
Depth Charts is the easiest of these to break down and it’s pretty clear where they think the Cardinals will have problems. Last year, Cardinals hurlers allowed 672 runs – 4.15 runs per game. They did that while setting team records in walks, suffering through crippling injuries in the starting rotation, and having to make over most of their pitching staff on the fly by pillaging baseball of its elderly and through no-name waiver wire claims.
That staff was terrible. But the Cards were constructed to overcome some of that. Busch stadium produced one of the lowest park factors in baseball, actively suppressing damage (mostly home runs) from all hitters, but especially those who hit right-handed. The team won 5 Gold Gloves. The result? 90 wins. About 10 more than PECOTA projected.
I’ve heard some fans complaining about how bad the pitching staff is for 2022. No matter how bad you think this current staff will be, you can’t possibly argue it’s worse than what the Cardinals fielded for most of 2021. Last year, the Cardinals gave 86 starts – over half a season – to Ponce de Leon, LeBlanc, Woodford, Mikolas, Happ, Lester, Oviedo, and Gant. They received just .6 fWAR from that group. The bullpen had its share of problems, too. The team could have picked a random group of AAAA starters and gotten the same level of production in half their games. It was that bad.
Hold on to your butts because Depth Charts wants you to believe the pitching staff will be significantly worse this year. They have the Cardinals’ runs allowed climbing to 4.56 per game or 739 runs. The Cardinals have not allowed that many runs since 2007.
How could anyone believe that this pitching staff in this ballpark with this defense will be nearly half a run per game worse than last year’s debacle? You have to pretend that the Cardinals aren’t built as the Cardinals are and don’t play where the Cardinals play.
Offensively, Depth Charts believes that the team will be a little better this season, coming in at 4.59 runs scored vs. 4.36 in 2021.
All of that is why I tend back to ZiPS. Szymborski’s system also consistently underrates the Cardinals, but not in an extreme way. It has this 2022 version pegged where they belong – as the best team they’ve fielded in some time. This 89-win projection dates back to Feb. 1 and doesn’t include any of the post-lockout additions they made to the bullpen and offense – including relatively positive adds in Dickerson, VerHagen, and Wittgren. Of course, it also doesn’t include the injury to Flaherty, so maybe it evens out.
Regardless, 89 wins feel accurate enough as a 50th percentile projection for this. Most likely, they are about what they were last year.
And what about me? I don’t have a computer to run a spreadsheet of linear weights. I have done this a long time, though. And in my opinion, this is the best team the Cardinals have fielded since 2015.
The offense is deep and dynamic. It has three batters who have MVP-contending potential in Tyler O’Neill, Paul Goldschmidt, and Nolan Arenado. It has All-Star caliber talent with Harrison Bader (primarily through defense) and newly-installed leadoff hitter Dylan Carlson. Then there’s a solid supporting cast at SS, 2nd, and DH. Catcher is the only obvious weakness and the club has a future first-ballot Hall of Famer there.
From the pitching side, as long as Wainwright can continue commanding his curveball in the zone, he can continue to be effective. Hudson is solid and built for this ballpark and defense. I (along with ZiPS) think he will tone down the walks that plagued him as a rookie starter; they weren’t present in the minors. Mikolas is an injury risk, but he looked good at the end of ’21 and has carried that success and health over through spring. His profile, as we know, plays extremely well at Busch and he’ll benefit tremendously from this defense. Flaherty’s injury hurts but it’s encouraging that the club has not put him on the 60-day IL. The bullpen has established performers and quite a bit of depth.
Then there’s the talent behind the starters. The Cardinals have stashed players with real upside in Memphis, including Juan Yepez, Matthew Liberatore, Connor Thomas, Alec Burleson, and Luken Baker.
Even if a few things go wrong – and they will – the team has players to turn to who could, in some cases, at least keep up with the current starters. A few of them could be better than the players going north. Mozeliak also has more available system depth to make moves, if he needs to.
Add all that up and this is a Cardinals team that can weather some storms, beat up on a relatively weak NL Central, and perhaps even dethrone the Brewers, if their pitching can’t hold its current peak.
My Prediction: 92-70. First place in the NL Central by tiebreaker.
“Hopes and Dreams”
From there it’s anyone’s guess what happens. Wainwright, Molina, and Pujols have chirped a little about winning one more together before riding off into the sunset. It’s possible – anything can happen if you reach the playoffs – but not likely.
If the Cardinals do reach another World Series, I don’t think it will be because of those three. It will be because the Cardinals get health from their current offensive stars, reliable performance in the rotation, and surprises from somewhere. That somewhere could be Dylan Carlson becoming a 4-5 fWAR hitter. Or perhaps Nolan Gorman pushing Tommy Edman out of a starting spot and mashing in the second half of the season. Or Matthew Liberatore stepping into the rotation and stabilizing a spot when someone goes down to injury. Or Juan Yepez making it clear that he’s the club’s designated future regardless of what former team legend might be available on the free agent market.
I’m not counting on those things. But I’m not counting those things out.
This is a team that’s built to get to the postseason. It’s a team that will require some things to come together in unexpected ways for them to do very well once it gets there.
In my “hopes and dreams” that can happen.
If All Goes Right: The Cardinals reach the World Series… Where they lose to the Yankees.
Ha… ok, fine. If we’re dreaming, let’s dream. The Cardinals bring back David Eckstein and Jim Edmonds and the club beats the Yankees for the title in 3 games. (The Yanks forfeit the final game out of respect for our awesomeness.)
Have an incredible Opening Day!