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The Best of the First Third

The “Best of” series is back with the best performances of the first third of the season!

San Diego Padres v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Our Saturday “Best of” series is back!

At the beginning of June, the Cardinals are 30-22. That’s a .577 winning percentage. If the Cardinals maintain this pace, they will win 93 games.

They’ve done that without their best starter, Jack Flaherty, and while missing core pieces Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, and Steven Matz for various IL stretches. This is a club that should be getting better as they get healthier and head into the heart of summer.

The success they’ve found so far has been built on the shoulders of crazy hot streaks – like Nolan Arenado in April. And Paul Goldschmidt in May. And from not-so-unexpected production from the Cardinals’ underrated farm system.

The team is still a few games short of the 1/3rd mark – blame the lockout and the compressed schedule. But a warm summer Saturday is as good a time as any to take stock of what’s happened so far and what to expect for the next three months.

This is the best of the first third of the season!

Best Barreled Ball

We start with the stat that we always start with – best barreled ball. What’s a barrel? It’s a ball struck between a specific range of exit velocity and launch angle that has a very high expected batting average. Not all barreled balls are home runs – especially in this new dead ball era – but most of them result in very positive outcomes for the batter.

To qualify as “best barreled ball” the result has to be there. It can’t just be the barrel with the highest exit velocity or perfect launch angle that finds a glove. It has to be a homer. It has to be a long homer. Situation – a win in a close game or a special situation – breaks all ties. Here are our choices listed by exit velocity:

Tommy Edman – 112.6 mph, 20 degrees, 368 feet

Juan Yepez – 112.2 mph, 18 degrees, 376 feet.

Nolan Gorman – 110.6 mph, 35 degrees, 449 feet.

Albert Pujols – 109.9, 30 degrees, 426 feet.

This is a tough one! It’s somewhat surprising that Tommy Edman has the team lead in exit velocity on a homer, but we saw last year that he can occasionally – very occasionally – really get into one. The problem is that he can’t loft the ball. 20 degrees is a very low homer, which is why his team-leading exit velocity shot only traveled 368 feet. Juan Yepez won’t have that same problem, but his hardest-hit homer so far was also a screaming line drive; it was even lower than Edmans’. He could take this category before the year is over.

That only leaves us with one choice, doesn’t it? Nolan Gorman’s first homer of the year is close in exit velocity. It has the perfect launch angle to generate serious distance – 449 feet. It was also the first of his career and came against the division-rival Brewers.

There’s your winner! The newest Cardinal slugger is already making his presence felt on the “best of” list. Something tells me that this won’t be his longest homer or his hardest homer.

Something also tells me that Tyler O’Neill will have something to say about this category if and when he gets himself right.

For now, though, enjoy Dan McLaughlin’s call and this incredible moment for the rookie star.

Best Offensive Performance (By Month)

Normally we do a “best offensive performance” for the time frame in question, but that’s too easy. The best offensive performer for the Cardinals during the first third of the season has been Paul Goldschmidt. Goldy has 2.7 fWAR. If he gets his normal 680 PAs, he’ll end up with an 8.5 fWAR season. That’s crazy!

As is his current .404 BABIP, which tells us that Goldy’s been very hot. And while he’s certainly an extraordinary hitter, he’s not roid-fueled Barry Bonds good. Hot streaks happen and Goldy’s found that sweet spot of hot, great, and a little lucky too to earn the NL Player of the Month award for May

This is the second time we’ve seen that this season. Nolan Arenado won the award in April for being on a similar bender.

Between the Cardinals’ two award-winning MVP candidates, who had the better month? Let’s see!

Arenado (April) – .375/.444/.681, .479 wOBA, 214 wRC+

Goldschmidt (May) – .404/.471/.817, .538 wOBA, 253 wRC+

These are both phenomenal performances! But Goldy wins. His stats for the month are simply absurd, whereas Arenado’s are merely ridiculous. (Yes, absurd outranks ridiculous. Obviously.)

Simply put, Paul Goldschmidt is the best hitter that we have seen in St. Louis since Albert Pujols. Of course, Albert Pujols is the best hitter we have seen in St. Louis since Stan Musial. This brings up something I might have to look at in a future article. Where does Goldschmidt sit in the “best hitter” rankings for the organization? Lots of factors to consider in that potential conversation – Cards only stats vs. career stats, era considerations, etc. Still, I think he would come out very favorably. Probably pretty close to players like Jim Edmonds, Matt Holliday, or Keith Hernandez.

Anyway, look for that article at some point, if Goldy keeps this up. Here’s the hype video you’re looking for!

Best Defensive Performance

In previous seasons, this category has been hotly contested. Nolan Arenado, Tommy Edman, and Harrison Bader have all posted elite or near-elite defensive stats. And that doesn’t even include Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong, who have also been standouts with the glove.

This year, though, there’s no contest. Nolan Arenado is the best defender of the first third of the season. He leads the club in the three defensive stats that we use for this category. He is +9 in DRS, which is 2 above Tommy Edman at 2b (0 at SS). His UZR is 3.5; well ahead of second-place Paul DeJong (who isn’t accumulating any defensive stats at the moment). His Outs Above Average – the best of these stats – is already +6 on the season, also beating out Edman.

It makes sense that the best defender on a team filled with best defenders would also rank high compared to the league. Arenado’s OAA is tied for second in baseball and just 2 behind league-leader Jonathan Schoop of Detroit. His +9 DRS is one behind Baltimore’s Jorge Mateo. He ranks seventh in UZR.

Needless to say, he’s on his way toward another Platinum Glove. You’ve all seen his highlights over the years. So instead of more defensive glory, I thought I would post this fun video from Nike where Arr-enado talks about his custom shoes! Enjoy, sneakerheads.

Best Starter

I approach this category with a little trepidation. See, in both 2020 and 2021 I wrote a few articles about a certain Cardinals starter who doesn’t walk anyone, has impeccable fashion sense, a mustache, and eats lizards. They were pretty rosy pieces; I waxed eloquent about how said starter could duplicate his terrific performance from his first season with the Cardinals if he could only get healthy and improve on his unlucky 2019 HR/FB rate.

Immediately following both of those posts news came down of more injury issues and significantly more time missed for the “starter who shall not be named.” The timing of the injuries and my posts could not be ignored.

Were my articles somehow causing injury to [insert starter’s name here, you all know who I’m talking about]?

We feared it might be true. So, a forum was convened in the comments section here at Viva El Birdos and all agreed that I had discovered within myself an awesome and terrible superpower over unsaid starter.

I am a benevolent and humble hero/villain. I knew I must moderate my potency with ethical responsibility. It was decreed by all (certified by Jdogg in official GIF form) that I must exercise divine restraint, lest the supreme verbosity of my writing wrest further life from the right arm of such an innocent victim/nemesis.

I have henceforth posted about the “starter who shall not be named” only in passing, mentioning his name in casual references and when he was safely far from the mound.

My temperance is working. My powers have not hindered him. Nay! They have blessed him! In 60 innings on the season, said unsaid starter is pretty much duplicating his 2018 stats down to and including that HR/FB rate I keep talking about. At 1.1 fWAR so far and a 2.67 ERA, he’s the best starter on the Cardinals right now.

Honorable mention to Adam Wainwright, who continues to prove that persistent joy (and a killer curveball/sinker combo) is the key to defeating age-based regression.

Still, “the starter who shall not be named” is my choice for best performance from a starter. I don’t dare risk what he’s doing by writing his name. But I will post his highlights!

Best Reliever

The starter I can’t write about is at 1.1 fWAR so far. Adam Wainwright is the next best starter at .7 fWAR. Between them, at 1.0 fWAR already, is a reliever. You can guess who. Ryan Helsley!

A 1.0 fWAR is a good season for good relievers. To have it at this point in the season? It’s borderline amazing. Helsley has been fantastic; far better than anyone could have honestly predicted. Most of that is due to a surprisingly low walk rate and a ridiculously high rate of strikeouts. He’s K’ing over 40% of the batters he is facing. A lot of that is coming from a fastball that has risen 1.5+ mph over his career.

The combination of elite velocity, exceptional control, and impeccable command has turned him into not only a dominant reliever but one of the best relievers we have seen on the Cardinals in decades. Over a small sample size, of course. Those caveats still need to apply. Hopefully, he can keep it up!

That’s it for me on this “Cubs weekend”! Enjoy the rest of the series. It’s always fun to play the Baby Bears. It would be even more fun to sweep this double header. I’ll be watching! I hope you have the “best of” Saturdays!