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The Best of the First Half

The Cardinals have reached the mid-point of the season. Let’s look at the best performances of the first half.

St. Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Brett Davis/Getty Images

Happy Saturday everyone!

The first half of the baseball season is in the books. The Cardinals were … ok? I think that’s a fair assessment, at least by St. Louis standards. But we live in a world where .500 is a complete failure. So, being “in a tight division race with decent odds of reaching a Wild Card” is merely “meh”.

That’s fine. Nothing wrong with high standards.

Though I do think it cuts into the ability of some fans to enjoy the game and the team. I saw someone on Twitter Thursday night ask, with apparent sincerity, “Have you ever seen a worse stretch of baseball?” This was during/following a game the team won, by the way.

Yes, I can honestly say that I have seen a stretch this bad or worse from the Cardinals in probably every season of Cardinals baseball that I’ve ever watched.

For example May 8th, 2004. The Cardinals were 31 games into the season and were 15-16. They had just got shut out by the 10-21 Montreal Expos. Yuck.

The team won 104 games that season and reached the World Series.

So, yes, ups and downs define baseball. And even those teams that win the most still lose an awful lot.

I’m not even close to giving up on this season. A nice 11-4 run and this stretch is pretty much forgotten. Some of the reasons why I’m holding firm are right here in this “best of” Saturday special. Here are the best performances of the first half of the 2022 Cardinals’ season.

Best Barreled Ball – Juan Yepez

This category has been up for grabs all season. Tyler O’Neill – the pre-season favorite for the recognition – has spent significant time on the IL, opening the door for one of several young sluggers to work their way into contention. We’ve seen mammoth blasts from Nolan Gorman early in his career. Dylan Carlson has been muscling up a bit since his return. Even Albert Pujols has a blast over 109 mph.

I don’t think anyone will be too surprised, though, that it’s the powerful Juan Yepez who is the current team leader in barreled ball. He has three homers that we should consider for this category. The first is the likely winner. It was a 114.4 mph blast off Tyler Danish on Father’s Day.

It was quite the present for Juan’s father, Omar, who is active on Cardinals social media (and will likely read this!) So happy for you and your family, Omar!

If I wanted to quibble with that shot from Yepez it’s that it was a bit low. Just a 23-degree launch angle. The other two we could look at are 112.2 and 112.1 mph but they are just 18 and 26 degrees respectively. Those lower-launch angle HRs further drive home the “Juan Yepez as Allen Craig” comps we’ve been making for a year and a half.

So, for me, it’s crazy high exit velocity and showmanship that are the deciding factors. Yepez’s Father’s Day blast over the Green Monster is our mid-point winner.

Best Offensive Performance – Paul Goldschmidt

If the young stars are dominating the “barreled ball” category, it’s the stalwart veterans who are putting up the most consistent performance. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado have been incredible. They started the season with back-to-back Player of the Month honors and really haven’t slowed down. As of Friday morning, Goldschmidt has 4.4 fWAR on the season. Arenado sits just behind him at 4.2 fWAR. Very close.

This recognition, though, is best offensive performance. And while Arenado has been stellar at the plate, a great deal of his overall value has come from elite defense at third base. The Cardinals foremost Nolan has a .292/.357/.529 line with a .379 wOBA and a 149 wRC+. That’s the kind of performance that would win this award annually.

Except that Paul Goldschmidt is having legitimately the best non-Albert Pujols season I have ever seen from a Cardinal. He is slashing .342/.427/.619 with an absurd .445 wOBA and a 194 wRC+.

Now that I think about it, that’s probably better than anything Pujols ever did. And yes, now that I’ve looked it up, that’s roughly true by some measurements. Pujols’ best wRC+ for a season was just 184. That’s a full season, though. Goldschmidt has to keep this up for another three months. I don’t doubt that he can.

There’s really little debate that Goldy is not only the team’s best offensive player but he’s the National League’s best. Only Yordan Alvarez in Houston has any real argument against him in all of baseball. But what highlight to use? How about this one from his 4-hit night a few weeks ago:

Best Defensive Performance – Tommy Edman

Here we have another close race and, again, it includes Nolan Arenado. For this category, I’m going to stick with OAA – Outs Above Average. It’s a really good stat and I like it better than the alternatives in DRS and UZR.

The Cardinals have 2 of the top 3 defenders in baseball with Edman at +12 OAA across second base and shortstop and Arenado at +11 at the hot corner.

You really can’t make a bad pick here but I’m going with Edman for one obvious reason: he’s done it over two positions. We expected Edman to be among the best second basemen in baseball after winning the Gold Glove at the position last season. We probably didn’t expect him to be on a Platinum Glove pace at the keystone for the first two months.

Then Paul DeJong faltered and the Cards needed a full-time shortstop. You know the story. After a few weeks of workouts, Edman moved over and he’s been locked in at the position since. More than a few people questioned this move, not trusting Edman to be able to handle the position. This despite the fact that he came up through the minors as a shortstop and reputedly played it at a very high level for most of his life.

Sorry to say it so bluntly, but those doubters were just dead wrong. Frankly, there just wasn’t any legitimate baseball reason why Tommy Edman wouldn’t be perfectly good at SS.

I will say that I did not expect him to be this good. Edman has a +7 OAA at short. That’s good for second in baseball at the position. And he’s only played half his games there. He should win the Gold Glove at the position in the NL this season. And he should take home the Platinum Glove for best defensive performance overall. What he’s doing is insane. He’s not super flashy but he is legitimately one of the best defensive players we’ve seen in St. Louis. I know that’s saying a lot.

Best Starting Pitcher Performance – Miles Mikolas

Why do I even have this category! The starting pitching has been awful! Yes, for stretches. But there were other, longer stretches where the rotation was a real strength. Even now the Cardinals have two #1/#2 caliber performers at the top of their rotation in Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright, depending on how you choose to measure such things.

Waino currently sports a 3.26 ERA and a 3.54 FIP. He’s holding steady with his K and BB rates from last year, despite losing another tick off his fastball. His ERA and fWAR are both sitting in the top 30 in baseball among starters.

It’s Miles Mikolas, though, that’s clearly the top starter on the staff. He has a 2.72 ERA and 1.7 fWAR. I’ve written several times about the consistency he has shown in his peripherals – particularly his K and BB rates and this season is no different. What moves his game from pretty good to great is what happens on the fly balls he allows. I called 2019 an aberration when he allowed 16.1% of FB’s to leave the park. The year before he was at 9.2%. Considering where he plays half his games, I encouraged you all to bet on the low side. Well, he’s at 9.9% right now and that’s why his ERA is so low, despite allowing some harder contact. That could rise. It could not. Regardless, he’s an excellent pitcher having an excellent season.

You can guess what game I’m pulling my highlights from…

Best Reliever – Ryan Helsley

Even though I just got done selling how good of a season Adam Wainwright is having, did you know that he’s not second in the team among pitchers in fWAR? Nope. Mikolas is first and just a hair behind him at 1.5 fWAR is Ryan Helsley.

Helsley has been superb with a .77 ERA and a 1.47 FIP. He’s striking out over 41% of the batters he faces. He’s been so good that he’s made Gio Gallegos look almost human, despite another really solid season.

Can Helsley keep it up? The really short answer is yes. If this was the ’21 version of Helsley performing at this level I would say regression was coming soon. However, he has added about 1.5 mph on his average fastball since his early career. He was a pretty good pitcher sitting around 97-98. Now that he’s at 99-100 with the same wicked movement on his breaking pitches, he’s just completely unhittable. A few mph’s really can make that much of a difference! This stuff is just sick…

Enjoy the rest of your weekend! Next week we’re starting a run of some pretty exciting content from me & others here at VEB. On Wednesday I’m going to compare the Cards’ current rotation to some of the better teams from the last 20 years to see what’s missing and what isn’t. Then we’re hoping to have Connor Thomas – starter for the Memphis Redbirds, who is due for a call-up soon – on the podcast. Next week early we’ll have a recap podcast from Blogger Day at Busch featuring (hopefully) Blake, Scooter, and myself! There’s more in line after that. We’ve got your Cards-content covered!