I want to start this article by going back to the past. The year is 2021. Dylan Carlson, Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill are roaming the outfield for the St. Louis Cardinals. Two of the three would go on to win Gold Gloves. All three would finish as above average hitters. The group as a whole would post the third most fWAR of any outfield group in the majors. And to top it off, the oldest member of the group is just 27 years old.
That’s a heck of a core. And it’s controllable. How great!
Let’s come back to 2022 now. The Cardinals outfield ranks (a still respectable) 9th in fWAR. Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, and Dylan Carlson have all been unable to replicate their offensive numbers, Bader has already been traded, and seven players have spent 30 games or more in the outfield.
For reference, six played 30 games or more in the outfield last season, and only three played 41 games or more. There a decent chance the Cardinals will have seven players spend 41 games or more in the outfield this year. So, what’s happened to that vaunted outfield core that we all felt so good about as fans last season?
Let’s take a look.
The first and most obvious thing is injuries. The starting outfield has simply had a tough time staying healthy. Tyler O’Neill has missed 43 days this season, Harrison Bader has been out since June 27th and probably won’t be healthy until around playoff time, and Dylan Carlson has missed 18 days. Even Corey Dickerson missed over a month.
That’s forced other players into larger outfield roles. Dylan Carlson has shifted to centerfield, Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez have seen plenty of time in the outfield despite probably being best suited to play in the dirt, and Corey Dickerson and Lars Nootbaar have had something of a starting role recently.
Replacing O’Neill or Carlson plate appearances with Dickerson and Nootbaar plate appearances is going to take a toll on production. Even so, it’s still impressive that the Cardinals have had a top ten outfield this year while using seven regular contributors.
Another effect of these injuries is that the Cardinals had to move things around in order to compensate. The most notbale form of this happening is Dylan Carlson’s seemingly permanent move to centerfield. That started when Bader went down with his foot injury. but Carlson’s strong play was likely a factor in the move becoming permanent.
Putting Carlson in centerfield instead of Bader signifies a downgrade defensively. Putting Nootbaar, Dickerson, or someone else in right field liekly signifies a downgrade offensively. Bader and Carlson were the optimal combiantion from a production standpoint. Injuries changed things and ultimately changed roles for the Cardinals.
There’s been a lot of reshuffling in the outfield this year, but things seem to have settled after Harrison Bader was shipped to New York. The new outfield, at least for now, looks like O’Neill in left field, Carlson in center, and Nootbaar in right. That’s one new face in the starting lineup and a positional change for an old face, if you can even call the face of a 23-year-old “old”.
When the Cardinals traded Bader it signified three things. The first being confidence in Carlson’s ability to play the position at an average to above average level, the second being confidence in Nootbaar or someone else to fill the right field gap, and the third being that healthy and productive pitching matters more than injured and productive hitting (and fielding), especially when that injured player has only one more year of control left.
Let’s discuss each of these things.
Dylan Carlson has actually been a plus defender in centerfield this year. When I say plus, I don’t mean the obligatory plus grade that is given to players who are fast or look athletic. I mean he truly has been a plus defender in centerfield statistically.
Now, this is surprising. If you’re not surprised then you probably should be. Here’s why.
Carlson Defense 2021
Basically, Carlson was either good or bad in right field depending on which statistic you prefer but, no matter which statistic you use, he was below average in centerfield. For a 22-year-old who can hit, that’s fine. He looked like he could be a good overall right fielder, with an above average bat and potentially above average glove.
That has changed now. Or has it? You tell me. Here are his numbers this year.
Carlson Defense 2022
Looking at his numbers this season, he has ranged from bad to really bad in right field depending on your preference between defensive runs saved and outs above average. In centerfield, though, he has ranged from good to really good. Those are true plus-grade numbers in center, which is weird because that’s supposed to be the harder position to play.
So which defender is Carlson, the one who played a bad right field earlier in the year or the one who has played a great centerfield while filling in, and now taking over, for Bader? Only time will tell. The interesting thing is that he doesn’t get great jumps overall (25th percentile) and that’s because his reaction is slow and his burst isn’t great. He’s well below average in both regards. What he is good at is taking routes.
That feels like right field material to me but, again, it’s hard to argue with his numbers in center this year. Those alone make me optimistic that he can be the Cardinals’ long term centerfielder.
Using the above components, we can figure out what plays he should be great at making. If the only thing he’s really good at is taking routes, then we can expect him to track down more than his fair share of flyballs in the gaps.
That checks out based on what we’ve seen.
That ball had an expected batting average of .560. It was hit into the gap at over 100 mph but it had a 31 degree launch angle. That gave it plenty of hang time, which played to Carlson’s strengths.
He has gotten to know the wall really well since taking over the CF job.
The Statcast numbers aren’t as impressive on this catch as the ball had a lower expected batting average (.400) but it’s the same kind of play. The ball had a 30 degree launch angle and went to a similar spot. That’s a play tailor made for Carlson.
Where Carlson isn’t going to make extraordinary plays in on line drives. Those plays rely almost exclusively on initial burst and reaction. Those are the exact plays that Harrison Bader excelled at making. That makes sense because he has crazy burst and isn’t a great route taker. His speed meant that he was still able to make plays on flyballs in the gaps despite not being a great route taker. Speed can cover for a bad route but good routes can’t always make up for a lack of speed or burst.
Still, with good enough routes, Carlson may actually make a fine centerfielder. We’ll just have to see if he can maintain his excellent play.
Now let’s get to the second of three things that I said we would cover in this section. Lars Nootbaar really came on strong in the month of July. He had a 186 wRC+ in the month and is sitting at 109 for August. That’s raised his season wRC+ to 99 and his season fWAR to 0.7, which is more than respectable.
Here’s some fun math for you. (That can exist in fact, though I’m a little biased since I was a math major in college.) Dylan Carlson was worth 2.6 fWAR in 619 plate appearances last season. If you take Nootbaar’s 0.7 fWAR and divide it by his 150 plate appearances, you get his fWAR per plate appearance. When that’s multiplied by how many plate appearances Carlson had last season (619), you can find out how much fWAR Nootbaar would be worth if he kept this same production level across the same 619 plate appearances that Carlson had last year.
The total is 2.9. That’s more production that Carlson (2.6). The difference for Nootbaar has been defense. This season, he’s tallied 4 DRS and 0 OAA, with both of those figures being better than Carlson’s last season. His bat has also heated up recently and that’s made a huge difference.
If he can sustain increased offense production then he could easily tick above a 3 WAR pace for the season.
Even if he stays around league average, he’s basically a slightly better version of 2021 Dylan Carlson in terms of fWAR. So the Cardinals have basically moved Dylan Carlson to center and kept Dylan Carlson in right at the same time. That’s a lot of Dylan!
Nootbaar’s improved play is part of the reason why the Cardinals have confidence in their ability to fill the right field gap left by Carlson.
The third part of this section deals with the premise that a good healthy arm is better than a good injured bat. That’s the case with this team. The team needed pitching and it needed it quick. Bader has one more season before free agency and he wasn’t going to help the Cards close the gap on the Brewers this season. Trading him meant saving prospects, getting pitching, and giving opportunity to Carlson, Nootbaar, and some of the other young guys like Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan.
It also meant the end of the outfield trio that we all came to love last year.
I’m going to begin with a table to show you what I mean by diminished performance. You’ve all seen it on the field but here are the stats.
2021 Stats vs 2022 Stats for Starting Outfield
|Player||2021 wRC+||2022 wRC+||2021 fWAR||2022 fWAR|
|Player||2021 wRC+||2022 wRC+||2021 fWAR||2022 fWAR|
The decline is obvious. Tyler O’Neill hasn’t been able to replicate his monster year last season and Harrison Bader’s bat has dropped off a bit. Carlson’s been essentially the same player in terms of WAR, though, on a per-game basis, he’s actually been much better. If he equaled his game total last season, he’s currently on pace for 3.2 fWAR. He’s the only one who’s improved though.
Injuries have surely played a huge role in the diminished performance of the outfield this season. I’m not saying that Tyler O’Neill has suddenly become a bad hitter. His numbers are weighed down by a rough first two months and a bunch of injuries.
I’m not overly discouraged by O’Neill. His chase rate has stayed close to where it was last year and he’s actually cut his whiff rate 4%. Those have always been the concerns with the slugger. His power numbers are down too and that may be concerning but it’s tough to see through the fog of injury. I don’t imagine a shoulder impingement makes it easy to swing a bat, nor do I imagine a hamstring strain is easy to play through. If he was affected by those injuries prior to going on the injured list, it would help explain some of his decline.
I won’t spend too much time on Bader since he’s no longer on the team but it looks like his offensive output declined due to a loss of power. He simply stopped hitting the ball hard. His 83.5 mph average exit velocity is in the 1st percentile and his ISO is just .114. Some of that may be a result of plantar fasciitis, but, regardless, he didn’t have much power to lose.
Carlson has been the one constant but even he had a poor start to the year. He’s come on strong down the stretch and he’s been far and away the best outfielder this year.
Things change fast in the baseball world. One year, your team has one of the best outfields in the league and appears set for the long haul and the next year that outfield is broken up. Baseball is unpredictable. Injuries happen. Players get worse. Progression isn’t linear.
A team can plan but a team must also be willing to change it’s plan.
The outfield this year reminds me of the 2018 outfield. I’m sure you remember that one. It was Marcell Ozuna’s first year in St. Louis, the year after he tallied 5.9 fWAR. It was Dexter Fowler’s second season with the Redbirds and he was coming off a solid 2.3 fWAR and 122 wRC+ season. It was also the year after Tommy Pham got MVP votes after his 6.3 fWAR season.
That was great trio. And it should have been...but it wasn’t. Fowler flopped, Pham was traded, and Ozuna was worth only 2.6 fWAR and was definitely not the middle-of-the-order force he was supposed to be.
That outfield finished 9th in the league in fWAR, which is exactly where this year’s outfield currently ranks. I have more confidence in this outfield’s future but the similarities are there, even down to Tommy Pham getting traded (which parallels with Bader in this narrative).
I don’t imagine that the front office wanted to trade Harrison Bader in the offseason, but circumstances changed and a trade then made more sense. I’m sure the same was true of Pham. The parallels go even further, though.
Guess who filled the shoes of the departed Tommy Pham and underperforming Dexter Fowler in 2018?
Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill.
At the time, they were both young players looking to breakout and that’s exactly what they did. Now the Bader trade and outfield injuries have opened up a spot for another young player to make himself a part of the Cardinals future outfield.