The 2023 season was rough for the St. Louis Cardinals and if I wanted to write an entire article on lowlights and disappointments, there would be more than enough material to cover. Instead, I want to hand out some end of season awards.
I’ll start with the traditional awards that you’re all used to (MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year) but I’ve add some other categories as well. Things like biggest disappointment won’t be on my list but there are plenty of options to choose from so I’ll let you handle that one yourself.
Let’s dive in.
MVP - Paul Goldschmidt
It’s hard to choose anyone but Paul Goldschmidt here, even if Goldy’s 2023 season didn’t come close to sniffing the heights of his 2022 season. He was simply the best player on the team in terms of fWAR (3.7) and one of only 3 players to finish above 3 fWAR, with the other two being Lars Nootbaar (3.2) and Miles Mikolas (3.1).
I suppose you could make an argument for Nootbaar here but Goldschmidt is the runaway winner for me after leading the team in fWAR and finishing second, behind only Willson Contreras, in wRC+. I guess you could also make an argument for Contreras then too if you think that WAR undervalues catchers, and it does, but Contreras doesn’t exactly have the sterling defensive reputation that would make you suspect he’s especially undervalued statistically.
While this season can probably be considered a disappointing one for Goldschmidt, it’s important to add some context.
Yes, his fWAR dropped from 7.0 to 3.7 and his wRC+ fell from 176 to 122 but there are some other numbers to consider, such as xwOBA, which takes into consideration only exit velocity, launch angle, and sprint speed. Last year, Goldschmidt had an xwOBA of .367 and an actual wOBA of .419. This year, the slugger had an xwOBA of .367 and a wOBA of .350.
So while Goldschmidt’s MVP season last year largely came from him overperforming his expected numbers and hitting his 95th+ percentile outcome, this year, his decline came from him underperforming his expected numbers.
What that means, though, is that Goldschmidt’s batted ball quality largely stayed the same. That’s a good sign that he may not only repeat this performance next year but could even exceed it, giving him a good chance to repeat as team MVP in his age 36 season next year.
In fact, if you want further examples of Goldschmidt’s “decline” being more of a mirage than it appears, consider this: Goldy’s average exit velocity, barrel rate, defensive metrics, and sprint speed (which can generally be used to see when someone “loses a step” as they age) all increased from last season.
So, that leaves us with a now-36-year-old who hit the ball harder, barreled the ball more, played better defense, and ran slightly faster than he did in his MVP season. His Fangraphs page may show a big drop off but in reality, it’s hard to see any kind of meaningful decline in his skills.
Father time catches up to everyone, but Goldschmidt is showing remarkable resistance to the effects of aging and I still think he has some good years left in him.
Cy Young - Jordan Montgomery
This is another easy decision as Jordan Montgomery was the best starter on the team this year. If you want to look to a player who’s still on the team, then this award probably belongs to Miles Mikolas, who led the team in fWAR (only counting fWAR accumulated as a Cardinal) and innings pitched.
Jordan Montgomery gave the Cardinals a lot this year. He was a consistently good starting pitcher who actually ranked 16th among all pitchers in fWAR in the first half of the season. And even though I’m not giving him extra points for bringing Tekoah Roby and Thomas Saggese into the organization, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
While I don’t expect Monty to come back in the offseason, I will miss having him and his deceptively good sinker in the rotation.
Considering his performance this year, the big playoff performance that he just had, and the fact that his agent has a tendency to squeeze every last dollar out of teams, I would expect Jordan Montgomery to get a big contract this winter. He certainly picked the right time to have a career year.
Rookie of the Year - Jordan Walker
Before I begin, I’ll mention that Richie Palacios did not have rookie status to start this year but he also wouldn’t have been my choice if he did. We can look at fWAR and say that Palacios was a slightly more valuable player this year but his sample size was much smaller (which does make him look even more impressive on a rate basis) and Jordan Walker did a lot of things I don’t want to ignore.
For starters, Walker was 16% better than the league average hitter as a 21-year-old. He may have only been worth 0.2 fWAR this season but that’s an important factor to keep in mind. He’s a good hitter now and he could develop into a really good hitter down the road. Say all you want about his defense but good hitters are valuable.
Beyond the offensive production, though, I loved Walker’s ability to make adjustments throughout the season. The young slugger was hampered by ground balls early on, posting a 60.4% ground ball rate in the first month of the year. That caused him to be sent to Memphis to work on adding loft and when he came back, he posted a 44.2% ground ball rate the rest of the way.
He could stand to hit even more balls in the air to fully utilize his power, but that was a great adjustment.
And then there’s his defense. Yes it was bad, but you could see clear improvement from the start of the season to the end of it. The eye test told us this but so did the numbers.
Jordan Walker OAA by month:— Adam Akbani (@AdamAkbani) September 10, 2023
Last month he put it together offensively; now Walker's becoming a complete player with the glove
He'll be a top breakout candidate going into 2024#STLCards pic.twitter.com/o8ZIVHTXsk
An above average offensive season with in-season launch angle and defensive improvements is a great sign going forward.
Newcomer of the Year - Willson Contreras
I’ll be honest. All the hullabaloo around Willson Contreras was pretty ridiculous. And I’m speaking strictly about the Cardinals messaging this year. As fans and even writers, we can have our own opinions about Contreras and whether or not the Cardinals should have signed him and that’s fine.
But Willson Contreras was Willson Contreras this year - a productive hitter with defensive question marks. That’s just who he is. That’s what he’s been his entire career. So the Cardinals shouldn’t have been taken aback by Willson Contreras being Willson Contreras.
If they expected him to be someone different then they should have signed someone different. The guy is 31 years old; he’s not about to become someone else.
Anyways, regardless of all the messaging and divisiveness around Contreras, he’s a pretty easy choice as newcomer of the year. He led the team in wRC+ (127), finished 5th in fWAR (2.4), and honestly handled all the controversy this year with aplomb. I can respect that.
Breakout Pitcher - JoJo Romero
We hit on this category and the next one in the latest VEB podcast episode but I’m touching on them again here.
If you haven’t listened the podcast yet I would recommend it but one of the highlights came when J.P. mentioned that the Cardinals didn’t really have anybody break their 50th percentile outcome this year.
And that’s pretty true. When you think about the roster as a whole, nobody really broke out this year or had even a better-than-expected season. Some players were actually worse than we expected. And when there are hardly any players exceeding their 50th percentile outcome, it’s hard to have a good season.
But there were a few players who had quasi-breakouts this year. On the mound it was JoJo Romero. The reliever was solid enough as a Cardinal last year, throwing 14.1 innings with a 3.77 ERA, 4.58 FIP, and 3.59 xFIP.
This year, Romero really improved on those numbers, and gave the Cardinals a reliable swing-and-miss lefty in the process. Romero finished the year with a 3.68 ERA, 2.22 FIP, and 2.68 xFIP while striking out a similar amount of batters but slashing his walk rate from 15.8% to 6.8%. That was the key difference for Romero. He didn’t really add velocity or reshape his pitches or even adjust his pitch usage all that much this year (though he did lean on his sinker more and de-emphasized his four-seamer). The difference was simply control.
Last year, Romero threw 40.6% of his pitches in the zone. This year, that number rose 52.8%. And, after making more competitive pitches, his chase rate ticked up from 26.7% to 29.3%. Taken together, that’s a recipe for fewer walks, and a much better JoJo Romero.
Breakout Hitter - Richie Palacios
Richie Palacios may not have qualified for Rookie of the Year but I wasn’t going to leave him empty-handed. The 26-year-old had a mini breakout this year after the Cardinals acquired him from Cleveland for basically nothing.
You might be skeptical about a 26-year-old acquired for cash considerations but Palacios did nothing but rake his way through the minor leagues and was a bit of an older prospect due to him missing back-to-back seasons in 2019 (injury) and 2020 (COVID cancellation).
If you’re looking for some deeper analysis of Richie Palacios, I wrote a whole article on him a few weeks back. You can read that here. Suffice it to say that much of his success this year can be chalked up to a hot streak.
I say that because his average exit velocity with the Cardinals was 88.1 mph and his average exit velocity with the Memphis Redbirds was 85.6 mph.
I don’t think Palacios somehow figured out how to hit the ball harder when he reached the majors. So maybe his success isn’t sustainable. But, on the other hand, maybe it is. Palacios had just a 5.9% walk rate in St. Louis after consistently posting double-digit walk rates in his minor league career. He also had a 22.2% chase rate, meaning he chased over 6% less than the average MLB hitter. That tracks with his minor league norms.
Hitters that don’t chase tend to walk more than 5.9%. A lot more. So we shoudl expect Palacios to walk more in the majors next year. He also has great contact skills that he showcased in both the majors and the minors so we sholdn’t expect to see any kind of major jump with his strikeouts.
But there’s something else to consider too. Palacios is working with Driveline this winter and hitters who go to driveline tend to increase their bat speed and start hitting the ball harder.
Richie Palacios is apparently going to Driveline this winter.— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) October 7, 2023
Consider me excited to see what he can bring in 2024. https://t.co/draqKBsUC1
So while an 88.1 mph average exit velocity was likely a sign of a hit streak and not a true sign of his talent, their is a chance that it proves to be sustainable after his offseason work. Bake some more walks into his numbers too and it’s easy to see how Palacios could be a helpful utility guy next year.
I’m excited to see if he can take that step, but first, he gets this incredibly prestigious and sought after VEB award. You’re welcome, Richie.
Best Moment of the Year - Adam Wainwright Gets Win #200
What more can be said about this moment. It was a terrible season for Wainwright and one in which his body betrayed him, but he still managed to fight through a bum shoulder and hurl win #200 to cap his career.
There weren’t a whole lot of reasons to watch the Cardinals towards the end of the season, besides the simply joy of watching the Cardinals play baseball, but Wainwright gave me a reason to tune in every time he was on the mound.
I’m not going to focus on how rough his overall season was because plenty of people have done that already. I don’t care. It was a losing season. Wainwright deserved to hit this nice round number and ride off into the sunset, or, actually, the Fox broadcast booth. It’ll be fun to hear him on playoff broadcasts and I look forward to hearing all the stories he has to tell because Adam Wainwright has quite literally been a part of the Cardinals for as long as I can remember being a fan.
It’ll be weird to watch the team without him being a part of it next year but I’m glad that he got the happy ending he deserved.
Highlight of the Season - The Trade Deadline
You know, when the highlight of the season is the trade deadline, it’s safe to say that it was a rough season. That shouldn’t take away from how impressive the trade deadline was for the Cardinals.
I mean, John Mozeliak and the rest of the front office absolutely crushed it. They traded 2 months of Jordan Montgomery for Thomas Saggese, who obliterated Double-A at age 21, John King, the groundball machine, and Tekoah Roby, who might be (probably is) the best pitching prospect in the system. That’s a lot of talent for two months of a good starter and two months of a good reliever.
And then there’s the Jack Flaherty trade. Flaherty got moved to the bullpen in Baltimore while the Cardinals got Drew Rom, Cesar Prieto, and Zack Showalter. I said this at the time too, but Showalter is my favorite piece in that deal. He’s still young and unproven but his stuff is good and his release metrics are interesting. I’m not super high on the other two names as I think Rom profiles best as a reliever and Prieto might make it as a bench infielder, but two depth guys (with the potential for more) and a high ceiling A-ball guy is a good package for two months of Jack Flaherty.
But the Paul DeJong deal was the steal of the deadline. It was a small trade but the Cardinals got a legitimately interesting relief prospect (Matt Svanson) that I like a lot, in exchange for a guy who put up -1.2 fWAR between the Blue Jays and the Giants after the trade. And he honestly wasn’t even all that productive with the Cardinals outside of a hot streak that gave him most of his fWAR.
There was more that happened, but overall this was a really strong deadline that gave the Cardinals system a jolt with both upside and depth.
This is basically my season recap article. I’m ready to move on from the season now, and, honestly, I’ve been ready to move on from it for a while now. It may have been more fun to look back on the season in recent years but it was still worth doing this year, especially since this season laid the groundwork for future Cardinals teams.
There’s no more Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. Now there’s no more Wainwright while Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn got their first taste of the majors this year. So while this may not have been the most fun year for the Cardinals, it serves as a changing of the guard. Goldschmidt and Arenado are still around to lead the team but players like Nootbaar, Winn, and Walker all have a chance to ascend into stardom, or, at least, all-stardom, in the coming years. That’s a prospect I look forward to.
But that’s it for the season for me. I’ll be focusing a lot more on the offseason and player analysis going forward. It should be one of the more interesting Cardinals offseasons in recent memory and I’m looking forward to digging in.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a fantastic Sunday.