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The Cardinals’ Offense Has Improved

The Cardinals have one of the best offenses in the league and one of the best we’ve seen in St. Louis in quite a while.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, Viva El Birdos! Happy Saturday.

It seems appropriate that I am writing this on Friday afternoon, just 24 hours after the Cardinals barely squeaked out a 2-1 win over the Reds to split a road series in Cincy. On a day when the Cards’ B lineup could just barely muster enough runs to eke out a win, I’m here to brag about how great their lineup is!

Thursday aside, the Cardinals’ offense is good. Very good. One of the best that we have seen in St. Louis in quite a while. In this short piece, I want to detail where the Cardinals rank in some key offensive categories, including standard and Statcast stats. Then compare that to some of the teams in their past to get an idea of what this kind of offense typically means for a club’s record. Can a club have an offense this good and still finish below .500? We’ll find out!

Let’s start with the Cardinals’ offensive rankings relative to the rest of the league in 2023:

Runs/G: 5.06, 8th in baseball

wRC+: 114, 3rd in baseball

wOBA: .336, 4th in baseball

ISO: .178, 6th in baseball

BB%: 9.3%, 6th in baseball

K%: 21.4%, 8th in baseball

Barrel%: 9.4%, 6th in baseball

Avg. Exit Velo: 89.8, 6th in baseball

The Cardinals sit in the top 8 in every one of those categories. They are 3rd in the category that probably means the most to me: wRC+. That stat is not only a cumulative offensive metric but is also adjusted for park factors. Busch is a pitcher’s park (not that you would know that from the pitching performance this season.) Generally speaking, it suppresses offense relative to other ballparks throughout the league. So, it’s not entirely fair to compare unadjusted performance/power stats, like ISO or Runs/G, with teams that play in more favorable environments. The Cardinals have to do more to produce their runs than, say, Colorado.

The fact that the Cardinals rank so high in many of these categories is telling, especially considering the oppressive offensive environment of Busch. Simply put, they have one of the best offenses in the league.

They also have one of the best offenses that we’ve seen in StL in quite a while.

Let’s look at the same stats, only this time we’ll include five years of data for each category and put it into a fancy chart format.

These two charts – Fangraph’s advanced and Statcast headings – are sorted by year, with 2023 on the top. It pretty clearly shows the improvement that the Cardinals have made in offense over the last five years.

Their current 114 wRC+ is tied with last year but is slightly ahead by percentage points. You can see that in the wOBA. The ’23 Cardinals are .010 ahead in weighted on-base average over ’22. They are thirty points ahead of their 5-year low, back in the COVID-shortened season of 2020.

The Cardinals are walking better than they have in the past, which is a bit surprising since that was an emphasis of previous hitting coach Jeff Albert and they had already made pretty remarkable strides in that category. Their current 9.3% walk rate is pretty impressive. It’s even more impressive when we consider that it includes the plate appearances of players like Jordan Walker and Dylan Carlson who carried very low walk rates early in the season.

Their power is also improved. Their .178 ISO is better than the last two years and factors into their .439 collective slugging percentage. The Cardinals are walking more. And hitting for more power. All while generating a higher average exit velocity – 89.8 compared to 88.7 in ’21 – than previous years.

Surely that’s coming at the expense of more strikeouts? Not really. The Cardinals’ K rates are a little up from last year – 21.4% compared to 19.9% — but are still lower than any previous season.

More power. More walks. More hard-hit balls. A relatively low number of K’s. The Cardinals have their highest rate of barreled balls in the same time frame.

All of that is a recipe for having one of the best offenses in the league.

It’s too bad it’s not yet showing up in the standings.

The Cardinals currently have a 5.06 run average per game. That’s about a quarter of a run better than ’22 when they finished with a 4.77 R/G.

A little Saturday trivia: when is the last time that the Cardinals finished with a R/G higher than their current rate?

(I’ll put a little space here so you have to scroll to see the answer.)

I bet you came up with the answer pretty easily. It’s the last time that the Cardinals had a truly elite offense. And they turned that offense into one of the best win totals in franchise history. They also had multiple Hall of Famers in their lineup.

That’s right. It was back in 2004 when the Cards averaged a remarkable 5.28 R/G.

Believe it or not, they were actually better the season before. In 2003 the Cardinals produced 5.41 runs per game. And finished with an 85-win record. Because they allowed a whopping 4.91 runs per game. Ouch.

One of our fine commenters made that same point in chat a few days ago. The comparisons between 2003 and 2023 are fairly apt. The good news is that the Cardinals’ pitching staff still has plenty of time to turn things around.

This year, the Cardinals are allowing 4.79 runs per game. Yes, the Cardinals are scoring more than they are allowing. That leaves them with a Pythagorean win/loss record of .525. The Cardinals should have a record of 27-25 entering Friday night’s contest with the Indians. Alas. They do not.

With an offense performing at this level, it’s actually pretty hard to lose. This is why their improved play recently – a 13-10 record in May, and a 10-5 record in their last 15 games – is more indicative of their future performance than their abysmal start to the season.

I found two seasons in the post-World War II era where the Cardinals scored more than 5 runs per game and had a losing record.

The first came in 1954 when they finished 72-82 despite scoring more runs than they allowed. That’s just not how baseball usually works. Over 154-162 games, Pythag usually wins.

The second came in 1999. The club scored 5.02 runs per game that season, mostly on the shoulders of Mark McGwire. If you watched that club pitch, then you know why they were a sub-.500 team.

5.00 runs per game is not some magical guarantee of a plus-.500 finish, but historically, the teams that have scored that many runs in the modern era in St. Louis have tended to be pretty darn good.

As we look forward to June, the Cardinals need to continue their offensive performance and maybe couple that with some solid starts here or there. Carlson is supposed to be back immediately. Tyler O’Neill had a setback but should be back in StL before the All-Star break. Jordan Walker is starting to heat up down in Memphis and could make his way back to the club before too long. Nolan Arenado is just now rounding into form.

There’s a possibility that this offense will continue to improve.

That’s it for me today! I’ll be keeping things short for a while as life is keeping me very busy. This week, look for a new podcast at the end of the week. We hope to have an interview with Cardinals’ prospect Ian Bedell. Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend!