Coming into the season, there was a lot of talk about how much depth the Cardinals had. It was supposed to be an asset that allowed the Cardinals to play the matchups whenever they wanted and throw above average hitter after above average hitter into the lineup. The pitching was a different story but there were still quite a few arms who could fill in as spot starters or even as back-end starters if needed.
This was a season in which there weren’t going to be many openings for young players. At least, that’s how this season was supposed to go. But as we know, that’s not how it’s gone. The St. Louis Cardinals currently sit in last place, not only in the division but also in the NL, with a pitching staff that ranks 20th in fWAR and a lineup that has scored 24 runs in its last 10 games.
That’s some easy math for you. 2.4 runs per game in the last 10 games. Sure it’s a slump and slumps happen all the time but everything is magnified when a team is losing. But when a team is losing, opportunities also open up that may not have been available otherwise.
Cold lineup and injured outfield? Enter Jordan Walker and Luken Baker. Struggling rotation? Enter Matthew Liberatore.
Expectations are too high if we’re expecting these guys to completely change the team’s fortunes but it’s not unreasonable to hope that they can plug some gaps and maybe provide a spark to a team that desperately needs one.
So I want to take a look at each of these players individually and see what they can do to have success and what their short and long term outlooks look like. I’ll start with Jordan Walker
We all know what Jordan Walker has to do. The front office knows what Jordan Walker has to do. Hopefully Jordan Walker knows what Jordan Walker has to do.
He needs to lift the ball.
A 62.5% ground ball rate (according to Fangraphs) simply isn’t going to cut it. And especially not for someone with so much power. If Walker can put the ball in the air more, his power is going to show up more. It’s that simple.
A 100 mph ground ball is either a ground out or a single, or, very occasionally, a double up the line. A 100 mph fly ball can be a whole lot more.
So far this year, Jordan Walker has averaged a 90.1 mph exit velocity while topping out at 113.9. He has the power to be a really good hitter at the major league level. We all know this (hopefully).
But what’s the source of Walker’s ground ball problem? That’s really the big question. Is it swing related? Probably. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m not a swing doctor and I won’t pretend to be. But with all the focus on Walker’s swing, there’s something else that has been overlooked. Swing decisions.
Here’s what Walker’s average launch angle looks like by zone:
If you’re an average launch angle skeptic (as you should be because it’s a flawed stat as a 70 degree pop up and a -50 degree chopper averages out to 10 degrees with looks great but really isn’t), here’s Walker ground ball rate by zone:
Notice the. pattern yet? Walker beats low pitches into the ground. So which pitches do he swing at the most?
You guessed it! Low pitches. That’s a problem. It’s not just a swing issue (if there is indeed a swing issue).
Walker’s ground ball problem is a combination of factors. He likes to swing at low pitches, which turn into grounders a lot and (probably) his swing isn’t tailored toward lofting low pitches.
The Cardinals reportedly worked on him hitting the ball out in front more, when the swing is in more of an uppercut phase, so maybe it’s less of a swing issue and more of a timing issue with Walker (i.e. he needs to swing earlier).
Regardless of what the issue is, nothing is going to get better if nothing changes. Either Walker needs to start targeting pitches further up in the zone or he needs to tweak his swing as necessary to start lofting the ball more. Perhaps the short term change is laying off the low pitch and then bringing the aggressiveness back when his swing or timing (or whatever the issue is) is better.
So, where does that leave us? The early returns haven’t been great since Walker was recalled as he’s still beating the ball into the ground so that doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence in the short term.
It also doesn’t change a single thing about how I view Walker in the long term. He’s not a bust. He’s not a flop. He’s not a failure. He’s a 21-year-old (20-year-old when he debuted) seeing MLB pitching for the first time.
An adjustment period is normal and Walker still has all the tools that we thought he did. If he’s still hitting worm burners in a few years, then I may change my tune but, until then, Walker is a future middle-of-the-order slugger.
Let’s not forget that we’re talking about one of the prospects in baseball and maybe the top prospect in baseball. He’s big, he rakes, and he’s fast. That’s quite the combination. Early struggles shouldn’t change a single thing about how he’s viewed in the future.
To me, Luken Baker has always felt like the prospect that would never get a chance. He didn’t exactly look like a player deserving of one last year with his 78 wRC+ in Memphis last year, but he’s a 1B/DH-only slugger on a team with Paul Goldschmidt and a plethora of DH options.
He’s always felt a bit like Patrick Wisdom or Adolis Garcia or maybe even Moises Gomez. And, actually, Garcia was a below average Triple-A hitter in his last two season in the organization and Gomez has an iffy profile despite his power, so maybe he just felt like Patrick Wisdom to me. But, regardless of which player we want to pull out here, he’s always felt like the Triple-A slugger that doesn’t get a chance in the majors.
Yet here he is.
And if the Cardinals offense wasn’t slumping he probably wouldn’t be here at all. He would probably still be in Memphis chasing the minor league home run crown. However, struggles, and perhaps a bit of desperation, have created an opportunity for Baker and he made the most of it in his debut, going 2-for-4 out of the DH spot.
And it actually works out perfectly that I’m discussing. him right after Walker because, like Walker, Baker hits the ball hard. And I mean really hard. He hits the ball exactly as hard as you would expect from someone who stands 6’4” and 265 pounds.
The difference between him and Walker is that he elevates the ball. In Memphis this year, Baker posted a ground ball rate of just 32.9% prior to getting promoted. That’s over 2⁄3 of his batted balls being put in the air.
That’s exactly the batted ball profile a slugger should have and it’s why Baker was the co-leader in home runs in all of the minor league prior to getting promoted.
I feel good about Baker in the short term. What he needs is playing time. And that’s the dilemma.
How much playing time does a 26-year-old who was probably written off as a non-prospect last year get on a team with Paul Goldschmidt and a bunch of other young hitters vying for at-bats in the DH spot?
It’s hard for a player to hit well when his playing time is sporadic. Baseball is a sport of rhythm and timing and it’s hard to have rhythm and timing when you’re sitting on the bench.
It seems like Baker is penciled in as the DH against lefties for the time being, but how about against righties? Will the Cardinals continue to start him or will they turn to a lefty like Nolan Gorman or Alec Burleson? That’s the big question because the right-handed hitter in a DH platoon gets the short end of the stick.
If it were me, I would leave Baker in the lineup as the everyday DH. He can hit right-handed pitching. In fact, he can crush right-handed pitching. He had a 1.105 OPS against right-handers in Triple-A prior to his promotion, which was actually 101 points than he OPS against lefties.
It was a similar story last year too as he hit righties better than lefties in 2022. In fact, the only year that wasn’t true was 2021. I feel comfortable with Baker in the lineup regardless of handedness. If the Cardinals are looking for a spark, they need to give him a chance to provide it. Give him a solid week or two straight and see what he can do. It’s much harder for him to contribute effectively in an inconsistent part time role.
Baker has only been in the majors for two games and the opposing starter in both games was left-handed. It’s still unclear if Baker will be kept in a platoon situation or not.
So, in regard to my confidence, I feel good about Baker in the short term and I think he will be a productive hitter if he gets the chance to play consistently. The batted ball data is strong. He walks a lot. His strikeout rate is reasonable for someone with as much power as he has. It’s a good offensive profile.
If he’s going to be the DH against lefties, then I don’t feel as confident as that’s a more difficult role to add value in.
Long term, I don’t think the picture has changed too much for Baker. He’s not going to play first base as long as Goldschmidt is here so he’ll need to hit his way into the everyday DH picture if he wants to have a long term future with the club. It’s still way too early to predict him doing that.
The final player I’m going to discuss is the only player who can potentially provide a boost to the Cardinals biggest weakness - the rotation.
I also feel good about Matthew Liberatore because he’s a different pitcher than he was last year. At least he is in some ways and he’s not in others. But I’ll get to that.
The positives are that Liberatore is getting more riding life on his fastball as he’s lost over an inch of drop on his four-seamer and over 3 inches of drop on his sinker. He’s also gained around a tick and a half of extra velocity on his heater. Better velocity and better shape is a pretty good surefire way of making a pitch better.
But there’s more. Liberatore is really targeting the top of the zone with his fastball. He did that last year but the pitch’s location is even higher this year.
This is where he located in 2022:
And this is where he’s locating this year:
That’s a great location for Liberatore’s fastball as it’s really going to help the tunnel with his curveball, which is the pitch that made him famous going back to his high school days.
The pitch is a big breaking curveball that gets well above average movement in both directions as compared to curveballs thrown at a similar velocity, and that means that a high fastball is going to tunnel really well with a low curveball that starts high and drops off the table.
The only issue is that Liberatore hasn’t been locating his curveball at the bottom of the zone. At least not yet. This is where I point out that he’s only thrown 11 innings which is far too few to draw any real conclusions.
So that’s the first thing I want to see Liberatore change. I want to see him consistently bury his curveball at or below the bottom of the zone, especially if he’s going to be attacking the top of the zone with his heater.
I also want to see Liberatore throw far fewer fastballs. 60.5% of his pitches so far have been four-seamers or sinkers, and, while I did say it’s too early to draw conclusions, I should point out that not much has changed from last year when Liberatore threw his fastballs 54.7% of the time.
He has a nasty curveball that’s only seeing 26.7% usage and a 2600 rpm spin rate slider that’s only made up 11% of his arsenal so far. A pitcher who can spin a breaking ball as well as Liberatore should be throwing his breaking balls at least 50% of the time. The breaking balls are also different enough that they compliment each other as he has a big breaker and a hard slider.
I’m encouraged by the changes that Liberatore has made and I do think he’s much better prepared to take hold of a rotation spot than he was last year but he still has a few tweaks to make. Better curveball location and a lot more breaking balls could help him be one of the most productive starters in this rotation. Maybe even the most productive starter. His breaking balls are that good.
He’s good enough to hold onto his newfound rotation spot for the rest of the season (given that he makes the tweaks I mentioned above) and if he can do that, he’s a lock for a 2024 rotation with a lot of open spots.
The Cardinals are in a spot where they are relying on young players to give them a spark and fill gaps in the lineup and the pitching staff. I expected Liberatore and Walker to have a role this year but I didn’t expect the Cardinals to be in a spot where they really need those players to perform.
And I especially wasn’t expecting it to be Luken Baker getting the call to bolster a slumping lineup. But yet, here we are. These 3 players are getting the opportunities that may not have been available on a better performing Cardinals team and that’s great news for them.
In a season with a lot of early disappointments and tough-to-watch games, these 3 players will give me a reason to watch, and to be excited, every single night.
Thanks for reading, VEB.