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Best of the First Third of 2023

The best performances of the first two months of the season.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, Viva El Birdos.

Look, I know. You’ve read the title. You’ve seen the word “best” in it. You’re already thinking that there’s no way that this version of the St. Louis Cardinals are “best” at anything.

Except maybe “best at being the worst team in the National League.”

Or “best at losing games while maintaining a positive run differential.”

The season has been fairly miserable so far. Filled with underperformances, disappointing injuries, failures to develop, questionable coaching, and offseason moves that have backfired spectacularly.

Writing this article as the “Worst of the First Third” would probably be more apt.

But I’ve made this series a regular part of my posts here at Viva El Birdos and I’m not stopping now. Despite all the bad things we’ve seen, there are still some positives to consider. There are still some individual performances from the first two months that stand out.

For the sake of context, I’m basing these stats on what Fangraphs/Baseball Savant lists for Tuesday afternoon. The numbers could change by the time that you read this.

Off we go! Here are the best performances of the first two months of the season.

Best Offensive Performance

We get to jump right into some controversy! Who has the best offensive performance so far this season? That’s going to depend on the stats you prefer to use.

There are two options. Paul Goldschmidt is following up his MVP campaign with… another MVP-caliber campaign! We anticipated that Goldy’s numbers would fall off from his career highs last season and they have. But he’s still among the best hitters in the league with a 148 wRC+ and a .386 wOBA. He has 2.2 fWAR. In 264 PAs, his slash line is an impressive .292/.390/.504. He just keeps hitting!

That might not be the best offensive performance on the team. That honor could belong to Nolan Gorman. Gorman has exploded in his second season in the majors. That power potential that we all drooled over since he was drafted has become a reality. And his improvements in K’s and BB’s are noteworthy. Gorman is tied with Goldy with a 148 wRC+. His wOBA is .387. He has 1.7 fWAR. His slash line is .274/.360/.554.

If we went by WAR alone, Goldy would take this category. But this is “Best Offensive Performance” and WAR counts defense. Gorman has played a lot of DH and, therefore, suffers from a significant defensive penalty that takes away from his WAR despite having equivalent advanced stats.

Speaking of advanced stats, those are where I prefer to stay in this category. Goldy and Gorman are dead even in wRC+. Gorman has a .001 edge in wOBA. This is as close as it can get.

But I’ve got to pick a winner. And that winner is … Nolan Gorman! Goldy is meeting expectations. Gorman is exceeding all our hopes. So based on good feels and .001 points of wOBA, Nolan Gorman is the best offensive player of the first third of the season.

Best Barreled Ball

First, let me explain what I mean by “Barreled Ball”. Several years ago, Baseball Savant came out with a stat called “barrels”. A batted ball event is a barrel if it is struck above a certain exit velocity (pretty much anything over 100 mph) and within a certain range of launch angle (pretty much between 15-40 degrees, but the harder the ball is hit, the more the range expands) to give it a very high expected batting average. The harder a ball is hit and the closer to the mid-point in launch angle, the better the “barrel”. Usually, these batted ball events will be home runs. Occasionally, because of the ballpark, wind, or other factors, they can also be doubles, triples, or even outs.

For our purposes, we can’t just use the hardest hit ball. We have to have the best barreled ball – the ball with the most ideal exit velocity and launch angle. We have a lot of close options to choose from! Here are the candidates:

Nolan Gorman: 112.3 mph, 19 degrees, double
Nolan Gorman: 110.3 mph, 24 degrees, homer

Paul Goldschmidt: 111.7 mph, 15 degrees, double
Paul Goldschmidt: 109.6 mph, 20 degrees, homer

Willson Contreras: 111.2 mph, 32 degrees, homer

Andrew Knizner: 110.0 mph, 21 degrees, grand slam

Tommy Edman: 111.2 mph, 18 degrees, double

Jordan Walker: 110.4 mph, 20 degrees, homer

Usually, we don’t have this many candidates because Tyler O’Neill takes it by cranking out high exit velocity homers. Even when he’s struggling. But he hasn’t done that this season, so, to be honest, our selection pool is a little weak.

To narrow this list down, I’m first going to eliminate the doubles. If there was a double hit over 112 mph and over 20 degrees, I would consider it. But there isn’t one. So, scratch them.

Of the home runs, I think there are three viable choices, and I’ll post video of all of them.

Nolan Gorman crushes one in Colorado:

Willson Contreras gets his first homer as a Cardinal:

Andrew Knizner smashes a grand slam:

Despite having the worst measurable stats, Knizner would be my choice. Except his grand slam came off a position player and I feel like that should disqualify him. With Knizner out of it, that makes our choice relatively easy. Contreras’ homer is harder, higher, and longer than Gorman’s. It was also his first as a Cardinal. He has the best barreled ball on the season.

Best Defensive Performance

Hmmm… I think maybe I now understand one of the reasons that the Cardinals’ are losing so many games. Their defense, frankly, has been miserable. The club has 7 players with a positive OAA. That sounds good! But their highest OAA comes from both Paul DeJong and Dylan Carlson, who are tied at just +2. DeJong hasn’t been with the club for most of the season. Carlson started as a platoon player while the club experimented with O’Neill and Noot in center and now he’s hurt. Defensive stalwarts like Tommy Edman and Nolan Arenado have been extremely disappointing in their performance so far. Others, like Goldschmidt and Donovan, have been average. A bunch of players have been pretty terrible.

I’m tempted to just say “no one” deserves to win this category, but since I’ve gone this far into it I guess I’ll just give the honor to DeJong. He has 0 DRS and a +.9 UZR to go along with those +2 OAA. That’s better than Carlson’s -3 DRS and -.7 UZR in center. All of that looks extremely average to me but there you go. That’s the 2023 Cardinals – sometimes average is the best we have! I couldn’t even find any decent defensive highlights from DeJong on MLB’s video search. How disappointing.

Best Starting Pitcher Performance

Speaking of disappointing, let’s get this over with. Time to look at the best pitching performance from a starting pitcher.

Miles Mikolas has bounced back from a horrendous start to be serviceable. He now carries a 3.74 ERA with a 3.83 FIP and 1.3 fWAR. That’s not too bad, to be honest. Worse than we hoped for but probably what we should have expected.

Many of us had high expectations for Jordan Montgomery this season. He seemed like a player poised to take a step forward. And did early in the season. Lately, though, he’s fallen back to his normal levels. His ERA is 4.23. His FIP is better at 3.95. He has 1.1 fWAR on the season.

Neither of those stat lines is particularly inspiring. Until you consider how the rest of the staff is doing. Miles and Montgomery feel like aces relative to the Cardinals’ other starting pitchers.

There’s no reason for any debate here. The best performance for a starting pitcher so far is Miles Mikolas. He’s not exciting. But he’s consistent. And has had long runs of high levels of run suppression before. The club needs another from him. Here’s his best outing of the season:

Best Relief Performance

Last category! The relief core for the Cardinals has blown some games. But their performance hasn’t been that bad overall. Helsley and Gallegos have had some memorable implosions, but they’ve generally been quality performers this season. They’re joined by a surprising addition.

I’ll give you two stat lines. Which pitcher do you like better?

Pitcher 1: 24 IPs, 31% K rate, 11% BB rate, 3.38 ERA, 2.74 FIP, .7 fWAR
Pitcher 2: 23 IPs, 29.5% K rate, 4.1% BB rate, 3.66 ERA, 2.41 FIP, .7 fWAR

Give me the pitcher with the roughly equal K rate, the much lower BB rate, and the lower FIP. Even if that pitcher is Chris Stratton! Pitcher 1 is Helsley, who is not quite replicating the incredible season he had last year. Pitcher 2 is Stratton.

Now, one of those pitchers – Helsley – is always seeing high-leverage situations, which is one of the reasons why his innings are so much lower. The Cardinals don’t have that many high-leverage situations. The other has largely appeared in the middle innings of losses. But performance is performance. And Stratton has performed.

That’s why he is my winner for best relief performance so far. And I even have some video of him – a rarity for a middle reliever! Yes, these highlights come in a loss, but they do show the kind of job Stratton has done when it hasn’t mattered for much.

That’s it for me this week! I’ll be missing out on the Cardinals’ Blogger Day this year to attend an international conference at my real job. And before you get excited for me, thinking I’m some global traveling jet setter, by “international” I mean I’ll be joining all kinds of people from all over the world in the great cosmopolitan city of … Indianapolis. But, hey, at least I get to be in legislative-style committee meetings from 8 am to 8:30 pm every day!

You’ll hear from me again next Saturday when I’ll try to post something. Maybe it will just be pics of my trip. (Look, it’s corn! Hey, the Colts play here but not right now! Here’s me drooling on my iPad after 8 straight hours of Roberts Rules!) Have a great weekend.