The first official spring training workout for the Cardinals occurs 29 days from now on February 17th. As usual, pitchers and catchers report four days earlier, but in all honesty, most of the spring training invites — position players included — will already be down in Jupiter well ahead of the start date. The Winter Warm-up — which took place last weekend — has long been considered the unofficial start of the Cardinals season. Sure, we are still a month away from actual baseball, but the majority of the players got back together to provide the media and fans with quotes to consider over the remaining weeks of the offseason. We learn which players are in the “best shape of their lives” and which players are “hungry” for a “breakout” season. We hear the same things every year, but considering the month and the dreariness of the weather, it is an exciting offseason tradition all the same.
Upon considering what to write about this morning, I came across two tweets from Mark Tomasik (@retrosimba) that caught my attention in particular. If you have a Twitter account, Mark is an absolute must follow, by the way. Both tweets included KMOX radio snippets from the Cardinals’ projected middle infield starters: Kolten Wong and Aledmys Diaz. Wong’s involved his offense while Diaz’s involved his defense. I have embedded both tweets below and will provide my thoughts on each. My hope is each snippet can lead to some constructive discussion in the comments section.
First and foremost, let me be clear in saying that I am not a hitting mechanics “expert.” However, I have watched enough of Wong’s swing — both in live action and in slow-motion replay — to know that swing length is not really an issue for Wong. In fact, once you ignore the distraction of his swing’s inherent violence, you will notice that it is actually a pretty short swing. He has very little trouble getting to the “hitting zone” — a major issue for hitters with “long” swings.
Thus, his inconsistency hinges on (at least) two factors: swing plane and timing. If it seems like he is lunging at and subsequently chopping down on pitches at times, your eyes are not playing tricks on you because he definitely carries these flaws. Basic physics tells us that an ideal swing plane follows the path of the incoming pitch. If a pitch is coming down toward the hitting zone, it is best to maximize one’s contact potential by swinging up, in the same (but reverse) path.
If Wong and hitting coach John Mabry are working on anything this offseason and upcoming spring, it should be on correcting any mechanical issues affecting the consistency of his swing plane, not length. Overall timing is a big part of the this, too, because when Wong is on time, his plane is actually pretty good. As I said earlier, I am not an expert on the matter, so I won’t even begin to act like I possess a miracle fix, but harnessing Wong’s leg kick would definitely be something I’d address.
Moving onto Kolten’s double-play partner:
To be frank, Aledmys Diaz, from an offensive standpoint at least, made me look foolish last season. After doing extensive pre-signing research on Diaz, I essentially believed he’d be nothing more than a utility player at the Major League level. After being designated for assignment in the season prior, Diaz, through injuries to Ruben Tejada (to make the Cardinals roster) and Matt Carpenter (to make the National League All Star roster), was an All Star in his rookie season. And honestly, one All-Star-caliber season alone exceeds the expectations I had set for him.
Now, for as exciting as Diaz’s offense was in 2016, his defense was equally frustrating. Single-season defensive metrics don’t mean much (it is best to shoot for three full seasons worth of data before making a characterization), but for those that still look at them, Diaz did not grade out well in his rookie season. Errors don’t tell the whole story, either, because fielders with greater range reach more batted balls, subsequently putting them at risk for committing errors on balls that would have gone for singles against range-deficient players.
That being said, when you look at Diaz’s “missed plays” chart, you’ll notice more than a handful of green dots, many of the darker variety — batted balls considered 90-100% fieldable by Inside Edge. Don’t get me wrong, he made some fantastic plays (orange dots on his “made plays” chart) as well, but cutting down on the “easy” errors is a must going forward.
Made Plays, 2016 (via FanGraphs)
Missed Plays, 2016 (via FanGraphs)
While I believe the impact of Jose Oquendo’s absence from the 2016 Cardinals is wildly overstated, I cannot deny the Secret Weapon’s knowledge and teaching ability of infield defense. Hearing that Diaz will head down to Jupiter early to work directly with Oquendo is welcome news for Cardinal fans. While having softer hands is not something that can necessarily be taught, better positioning and more efficient reads off the bat are two areas Oquendo can focus on when working with the 26-year-old Diaz.
So, what do you make of these two specific offseason updates?