Recapping 2018: St. Louis Cardinals Edition | The Process Report

Recapping 2018: St. Louis Cardinals Edition

With the end of the regular season comes a time for reflection for the majority of baseball fans. What went right? What went wrong? You probably have a few ideas where your teams fell short or exceeded expectations, but what about a completely emotionless point of view? Throughout this season I have shown what batter and pitcher production looks like when we regress balls in play to look more like what the players should have seen using exit velocity and launch angle. The offseason will be no different as I take a team by team look at how the season fared for the team, while going a little deeper on a handful of players from each. The order will mirror the final team rankings running in reverse order so you can expect to find some depression leading to elation here. It’s going to take some time, but I would like to get one to two of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts. Here’s a link to the report for this club from last offseason.

Past:

30 – 21: BAL CWS MIA TEX KCR SFG SDP DET MIN CIN

20 – 11: ARI LAA PIT CHC SEA ATL NYM TBR COL PHI

10 – 1: MIL TOR STL

Few teams have been as consistently good as the St. Louis Cardinals. The team has had exactly one season where they failed to win more than they lost, and that came off a solid run where the team average closer to 100 wins than 80 over three-year runs. That “poor” season in 2007 would mark a bit of a step down from the prior heights, but you can see a steady climb back perennial contention. The past three years have not seen a playoff spot, and are on the lower end despite payroll, pegged to 2018 dollars, ramping up fairly largely over those years. Further proof that money cannot buy happiness. For years they spent at a fairly consistent rate that would have had them middle of the pack last year. The ramp up is evident, but will the team continue to push that higher in the face of less success than a rabid fanbase would like? They certainly generate the revenue to make that happen, and may find it likely as the win curve in their division is steeper than most owing to the good teams they have to play more often that others. A similar hurdle as we have seen in the American League East where if you are not first you’re last. The assembly line continues to print talent, but with many of those players proving more solid than star the team may have to continue their aggression in adding big bats. Paul Goldschmidt is a good start.

While the team keeps injecting new bats into the lineup via all avenues to them including farm, trade and free agency, it was the offense last year that absolutely carried the team. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some volatility over the course of the season as they looked very much boom or bust. The first month saw strong performance by the model that failed to translate in reality. Things tightened up from there with short bursts of strong performance offset by weaker periods of equal brevity and a whole bunch of oscillation around the mean in between. The resurgence over the last month is plainly evident with a couple of pronounced spikes, but enough weaker stretches that the failure to land a postseason spot isn’t an utter surprise despite the game effort. When the bats were smoking they were tough to beat, but when they were more average to better they were not able to make up what the pitchers were giving away. Perhaps the continual efforts to add a star bat has hurt the team in putting the best possible pitching unit on the field.

Leading the charge was the veteran Matt Carpenter who showed that anything can happen in a month of baseball. Those first hundred plate appearances showed extremely strong expectations for his balls in play, but you can see how incredibly much he underperformed. That massive gap wouldn’t be his only shortball as the end of the season showed a smaller gap that was just as sustained, though with a little better actual performance until the very end. The middle showed an incredibly productive season that rivaled the elites in the game, and for longer than a blip. Add it all up and you find one of the very best hitters in the game who struggled to get to all of his immense production at times. The strikeouts were an issue at times when they were closer to thirty rather than twenty percent. Even at those rates he was walking enough to mostly offset without factoring in the contact. That’s where he really shines with tons and tons of balls over 100 miles per hour and on the kind of ideal trajectories that often go for extra base hits if not out of the park. His high average launch angle comes about due to a complete lack of ground balls as everything looks liner and up at the higher exit velocities. It is there where he fell off in the second half last year, and it wouldn’t be a big surprise if he showed a fairly similar falloff next year at an advanced age. No longer being able to play first base with Goldschmidt in house makes it even more likely that he will go through the kind of health issues that can derail a season, but even when Carpenter wasn’t at his best he still was showing so much to like.

Matt Carpenter

If one slugger wasn’t enough the Cardinals had another huge bat that can’t really play anywhere in the field in Jose Martinez. While Carpenter’s on-going shoulder issues relegate him to first base, Martinez struggles to play even there, while being impossibly worse in the outfield. What he does do well is mash the everliving crap out of a baseball. The production was well above average for much of the season, but curiously he saw a similar huge split out of the gate like Carpenter leading to dramatically worse actual results. Things ran more congruently from there, but often at those early very high levels the expectations showed. There were a couple of lulls where he looked more average, and those coincided with times when the walk dried up a bit. He also saw a season-long uptick in strikeouts including approaching the 30% level for a bit at the end of the year. The contact is constantly hard, but often on lower angles that lead to productive liners and less so ground balls. You can also see that he’s able to carry that extremely loud contact to the more northern parts of the nitro zone where only the true sluggers reside. A man without much of a home in 2019 due to the team’s obstinance in trading him for a fair return, it is likely he will struggle to be quite this good again in piecemeal duty. A move to the American League would seem like a no-brainer, but so far the Cardinals have shown little interest in a deal. If and when he ends up there he will likely return to being one of the twenty or so best bats in the game.

Jose Martinez

  

As aforementioned, the Cards have tried to inject good sticks from other teams to help shore up the offense. Last winter’s big get was Marcell Ozuna from the going-out-of-business Miami Marlins. Regression should have been expected for a player coming off a career season in 2017, but what he got was a ton of rough luck on his balls in play, and a mid-season shoulder flare up that tanked his production until, presumably, a cortisone shot set him free. This is about as volatile of production as you’ll see as few players could reach the impressive heights, while many that do rarely see the accompanying depths. Like the other two the first month of the season showed a significant shortfall in actual production, and it wouldn’t be his only such run as the climb back from the dead showed a prolonged gap, as well. The finish looks like something to get excited about, while showcasing some of his best exit velocity on the season. His strikeout rate varies considerably with the walk rates more consistently below average. This could be a conscious decision by the player to be more or less aggressive earlier in counts throughout the year. The best hitters can ambush without giving away too many at bats, which Ozuna seemed to do quite well when looking at his impressive spray chart. There’s a lot of liner trajectories and up including some real shots in the nitro zone, but the real stand out here is just how many balls he can hit into the triple-digits. Ozuna will likely continue to be a phenomenal hitter in what looks like a very good lineup.

Marcell Ozuna

With the continual additions in the outfield the team eventually soured on Tommy Pham who had been a surprisingly elite player just the year prior. Qualms about how he was passed over on his climb through the system and general feelings that he was being disrespected may have contributed to what looks like a precipitous falloff in production from the beginning of the year. That elite start is why anyone should have been buying, but financial disagreement wasn’t the only cause for the slide as a groin issue was likely another contributor. You can see overperformance throughout the entirety of his time with the Cards, though as we saw in the review of the Tampa Bay Rays, he overperformed nearly in entirety so it’s likely the emotional stuff came into play here. He strikes out a good bit after that initial part of the season and the walk rate trended from free-swinging to around the average. No matter the weather, however, you can see that Pham can toast a ball with some of the most impressive exit velocity figures in the game. While a lot of that is on the ground, he did show the ability to carry those higher MPHs to the better launch angles, something not every guy that hits the ball hard demonstrates. Pham will always be a polarizing figure for fans, teammates, and especially a rabid media that cannot help themselves, but he’s also a very talented one. Motivation might have been an issue here, but the team quickly moved on as they were happy to take some young talent in return.

Tommy Pham

Once upon a time there were many Molinas manning the catcher position, but the best of the bunch stands alone as we head into 2019. This past season showed fairly typical performance with above average production until the grind of being an ironman at a position that melts steel beams saw a dip to merely average performance by the end of the year. Like everyone except Pham so far he showed that weird gap early in the season where actual production was a good deal below expectations, but considering the position he showed marvelous contributions. He did well to keep the strikeout rate in check, while also walking at an average or better rate, no small feat for any batter. You can also see that the contact wasn’t especially loud, but his liner approach gradually gamed some lift over the course of the season. He’ll roll over a ball like anyone else, but all those liners can lead to good outcomes and when he does get the ball in the air it’s often at good angles. There is no reason to think his game will show prominent slippage this upcoming season, but one has to think that eventually the beating he takes behind the plate has to catch up.

Yadier Molina

A couple of righty infielders that helped shore up the lineup were Paul DeJong and Jedd Gyorko. The former plays a good shortstop, while Gyorko might be a negative at the six, he proves capable everywhere else on an infield. DeJong burst on the scene a couple of years ago displaying some of the ugliest strikeout to walk rates you will find, but has steadily worked to get that walk rate up around the average. There was some gradual give back as the season went along, but still paced well, and he made even larger gains to get his strikeout rate down around the average. It popped back up to dizzying heights later in the year where it mostly sat, but that looks like a tradeoff he made to goose a bit more velocity out of his contact. He’ll often put the ball in the air, which can manifest as harmless pop ups, but he also shows the ability to carry his better exit velocities to those ideal launch angles.

Meanwhile, Gyorko looks like he had a hellacious start to the season driven by virtually no walks yet still managing to strike out at a very high rate. It’s possible an early hamstring issue lingered enough to hurt his bat, but he missed the minimum. The second half of the sample shows what he is capable of when everything is going right. He fully flipped his walk and strikeout rates that led to each being a real and continuous strength. He didn’t show absurd ball in the air rates, but his utter lack of ground balls led to a strong number of liners and forays into the nitro zone. He may not have a fulltime position once the season starts, but the team will fully weaponize his bat versus lefties and should see near everyday play moving around a bit.

Paul DeJong

Jedd Gyorko

A couple more infielders of note were Yairo Munoz and Kolten Wong. Munoz came over in the Ozuna trade, and showed some capability as something of a league average hitter who is dependent upon his speed that can help him outperform expectations at times. Everything about him screams average from the walk and strikeout rates to the exit velocity. His playing time will be more dependent on his defensive flexibility as he showed he can hold down the hot corner or move to the outfield versions when necessary. On the other hand, Wong will not be moving around as he has proven to be a gifted defender at second base that can help offset what looks like poor offensive ability for long stretches. His entire first half was pretty woeful, but the second half showed a guy that can approximate average performance for long stretches, too. Lower body issues forced a couple of disabled list stints during that better half, and the rest may have led to the improvements seen in both his exit velocity and strikeout rates. He puts the ball in play a ton by virtue of the low strikeout rate so at least he can help move some guys around from his position towards the bottom of a lineup.

Yairo Munoz

Kolten Wong

Usually, the saying is, “When one door closes, another opens,” but that doesn’t seem to apply when a good baseball player is set to replace a poor player that is paid an awful lot of money. Harrison Bader looks like the next great defensive center fielder, and a linchpin of the team’s run prevention efforts going forward. However, Dexter Fowler is the guy that the team still owes over $43 million dollars for the next three years of his life. Even if he isn’t taking Bader’s time in center field directly, the team will still seek to give him every opportunity to earn that paycheck. That might push some guys around so that each of them gets a little less than true everyday play. This past year shows Bader with significant overperformance until things coalesced below the average to close the season. The steady uptick in expectations weren’t enough to belie the the lesser performance early, but may hint at a player starting to figure it out at the highest level. He strikes out a ton with little improvement there other than waxing and waning around the too high 30% level. It does come with some walks as he’s around the average there after some initial aggressiveness.

The launch angle showed considerable pickup over the course of the season, but whether these were manifesting as pop ups or much better contact is a bit of a mystery without observations. You can see a ton of liners infiltrating the greener grass at the higher velocities, but also in the tip of the swoosh between 80 and 90 MPH. The tailing off exit velocity likely points to a fatigued player trying to get through the longest season of his life, though could also have something to do with a hamstring strain he picked up in July. There is a lot to like here, but we will have to dream on the ceiling until he can figure out how to mitigate the strikeouts. As for Fowler, this past season was an obvious disaster mostly driven by his inability to get into a ball. The contact was just so weak that it is hard to see him reversing course going forward barring an actual injury to blame and not just scapegoat. The worst outcome would be a hot start to the year as it will breath new life into the corpse that is the idea of him being a useful player going forward, but a poor start could encourage the team to cut bait altogether, which would unlock playing time for the other outfield candidates.

Harrison Bader

Dexter Fowler

With the bats behind us it’s time to focus on the arms that betrayed an otherwise well-built club from reaching their goal. They weren’t awful, mind you, putting together long stretches of average or better performance, but there were enough spikes in there to discount some of that good good. The second half especially showed some issues with a couple of prolonged poor runs, but truly the arms were more of a weakness than an out-and-out liability that the preceding sentences might lead you to believe. Unfortunately, to be the man you have to beat the man, which is awfully dang tough at the top of the board. The fact that they were merely worse than average rather than the worst hints at a strong likelihood they can make the small additions required to get them over the hump. While much of their improvement efforts have focused on the bats, it would seem they are only a better than average starter or a couple of good relievers away from having one of the best teams in the game.

Spearheading the rotation were a couple of newer names for the club. The first worthy of praise was Miles Mikolas who the team took a chance on after his strong run in the Nippon Professional Baseball league after a rough run with the Rangers sent him abroad. He won’t strike a ton of guys out, though it’s more below average than terrible, but he more than makes up for it with one of the best walk rates in the game. He got blown up a little bit down the stretch, but the model saw him as an above average to good performer for much of the season. With fewer balls in play than most it is imperative that he draws weak contact, which was another strength to his game. The overperformance for much of the season might be something he can do more often than most due to low exit velocity and generally keeping the ball down well. Miles Mikolas might not be the biggest name in the game, but he profiles as a mid-rotation starter or better going forward.

Miles Mikolas

The other strong performer has a much more well-trod story to tell. Coming up through the farm it was evident that Flaherty would be a useful big leaguer fairly early on, but few saw him being this good this early. The strikeout rate forgives many a sin as he sat above 30% for a good chunk of the season with the tales being down a bit, but still above average. He battled the walk at times once he got around the league a bit, but was generally able to push those down to merely worse than average rather than unmanageable outside of that one spike in the middle. On a rate basis he was even better than Mikolas, but held back by the shorter workload. Unlike Mikolas, he showed virtually no platoon split where Miles showed a fairly decent gap. It is interesting to see the coincidence between the best exit velocity yielded on the season and the spike in walks, which might indicate that his very best performance on contact might require more nibbliness than most would like to see. The rest of his exit velocity was more than fine so it looks like he knows who he is and what he needs to do outside of occasional small tweaks. Another mid-rotation or better starter he looks poised to make a name for himself in 2019.

Jack Flaherty

Moving along we land on a couple of relievers that fared pretty well until the end of the season when workload might have been more of an issue. Brebbia does a good job of sitting guys down with better than average walk rates, while putting the ball in the air a ton. A lot of that looks like fairly dangerous contact with the thick cluster of balls to the left edge of the nitro zone and just above. If they were a couple more miles per hour harder they would have been no doubters so he might be playing with fire a bit. Luckily for him they were part of his ability to induce sub-100 MPH exit velocity at all angles. The more experienced reliever, Bud Norris, was mostly pretty good until the very end when he was more average. The strikeout rate steadily fell off as the year went along ending up around the average after the wonderful start. He also started walking guys more over the course of the year with some acceleration over the last third of the season. His batted ball stuff was pretty consistent, and mostly fine, so it will be all about the non-contact for him going forward. He seems more like a good mid-game guy rather than a capital C closer, but perhaps that is a luxury. For a team with notions of contention they should probably have a high priority to thicken this pen up.

John Brebbia

Bud Norris

Coming into the season it was easy to think Carlos Martinez was the best starter on the club. Things started off along a similar bent until a midseason spike driven by a complete inability to throw strikes. He was already coming from a fairly high place in that regard so that spike spelled doom, and came in conjunction with a lower strikeout rate that persisted the rest of the season. The team shut him down for a month due to a lat injury, and when he came back the walks were fine from there on out. There were a couple of stints on the disabled list to follow for an oblique issue, and when he finally got back the team put him in the bullpen to ease the pressure. Despite the walks he does an excellent job of suppressing hard contact with few pokes to the nitro zone a benefit of all that nibbling. This looks like a rough health year after two straight years of clean sheets, but he also missed the end to 2015 due to shoulder surgery so the health risk is likely to carry forward. He should break camp as a starter, but if health or performance issues crop up it’s likely the team will rob Peter to pay Paul to shore up the bullpen in the process.

Carlos Martinez

To say the team rode Jordan Hicks hard and put him away wet is a disservice to pack animals everywhere. The phenom made the jump from Hi-A directly to the show, but when you sit triple digits you’re on your own curve. As a former starter he has seen this many innings previously (77), but the rigors of relief are a whole other animal. This kind of jump in workload does not come without costs paid down the road, but this past season showed above average performance for the most part. The beginning saw lesser performance with bad strikeout and walk rates, but he was able to improve both rates for a bit. The issue resurfaced later in the year so the results don’t quite match the electric stuff, but this is also a very young player figuring it out on the fly. He keeps the ball out of the air, while rarely giving up hard contact, and never in the worst pairings. He’ll need to find a way to curtail the walks like when he approximated the average for a good stretch, but it’s also likely there is more strikeout here than he has shown that can also help offset the higher walk rates.

Jordan Hicks

Filling out the back of the rotation were a couple of less than ideal options. John Gant outperformed expectations for a good chunk of the year preferring to trade an ugly walk rate for worse contact. He kept the ball down pretty well, while avoiding the worst contact, but with a below average walk rate there shouldn’t be much excitement here. While he seemed stretched as a starter, he’s probably a better fit as a mid-game, multi-inning option that can start with a clean slate so the walks don’t turn the burner to high. Luke Weaver has already been jettisoned as a big part of the Goldschmidt acquisition after a stepback sophomore season. He showed some good runs during his better strikeout and walk phases, but those were relatively fleeting. The hard contact came on a line and higher, which doesn’t bode well for future performance, but straightening out the non-contact and playing in front of a good defense could help him look as good as his sensational 2017.

John Gant

Luke Weaver

Two other homegrown starters that would look better as swingmen were Austin Gomber and Michael Wacha. The former showed some walk rate improvement later on that didn’t seem to help his production in any way, while benefiting from good fortune on balls in play for much of the season. He spent much of the season as a reliever before getting some starts down the stretch, but the ceiling here doesn’t seem high enough for the team to squander a rotation spot on him instead of bringing in a better option. Meanwhile, Wacha showed one of the widest, sustained gaps thus reviewed. The expectations were probably fine for a back of rotation guy, but the actual painted him as one of their best options going forward. He got hit fairly hard to go with averagey strikeout and walk rates, and if those ball in play expectations start showing up in reality he’s going to look an awful lot like a guy they wish they had improved upon. With few options left in free agency it is likely these guys will be the answer despite plenty of evidence that they’re not enough.

Austin Gomber

Michael Wacha

Below you will find the rest of the prominent players from this past season and how they broke out in four different ways. I will save the commentary here as the charts speak for themselves once you’ve got an idea of what you’re looking at, and by cutting down on the verbiage it allows for looks at more players. Each chart looks at a rolling 100-plate appearance (or ball in play) average with the top left showing each player’s true and actual wOBA* over the course of the season. Top right shows the rolling strikeout and walk plus hit by pitch rates, and the bottom left shows the exit velocity and launch angle combinations for every ball in play. Lastly, the bottom right quadrant shows each player’s exit velocity and launch angle over the course of the season. Feel free to start a conversation on twitter if you have any questions or want to talk about any of these players. More than happy to have those chats.

Adam Wainwright

Mike Mayers

Greg Garcia

 

 

 



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