If the Cardinals don’t make an outside move to turn a lightweight offense into something bigger and brawnier and more dangerous, then it’s up to the team’s current collection of batsmen to do the heavy lifting. You know, the old “Improve From Within” strategy.
It’s been done before.
The 2015 Cardinals won 100 games on the backs of a stout pitching staff that turned in one of very best seasons in franchise history. The ‘15 offense was frustratingly quiet, finishing 11th in the National League in runs, 11th in homers (137) and 10th in slugging (.394.)
The 2016 Cardinals failed to reach the postseason, but we couldn’t blame an STL offense that erupted with a surprising show of force. And while it’s true that a new acquisition, Jedd Gyorko, was a major factor in the fireworks display, his team-leading 30 homers were complimented by veteran hitters and young hitters who cranked more home runs than expected.
In his second summer with the Cardinals, Brandon Moss homered 28 times. (He had 19 the season before, split between Cleveland and St. Louis.) Young outfielders Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty combined for 46 homers after teaming for only 24 in the previous season. Matt Holiday healed up after a painful 2015 to hit 20 home runs. He had only four the year before. Matt Carpenter hit 21. Rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz surprised with 17. Young first baseman Matt Adams went from five homers in 2015 to 16 in ‘16.
This was a story of veterans rebounding from injuries and struggles. A story of kids taking an advantage of an expanded opportunity. It was about backup players chipping in; Jeremy Hazelbaker came out of nowhere to blast 12 homers.
In 2016, the Cardinals led the NL with 225 homers and ranked second in slugging and runs.
For the 2021 Cardinals to go off and start wrecking bleacher seats with homers, and shooting the gaps with a flurry of doubles, they’ll need a lot more from many of the players they already have. And yes, it would be advantageous to import a free agent or trade piece (or two.)
We’ll write about that at another time. For now, let’s assess the in-house talent in an attempt to find hitters that can contribute more to the cause of building a better offense in 2021. I didn’t include Paul Goldschmidt or Yadier Molina on this breakdown. The consistent Goldy will do his share, and Molina’s offense has declined through the aging process — and there’s no reason to demand more of him.
I’m more interested in “X Factor” candidates….
TOMMY EDMAN: After a terrific rookie season in 2019, Edman’s second MLB tour proved to be more challenging, and the result was a severe drop-off offensively. His batting average was down 54 points. His OBP was down 43 points. His slugging percentage decreased 132 points, to .368. Most problematic for this switch-hitter: a glaring decline vs. RH pitching. In 2019, Edman clubbed right-handers for an .810 OPS. But in 2020 that OPS fell to .642, with an abysmal slash line of .233 / .317 / .325. Overall Edman’s offense against RHP came in at 19 percent below league average in 2020 after cresting at 13 percent above average in ‘19.
The good news: Edman performed 27 percent above average offensively against LHP in 2020. Edman is capable of improving in 2021, right? Yes, I think so. But still I wonder if his rookie-season numbers were inflated by his .346 average on balls in play. That looks like an outlier; In 2019 the overall MLB average on balls in play was .298. Last season Edman hit .301 on BIP; that was a more realistic nine points above the MLB average. And with a normalized BIP batting average in 2020, Edman’s numbers crashed.
Edman’s third season will help define him as a hitter, and we’ll have a better idea of what to expect going forward. The Cards need something closer to the 2019 Edman — a true impact hitter. He’ll get more at-bats than any player on the team except Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong. And Edman is in line to be the primary second baseman after the Cardinals declined to pick up Kolten Wong’s $11.5 million option for 2021. Many doubles from Edman would be a pleasant development.
MATT CARPENTER: In his last 777 plate appearances, going back to the final month of the 2018 season, Carpenter has batted .209 with a .329 OBP and .354 slug for a .673 OPS. And according to the metrics, that’s 13 percent below league average offensively during that time. Carpenter is 35. His exit velocity is down. His hard-hit percentage is down. His strikeout rate escalated to a career-worst 28.4 percent last season, and that continued a late-career trend.
As he enters 2021 — likely his final season as a Cardinal — it’s difficult to imagine Carpenter reversing an obvious pattern … at least not in a dramatic way. But if you want me to offer a hopeful note — and you probably don’t — then I direct you to the ZiPS fore/cast for 2021. It’s pretty good: 491 plate appearances, 25 doubles, 17 homers, .345 OBP, .428 slug, a lower strikeout rate (23.6%), .772 OPS and 1.7WAR.
Don’t rip me; I’m just the UPS driver in this situation … delivering information.
DYLAN CARLSON: He’s 22 … a very mature 22. He switch hits. He plays all three outfield positions. His plate discipline is sound, and as he gains MLB experience we’ll see a higher walk rate and a lower strikeout rate. This recent Cardinals’ No. 1 prospect is legit. After a shaky debut, Carlson gave the Cardinals a push into the playoffs with a .629 slugging percentage, .962 OPS, seven extra-base hits and 11 RBIs in the final 10 games. He carried that over to the playoff series at San Diego, reaching base at a rate of .571 and posting a 1.016 OPS. The “improve within” theory starts with this guy. Play him. Play him more than any outfielder on your team. Forget the idea of a time share. Let Dylan Carlson eat.
TYLER O’NEILL: Through this point of his MLB career, Muscles has played in 171 games and made 450 plate appearances. Generally speaking, TO’s playing opportunities have been sporadic; he hasn’t had more than 157 PA in a season. But that 157 came in 2020, when O’Neill appeared in 50 of the team’s 58 games; only six Cardinals went to the plate more times. OK, the gold glove defense in left field was very nice, but O’Neill is here to pump up the Cardinals with robust slugging. He provided meager offense, with a .173 average, .261 onbase percentage and .360 slug. O’Neill was 30 percent below league average offensively last season. This was discouraging, distressing.
In his 450 PA spread over three seasons has a slugging percentage of .422, a figure that ranks 203rd among the 381 hitters that have at least 450 PA over that time. And only seven of the 384 hitters have a worse strikeout rate than O’Neill’s 34%. Though he bats right-handed and was touted as a potential weapon of mass destruction against lefties, O’Neill’s best numbers have come against RH pitching — including a .445 slug and .730 OPS. But let’s not get carried away here; his career performance vs. RHP is six percent under the league average. (He’s 19 percent below average vs. LHP.)
O’Neill is still only 25, and there’s still time for the scary power to emerge. But how much time exactly? O’Neill puts Cardinals’ management in tricky spot. They traded a good pitcher (Marco Gonzales) for him. They cast O’Neill as a future star, a building block. They’ve pointed to his power potential. And they’ve kept him ahead of other outfielders, and boppers.
Mostly, he’s been The Big Enigma.
O’Neill’s slugging percentage over the last three years is lower than that of Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Randy Arozarena and Jose Martinez over the same stretch. And then there’s Luke Voit. He doesn’t play outfield, but he’s slugged .543 with a home run every 13.6 at-bats since being traded by the Cards to the Yankees. Yikes. You have to think that maybe the Cardinals’ front office has real anxiety over thoughts of trading O’Neill — only to watch in horror as he becomes a 40-homer terror.
DEXTER FOWLER: We’re well aware of Fowler’s largely disappointing four seasons as a Cardinal. (I reviewed that on “Scoops” earlier this week.) But as Fowler goes into the fifth and final year of his STL contract, my purpose today is to look for reasons to believe Fowler could outperform expectations on offense.
And I’ll keep it simple: unless manager Mike Shildt is running low on hitters, Fowler should never face a LH pitcher. It makes no sense. The Cardinals have plenty of outfielders to use against lefties. If Shildt wants to maximize Fowler’s chances for a good 2021, then it’s mandatory to use him (almost exclusively) against RHP.
- As a Cardinal, Fowler is 20 percent below league average offensively vs. lefties, and 5% above average when swinging against right-handers. His OPS facing RH is .767 — 108 points higher than his OPS vs. lefties.
- The split is even more pronounced over the past two seasons: .779 OPS vs. RH but only .630 vs. lefts. There was a 35 percent difference in Fowler’s performance against righties (9% above league average) compared to lefties (26% below average.)
- The gap was especially noticeable in 2020. Fowler wasn’t used much vs. lefties, and that was smart. (The numbers were hideously bad.) But in 83 plate appearances vs. RHP, Fowler posted a .349 onbase percentage and .452 slug for an OPS of .801. His output vs. righties was 20 percent above league average.
Over the last two seasons, Fowler has slightly above the league average offensively. Not great, mind you. But here’s my point: it wouldn’t be a big jump to see Fowler provide more offense in 2021. He’ll play because the front office is paying him $16.5 million in 2021. And he’ll also be playing for a new contract.
LANE THOMAS: The Cardinals analytics staff apparently remains giddy over this 25-year-old outfielder. I’m not sure why there’s so much happy talk here, but if Lane actually does become, say. Eloy Jimenez — I will be pleased to tip the cap and salute the numbers people. We witnessed an amazing burst of power on 44 plate appearances in 2019. And Thomas put up good (if not jaw-dropping) numbers in two stints at Triple A Memphis. I could be missing something. And by the way, I’m not condemning the idea of playing him. I’m curious, and if the Cardinals plan to have another outfield tryout camp in 2021, then Lane is in the mix. ZiPS is frowning. Yeah, the ZiPS forecast has Thomas with a .231 average, .300 OBP and .394 slug for 2021.
HARRISON BADER: I’m not declaring a “breakout” season offensively for Bader in 2021. And I know all about his trouble with breaking pitches, which leads to a consistently bad strikeout rate.
However… unless you’re still stuck in the olden days and insist on judging hitters on BATTING AVERAGE and ONLY BATTING AVERAGE! … then you probably didn’t realize Bader did pretty well in 2020. He performed 13 percent above league average offensively, and that was third-best on the team behind Paul Goldschmidt and Brad Miller. The positives included a fine OBP (.336) and solid power (.443 slug.) That was a praiseworthy showing.
Bader — who bats from the right side — cannot do much with RHP, with a career .669 OPS against them. (And he’s 17 percent below league average offensively vs. the rights.)
But dude punishes LH pitching: .517 career slug, .853 OPS, and 25 percent above league average offensively.
Mike Trout, no. But based on the metrics, Bader has been an above-average hitter in two of his three full seasons. So when we look for current Cardinals who have the potential to enliven the offense, Bader is a candidate — that is, as long as he’s deployed properly. Clearly he would be an effective piece of a platoon if the Cardinals go get themselves a LH-swinging outfielder. And LH outfield bats are available. Bader would also get plenty of run as a late-inning defensive replacement in games he doesn’t start.
PAUL DEJONG: Since coming to the bigs in 2017, DeJong’s offense qualifies him as one of the better shortstops in MLB with the bat. Among the 26 shortstops that have at least 1,000 plate appearances since the beginning of 2017, DeJong ranks fifth in homers, ninth in slugging and 11th in OPS. So naturally we’ll include DeJ on the list of Cardinals that can step up in 2021 and improve the team’s offense internally.
Except … he’s trending the wrong way.
DeJong broke in with an .857 OPS as a rookie and hasn’t been above .763 in subsequent seasons. The metrics reveal a similar trend: 23 percent above league average offensively in 2017, then three percent above average in 2018, and exactly average in 2019, and 14 percent below average last season.
We can give DeJong a pass on what happened this past season; his performance was affected by a tough wallop from Covid 19. DeJong slugged .349 and just didn’t fire out. He’ll absolutely rebound from last season, and should continue to give the Cardinals some pop at the plate and smooth defense at shortstop.
I look at it two ways:
One, if we’re framing this as a matter of who will be better in 2021 to lift the offense above the malaise of 2020, DeJong is a top candidate… simply because of his significant downturn last season — mostly because of the illness and the relatively short time to return to full vigor.
Second, beyond that I’m not sure we should expect DeJong to take his offense to new levels over the next few seasons. The trends aren’t favorable. We’ll see. But we should be confident about DeJong having a bounce-back in 2021, and that will make the offense more imposing.
Thanks for reading …
You can hear Bernie’s sports-talk show each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 590 The Fan, KFNS. Or listen online by going to 590TheFan.com