With 51 games to go on the schedule, 2021 has been a disappointing experience for the Cardinals and their fans.
I don’t need to review the reasons for the team’s mediocrity or the sources of frustration; I write about that stuff nearly every day. The Cardinals have lowered their standards, and it’s sad. Perhaps next season we’ll see the Cardinals market an entertaining, title-contending team instead of constantly trafficking in franchise nostalgia. Why not aspire to create new good old days?
Today I’m in the mood for some Happy Talk. No, really, I am. The season hasn’t been all bad. The positives are there, even if we have to make sure to look for them. I’ve been entertained by several Cardinals players this season. I have enjoyed watching them play. At my house, these guys are worthy of a watch party.
1) Adam Wainwright: Almost 40 years old, he’s showing the youngsters how it’s supposed to be done. This isn’t a golden-oldie pitcher. He just happens to be a starting pitcher who is golden. If you’re a music fan you may know what it’s like to go see a concert. Your favorite performer is in town. His voice isn’t what it used to be, and the energy level is down. Depending on his age, the star may be unsteady at times. You don’t care about any of that. You love the concert because you love the artist and you treasure music for being a part of your life.
With Wainwright, you get the “best of” every time he pitches. There is never a reason to wince. He continues to play the greatest hits and they sound as good as ever — he’s still singing like it’s 2006. This isn’t a case of an aging pitcher, hanging on in his 16th season, laboring to the finish line near the end of his career. This is a man who performs exceptionally well in his 16th season.
Wainwright is the Cardinals’ best starting pitcher. He stands among the top starters in the National League this season. He combines endurance with quality and there is a joy to his work. On days when he doesn’t pitch, Wainwright enlivens the dugout, and it’s always cool to see the younger pitchers gathered around him, talking ball or engaging in light banter. And does anyone cheer on his teammates with as much spirit as Wainwright? He is the touchstone.
Waino doesn’t throw as hard as he used to, but that doesn’t matter. Wainwright remains effective because he’s using all that he’s learned through the years. He’s creative, versatile, cunning, and smart as could be. He uses many different instruments. He usually wins the mind games with the hitters. And he had fantastic accomplices in Yadier Molina, and Uncle Charlie.
When Wainwright pitches at Busch Stadium, it’s a happy occasion. The ballpark hums with extra energy. Fans are excited. They’re seeing one of the all-time great Cardinal pitchers, and he’s still in command. His teammates are confident. You are confident. As you walk into Busch and take your seat, you can feel good about the Cards’ chances of winning that day, simply because Wainwright is out there, standing on the top of his hill, about to give us another “best of” outing. It’s a beautiful sight.
2) Nolan Arenado: It’s a pleasure to have him stationed at third base, the best in the business at his position. Eyes moving, mind processing, body tensing. Seeing everything. Anticipating every possibility. A big cat poised to pounce. I’ve never seen a third baseman who routinely guns perfect throws from awkward angles and impossible positions.
Offensively, Arenado is having a better season than he gets credit for. His OPS+ — which is onbase+slugging percentage, adjusted for ballpark effects — is 125. That’s 25 percent above the league average and higher than Arenado’s 121 OPS+ in eight seasons with the Rockies. He’s slugging .500 with 22 homers, 28 doubles and 68 RBI. He’s third in the NL in total bases, fourth in extra-base hits, seventh in RBI, and leads the Cardinals with a .344 average and 1.020 OPS with runners in scoring position.
Even at the plate, Arenado’s live-wire intensity is part of the spectacle; he just never gears down. His high-voltage nervous energy is converted into baseball electricity. You can almost read his mind as he instantly analyzes the last pitch, glances at the pitcher, and resets his natural hitter’s instincts to seek the advantage. Arenado matches St. Louis because there is high-temperature heat to his game.
I’m already looking forward to 2022, seeing Arenado after he’s had a full season to adjust to Busch Stadium, and a new city. Hopefully Cardinals management will put a better team around Arenado and not waste another season.
3) Harrison Bader: There’s a circus maximus aspect to his all-around game. You know, without the gladiators. Without Pompey organizing a contest pitting barbarians against elephants. Harry does, however, does look like a dude who should be driving a chariot in some berserk daredevil competition.
It’s just been fun to watch Bader put knowledge and maturity and the finishing touches in his game over the last two seasons. This year he’s rebounded from two injuries to put together his best season offensively, at least so far: 52 games, 204 plate appearances, nine homers, 27 RBI, .275 average, .343 OBP, .473 slug. His OPS+ is a career-high 125, and that’s coming off his 114 OPS+ a year ago.
Since the start of last season Bader has played in 102 games, performing at 21 percent above the league average offensively in OPS+. There are doubles, triples, homers, stolen bases. He combines a strong mix of speed, defense and power. There are wild pursuits of airborne baseballs, mad dashes on the basepaths, and massive style points for the TV cameras.
There’s a difference now: the flashiness has substance. That’s because of Bader’s evolved hitting approach. He isn’t in the clear yet; some bad habits returned during the last homestand. (Too much hacking, too many strikeouts.) If his improvement is real, Bader quickly will regroup and get back to implementing his improved plate discipline. That’s been the key to his upturn. He’s cut down on chasing out of zone pitches, and is swinging and connecting more frequently with pitches in the strike zone.
The result is a much higher contact rate, and a strikeout rate that’s dropped to 18 percent this season after hovering around 29% in his first three-plus seasons. Bader seems to have figured it out. And as long as he can avoid reverting to the hack-attack mode, the Cardinals can count on receiving impactful, above-average offense to go along with his terrific defense.
Bader is third among MLB center fielders in defensive runs saved this season despite playing a relatively low number of innings because of the injuries. Since the start of the 2018 season, only Kevin Kiermaier and Lorenzo Cain have saved more runs defensively in center field.
Bader’s defense can be acrobatic, showy, and almost always a high-speed chase. Well, charismatic defense is entertaining. Good hitting is entertaining. Bader is earning a starring role on the stage.
4) Tyler O’Neill: You didn’t think I’d forgotten about Bro’Neill, did you? In 2021 we’ve seen why the Cardinals (A) acquired him; (B) remained patient with him; (C) held onto him with the belief that he’d pay off. And that’s pretty much what’s happening this season.
Could the left-field hulk do better? Sure. Reducing the 31 percent strikeout rate is one way. Staying healthy and going to the post to is another way for O’Neill to increase his impact.
That said, let’s have some perspective here. Before this season O’Neill was a prospect that hadn’t delivered on his considerable talent and potential. Many doubted him, and with good reason. Prospects that can’t make a breakthrough eventually become suspects. And O’Neill was headed in that direction, his prospect shine fading.
O’Neill leads Cardinals’ regulars in batting average (.280), onbase percentage (.346), slugging percentage (.518) and OPS+ (138.) He’s second with 18 homers, and fifth with 41 RBIs.
That OPS+ puts O’Neill at 38 percent above league average offensively and ranks 10th among NL hitters that have at least 340 plate appearances this season.
And check this out: through Monday only seven NL hitters have assembled this combination so far in 2021: a minimum .280 average, minimum .345 OBP, minimum .500 slug, minimum 18 homers., and a minimum of nine stolen bases.
The seven are Fernando Tatis Jr., Bryce Harper, Ronald Acuna Jr., Trea Turner, Manny Machado, Brandon Crawford and Tyler O’Neill. And O’Neill has saved more runs defensively (eight) than the others in this group. If you ask me, that’s pretty special.
The tools are imposing. O’Neill’s average exit velocity ranks seventh in the majors. His percentage of barrelling pitches ranks fourth. His “sweet spot” percentage is sixth, right there with Joey Votto. His sprint speed is 14th. (All according to Statcast.) And for the second straight season, O’Neill leads all MLB left fielders in defensive runs saved.
Max muscle. Hard contact. Fast on his feet. Steals bases. Has picked up eight extra bases this season when advancing on batted balls. He covers more ground than any left fielder in the majors. He’s going after his second consecutive Gold Glove award.
If this isn’t the so-called complete package, it’s close. O’Neill is entertaining because he’s capable of delivering spectacular moments: moonshot home runs, flying catches, sprinting his way to a run.
I didn’t rank these guys in order based on preference. I’m not grading them, per se. But just so we’re clear, I think Tyler O’Neill is the most exciting all-purpose position player on the 2021 Cardinals. But the opinion is subjective.
5) Yadier Molina: look, we have to be honest here. The massive number of miles on his catcher’s body is having an effect. He’s always played with pain, but this year it’s more evident and obvious. He’s not as bouncy behind the plate. This is not a criticism; it’s just the simple reality. Molina is in his 18th MLB season. He’s caught in 2,118 regular-season games, logging 17,359 innings. He’s 39 years old. No catcher could remain spry after 20+ years (including the minors) of hard baseball labor behind the plate, handling the toughest and most punishing job in the sport. There will be a serious discussion concerning his future with the Cardinals beyond 2021. There is no need to get into that now.
Molina’s imposing and intimidating presence remains full. Run on him at your own risk. Stray too far from first base at your own risk. Go ahead and look at his 88 OPS+ (12 percent below league average offensively) and assume that he’s a much easier out compared to his peak seasons of 2011 through 2013.
And that’s when Molina will get you. With his arm. With his bat. With his wisdom. With his competitive but controlled ferocity. His career excellence defensively is well established and secured into history.
Let’s talk about something else: in a big spot, with a game on the line, this is the man you want. Over the last 10 seasons, Molina leads MLB catchers with a .306 batting average with runners in scoring position (minimum 500 plate appearances.) And if you go all the way back to 2005, Molina’s first full season in the bigs, only Joe Mauer posted a higher average than Molina among catchers when batting with runners in scoring position. And unlike Mauer, Molina hasn’t spent his final years playing first base.
Molina is still getting it done at money time. This season he’s batting .306 with runners in scoring position, .350 with RISP and two out, and .300 in Late & Close situations. When presented with an RBI opportunity, Molina has driven in a run at a rate of 35.2 percent. Among Cardinals regulars only Arenado (36.8%) has done better.
Molina is entertaining because he’s an action figure with a big arm, big rep, big brain, and a big bat when his team needs it most. He’s a future Hall of Fame catcher who still does Hall of Fame things in the summer of 2021. He’s still the nerve center of Cardinals baseball.
Scowling or smiling, he’s guardian of Cardinals baseball. And his stature within the game still resonates. He may not be universally adored, but he is universally respected. And I love the way Molina tends to the home-plate umpire when they’re struck by a foul ball, and are suffering in pain. He’s right at their side, helping them get through it. And you can tell that the umpires appreciate him. He’s the guardian of home plate too.
Even in a disappointing season he still represents everything good about a classic, historically prestigious franchise. When you see him, you realize that you are watching one of the all-time great catchers in MLB history. And that still ignites pride and passion.
Thanks for reading …
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.