Since the Cardinals recalled shortstop Paul DeJong from the minors and reinstalled him in the starting lineup, he’s made an immediate impact in two ways.
One, DeJong has started all eight games since returning to the majors and the Cardinals are 7-1. He’s had a lot to do with that by drawing walks, hitting for power, and driving in 10 runs. DeJong has six extra-base hits – three doubles, three homers – a .375 onbase percentage, .720 slug, and a 1.095 OPS.
Paulie’s 10 RBIs are the most on the team over the eight-game stretch. The Cardinals have 54 games to go, and DeJong will have his chance to prove that this is more than just a flash … and that he can make it last.
Two, DeJong’s presence has not only stretched the lineup and made it deeper, but his reemergence has given manager Oli Marmol more options to work with.
With DeJong at shortstop – at least for the time being – Marmol can go in a variety of ways with his middle infielders. With DeJong’s arrival, Tommy Edman has moved back to second base after starting most of the games at shortstop during DeJong’s time at Triple A Memphis.
But if Marmol wants to set his lineup in a certain way, he can (1) play Edman at shortstop and rookie Nolan Gorman at second base; (2) play Edman at second and DeJong at shortstop and use Gorman as the DH against right-handed pitchers; (3) plug rookie Brendan Donovan in at second base, with either DeJong or Edman at shortstop.
Donovan can play shortstop but it isn’t his strongest position defensively. That’s among the reasons why he’s played only 57 innings at short this season. But Donovan is a prominent piece of Marmol’s flex plan, having logged at least 46 innings at six different positions – including 100-plus innings at second base, third base, left field and right field.
Edman is a switch-hitter who is much stronger when swinging from the right side. When the right-handed swinging DeJong has had success in the past, he’s been a better hitter against RH pitchers than lefties. Donovan bats from the left side but has no problem with LH pitchers; his OPS is higher (.805) vs. lefties than righties (.767)
What about the defense? According to Fielding Bible, Edman leads all MLB fielders with 17 defensive runs saved this year with 11 at second base, six at shortstop. DeJong has saved six runs at shortstop since the beginning of 2021, and has saved 37 runs at the position since 2018. That ranks sixth among shortstops over the last five seasons.
Gorman has played average defense at second base, ranking 16th in the majors at the spot. Donovan has been below- average (minus 2 runs saved) at shortstop but is above average at second base (plus 1) and third base (plus 5.)
As we can see, even with several moving parts, the quality of defense at the middle-infield positions is of little concern.
The team’s position-player depth is increasing. And with Marmol having expanded choices available to him, it’s meant more plate appearances for some hitters, and fewer PA for others.
During the Cards 7-1 run, DeJong has 32 plate appearances and has played as much as first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, third baseman Nolan Arenado and center fielder Dylan Carlson. Outfielder Lars Nootbaar, who bats left, has 31 plate appearances over the last eight games, gaining prominence with rookie corner outfielder Juan Yepez out of action with a strained forearm. Nootbaar has batted .292 with a .387 onbase percentage in his last 31 plate appearances.
Edman and Gorman haven’t played as frequently; each has 22 plate appearances over the eight-game stretch. Edman’s offensive numbers continue to drop, and it makes sense to limit his at-bats against RHP.
And when Edman doesn’t start, he’ll be a valuable late-inning defensive replacement, capable of jumping in at second base or shortstop — and perhaps as an outfield substitute on occasion.
So Marmol is being more selective, knowing that he can always turn to a DeJong-Gorman middle-infield combo against certain starting pitchers. And along those lines, Marmol can go with Edman and DeJong against lefty pitchers and save the LH-swinging Gorman for more advantageous matchups.
Despite having only 22 PA since DeJong’s return, Gorman has turned in a strong offensive performance since July 30, batting .316 with a .409 OBP, .526 slug and .935 OPS. The same is true of B. Donovan, who has only 14 plate appearances over the team’s last eight games – and has a .300 average and .500 onbase percentage in his limited opportunities.
You know you’ve improved your depth when Gorman and Donovan are putting up those kinds of numbers but can’t crack the lineup as every-day players.
The same goes for Albert Pujols who has only seven plate appearances over the team’s last eight games. Among current Cardinals, only backup catcher Andrew Knizner has played less than Pujols over that time.
In July Pujols had four doubles, three homers, a .320 batting average and .944 OPS. He was rolling. Now he’s sitting. It’s a very good situation when the manager has so many choices … but some of the choices can be awfully difficult to make. The decrease in at-bats for Pujols is an obvious example.
Marmol will have to do more mixing and matching when Yepez is ready to go. The bopper is scheduled to start a minor-league rehab assignment on Tuesday night. Yepez can DH, play corner outfield, and fill in a little at first base. Yepez doesn’t play above-average defense at any position but has done the smallest amount of damage in right field.
Carlson is a fixture in center, and Marmol will stay with two-time Gold Glove winner Tyler O’Neill in left field – and hope that T.O. can turn his power back on. Nootbaar can play right field, or spell Carlson in center. And with the LH-hitting Nootbaar doing a solid job against RH pitching, you could see an unofficial Noot-Yepez platoon in right field. But this is tricky; Yepez has been substantially better against RH pitching (.798 OPS) than LH pitching (.594 OPS) this season.
And then there’s corner outfielder Corey Dickerson. He’s been terrific offensively in recent weeks, batting .324 with a .568 slug and .901 OPS since July 11. But will a Yepez return mean even fewer at-bats for Dickerson? Despite his upturn in productivity, Dickerson has only 24 plate appearances since the All-Star break.
And if Yepez is a factor at corner outfield, will Donovan spend more time in a reserve role? I ask because Donovan has played 117 innings in right field and 119 innings in left field this season. But now that O’Neill is back from the IL – with Yepez soon to follow – the outfield will be crowded … even with injured center fielder Harrison Bader traded to the Yankees for starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery.
I suppose all of this goes into the category of “good problems to have.”
From the moment he took the job last fall, Marmol envisioned a system that stressed having a more flexible and versatile group of position players that would give the Cardinals more favorable matchups against opposing-team pitchers.
Well, the Cardinals are getting there.
Let’s take a look:
— Last season right-handed hitters took 73 percent of the team’s plate appearances. That means only 27% of the PA were handled by left-handed hitters. (This calculation excludes plate appearances made by Cards pitchers in 2021.)
— This season, 64.4 percent of the plate appearances have been filled by RH batters, with the percentage of PA taken by LH batters increasing to 35.6%.
— Last season the Cardinals had a platoon-split advantage in 44.7 percent of their plate appearances, the lowest among the 15 NL teams. This season, with Marmol having more players to choose from, the Cardinals have the platoon-split advantage in 50.6 percent of their PA.
— The enhanced matchup possibilities are making a difference. Here’s why: based on park-and-league adjusted runs created, at eight percent above the MLB average the Cardinals rank 8th in the majors in offensive performance against RH pitchers. Last season they ranked 17th in performance vs. RHP at eight percent below average. That’s a 15 percent improvement against righthanders.
— And though the Cardinals were very good against LH pitching last season, ranking third in MLB at 15 percent above average, they’ve improved their performance against lefties in 2022 — ranking second at 20% above average.
— No surprise: St. Louis position players rank fourth in the majors with 21.1 WAR according to FanGraphs. Only the Yankees (26.9), Dodgers (26.9) and Mets (21.3) have more WAR from position players than St. Louis this season.
With an assist from the front office and player-development staff, Marmol has effectively used his personnel in a way that maximizes value. And without question, that’s one of the most important things a manager can do.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.