Good morning. Here’s the second part of my look at a potential upturn for an ineffectual and disappointing St. Louis offense over the final 72 regular-season games.
In Part One, I scanned Paul DeJong’s hitting profile to see if there’s a basis for second-half optimism. (Maybe.) Today, I’ll follow up on a popular topic by reviewing the front-office plan to go with a young outfield in 2021.
Is it working? Let’s explore…
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The question doesn’t go away. It’s been hanging over the franchise since last winter. With 90 games in the books and the Cardinals straining to score runs, a popular offseason topic remains relevant. And the question still doesn’t have a complete answer.
How is the outfield blueprint working out?
Depending how the starting STL outfield is stocked each day, the direction of Mike Shildt’s offense will sway to one side or the other on the performance scale. The outfield bats can make the offense rise. The outfield bats can make the offense fall.
As we entertain the possibility of a more lively, consistent and dangerous Cardinal lineup, the outfield is an essential part of the equation. And so much of this comes down to availability and growth.
When Tyler O’Neill charges through left field, Harrison Bader gallops in center, and Dylan Carlson covers the right-field gap and corner, the St. Louis outfield looks good. The athleticism is impressive. The offense pops. The defensive saves runs for the pitchers. The all-around energy crackles.
But when the starting threesome is busted up — after breaking down with injuries — the lack of depth exposes a consequential weakness, and the offense declines.
When the Cards outfield relies on the service of backups, the position fails to produce a healthy supply of offense. The defense is fine, but not as fast or rangy.
This has been an issue since spring training.
It isn’t a matter of who will hit the most; clearly the best bats belong to O’Neill, Carlson and Bader. And so this becomes more about the three starters avoiding injuries, staying viable, and going to the post as often as possible. And that’s a prime concern with O’Neill and Bader.
Bader missed the first 25 games of the regular season with a forearm strain that surfaced in spring training. After returning, Bader broke a rib while going for a diving catch vs. the White Sox on May 24. He was on the IL until July 1.
Injuries and illness have disrupted O’Neill’s constancy on multiple occasions this season. There was a groin strain, a busted finger, a sore hand, and a nasty reaction to a food allergy.
Carlson has been a fixture, playing in 88 of the team’s first 90 games, and already compiling 370 plate appearances. But with Bader out of action for all but 31 games this season, the Cardinals have leaned heavily on Carlson to be the fix-it guy. He’s started 57 games in center, 24 in right, and five in left. The rookie appeared tired at times in June and early July.
The problem, of course, is getting this charismatic three-man band to appear on stage at the same time. By my count the Cardinals have started a game with the intact outfield of O’Neill-Bader-Carlson only 17 times this season. And the three have started only four games together since May 25.
Because of the interruptions to the outfield continuity, the Cardinals have turned to Justin Williams, Tommy Edman, Lane Thomas, Lars Nootbaar, Austin Dean and Jose Rondon to man the corner outfield spots. Shildt had no real choice, especially on days when both Bader and O’Neill were unable to play.
That hasn’t gone well.
The front office declined to bring in a capable veteran fourth outfielder — preferably a left-handed bat — for depth protection. And when the injuries strike Bader and O’Neill, it leads to too many plate appearances for outfielders that can’t hit.
When O’Neill hasn’t been available to play left, his replacements there have combined to bat .188 with three homers, 13 RBIs and a 37 percent strikeout rate.
When Carlson moves to center to fill for Bader, the adjunct right fielders have combined to hit .189 with two homers and 13 RBIs.
The average OPS in the majors is .718 this season. That average is higher (.739) for outfielders. With that in mind, have a look at these individual OPS numbers for each STL outfielder.
- O’Neill, .879
- Bader, .748
- Carlson, .735
Carlson and Bader aren’t stacking formidable stats, but they certainly bring qualities to the lineup. Bader is slugging .439 and striking out only 15.8% of the time. Carlson has a healthy .343 onbase percentage and probably will generate more power. Carlson, who slugged .471 over his first 35 games, has a .345 SLG in his last 53 contests.
O’Neill leads the Cardinals in batting average (.275), OPS and slugging, (.546). He’s bashed 15 homers and 17 doubles, with 37 RBI. That’s a load of firepower from O’Neill in his 64 games as a starter.
Beyond the three designated starters here are the OPS figures — as outfielders — of the guys that have played the most.
- Edman, .646
- Williams, .469
- Nootbaar, ..454
- Thomas, .342
(Note: Austin Dean and Jose Rondon have only 31 combined at-bats while playing as outfielders this season. For what it’s worth, Dean had a .822 OPS when used as an outfielder; with Rondon the outfield OPS os .500.)
When O’Neill, Bader and Carlson have started the same game together, the Cardinals have averaged 5.1 runs with a record of 11-6.
With any other outfield combination the Cards have averaged 4.2 runs per game with a record of 33-40.
The longest extended run by the starting outfield came over a 16-game stretch that began with Bader’s return on April 30. From that point the Bader, Carlson and O’Neill trio started 13 of the next 16 games.
But O’Neill fractured a finger on a stolen-base attempt in mid-May, and the outfield had to cover yet another injury when Bader damaged his rib in late May.
Bader and O’Neill and Carlson didn’t reunite until the start of a three-city, nine-game road trip on July 1. But the desired alignment didn’t last long; after starting the first two games of a four-game set at Colorado, O’Neill had an allergic reaction to peanuts and started only two of the final seven games that led into the All-Star break.
Because of the injuries, the Cardinals have had O’Neill and Bader in the same starting lineup for only 18 of 90 games this season.
And that’s why the overall production by the St. Louis outfield is so disappointing.
For the season the St. Louis outfield contingent ranks:
➤22nd among the 30 MLB teams in homers
➤26th in RBI
➤20th in batting average
➤24th in onbase percentage
➤22nd in slugging
➤23rd in OPS.
As a group they’re batting .230 with a .310 OBP, .394 slug and .704 OPS.
But check this out: during the 16-game stretch earlier this season that featured Bader-Carlson-O’Neill in the same lineup 13 times, the STL outfield was 5th in the majors batting average, 8th in OBP, 8th in slugging, 8th in OPS, and was tied for 5th in homers.
We saw a sample of what the three could do together when healthy. That includes plus defense and baserunning. O’Neill is tied for 5th among MLB left fielders with five defensive runs saved. In his limited appearances, Bader has four defensive runs saved in center. And Carlson is a plus one in defensive runs saved in right.
So if you ask me how the outfield plan is going, I’d have to say this: when the Cardinals can start their three regulars they have reasons to be hopeful and excited.
But when the three starters aren’t intact, the St. Louis outfield rates among the worst offensively in the majors. The stats are clear on that.
O’Neill and Bader have a history of injuries, so there was no reason for the front-office to be caught off guard by the ensuing chaos. No, the baseball bosses should have been prepared to deal with such turmoil. It was essential to have a more potent backup plan in place, but management felt otherwise.
And for the Cardinals, the crucial miscalculation left a largely unproven outfield even more vulnerable and exposed. That’s arguably the No. 1 reason for an offense that gradually weakened over the first 90 games.
Thanks for reading …
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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.