As is, the Cardinals should have a better offense in 2022, and I’m pretty confident about that. I’ll give you my reasons in a couple of minutes. But first, I have two things to say before we get started.
First, I hope the St. Louis front office adds another good bat, preferably from the left side, for depth and DH purposes. That would help the cause. We’ll see.
Next, we don’t know what the ‘22 plans are for rookies Juan Yepez, Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan. Not sure when they’ll officially graduate to the big club. Not sure how often they’ll play. Not sure if they’ll spend the season shuttling between St. Louis and Triple A Memphis. We’ll almost certainly see these guys play for the 2022 Cardinals – but beyond that, it’s all speculative.
Finally, let’s recap what happened in 2021. The Cardinals finished 20th in the majors and 10th in the NL in runs per game, 4.36. Their .244 batting average was 11th overall, 5th in the NL. Their onbase percentage (.313) was 19th overall, 11th in the NL. The slugging percentage (.412) was 13th overall, and 7th in the NL.
The Cardinals’ .725 OPS made them a middle-of-the-pack offense in the majors and in the NL. But when we adjust for ballpark and league factors, the Cardinals performed slightly above average offensively for 2021.
It was absolutely a split season for the St. Louis offense, with their hitters lagging significantly below average in the opening three months of the season, only to rise substantially after that.
So why do I believe the Cardinals will generate more offense in 2022?
I’m happy to explain.
1) The late-season 17-game winning streak was wild and wonderful, but their offense was improving before the team went on a historical run.
There’s skepticism out there, with folks assuming that the overall season numbers were distorted by the outsized 17-game streak. The offense wasn’t good, I’ve been told. That crazy 17-0 outbreak made the offense look better than it really was.
No, not really. Or not as much as you assume.
Of course the Cardinals were scorching while winning 17 in a row; that’s why it’s called a hot streak. They averaged 6.8 runs per game, slugged .540 and had a .881 OPS. During the torrent that began Sept. 11 and ended Sept. 28, the Cardinals had 643 plate appearances. That represents only 21 percent of their total plate appearances over the final three months of the regular season. The Cardinals hit their offensive peak over the 17 games that changed their season – but their offense made a positive turn weeks before the highlight stretch of the schedule.
Through the end of June – at the 81-game mark – the Cardinals were averaging only 3.9 runs per game, ranking 28th in the majors in runs scored. Their stats were weak across the board: .226 batting average, .299 OBP, .376 slug, .675 OPS. Based on park and league adjusted runs created (wRC+) the Cardinals were 15 percent below average offensively over the first three months. Bad.
But from July 1 until the start of the 17-game winning spree, the Cardinals ranked 7th in the majors in runs scored, averaging 4.5 per game. During the 59-game warming trend that led to their 17-0 sprint, the Cardinals batted .255, had a .325 OPS, slugged .424, had a .749 OPS, and were five percent above league average offensively based on wRC+. The birds with the bats were moving in the right direction.
To underline the point, here’s their monthly wRC+ figure for 2021; keep in mind that 100 is exactly league average:
As you can see the trend went from cold to colder … and then began to heat up over time, month-by-month. This was a different and more productive offense over the final three months of the regular season, with the 17-game outburst rolled into that. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that this team failed to hit at an above-average level over the two-plus months that preceded the streak. It isn’t true. That streak represented a culmination of a work in progress. The Cardinals had a bad offense for three months, then a good offense for three months. And both parts came in fair and equal 81-game sample sizes. The upturn wasn’t a fluke; there were concrete reasons for it. More than anything it was a matter of getting the preferred set of hitters into the lineup and keeping them there.
2) The three-month surge on offense was directly tied to the continuity of starting outfielders Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson.
And if all three stay reasonably healthy in 2022, the positive performance should continue. That’s my No. 1 reason for optimism on the ‘22 offense.
In the first three months of the 2021 season, injuries limited the playing time of Bader (especially) and O’Neill. That resulted in 137 plate appearances to rookie outfielder Justin Williams, and from the start of the season through the end of June he batted .160 with a horrendous 34% strikeout rate.
Over the first three months the St. Louis outfielders ranked 21st in MLB in batting average (.234). 21st in OBP (.308), 21st in slugging (.396), 25th in OPS (.704) and 25th in wRC+ (90.)
No surprise there; over the first three months O’Neill, Bader and Carlson started only 15 games together in the outfield. The planned starting outfield was intact for only 18.5% of the team’s first 81 games.
Through the first 81 games Bader, O’Neill, Carlson and Lars Nootbaar combined for 665 plate appearances. Over the final 81 games, that foursome combined for 977 PA. Big, big difference.
Accordingly the offense took flight.
Bader returned from a broken rib on July 1. And from that point until the end of the regular season here’s what the STL outfield cranked out offensively:
– 129 wRC+, meaning 29% above league average. That was third in the majors and No. 1 in the NL.
– .283 average, 2nd in MLB and 1st in NL.
– .347 OBP, 5th overall and 4th in NL.
– .502 slug, 3rd overall, 1st in NL.
– .849 OPS, 5th overall, 3rd in NL.
– .219 Isolated Power (ISO), 4th overall, 2nd NL.
– 47 homers, 4th overall, 2nd NL.
– 131 RBI, 9th overall, 5th NL.
There wasn’t any miracle fix to the lineup. The Cardinals found their groove as soon as they could start O’Neill, Bader and Carlson in the same outfield on a regular basis – with rookie Nootbaar coming up from Memphis to provide a late boost. It was a matter of Bader getting healthy, and O’Neill staying healthy, and O’Neill establishing elevated consistency once he settled in. And after pushing through rookie fatigue in July, Carlson kicked in again over the final two-plus months, batting .301 with a .503 slug and .867 OPS. He was 34 percent above league average offensively over that time.
From July 1 through the end of the regular season O’Neill, Bader and Carlson collectively hit 30 percent above the league average offensively based on wRC+. And if you look at their numbers individually, there’s nothing irregular that points to an outlier. Bader has improved in each of the last two seasons, Carlson improved in the second half of his rookie season, and O’Neill’s formidable talent has been there all along.
And with the outfield in place to deliver high-caliber offense — just as management hoped for – it was no surprise when the Cardinals came through with one of MLB’s best offenses over the final three months of ’21. Their 109 wRC+ was 7th overall, and No. 2 in the National League.
3) Paul Goldschmidt returned to peak-phase form over the final four months of 2021. And even if he tapers off some in 2022, he’ll still be a big plus for this offense.
In 453 plate appearances from June 1 through the end of the season, Goldy slashed and bashed his way to a .322 average, .395 OBP, .583 slug, .978 OPS, 25 homers, 25 doubles, and a wRC+ tha put him 62 percent above league average offensively. Goldschmidt ignited long before the team went on its 17-0 rampage. And while I assume those numbers will come down in 2022, he’ll still be plenty productive and will continue to serve as a valuable catalyst.
4) Nolan Arenado should be more consistent in his second season as a Cardinal.
Arenado’s 34 homers and 105 runs batted in were terrific, and he capped 2021 with another Gold Glove for his defense at third base. But over the final three months of the season he batted .242, had a low (.305) OBP, and his slugging percentage fell to .474 — this, after his .513 slug through the end of June. Moving into Busch Stadium wasn’t an easy transition for him, and I’m betting Arenado will make adjustments and be more comfortable in 2022. He’s a smart player who should know what to do: reduce his fly ball rate by hitting more line drives, and hitting the ball to all fields instead of lapsing into pull-heavy habits. Last season Arenado had career highs for a season in fly-ball rate (49.8%) and pull rate (also 49.8%.) And all of his 34 homers were pulled to left field.
5) This may be wishful thinking, but the Cardinals shouldn’t be throwing away as many at-bats in 2022.
Last season Matt Carpenter and Justin Williams had a combined 386 plate appearances. Paul DeJong had 402 plate appearances. That’s 788 PA for three dudes that combined for a .175 average and .595 OPS. Carpenter and Williams won’t be a part of the 2022 Cardinals. DeJong will get another chance to prove he isn’t swirling down the drain offensively. If he hits, no problem. I’m thinking he’ll rebound — but how much. Hitting at Busch Stadium has been brutal for DeJong, so what will change? If DeJong doesn’t hit much but is given steady at-bats, it will be a blow to the credibility of rookie manager Oliver Marmol.
6) If Marmol is as smart as I think he is, he’ll put together a more coherent lineup than his predecessor.
Last season, over the first three months of the season, then-Cards manager Mike Shildt gave O’Neill only eight at-bats in the No. 3 spot and 32 at–bats as the No. 4 hitter. The Cardinals’ offense clicked when Shildt finally moved O’Neill into the third lineup slot.
And if I’m right in believing that Marmol understands the value of a high onbase percentage in the leadoff spot, then he’ll find another lineup location for second baseman Tommy Edman. Since the start of the 2019 season Edman’s .312 leadoff OBP ranks 26th among 28 hitters that have at least 560 plate appearances in the No. 1 spot. And among the leadoff men that have at least 250 plate appearances vs. righthanded pitching over the past three seasons, Edman’s .307 OBP at leadoff ranks No. 46 among 49 hitters.
I’m also going to assume that Marmol will make effective use of more frequent platoons – and he won’t be afraid of the players’ disapproval when changing the lineup around in ways veterans aren’t used to or fond of. But really, it’s time to manage the team in a way that’s best for the team. That’s one area of scrutiny that awaits Marmol in his rookie year.
Maximizing the lineup potential is important to maximizing the offense.
7) The Cardinals shouldn’t have to endure such an extensive stretch of bad luck in 2022.
In 2021, the Cardinals had a .268 batting average on batted balls in play during the first three months of the season; that ranked 29th among the 30 teams. For context, last season the MLB average on balls in play was .292. Through the end of June, the Cardinals were unfortunate in hitting a lot of balls – hard – into the defense. Their persistence paid off with a .305 average on batted balls in play over the final three months. Once the luck changed, the offense got going.
This also applied to their performance when hitting with runners in scoring position last season. In the first three months the Cards had a .260 average on batted balls in play with RISP. Bad luck. But in the final three months they had a .337 average on batted balls in play with runners in scoring position. Better luck! Then again, that .337 was definitely on the high side of the luck scale, and that’s probably unsustainable going forward. But the luck factor will be in play in 2022 – one way or another.
8) If the National League adopts the full-time DH for 2022, it provides another outlet for an impact bat.
But please don’t ask me to predict how those at-bats will be distributed. The picture is fuzzy. That’s another challenge for Marmol, and I think he’ll do a good job of making it work. He’s a platoon guy, and DH can be a platoon spot, filled based on matchups.
9) At FanGraphs, the annual ZiPS forecast from our friend Dan Szymborski is favorable for 2022.
ZiPS projects above-average offensive seasons for Arenado, Goldschmidt, O’Neill, Carlson, Bader and Yepez; an improved (and average) season for Edman; and a modest rebound for DeJong.
The takeaway from Dan: “If anything, the lineup looks more stable than it did last year at this point. The outfield looks pretty clearly set with O’Neill, Bader, and Carlson, with no Dexter Fowler hanging around trying to finish out a long-term deal. The uncertainty surrounding Matt Carpenter has cleared up. He never played well enough in 2021 to cause any positional controversy and was basically reduced to pinch-hitting duties by the end of the season. I’m still not sure how shortstop will shake out, but I’m happy with either DeJong or Edmundo Sosa there next year. In DeJong’s case, his overall 2021 season (with his defense) was much better than the common perception. There isn’t even a will they/won’t they about bringing back Yadier Molina; he signed in August for a farewell campaign in 2022. While the lineup is basically set, the Cardinals wouldn’t be hurt by adding a role player or two to the roster. The cupboard in that department looks relatively thin, especially for this organization.”
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.