In 2022, first-year manager Oli Marmol did a superb job of coordinating the traffic at the designated hitter spot.
At the end of the regular season the St. Louis DH crew led the National League in homers (29) and ranked sixth or better in the majors in RBI, slugging percentage and park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+).
Sure, Albert Pujols did a lot of the heavy lifting. But it wasn’t as simple as that. During the first three months of the season, Pujols had 106 plate appearances at DH and struggled with a .222 average, a low .367 slug and only three home runs.
Pujols erupted over the final three months, looking like the younger, peak-form version of himself by putting up massive power numbers during the triumphant chase for 700 homers that thrilled fans in St. Louis and beyond.
But if you’re wondering about who will replace the retired Pujols at DH in 2023, here’s your answer: no one and everyone.
No one? Yes. No single individual can replicate Pujols’ performance over the final three months. In 134 plate appearances as a DH over that time, Pujols slammed 13 home runs and slugged .570. As I’ve written before, even Pujols couldn’t match what he did last season if he had decided to come back this year.
If you’re looking for an available full-time designated hitter to succeed Pujols, well, that person doesn’t exist. The Pujols’ experience was unique – 42 years old, final season, baseball-loving town, glorious homecoming, and the last, spectacular bash for one of the top hitters in MLB history. How do you match that? Can’t be done.
Everyone? Yes. Just about. In 2022 Marmol distributed DH plate appearances to 14 different Cardinals, with seven having at least 44. Pujols handled 36.4 percent of the DH plate appearances, the most by a Cardinal. But that means 63.6 percent of the DH duties were given to others.
Marmol’s plan to ease the physical workload for first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Nolam Arenado by using them at DH was a smart way to go.
Combining their contributions, Goldy and Nado had 24.8 percent of the team’s plate appearances at DH last year and collectively batted .302 with a .525 slugging percentage. When placed at DH, Arenado and Goldschmidt were 69% and 54% (respectively) above average offensively per wRC+.
As Pujols labored to find his stroke through the end of June, the Cardinals had solutions. Goldschmidt, Arenado and Juan Yepez stepped up to supply premium offense at DH.
In only 124 combined DH appearances through June, Goldschmidt, Arenado and Yepez each slugged well above .500, were collectively 190 percent above average (wRC+) and came through with eight doubles, nine homers and 28 RBI. That’s damn good.
With minimal contributions from Pujols during the first three months, the Cardinals still had the eighth-best DH performance in the majors – and third-best in the NL.
The designated committee worked. Over the entire season, rookies Yepez and Nolan Gorman combined for eight homers at DH. Another rookie, Brendan Donovan, finessed an excellent .395 onbase percentage and was 20% above league average offensively when slotted at DH.
Question: if the Cardinals were able to generate such elite offense at DH at a time when Pujols was at his low point or playing first base, then why can’t the Redbirds do the same in 2023?
That’s a crucial point that’s been overlooked.
And I think it tells us something about what to expect at DH in 2023.
As we know, the Cardinals have a surplus of outfielders heading into 2023. There are the de facto incumbents, Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Lars Nootbaar. There’s Yepez, who slugged .447 as a rookie. There’s the phenom, Jordan Walker. There’s Donovan, who had 143 PA as an outfielder last season. There’s rookie Alec Burleson, who should develop into an above-average MLB hitter, with power, in due time.
With Pujols retired, Corey Dickerson signed by the Nationals, and counting a few low-level departures, the Cardinals will have 300 plate appearances available for 2023. That’s because 45.5% of their plate appearances at DH in 2022 were filled by hitters who are no longer with the organization.
Considering Marmol’s creativity in the way he deployed his designated hitters last season, I’m looking forward to seeing what he’ll come up with in 2023.
Depth … is … good.
Depth can cover for injuries. Depth can cover for tired players who need days off. Depth can be used to arrange the best hitter vs. pitcher matchups. Depth will give Marmol more choices, flexibility and expanded freedom to maneuver. Depth will give Marmol the opportunity to use the DH role as a valuable outlet for talented hitters.
Marmol correctly focuses on platoon-split advantages and matchups, so we’ll see many outfield configurations in 2023. We shouldn’t fixate on having a “set” outfield. Not when we can expect the team’s outfielders to be plugged into Marmol’s vast DH network.
The same goes for new starting catcher Willson Contreras. He never started more than 123 games in a season at catcher for the Cubs, so he’ll be a factor at DH for St. Louis. In 58 games as a DH for Chicago, Contreras had a .365 OBP, .445 slug, .810 OPS and was 28 percent above league average offensively. Though Contreras will catch more games here than he did in Chicago, he’s still another DH asset for Marmol.
Yepez (bats right) and Burleson (bats left) could form a DH platoon of sorts – but will both players make the opening-day roster? Gorman and Donovan will take some turns at DH; how many, I don’t know.
With so many options, there is no script for this. If you give Marmol a chance to tinker with 300 available plate appearances at DH, I’m confident he’ll find a way to make the best of it. Just as he did in 2022.
As always, thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.
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.