In the pursuit of a higher-caliber catcher, the Cardinals can go for a free agent or make a substantive trade. Prospects aside, the Redbirds would likely draw plenty of trade interest in several of their young hitters who bat from the left side.
The three I have in mind are outfielder Lars Nootbaar, second baseman and DH Nolan Gorman, and switch-hitting center fielder Dylan Carlson. All three are cost-controlled and affordable. All three have major-league experience. All three have hit for power, or displayed onbase skill, or shown talent in both areas.
A thumb injury messed up Carlson’s swing and unplugged his home-run power in 2022 but he’s a strong bounce-back candidate for 2023. Despite his down season at age 23, Carlson still ended up with a league-average mark (100 wRC+) in park-and-league adjusted runs created.
Gorman, a 22-year-old rookie, succumbed to a late-season strikeout plague that ate into his slugging percentage. But he still performed seven percent above league average offensively (per WRC+) and will learn and adjust and develop into a more consistent power source.
Nootbaar, 25, has above-average speed and plays good defense at all three outfield positions. According to Statcast, Nootbaar has elite bat speed and possesses throwing-arm strength that puts him in the top six percent of MLB outfielders. Last season he evolved into a top-20 hitter in the majors during the final three months of the 2022 regular season, ranking 14th in wRC+ (149), 14th in OPS (.881), 16th in OBP (.374) and 17th in slugging (.507) among big-league hitters that had at least 270 plate appearances over that time.
Why am I focusing on those three players?
1. Well, first of all their names are prominent in trade-exploration discussions. Teams are coveting left-handed hitters with more gusto.
2. Their left-handed swings have extra value in present-day baseball. There’s a glaring shortage of impact LH bats on rosters and in the offseason marketplace. Left-handed hitters aren’t exactly becoming extinct, but there are a lot fewer of them now, and the trend is surprising … perhaps even stunning.
3. In 2022, only 39.5 percent of the total MLB plate appearances were taken by LH batters – the lowest rate since 1989. And as the New York Post noted, LH hitters had a lower OPS than RH hitters for the third year in a row. Before this current three-season streak, left-side batters had a higher OPS than RH hitters in every season since the beginning of the DH era in 1973.
4. In 2022, left-handed batters collectively posted their lowest batting average (.236), lowest onbase percentage (.311) and lowest OPS (.697) over the last 21 seasons. And their collective slugging percentage, .386, was the lowest since 2014 and second-lowest in the last 21 seasons.
5. The ban of the defensive shifts is coming to a ballpark near you in 2023, and that will greatly benefit lefty batters. They’ll no longer have to deal with fielder congestion to take away hits on batted balls to the right side. Over the last five MLB seasons, LH batters hit .221 on ground balls compared to the .244 ground-ball batting average by RH batters. And during the five seasons the overall batting average on balls in play was .297 for RH bats and .289 for LH bats. Last season shifts were banned at Class A and Class AA in the minors. The result: the batting average on ground balls increased nine points (up to .249) for LH batters and stayed pretty much the same for RH batters.
(Starting in 2023, all four infielders will be required to have their feet on the infield dirt when the pitcher is on the mound, two infielders must be stationed on each side of the second-base bag. Another example of the new rules: if Tommy Edman is in the lineup as a shortstop, he won’t be able to move over to the right side of the infield to trade places with the second basemen when a left-handed hitter is at the plate. Teams can’t relocate fielders based on the expectations where the ball will likely be hit.)
All of this explains why left-swinging batters are in greater demand this winter. Now you know why the Yankees were so quick to re-sign the lefty-swinging first baseman Anthony Rizzo to a new two-year, $40 million contract early this offseason. You know why the Giants didn’t hesitate to secure LH-hitting outfielder Joc Pederson with a $19.65 million qualifying offer that he accepted.
This is why the Pirates signed switch-hitter Carlos Santana to make a bet on his potential rise in numbers in a shift-free game. This is why teams are lined up to sign former Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger despite his two consecutive substandard seasons offensively. And this is why we can expect old friend Matt Carpenter to get a good contract from a team this offseason. Likewise, we can anticipate heightened interest in outfielder Michael Conforto, who missed all of 2021 after undergoing shoulder surgery. Only six free-agent position players had been signed as of Wednesday morning; four of the six bat left or switch hit
In 2022 the Blue Jays had the fewest plate appearances in the majors by LH batters and are striving for more lineup balance in 2023. That’s one of the main reasons why the Jays traded outfielder Teoscar Hernandez to Seattle on Nov. 16. Hernandez is really good; over the last two seasons he’s popped 57 home runs, slugged .508, and won two Silver Slugger awards. But Hernandez bats right-handed, and the Blue Jays desired to open space for a left-handed hitting outfielder to be acquired later.
The Cardinals could be part of the plan. They’re shopping for a catcher, and the Blue Jays have three: Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen and (less likely) top–level prospect Gabriel Moreno for the right guy … or more on point, the “left” guy … as in left-handed bat. The Toronto media has focused on Nootbaar as a potential acquisition in return for a catcher.
I’ve been surprised by the enthusiasm expressed by a percentage of Cardinal fans who sure seem enthusiastic about the idea of moving Gorman, Carlson or Nootbaar.
This past season the Cardinals ranked 20th in the majors in plate appearances by left-handed hitters. They were 14th in slugging percentage (.388) by LH hitters. Their LH batters averaged a home run every 37.7 at-bats overall – and hit a homer every 40 at-bats against righty pitchers. Overall the Cardinals had a better performance by lefty hitters this season compared to 2021 – but still need more slugging capability.
Gorman and Nootbaar combined for 28 home runs last season, and a healthy Carlson hit 13 homers from the left side in 2021. And even though Carlson struggled in 2022 he still managed to lash 30 doubles.
Unless the Cardinals make a trade and acquire legitimate left-handed power in return, they’d weaken an area that’s already an issue. Only 37.5 percent of their plate appearances last season were made by LH batters. At a time when MLB teams are yearning to address this new shortage by increasing their supply of LH power, the Cardinals need to think hard before thinning their own limited supply of LH power this offseason.
As always, thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. 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 which is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, The Athletic and the New York Post.
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.