1) We know that Willson Contreras is bringing power-packed offense to the catcher position in St. Louis. Among active MLB catchers that have at least 2,000 plate appearances since Contreras arrived in the majors in 2016, he ranks third in career slugging percentage (.459). But his .349 career onbase percentage will also be a huge upgrade for the Cardinals. St. Louis catchers haven’t an OBP above .300 in a season since 2016. And from 2017 through 2022, Yadier Molina and his catching assistants collectively generated a poor .291 percentage that ranked 24th at the position among the 30 teams. Contreras will not only drive in runs, but he’ll set up more run-scoring opportunities for teammates. His bat will make a difference.
2) This ties into something I’ve been thinking about: the Cardinals should be an outstanding OBP team in 2023. Last season the Cardinals posted a team .325 onbase percentage that was tied for fourth–best in the majors. That represented a significant improvement from 2021, when the Cards ranked 19th with their below-league average .313 OBP. In 2022, their .325 OBP came in a season of suppressed offense in the majors and was the highest by a St. Louis team since the 2017 squad had a .334 onbase rate.
3) The Cardinals have added some OBP-rich hitters in recent years including Paul Goldschmidt, Brendan Donovan, Nolan Arenado, Lars Nootbaar and Dylan Carlson. Contreras joins the High OBP Club in 2023. There’s a direct correlation between onbase percentage and scoring runs. We saw that again last season when the Redbirds were tied for fourth in the majors in OBP, and tied for fifth with an average of 4.77 runs per game.
4) Pardon my redundancy, but … I still can’t believe the Cardinals made only one meaningful move this past offseason after being handed a gift by Arenado, who declined to opt out of his contract and recommitted to the Cards through 2027. Arenado will be paid $144 million over the next five seasons, with an average salary of $28.8 million. Padres third baseman Manny Machado announced his plans to opt out of his current deal at the end of the season, even though he’d be paid an average of $32 million by San Diego if he stayed with the team from 2024 through 2028. Barring an injury that derails his career, Machado will command a massive contract on the open market when he heads to free agency after the season. Arenado could have easily done the same. The Mets’ depth chart shows Eduardo Escobar starting at third base. If Arenado had chosen to opt out of his STL contract at the end of the 2022 postseason, can you even comprehend the size of the gigantic contract pitched to him by Mets owner Steve Cohen?
5) I know I’ve been writing a lot about Tyler O’Neil this week; sorry if that annoys you. But I wanted to point out a few things about his 2022 profile offensively. This may seem counterintuitive, but O’Neill needs to be a more aggressive hitter in 2023. Even though he had an improved 31% strikeout rate in 2021, it didn’t prevent him from cranking out career bests in average, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS, homers and RBI. O’Neill tried to be more selective at the plate in 2022, but it didn’t lead to better results. It actually led to substantial frustration and disappointment.
6) Compared to the peak 2021 version O’Neill, the 2022 version of O’Neill swung at fewer pitches in the strike zone (down by 5%), lost 3.2 mph on his average exit velocity, was down 6.6% in his barrel rate, dropped 9% in his hard-hit rate, and was down by 3.3% in his sweet-spot percentage. He let too many “meatball” pitches go by.
7) And by trying to pull the ball more than he ever had before, O’Neill had an excessively high ground ball rate. His pulled ground–ball rate was horrendous. Plus the pull-happy stuff got him off balance and caused a higher “whiff” rate (defined as the number of swings-and-misses divided by total swings.) It’s true; O’Neill’s strikeout rate went from 35% in 2021 to 31% last season. But the quality of his contact suffered for it, simply because he picked up a newer set of bad hitting habits.
8) Based on quality of contact, O’Neill had an expected slugging percentage of .582 in 2021, and an expected slug of .423 last season. We even saw a difference in how his home runs flew; according to Statcast, 47% of his home runs were “no doubters” in 2021 … with only 35.7% qualifying as “no doubters” in 2022. The Cardinals would benefit from the return of the more aggressive O’Neill in 2023.
9) Jim Bowden (The Athletic) posted his final offseason report cards for all 30 teams. He gave the Cardinals a “B” grade, third-best in the NL Central behind the Brewers (B+) and Cubs (B+).
10) Here’s some of what Bowden wrote: “The Cardinals’ top offseason priority was to acquire a catcher to replace the retired Yadier Molina and they wasted little time before landing Contreras in free agency. It will be a big transition for the Cardinals pitching staff, which will go from possibly the best game caller of all time in Molina to an offensive catcher in Contreras. How much of an effect will that have on the staff? Beyond the Contreras move, the Cardinals didn’t do much; they made zero trades despite having a wealth of depth in pitchers and outfielders to potentially deal … the big picture: The Cardinals are the team to beat in the NL Central, and their deep 40-man roster puts them in a strong position to make an impactful trade at the deadline.”
11) Eno Sarris (The Athletic) listed Cardinal outfielder Lars Nootbaar as his No. 1 breakout candidate in the majors for 2022. Nootbaar actually broke out over the final three months of 2022, but I digress.
12) Here’s some of what Sarris wrote: “The personality is big and fun, as evidenced by his post-game celebration antics and huge smile even in awkward situations, but so is the collection of skills Lars Nootbaar brings to the table. Particularly fun is his combination of power and contact ability. Here are the other players who, like Nootbaar, combined an above-average strikeout rate with a Barrel rate over 12 percent in more than 300 plate appearances last year and will play this year: Yordan Alvarez, Eloy Jiménez, Rowdy Tellez, Bryce Harper, Juan Soto, Pete Alonso, and Taylor Ward. That’s a good group to find yourself in. But the 25-year-old is also a lefty who was in the 74th percentile in sprint speed last year, so he’s primed to take advantage of all the rules changes.
“Nootbaar spent the offseason before the 2022 campaign at Driveline Baseball trying to improve his bat speed, and his maximum exit velocity jumped three-and-a-half ticks as a result. This past offseason, he spent a little more time trying to hone his ability to pull the ball in the air, which should turn more of that raw power into home runs. He could easily hit .280 with 25 homers and 10+ steals this coming season.”
13) The Score gave the Cardinals a “C” grade for their offseason. Reason: “Nabbing Contreras to take over for Yadier Molina was a smooth piece of business for the Cardinals. It was also the only thing they did during a mostly silent offseason. The team’s core, anchored by Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, remains as good as it gets. Adam Wainwright is back for one more year, Jack Flaherty is healthy, and Jordan Montgomery is there for a full season. So was Contreras by himself enough? It’s hard to say. The Cardinals might still be the best team in the NL Central, but that’s not necessarily anything to crow about. The move they made was good, but they could have done much more.”
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical 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, Baseball Reference, Roster Resource, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Savant, 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.