Time to get back to work on my 2022 reports for individual Cardinal players.
NEXT UP: Juan Yepez. A corner outfielder or designated hitter who made occasional appearances at first and third base in 2022.
OVERVIEW: Yepez, 24, opened the season at Triple A Memphis and quickly powered up to earn a promotion to the big club. Yepez made his MLB debut on May 4 and was an essential part of the offense through early July. At that point Yepez began getting jumpy at the plate, and pitchers handled him with ease by exploiting his overly aggressive approach.
Yepez was placed on the IL (strained right forearm) on July 15, then relegated to Memphis. Except for a one-game cameo with the Cardinals on Aug. 26, Yepez wasn’t promoted back to St. Louis until Sept. 21. From the time Yepez was placed on the IL until the end of the regular season, he appeared in only 14 big-league games (nine starts) and slugged .386 with one homer. But he made an impact in the postseason, and we’ll get to that later in this report.
FINAL ROOKIE-SEASON STATS: 76 games, 274 plate appearances, 253 at-bats. A .253 batting average with a .296 onbase percentage and impressive .447 slugging percentage for a .742 OPS. He hit 12 homers and 13 doubles, had a low walk rate (5.8%) and struck out 22 percent of the time. His overall offensive performance was 11 percent above league average per OPS+, and nine percent above average based on park and league adjusted runs created (wRC+.) Yepez had the sixth-best slugging percentage among the 36 MLB rookies that had at least 250 plate appearances in 2022.
INSTANT IMPACT: With Albert Pujols struggling for the first three months of the season – batting only .198 with a weak .336 slug – Yepez filled the void by compensating for Pujols’ low output. In 177 plate appearances in May-June combined, Yepez batted .284 with a .328 OBP and .512 slug for a .840 OPS. His terrific display of offense included 10 doubles and nine home runs, and he homered every 16.2 at-bats during the two-month period.
In May-June, Yepez performed 36 percent above league average offensively per wRC+ and only Paul Goldschmidt had more home runs and a higher slugging percentage than Yepez during that time. It was an impressive MLB debut that excited the Cardinals and their fans. Yepez also provided a ton of energy and played the game with joy.
YEPEZ + PUJOLS: It was fun to see the way Yepez followed Pujols around, asking the future Hall of Famer a steady barrage of questions and seeking advice. Pujols loved his young student, and happily played the role of the patient mentor.
FALTERING: His season changed dramatically after a two-hit, one-homer game at Atlanta on July 4. Bothered by the forearm, and showing increased impatience at the plate, Yepez went 3 for 31 (.097) with 10 strikeouts from July 5 through July 14 before heading to the IL. After an extended stay in Memphis, Yepez hit .256 with a .395 slug and one homer in his final 45 regular-season plate appearances. But he settled down and improved during the final week, and that clinched a roster spot for the NL wild-card playoff series against Philadelphia.
BEFORE AND AFTER: Yepez had a .512 slug and .840 OPS in 177 plate appearances through the end of June. But from the beginning of July to the end of the regular season, he had a .330 slug and .567 OPS in 97 plate appearances. And he hit .198 over the final three months. One factor in the downturn was a lack of opportunities. Pujols put up monster numbers after the All-Star break, and outfielder Lars Nootbaar emerged as one of the team’s best hitters during the second half. This is part of the reason why the Cardinals kept Yepez down in Memphis for so long.
HIS MAGIC MOMENT: In a scoreless Game 1 of the wild-card series vs. Philadelphia, Dylan Carlson finessed a two-out walk against the tough lefty reliever Jose Alvarado to extend the bottom of the 7th inning. Manager Oli Marmol summoned Yepez to pinch-hit. In his first career postseason at-bat – and on the first pitch – Yepez attacked Alvarado’s 92.2 mph cutter, pulled it to left with an exit velocity of 105.8 mph, and rocked Busch Stadium with a two-run homer. Unfortunately the Cardinals dissolved during a horrendous ninth-inning meltdown and lost 6-3 to squander the Yepez home run. Yepez started Game 2 and got a hit. In the two games he went 2 for 5, hit the team’s only homer, and led the Cardinals with two RBI. The postseason wasn’t too big for Yepez.
REVERSE PLATOON SPLIT? Yepez, who bats from the right side, had a .460 slug and .755 OPS vs. righty pitchers and a .400 slug and .695 OPS against lefties. Yepez hit 10 of his 12 home runs off RH pitchers.
THE ‘CLUTCH’ FACTOR: Yepez batted only .200 with a .400 slug and .646 OPS with runners in scoring position. But he came through in other timely-hitting ways, swatting five of his 12 home runs with two outs in the inning. And though it’s a mini-sample, Yepez was effective when entering the game as a substitute or pinch hitter, going 5 for 13 with two doubles and a home run. And in “late and close” situations he batted .286 with an .840 OPS.
DOES THE LINEUP SPOT MATTER? When Yepez batted fifth, sixth or seventh in the lineup last season he batted .287 with a .520 slug and homered every 16.7 at-bats. But much of that damage – including seven homers – occurred when Yepez was mashing in May and June.
PITCH TRACKING: These three pitches gave Yepez the most trouble in his rookie season:
— Four-seam fastballs: .246 average, .319 slug, 25% strikeout rate.
— Changeups: .179 average, .321 slug and 33.3% strikeout rate.
— Curveballs: .227 average, .273 slug, 30% strikeout rate.
WHAT DOES STATCAST TELL US? Yepez had a surprisingly low average exit velocity of 86.5 mph, or two percent below the MLB average. His hard-hit rate (33.7%) was five percent below the MLB average. The mediocre quality of his contact produced an expected slugging percentage of .394 and an expected batting average of .216. Yepez outperformed the metrics in 2022 but that figures to be a problem going forward unless he can start hitting the ball harder. Also: Yepez must cut down on his chase rate (37.7%) on pitches outside the strike zone.
DEFENSE AND BASERUNNING: According to Bill James, Yepez had a net baserunning gain of minus 7 (ouch) but that isn’t surprising because the big guy exists to hit. His defense was about what we all expected, but he handled 75 innings at first base and 36 innings at third base without harm, ranking at the average level based on Defensive Runs Saved. Yepez wasn’t a danger to himself or the team in his 120 innings in right field with a minus 2 in Outs Above Average. But he was a problem in left field, with minus 5 in Outs Above Average in 165 innings of attempted defense.
CONCLUSION: I’m never surprised when a rookie levels off when pitchers find his weak spots. Unless someone is a superstar from the beginning – Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, etc. — slumps are inevitable. Bad slumps included. So I won’t be too hard on Yepez for going cold. The emphasis should be on how Yepez played a major role in stirring the St. Louis offense in May and June when they really needed the help until Pujols started cranking. With Yepez hitting for average and power and driving in runs as one of STL’s top hitters, the Cardinals averaged 5.0 runs per game with a .751 OPS in May-June and had the sixth-best offense in the majors based on wRC+. His contributions were vital. And Yepez came up big for his team again in Game 1 of the postseason.
Sure, we can ding him for his defense and baserunning … and I will a little bit … but his primary purpose is hitting. And Yepez finished the year with a higher slugging percentage than more heralded rookies such as Bobby Witt Jr., Jeremy Pena, Adley Rutschman, Jake McCarthy and teammate Nolan Gorman (among others.)
Going into 2023, Yepez hopefully will sharpen himself defensively, and make better contact, and show more plate discipline to draw more walks. At this point, I don’t know what his role will be … the Cardinals have plenty of outfielders and DH types, and phenom Jordan Walker should be prominent in the mix in ’23.
Where does Yepez go from here?
THE GRADE: I’m going with a B minus based on his significant early-season value that propelled the Cardinals offensively.
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 here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net 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.