I wish the Cardinals were still playing ball.
But since they aren’t, I wanted to take some time to review the individual seasons turned in by the team’s relevant position players.
Let’s get started.
Catcher Yadier Molina: He was the team’s best all-around hitter in April, posting a 164 wRC+ that made him 64 percent above league average in park-and-league adjusted runs created. And even though he pulled up his numbers in September, Molina struggled from May through August with a three-month .280 onbase percentage, .304 slug and three homers. But for the season he batted .327 with runners in scoring position and drove in 66 runs. The punishment behind the plate got to him this season, and Molina’s pain was obvious as the year dragged on. He’ll turn 40 years old near the All-Star break next year. His farewell season will be a tough physical challenge, possibly leading to more erosion offensively.
First baseman Paul Goldschmidt: The team MVP was the NL’s best first baseman 2021, ranking first with 4.9 WAR (wins above replacement.) Goldy finished with 31 homers, 99 RBI and 102 runs scored and had a slash line of .294 / .365 / .514. His slow start to the season was mostly the result of lousy batted–ball luck; over the final four months he batted .322 with a .978 OPS.
After the All-Star break Goldschmidt ranked No. 3 among MLB position players with 3.5 WAR and provided offense at a rate of 70 percent above league average (wRC+.) His September was epic, and Goldschmidt reaffirmed his high value to this team. He played impeccable defense all season, tied for No. 1 among MLB first basemen with nine runs saved. Goldschmidt, who turned 34 years old late in the season, clearly defied the aging curve.
Second baseman Tommy Edman: it’s difficult to assess Edman’s profile. There are more than a few positives to emphasize, which I am happy to do. On the plus side Edman ranked second in the majors in doubles (41), third in stolen bases (30), and 11th in runs (91.) He struck out only 13.7 percent of the time, saved six runs with his defense, and was the team’s highest-rated baserunner. But Edman’s 2021 season also included a below-average performance (by 16%) in 534 plate appearances against righthanded pitchers. His OPS vs. lefties (.794) was 129 points higher than his OPS against righties. And he had only two above-average months offensively during the sixth-month season, and finished 18th among MLB second basemen with 2.3 WAR.
I believe Edman is an energizing presence in the field, on the bases, and at the plate. But he isn’t ideal as a leadoff man — not if you value a high onbase percentage. And in 2021 Edman had a .312 OBP when batting first. Not good. That percentage ranked 28th among 30 MLB hitters that had at least 250 plate appearances at the No. 1 spot. And from the start of June to the end of the regular season, Edman’s leadoff OBP was a terrible .296. But the Cardinals and many of their fans don’t really care about a high onbase percentage for a leadoff hitter. Especially if he’s the firecracker, Tommy Edman.
Shortstop Edmundo Sosa: The rookie was a surprise in 2021. His defense was excellent. Even though 31 MLB shortstops played more innings than Sosa — who logged only 518 innings — he ranked seventh at the position with eight defensive runs saved. In 68 games and 239 plate appearances at shortstop Sosa batted .298, got on base 38 percent of the time, and slugged a more than solid .433. His .811 OPS as a shortstop was 137 points higher than the OPS posted by Paul DeJong; manager Mike Shildt erred by taking too much time to make Sosa the starter. The question going forward: did the Cardinals see enough to commit to Sosa as their No. 1 shortstop in 2022?
Shortstop Paul DeJong: He played well defensively, saving six runs in 873 innings. But Pauly continued to wane offensively, batting .197 with a .284 OBP and a blah .378 slugging rate. Though DeJong popped 19 home runs, it wasn’t enough to offset his poor average, OBP and overall decline in power. DeJong had a good July at the plate (.479 slug, .825 OPS) but soon faded. In all other months than July, he mustered a weak .637 OPS and was 24% below league average offensively in wRC+.
Confidence is an issue, and DeJong doesn’t help himself by overthinking everything as a hitter. He cares. He’s a good teammate. He wants to do better. But can DeJong be fixed? It’s a valid question for a player that has slugged .378 over the last two seasons after slugging .467 over his first two years.
Third baseman Nolan Arenado: There was plenty of good stuff, including 34 homers, 34 doubles, 101 RBI, and a .329 average and .984 OPS with runners in scoring position.
OK, so can I be a heretic and tell the truth about some other things? Arenado ranked a career-low 8th among MLB third basemen after saving a career-low seven runs defensively. Part of this can be attributed to the team’s approach defensively; Arenado was below average (minus three) in defensive runs saved when deployed in a shift — and saved 10 runs when the Cardinals didn’t shift.
Offensively there were some glaring splits: Arenado slugged .435 at Busch Stadium and .549 on the road. He had a .722 home OPS and a .885 road OPS. In adjusted runs created (wRC+) he was four percent below league average offensively at home, and 30% above average on the road. It’s great to have Arenado playing for the Cardinals, and I trust that he’ll be able to make adjustments and crank up his hitting at Busch next season.
Left fielder Tyler O’Neill: He delivered the kind of season that the front office and the fans were waiting for. O’Neill’s combination of offense, defense and baserunning produced 5.4 WAR, tied for fifth overall among MLB outfielders.
That 5.4 WAR tied O’Neill for the fourth-highest total in a season from a St. Louis left fielder during the post-expansion, which began in 1962. Among qualifying MLB left fielders O’Neill ranked first this season in WAR (5.4), OPS (.912), wRC+ (144), slugging (.560) and isolated power (.274). And he was close to the lead for most home runs, finishing third among LFs with 34.
O’Neill had a September to remember, leading the Cards’ charge to the postseason with a .328 average, 1.108 OPS, 13 homers, 31 runs, and 30 RBIs. O’Neill (12 defensive runs saved) is in line to win a gold glove for the second consecutive season. He made substantial progress in the mental duels with opposing pitchers and figures to improve in 2022 and beyond.
Center fielder Harrison Bader: After getting through two injuries, including a busted rib, Harry went on to have his best MLB season. He was second in the majors and first in the NL in 14 defensive runs saved in center. That, in only 886 innings. Limited to 401 plate appearances and 367 at-bats because of time spent on the IL, Bader nonetheless established career highs in homers (16), doubles (21), RBI (50), batting average (.267), slugging (.467) and OPS (.785.)
After grinding through a poor August, Bader went off in September for a .333 average, .980 OPS, seven homers, 10 doubles, 19 RBI and 18 runs — plus a .417 average with runners in scoring position.
Bader’s upturn was the result of his improvement in two areas. First, he cut his strikeout rate to 21 percent; it had been 29% from 2018 through 2020. Second, Bader did a much better job against RH pitching. He came into 2021 with a 31% strikeout rate, .223 average and .669 OPS vs. RHP. But this year he hit .267 against them with a 21% strikeout rate and .785 OPS.
Right fielder Dylan Carlson: The rookie fulfilled expectations with a consistently good showing in his first full season. Offensively Carlson performed above average in four months, had one average month — and his only below-average month (July) was close to average. Carlson was superb over the final two months, hitting 34 percent better than league average in adjusted runs created and elevating the St. Louis offense with a .301 average, .364 OBP and .503 slug. Defensively Carlson settled in nicely as the right fielder after a lengthy stay in center as Bader recovered from his rib injury. By the end of the season had moved up to 11th among MLB right fielders with his four defensive runs saved.
The poised Carlson led NL rookies in hits (142), ranked second in RBI (65) and doubles (31), and was tied for third with 18 homers. Based on his adjusted OPS, Carlson emerged as the team’s fourth-best hitter by the end of the regular season. It was a helluva start to what should be a very successful career.
— Catcher Andrew Knizner. He didn’t do much offensively in his 43 starts, but I wouldn’t hold that against him. As we’ve learned during the Yadier Molina Era it isn’t easy for a backup catcher to put up consistent numbers when he sits in the dugout for so many games. But here’s what we should know and like about Knizner: in his 407 innings of catching this season Cardinals pitchers had a 3.81 ERA. To put that in perspective, pitchers had a 4.04 ERA when working with Molina this season. Knizner threw out 34 percent of attempted base stealers this year — well above the MLB average of 24%.
— Utility tool Jose Rondon really did a bang-up job after the All-Star break, batting .318 with a .985 OPS and five extra-base hits in 49 plate appearances.
— Outfielder Lars Nootbaar, a most pleasant surprise, was very helpful down the stretch. In his final 42 games (16 starts), the rookie posted a .337 OBP and .488 slug, homered five times, and knocked in 15 runs. And his dramatic, homer-preventing catch at New York’s Citi Field saved a key win over the Mets.
— Matt Carpenter: His goodbye season in St. Louis was an unfortunate experience for the classy Carpenter, who was a major asset for multiple postseason-bound STL teams during earlier, happier times. But in his age-35 season Carpenter’s three-year decline reached reached the extreme-bottom level 2021. A percentage of the fan base was abnormally angry and obsessed over Carpenter, and I guess that’s to be expected — despite what Carpenter had done for the franchise from 2012 through 2018. Over those seven seasons Carpenter had an excellent .382 onbase percentage and .482 slug in 3,400 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter.
But those days had long since passed, and the Cardinals made the situation worse by extending Carpenter’s contract. Bad, bad timing. In 249 plate appearances this season he batted .169, slugged .275 and had a .581 OPS. His .305 onbase rate wasn’t horrendous, but Carpenter also had the worst strikeout rate (31%) of his 11–year career. After homering three times in April, Carpenter failed to homer over the final five months and slugged .262. His overall performance was 30 percent below league average offensively in adjusted runs created. Defensively, Carpenter was a minus 9 runs saved (combined) at second, first and third base.
In the coming days I’ll assess the pitchers.
Thanks for reading …
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
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.