THE REDBIRD REVIEW
It’s report-card day. Let’s review individual Cardinals and their performance in the 2023 season. I’ll write one paragraph on each player and issue a letter grade.
This team had a historically terrible season, but there were some good performances on the position-player side. From the start of the schedule through the end of July, St. Louis ranked third in the NL in park-and-league adjusted runs created, third in onbase percentage, third in slugging, third in OPS, third in Isolated Power, third in homers, fourth in batting average and fifth in runs per game. Things faded after that, mostly because of so many injuries and the expected letdown after the Aug. 1 trading deadline.
The St. Louis defense was embarrassing for much of the season, but much of that was related to outfield play — and, in my opinion, poor positioning by manager Oli Marmol, the coaches and the analytics people. Why do I say that? According to Sports Info Solutions and Fielding Bible, the Cardinals saved the most runs defensively (34) by any team in the majors this season when using shifts. So why not do that more often? The Cardinals “shaded” their defense against left-handed hitters at a rate of 47.8% of the time — which ranked 18th among the 30 teams.
And how did those LH bats do against the STL defense? Lefty hitters posted the second-highest batting average (.278) in the majors against Cardinal pitching — and the fifth-highest wOBA, .345. If you don’t shade your defense, then you have to be really, really smart about how you align your fielders. Example: the Brewers didn’t shade their defense all that much in 2023 but still led the majors in defensive efficiency. The St. Louis dugout staff wasn’t astute in choosing how to play their fielders.
The same principle applies to baserunning. The Cardinals took a few steps back in 2023 because of reduced aggressiveness — a change in philosophy from what we saw from an outstanding baserunning STL team in 2022.
Let’s continue …
For hitters, I’ll mostly go with OPS+. For pitchers, the measure is ERA+. Just remember that 100 is the league average in both categories. How many Cardinals performed above the “average” line? I’ll break this into three parts: position players, pitchers and field and front-office management. One final preliminary note: a lot of the grading here is based on how a player fared this season compared to his established career standards. It’s all relative.
Jordan Walker: Dropped into the outfield after the organization failed to give him sufficient development time at a position he’d never played before, the 21-year-old Walker was poor defensively but made progress in the second half of the season. In the post-expansion era (1961-present) Walker’s 114 OPS+ was tied for sixth among St. Louis rookies that had at least 400 plate appearances in a season. That 114 OPS+ matched outfielder Bake McBride’s NL Rookie of the Year season in 1974, but Bake was 25, four years older than Walker. Walker finished strong with a 125 OPS+ over the final two months. There’s a lot to look forward to. Grade: B minus.
Brendan Donovan: Before his season was cut short because of an elbow injury, Donovan generated a 115 OPS+ which wasn’t as good as his rookie-season 124 OPS+. Donovan worked counts and had a .365 onbase percentage, but the big change was an increase in power that amounted to a 43-point improvement in slugging percentage from his rookie season, up to .422. Donovan was exceptional when batting with runners in scoring position – 70 percent above league average – and the offense wasn’t the same without him over the final two months. Donovan was adequate defensively which is fine considering his versatility afield. His baserunning rating improved in 2023. Grade: B.
Tommy Edman: His 91 OPS+ was down 16 points from last season and essentially matched his offensive performance over the 2020 and 2021 seasons. And disappointingly, he posted the lowest onbase percentage (.307) of his MLB career. The switch-hitter was below average against right–handed pitching for the third time in the last four seasons. Edman 27 steals but his overall baserunning rating was down from last year. His defense was a plus; Edman ranked among the top 14 percent in the majors in Statcast fielding value. In addition to playing at second base and shortstop, Edman was 6 outs above average defensively in center field. Edman was a D+ offensively but the defense boosted his overall grade. Grade: C+.
Willson Contreras: His 124 OPS+ was the highest by a Cardinals catcher since Yadier Molina in 2013. He slugged .467, his best since the 2019 season. And his 20 homers were tied for seventh-most in a season by a STL catcher during the post-expansion era. Contreras struggled with pitch-framing and pitch-blocking in the first half of the season but was much smoother over the final two-three months, finishing with barely below-average ratings in both Statcast metrics. But of course, Contreras was blamed (unfairly) early in the season for his work with the pitchers but they became more comfortable as the campaign went on. In 2023, stealing bases was much easier because of the new rules, but Contreras had a 25 percent caught-stealing rate that exceeded the overall MLB rate of 19%. The Cardinals received 2.8 WAR at the catcher position this season – the most since 2018. To blame Contreras for the team’s hideous pitching is like blaming the orchestra for the demise of the Titanic. Grade: B.
Nolan Arenado: He’ll be graded based on his established career standards. The heralded third baseman had a difficult 2023, experiencing a substantial drop in OPS+ (109), slugging, onbase percentage and batting average. Excluding the Covid-shortened 2020 season, Arenado had his worst overall season offensively since his rookie campaign in 2013. Defensively Arenado ranked among the top 25 percent of major league fielders – which isn’t bad but until 2023 he’d always finished in the top 11 percent or better. He had 14 outs above average in 2022 and that fell off to 5 outs above average in 2023. Arenado’s 2.6 WAR this season declined from last year’s 7.2. It was his lowest WAR in a season since 2014. Grade: D.
Nolan Gorman: This season Gorman powered for the most homers (27) in a season in franchise history by a left-handed hitter age 23 or younger. After hitting 15 home runs and slugging .420 as a rookie, Gorman cranked 27 homers with a .478 slug this season. Gorman’s 117 OPS+ was 13 points better than last season, and his barrel rate ranked among the top 3 percent of MLB hitters this season. Last season Gorman’s defense was near the bottom of the majors in Statcast fielding value, but his percentile ranking improved 30 percent this season. He’s also an underrated baserunner; among Cardinal regulars only Paul Goldschmidt had a superior extra-base-taken percentage than Gorman’s 50%. He still strikes out too much but he lowered his chase rate and improved his habits at the plate in 2023. Grade: B.
Andrew Knizner: The No. 2 catcher came into the season with a career 64 OPS+ as a major-league hitter but pulled that up to a 92 OPS+ this year. Until this season Knizner’s career MLB slugging percentage was .288, and he jacked that up to .424 in 2023. Kiz came into the season with 7 career home runs in 490 MLB at-bats but clubbed 10 homers in 224 at-bats this season. On the downside, Knizner threw out only 13 percent of attempted base stealers in 2023. Grade: C.
Paul Goldschmidt: After averaging 6.0 WAR over his previous two seasons, Goldy slipped to 3.7 WAR in 2023. His .447 slugging percentage was the lowest of his career in a season. He came into the season with a career .391 onbase percentage but that fell by 28 points in 2023. His 25 homers were his fewest in a season since 2016. No realistic mind expected Goldschmidt to get near his career-best 177 OPS+ in his 2022 MVP season, but the dropoff to a 120 OPS+ was pretty severe. He’s still very much a plus defender at first base, and his baserunning is excellent. But after the 2023 All-Star break Goldschmidt’s offense came in at only 10 percent above league average – his worst second-half showing in a season since 2012. And for a 36-year old hitter, that’s a concern. Grade: C minus.
Lars Nootbaar: The outfielder had a 124 OPS+ in 2022, and that leveled off to a 115 OPS+ this season. Three separate injuries – thumb, back and groin – disrupted his consistency. He had a good first month, tailed off in May, hardly played in June, had two superb months in July-August, and was poor offensively over the final month. On the plus side, Nootbaar raised his batting average (.261) and onbase percentage (.367) by 33 points and 27 points, respectively, this season. On the negative side, his slugging percentage was down 30 points (to .418) from last year. Problem: Nootbaar’s quality of contact – outstanding in 2022 – wasn’t the same in 2023, with his hard-hit rate going from 46 percent to 37.8 percent. And his barrel rate was much worse in 2023. Defensively Nootbaar played capably at all three outfield positions. And among Cardinal regulars, only Goldschmidt had more WAR than Nootbaar (3.2.) Nootbaar missed 49 in-season days because of injuries, and the disruptions weren’t helpful. Grade: C+
Dylan Carlson: In his last two seasons the outfielder missed a total of 108 in-season days to injury – including 78 lost days in 2023 to a strained oblique and ankle problems. His frailty and obvious lack of strength are definitely an issue for a dude that was still only 24 years old by season’s end. Carlson has had a brutal two-season decline, reaching his lowest point in a 2023 season in which he batted .219 with a .318 onbase percentage and anemic .333 slug. And the switch-hitter keeps getting worse vs. right–handed pitching; this season he hit .196 with a .288 OBP and .304 slug against them – and was 33 percent below league average offensively against righties. His career has careened off the bridge and into a deep river. Grade: F.
Tyler O’Neill: Where do we start? Because of a mess of injuries, the occasional outfield volunteer played in only 52 percent of the Cards’ games over the last two seasons. He missed 155 in-season days over that time, and has missed 242 days during his career. O’Neill made his debut for the Cardinals in 2018 and has just a single season (2021) with more than 100 games played. A horse can’t win the race if he’s hobbled and can’t get to the post. After his exciting breakthrough in 2021, O’Neill has batted .229 with a .397 slug and 97 OPS+ over the last two seasons. Perhaps O’Neill and Carlson can become partners and open a national chain of sports-injury rehab centers. Grade: F.
Alec Burleson: Over the last two seasons Burly has been given 400 plate appearances by manager Oli Marmol. The result? A .237 average, .295 onbase percentage, .375 slug, nine homers and an 83 OPS+ that’s 17% below the league average offensively. Burleson struck out in only 13 percent of his plate appearances in 2023, but all of that steady contact didn’t generate much offense. Yes, he’s had some poor batted-ball luck – as confirmed by his expected slugging percentage of .433 in 2023. But this season his hard-hit rate and average exit velocity were nothing special – and his barrel rate was among the bottom 26 percent of all MLB hitters. Burleson is a slow runner, and his fielding value was in the bottom eight percent of major-league defenders. Marmol is a big fan of the big man and would point out that Burleson hit .270 with a slightly above-average OPS+ over the final three months of ‘23. But does that indicate that a breakout season is coming for Burly in 2024? I don’t know where the Cardinals go with him from here. Grade: D.
Luken Baker: He was given only 99 plate appearances with the big club this season after smashing thousands of homers (exaggerating!) over the last two seasons at Triple A. In his 99 PA for the Cardinals, Baker slugged .314 and had a poor 73 OPS+. I can’t “fail” him simply because he hasn’t had a full opportunity. When Burleson was called up to the majors last season, he batted .188 with a .271 slug and a weak 54 OPS+. But that didn’t curb Marmol’s enthusiasm. The Baker of 2023 did better than the Burleson of 2022, but … oh, never mind. Grade: let’s go with a sympathetic D.
Masyn Winn: The shortstop prospect got the big-league call on Aug. 18 and played in 37 games for the Cardinals. He didn’t hit (.172 average, 29 OPS+) but made a positive first impression with his defensive ability. And he did have a few spectacular moments. (That said, the media gushing over Winn’s defense was over the top.) I have no doubt that he’ll be an excellent shortstop in the majors, but in his initial MLB trial Winn was minus two in Statcasts’s outs above average. No reason to give him a grade for 2023, but we’re all looking forward to seeing how he will develop offensively in 2024. Incomplete.
Paul DeJong: He had 306 plate appearances for the Cardinals until the team traded him at the Aug. 1 deadline. Pauly spent enough time with the Cardinals to warrant a performance grade. Here’s how I look at it: I expected absolutely nothing from him offensively. And none of you did either. So in that context, he did a helluva a lot more for St. Louis than I expected: 13 homers, 11 doubles, a .412 slugging percentage overall, and a .429 slug with runners in scoring position. DeJong’s OPS+ as a Cardinal this season was 92; last year it was 52. So he improved by 40 percent offensively this season. DeJong also played good defense, rated among the top 16 percent of MLB players in fielding value (per Statcast). Grade: C.
Juan Yepez: The outfielder-DH became a non-factor (non-person?) in 2023, getting only 65 plate appearances at the big-level after (1) slugging .447 as a 24-year old rookie in 2022 and (B) hitting the pinch two-run homer to give the Cardinals a 2-0 lead over Philadelphia in Game 1 of the ‘22 wild-card playoff series. Marmol and closer Ryan Helsley blew that clear-cut chance to take Game 1, and the Cardinals were eliminated in two games. Footnote: in that series vs. the Phillies Yepez went 2 for 5 and drove in two runs. Goldschmidt and Arenado went a combined 1 for 15 without an RBI. Yepez batted .183 with a 49 OPS+ as a non-person, non-factor for the Cardinals in 2023. Grade: I’m confused and can’t come up with anything that would make sense. But if Yepez didn’t work hard enough to become more competent defensively, that’s his fault. Grade: Incomplete.
Richie Palacios: The high-energy outfielder was an unexpected and appreciated surprise. After his promotion from Triple A Memphis, Palacios made 102 plate appearances and slugged .516 with six homers, six doubles and 16 RBI. From the time of his Aug. 18 recall until the end of the season, Palacios ranked second to Contreras in slugging percentage among Cardinals and was tied for second in home runs. He finished with a dandy 120 OPS+ that left us wanting to see more. Grade: B.
Infielder Jose Fermin: just a depth guy. Grade: incomplete.
Next installment: grading the starting pitchers and relievers.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus 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.