THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals and their fans will miss Albert Pujols for many reasons. He was great for morale. He was a bonanza for business. He made the fans happy. He inspired his teammates. He mentored young players. He connected the past to the present to create new memories for the older generation of the BFIB, and to show the kids what their parents were buzzing about during the glory years of long ago.
Oh, yeah … once Pujols got his swing going, he became a fearsome lineup presence. The Cardinals’ best and most reliable source of power and timely hitting.
From the end of the All-Star break until the end of the regular season, Pujols led the Cardinals in home runs (18), RBIs (48), batting average (.323), slugging percentage (.715), OPS (1.103). And when he stepped into the box with runners in scoring position, Pujols attacked for a team-leading .400 batting average and 1.397 OPS. And he did this at age 42.
And now … retired.
How do the Cardinals replace Pujols in 2023? If we’re talking about the second-half Pujols, they can’t replace him. Well, not unless Aaron Judge is determined to sign here as a free agent. (Just kidding, peoples.)
I’ll take a more realistic approach here and focus on how the Cardinals can match or approach Pujols’ full regular-season set of numbers that included 24 homers, 69 RBI, a .550 slugging percentage, .895 OPS and a 154 OPS+.
Obviously, the emphasis here is on power. That’s because power was the foundation of Pujols’ hitting profile. He didn’t wow us by slap-hitting singles or dropping sacrifice bunts, or speeding around the bases like Vince Coleman circa 1985-1987. And because of his slowness of foot, Pujols didn’t hit all that many doubles (14) in 2022.
Don’t forget, Pujols had a significant role as a designated hitter, taking 36.4 percent of the team’s plate appearances there in 2022. The other opportunities were spread around to 13 other Cardinals including Paul Goldschmidt (97 PA), Juan Yepez (74), Nolan Arenado (67), Corey Dickerson (54), Nolan Gorman (48) and Brendan Donovan (44.)
Manager Oli Marmol’s DH delegation was among the most successful in the majors in ‘22. St. Louis designated hitters were tied for third in MLB in homers (29), tied for third in RBIs (89) and ranked sixth in slugging (.449) and OPS (.788). And they finished 10th in batting average (.254) and onbase percentage (.328.)
Pujols topped STL’s designated hitters with 13 homers and 38 RBIs. In 2023 the DH spot will be a key area in the goal of replicating Pujols’ power game.
OK, I have ideas. Some candidates (mostly internal) who have the talent and/or potential to power up. In some cases it’s just a matter of getting back on track after a down season – or just hitting to their potential.
Tyler O’Neill: Unless he’s traded, Bro’Neill is capable of boosting the team’s power in 2023. That’s based on his overall career slugging percentage (.468) and 34-homer, .550-slug breakout in 2021. But injuries are a chronic problem, and he isn’t reliable. His slugging percentage dropped to .368 in 2022.
Nolan Gorman: An obvious “futures” bet. He has tremendous raw power and banged 14 home runs in 283 at-bats as a rookie in 2022. That’s a homer every 20.2 at-bats; among regular or semi-regular Cardinals only Pujols (12.8) Goldschmidt (16.0) and Arenado (18.5) had a better HR ratio than Gorman in 2022. He’s only 22, still in development, and should be more consistent in 2023. Gorman figures prominently in the DH picture going forward.
Lars Nootbaar: I think too many people underestimate just how much power he packs in his live, left-side bat. In 2022 Nootbaar ranked in the top 10 percent of MLB hitters in average exit velocity, and was in the top 20 percent in barrel percentage and hard-hit rate. Once he began seeing regular playing time – around mid-July – Nootbaar slugged .514 and homered every 17.5 at-bats over his final 257 plate appearances of the regular season. And that time frame included a .533 slug against LH pitching. Watch out for Noot in 2023. I think he’s the real deal. I realize he has only 471 career plate appearances in the bigs, so he must prove himself over a more extensive period of time. But since the start of 2021, among Cardinals with at least 400 plate appearances (total) over the last two seasons, only Goldschmidt, Arenado and O’Neill have a higher slugging percentage than Noot’s .441. And he was just getting started. His slugging percentage, .422 as a rookie, jumped to .448 in his second season.
Juan Yepez: He led all Cardinal rookies in slugging (.447) this past season and whacked 12 homers in 253 at-bats, which translates into a homer every 21 at-bats. And in the humiliating wild-card series loss to the Phillies, Yepez provided the only real impact with a pinch-hit, two-run homer to give the Cardinals a 2-0 lead in Game 1. I’ll be surprised if Yepez doesn’t step up in 2023 to elevate the Cardinals’ air-strike game. Given all that he learned from Pujols, it would be appropriate to see Yepez fill a big part of the power void created by Pujols’ retirement.
Dylan Carlson: The talent is still there … we think … but this enigma continues to decline against right-handed pitchers. That’s a problem; MLB hitters made nearly 73 percent of their plate appearances against RH pitching in 2022. In the second half of the 2021 season Carlson slugged .505 and hit 11 homers against all pitching, averaging a home run every 20 at-bats. In 2022 he slugged .380 against all pitching with only eight homers in 432 at-bats – a woeful average of one homer every 54 at-bats. Carlson can’t get worse than that. But the question is, how much can he improve in 2023? Unless Carlson is batting against left-handed pitchers — .477 slug against them last season – I do not know what to expect.
Jordan Walker: I don’t know when he’ll graduate to the majors. I don’t know if the Cardinals front office will be ultra aggressive and move him from Double A, skip the Triple A level, and put him in the big-league lineup when the 2023 season gets underway. I don’t know if management will play service-time games to keep him under the club’s contract control for (presumably) an extra MLB season. Or maybe the front office will genuinely believe that he could benefit from experience against Triple A pitching. There are many questions here. But even though Walker’s power is still developing, it’s real – as is his polished and mature hitting approach. He’s only 20 years old and already has an advanced hitting profile, and it shouldn’t be long until we see him in St. Louis. The 2023 spring training will be Walker’s first opportunity to make a convincing case that he belongs in the majors, ASAP.
The Catcher To Be Named Later: As I wrote earlier this week, the Cardinals will be looking for a new starting catcher for the first time since the early aughts. It gives them a terrific opportunity to boost the power and overall offense at catcher. In 2022 St. Louis catchers ranked tied for 26th overall in the majors with nine homers. This is the spot in this column where I remind you that free-agent catcher Willson Contreras has averaged 22 homers and a .480 slugging percentage in his last three full seasons.
THE CARDINALS: DESIGNED AND BUILT TO HIT HOME RUNS
In case we didn’t know it before, we certainly know it now: the Cardinals are extremely dependent on home-run power to win games.
Combining 2021 and 2022, here’s the breakdown of home runs and success for the Cardinals:
– When hitting two or more home runs in a game: 96-21 for a .820 winning percentage.
– When hitting fewer than two homers in a game: 87-120 for a winning percentage of .420.
This is not a “small-ball” team, a “manufacturing” team, or a “do all of the little things” team on offense. Whiteyball went away three decades ago and ain’t coming back. So with all due respect … get over it.
If the Cardinals are such a swell “small ball” offense, “manufacturing” plant, and a “do the little things” offense … Well, where was that in the series loss to Philadelphia?
Now if you tell me the Cardinals should be more diversified on offense, I would agree with you. But in today’s game, power is the surest way to score runs and to stack wins. It has become exceedingly difficult to put up runs by stringing singles together. Manager Oli Marmol has made it clear: he has said the Cardinals’ offensive strategy is based on drawing walks, hitting doubles, and swatting home runs. That fits the current template in modern-day major-league baseball.
CONNECTING THIS TO THE POSTSEASON
The big, big problem: when home runs don’t fly, you don’t score much. And you lose games with greater frequency. The Jeff Albert fetishists ought to spend a few minutes thinking about that. (Not that it would matter.) They’re so obsessed with pinning blame on J. Albert for every failing on offense, they don’t acknowledge or remember this: the Cardinals have put themselves in an all-or-nothing state of offense.
Power wins. No power loses. More than anything, that explains why we’ve seen so many quiet, depressing, low-run output postseason losses by this team.
Since the start of the 2014 postseason the Cardinals are 9-19 in the playoffs.
In their 19 losses they averaged a puny 0.78 homers, a .269 slugging percentage and 2.42 runs.
In their nine wins they averaged 1.9 homers, slugged .533 and averaged 6.3 runs. To be fair, 13 runs were scored in a single game, the NLDS series-clinching win at Atlanta in 2019. Ironically, the Cardinals did not homer in that game. But that doesn’t diminish my point. In their other eight postseason victories since 2014 the Cardinals averaged 2.1 homers and 5.5 runs per game.
Oh, and I’ll throw this in: in their 19 postseason losses since 2015, Cardinals pitchers were smacked around for an average of 5 runs per game and had a 4.64 ERA. Damn that Jeff Albert! Sorry. Albert doesn’t coach the pitchers, so we can’t talk about anything negative with pitching … right?
When the Cardinals were broomed into the postseason by Washington’s four-game sweep in the 2019 NLCS, Tommy Edman, Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler, Paul DeJong, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina and Kolten Wong combined for 11 hits in 103 at-bats … a batting average of .106. And the Cardinals hit one homer in 123 at-bats while losing four straight.
Of course, that was all on the hitting coach. No, actually it wasn’t. If it was all up to the hitting coach, then how in the world did the Cardinals score 13 runs in that winner-take-all NLDS game in Atlanta that put them into the NLCS?
As for the 2022 postseason, here’s a pro tip: when you play two games against the Phillies and have Goldschmidt, Arenado and Pujols combine for 3 hits in 23 at-bats with seven strikeouts, no extra-base hits and no runs driven in … your chance of scoring a good amount of runs is highly unlikely.
Adding Pujols’ 2 for 8 this postseason to Goldy and Arenado’s numbers over the last two postseasons, the three combined for 4 hits in 30 at-bats (.133) without an extra-base hit or RBI.
This is the offense that the Cardinals have designed and built. They’ll have to restore the power they’re losing through Pujols’ departure. Internally and externally the Redbirds have to find ways to generate even more home-run electricity. They’ll also have to be smarter and mentally stronger to grind out much better at-bats against the higher-quality pitchers that teams run into when it’s time to play ball in the postseason. But that isn’t one coach’s responsibility. This flaw is owned by many: the players, the baseball operations department, the manager, and yes, the coaches.
Thanks for reading …
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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.