Friday, May 24

How Ought to St. Louis Play Their Outfield Cards?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals have scuffled within the early going. Even after a win towards the Mariners on Sunday, their file stands at a paltry 9-13. Through the weekend, their 2.2-win dip in projected win whole has been the sixth-largest lower for the reason that season started, and amongst severe contenders, their efficiency appears even worse: the Cards’ 22.2% lower in divisional odds has been the league’s largest, bypassing the second-place Yankees (-19.3%), who’ve needed to cope with the Rays’ historic begin. Further, the Cardinals’ 18.6% drop in playoff odds is second solely to the White Sox (-20.1%), who’ve performed even worse at 7-15. But what’s plaguing the Redbirds?

We knew that their beginning pitching was a weak spot coming into the season, and it’s been even worse than marketed. We pegged their beginning workers because the Twentieth-best throughout our positional energy rankings, and so they’re twenty sixth in each ERA and WAR, and aren’t a lot better by FIP (twenty fourth), even after a stellar Sunday efficiency from Jack Flaherty. Though we anticipated his absence on the time, maybe we underestimated the affect that Adam Wainwright’s early-season harm restoration would have on the workers as a complete. Nevertheless, the Cards’ pitching woes have been inside our margin for error. On the opposite hand, their lack of outfield manufacturing has been extra stunning.

Going from left to proper subject, we ranked the Cards fifteenth, eighth, and ninth in our positional energy rankings. Their outfield bats have been stable if unspectacular so far, with their 104 wRC+ tying for thirteenth within the league. Yet, their protection has dragged them down: by OAA, UZR, and DRS, they tie for twenty fifth, have sole possession of twenty sixth, and are in a four-way tie for twenty third, respectively. That all provides as much as a WAR determine of simply 0.3, good (or dangerous) for twenty first within the league.

While the entire traditional small pattern caveats apply, particularly in terms of defensive metrics, a lot of the Cardinals outfield folly is because of rookie Jordan Walker, who made headlines earlier this season for beginning his main league profession off with a 12-game hitting streak. I hate to nitpick the efficiency of an thrilling younger participant, however he had only one hit in 9 of these 12 video games, and he by no means had greater than two. All instructed, his 101 wRC+ on the season hasn’t been sufficient to outweigh his poor protection. Among 63 certified outfielders this season, his -3 OAA is tied for final, his -3.2 UZR is flat-out final, and his -5 DRS is tied for second-worst.

Walker’s 70-grade arm has flashed upside, as its energy locations him third on Statcast’s leaderboard among the many 48 outfielders with a minimum of 50 throws. His max velocity can also be tops amongst that group at 100.2 mph. But his throwing choices and accuracy have been poor, resulting in beneath common numbers by UZR’s ARM and DRS’ rARM parts. Here’s an instance of a throw that almost granted Corbin Carroll an additional base after a double:

This play additionally drew my consideration to a different side of Walker’s protection that has been lagging: his jumps. On the Carroll double, Walker was headed in the fitting course, however he didn’t cowl a lot floor and in the long run he bought circled. The similar factor occurred on one other double, this one off the bat of Charlie Blackmon:

The finish of the video is cutoff, however you get the gist: Walker had a sluggish bounce and bought circled as soon as once more, however this time he had a reliable probability to make the play. Statcast’s outfield bounce leaderboards verify my observations: amongst 84 certified outfielders, Walker is tied for the ninth-worst “reaction” and the Seventeenth-worst “burst,” however he additionally ties for the fourth-best route. Reaction and burst look solely on the variety of ft coated within the first three seconds after a ball is hit, in any course, whereas route weights ft coated in the fitting course extra. A 3rd baseman by commerce, Walker continues to be tentative within the outfield together with his first steps after contact; he possible needs to be sure that he’s entering into the fitting course. While he’s been profitable in that regard, he simply isn’t attending to his spots quick sufficient: all parts thought of, his jumps have value him an estimated 1.2 ft on common.

Despite their sluggish begin, the Cardinals are nonetheless a aggressive squad. Given that, it doesn’t make a lot sense for Walker to work out the kinks in his protection with the main league crew. Even although he has little to show with the bat, if he doesn’t enhance within the subject quickly, they could wish to take into account a demotion. But who would take over proper subject in his stead?

Lars Nootbaar will definitely take up one spot on the grass — after placing up 2.5 WAR in simply 347 plate appearances final season, the lefty slugger is off to a blistering begin this yr, hitting to a 178 wRC+ in 36 plate appearances sandwiching a thumb harm, with begins throughout the outfield. His return from stated harm is a part of what makes the outfield image in St. Louis so complicated, however he additionally appears like their most stable choice at this level. DRS, UZR, and OAA all see Nootbaar’s glove as above common, too, largely because of the energy of his arm, which tied for the third and fifth-most invaluable in line with rARM and ARM final yr. He additionally ranked nineteenth among the many 156 outfielders with a minimum of 100 throws on the outfield arm energy leaderboard final season. So, Nootbaar can slot into proper together with his cannon.

Meanwhile, Tyler O’Neill might be greatest suited to middle subject responsibility. His greatest energy lies within the quantity of floor he can cowl: in line with UZR’s vary part, RngR, he’s been the sixth-rangiest outfielder with 10.4 vary runs above common among the many 48 gamers with a minimum of 2,000 innings on the grass since 2020, when O’Neill started taking part in usually. That additionally elements in his merely common vary from final yr, when he was coping with a wide range of leg accidents. Now wholesome, he’s primed for outfield captain responsibility, and whereas his wOBA to date his matched final yr’s disappointing .307 mark, xwOBA thinks his bat is coming round as properly: his .356 mark to date is 25 factors higher than final yr’s.

As for left subject, Alec Burleson has led the Cards in begins there with 12 so far, most of which he racked up whereas Nootbaar sat out. A forty five FV prospect, most of Burleson’s upside hinges on his bat. This yr in 66 plate appearances, he’s hit at a .343 wOBA clip, with a .350 xWOBA besides. The verdict continues to be out on his glove within the outfield, nevertheless, as he’s graded out as common in line with DRS and barely beneath common in line with UZR and OAA in his main league profession. Burleson is a lefty, so if his fielding finally ends up beneath common as anticipated (Eric Longenhagen gave him a 30/40 grade there this offseason), the Cards ought to actually solely anticipate his bat to prop up his glove towards right-handers. Dylan Carlson, who’s mashed lefties to the tune of a 140 wRC+ in 305 profession plate appearances (in comparison with simply an 89 wRC+ vs. righties in 968 plate appearances), looks like a logical platoon companion and fourth outfielder who may also sub in on protection given his plus glove.

Carlson hasn’t hit properly this yr, mustering only a 49 wRC+ by 47 plate appearances. But let’s not neglect that he graduated in 2021 as a 60 FV prospect and he’s accrued 5.3 WAR over the previous two seasons. Not to say, his .301 xWOBA this yr, on par with final season’s determine, paints a rosier image of his offensive manufacturing so far. Additionally, his plate self-discipline has been trending in the fitting course, as he’s posted a career-best chase charge within the early going whereas concurrently notching his highest charge of swings on pitches within the zone, to not point out his second-best contact charge:

Dylan Carlson Plate Discipline (by way of Statcast)

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact%
2020 24.0 57.7 72.1
2021 24.1 64.8 74.0
2022 25.6 65.4 77.0
2023 22.8 66.3 75.3

If the Cardinals aren’t prepared to surrender on Carlson, he’s greatest suited to be their fourth outfielder. That stated, he would most likely generate appreciable commerce curiosity as a buy-low; the Cardinals might dangle him within the hopes of touchdown one other beginning pitcher. If the Redbirds do keep on with Walker, it is going to most likely be at Carlson’s expense, as he’ll be relegated to fifth outfielder standing, slipping beneath Burleson on the depth chart. Keeping Carlson in that spot wouldn’t be in St. Louis’s greatest curiosity, as I feel that he can nonetheless be productive and it will additionally reduce his commerce worth ought to he be shopped.

Not to say, Burleson is within the midst of creating himself as a top quality main league bat, and forcing him to the bench received’t do him any favors both. But that’s possible the place he’s headed now that Nootbaar has returned. In case you have been questioning, there aren’t many DH at-bats to go round both, as one other former high prospect, Nolan Gorman, failed to stay at second base however seems poised to interrupt out offensively minus his trademark head “thwack.”

As issues stand, it’s nonetheless very early within the season, and the Cardinals’ playoff odds nonetheless stand at a good 48%. In different phrases, they’ve room to proceed the Jordan Walker proper fielder experiment for a short time longer. At the identical time, they’re already six video games again of the Brewers, to not point out 6.5 behind the upstart Pirates. Soon sufficient, there could be a severe rift between what’s greatest for Walker’s continued improvement and what’s greatest for the Cardinals’ mission to subject their greatest crew potential whereas Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt are nonetheless productive.

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