Any splash in the National League Central Division was going to be a big one. It was the St. Louis Cardinals that broke the mold. They showed up with a flashy new toy with a lot more horsepower and a bigger engine. That new toy is Nolan Arenado. The Cardinals immediately vaulted to the top of the Central Division projections by getting the third baseman the hell out of the sinking ship that is the Colorado Rockies.
The arms race in the NL Central was like a bunch of kids running around picking up water pistols with a reservoir that was only halfway full. The Cardinals? They got a Super Soaker. We’ll hear both sides of the argument with Arenado, but the numbers are the numbers. Arenado is a .322/.376/.609 hitter with a .409 wOBA at home and a .263/.322/.471 hitter with a .334 wOBA on the road. Numbers can be misleading, but they don’t often outright lie. We know Coors Field is the best park for offense in baseball. What we also know is that there is a negative Coors Field effect on the road for Rockies hitters.
Are the Cardinals that much different than the rest of the division, even with Arenado? Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado are the stars. Jack Flaherty and…um, uh, Carlos Martinez(?) Alex Reyes(?) are the pitching stars? Don’t get me wrong, Arenado is a great player and there are a good number of good players for the Cardinals. Paul DeJong and Tommy Edman are still around and maybe Dylan Carlson shines in his first full season.
This Cardinals team, like every other team in the NL Central, is flawed. Arenado helps. Arenado would help any team. Even in a shortened season with a bunch of COVID issues, the Cardinals still managed to go 30-28. They played 19 seven-inning games and went 12-7. In 39 games that went at least nine innings, they only went 18-21.
The difference here is that the Cardinals have the benefit of the doubt compared to other NL Central teams. St. Louis hasn’t had a losing season since 2007. The Cardinals have 14 playoff appearances since 2000. That doesn’t happen by accident. They develop well and John Mozeliak and his staff have won most of the trades they’ve been involved in and have had success with the free agents that they’ve signed.
The consistency is the biggest selling point to me for the Cardinals. They’ve regularly been a competent team. A team capable of finding ways to win, even if things aren’t really going their way or the talent level isn’t as high as it typically is. In a division with seemingly interchangeable parts, that could be the determining factor.
I don’t think this Cardinals team is that much better or worse than the other four teams in the NL Central. Perception, however, plays a big role in these preseason markets and it will be up to us to decide what’s real and what isn’t with the St. Louis Cardinals.
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win NL Central
|Team||Odds To Win|
|St Louis Cardinals||+100|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+8 (3.88/3.74)||+85 (4.64/4.12)|
|3rd Order Win%||29.9-28.1||91.4-70.6|
|Record in One-Run Games||7-6||25-22|
Additions: Matt Szczur, Jose Rondon, Max Moroff, Tyler Heineman, Ali Sanchez, Johan Quezada, Nolan Arenado, $50 million
Losses: Rangel Ravelo, John Brebbia, Nabil Crismatt, Ricardo Sanchez, Matt Wieters, Brad Miller, Kolten Wong, Dexter Fowler, Elehuris Montero, Austin Gomber, Tony Locey, Jake Summers, Mateo Gil, Max Schrock
For most people, only one name from those two lists matters. Nolan James Arenado. The Cardinals didn’t do much, but what they did was get one of the best third basemen in the game along with $50 million for what seemed like an extremely low cost. The Rockies got Austin Gomber, Elehuris Montero, Tony Locey, Jake Sommers, and Mateo Gil in the deal.
Arenado marks the only player projected to be on the 26-man for the Cardinals that was not in the organization last season. We’ll see if that is a good idea for St. Louis, but they decided that they were mostly set with what they had and that Arenado was the only missing piece.
Kolten Wong was easily the top name to leave the team, but the Cardinals had a lot of internal options to replace him and plenty of homegrown players to slot into other roles. Wong was second in fWAR among position players last season, so it is a noticeable loss, even if there are replacements in-house.
|Batting Average (BA)||.234 (22nd)||.245 (23rd)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.323 (14th)||.322 (17th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.371 (27th)||.415 (23rd)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.306 (24th)||.314 (19th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||93 (19th)||95 (15th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.290 (16th)||.292 (22nd)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||23.7% (15th)||23.0% (13th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.2% (10th)||9.1% (13th)|
The Cardinals will have to hope that Nolan Arenado performs well away from Coors Field because this lineup needs a shot in the arm. The NL Central was littered with bad offensive teams, so the Cardinals were actually the best of the bunch with a 93 wRC+. That sounds even more ludicrous to write than it does to look at how the teams stacked up. What a pathetic offensive division.
Austin Dean had seven plate appearances, so we’ll exclude him from the list. The only other above average hitters from a wRC+ standpoint for the Cardinals were Paul Goldschmidt, Brad Miller, and Harrison Bader. Miller is gone, having signed with the Phillies.
Goldschmidt had a bounce back season and posted a strong 146 wRC+ with a .387 wOBA, but the power production still wasn’t there for the big man. He walked a lot and ran a .364 BABIP, but only hit six HR in 231 PA. Goldschmidt did have an offseason procedure to remove a bone spur from his elbow, so maybe that will help, but a .466 SLG was the lowest of his career. His average exit velo was the worst of his career and so was his Hard Hit%.
Goldy cut down his swinging strike rate from 11.1% to 8.3%, so that eased some of my concerns about his bat speed. Unfortunately, though, his Z-Contact% was the highest of his career and I’d expect some regression in that department back towards his career average. Of course, I’d also expect better than a 10.7% HR/FB%. Goldschmidt will be the least of St. Louis’s worries, but I’m not sure his ceiling is as high as it used to be. Maybe the bone spur was the problem. Maybe it is more than that.
Harrison Bader’s 113 wRC+ had two prongs. The first was a 10.4% BB%. The second was that he pummeled left-handed pitching in a small sample with a .502 wOBA and a 202 wRC+ in those 28 plate appearances. In 97 PA against righties, Bader hung a .289 wOBA with an 82 wRC+ and struck out in 37.1% of his plate appearances. His high walk rate against righties spared him from being even worse.
This is an annual thing for Bader, who has a career 83 wRC+ against righties and a 125 wRC+ against lefties. He is a stellar defensive player, so he’ll provide surplus value in other ways, but if he’s going to play every day, which is how it looks right now, just know that around 70% of the time, he’s a well below average hitter because you’ll see a right-handed pitcher about 70-75% of the time.
In fairness to the Cardinals, they had some players that wildly underachieved. Tommy Edman had a 90 wRC+ in the short season after a 123 wRC+ in his 349 PA in 2019. Paul DeJong went from league average to 14% below league average. Top prospect Dylan Carlson was pretty bad in his 119 plate appearances during his first exposure to MLB pitching. He’s hit at every level in the minors, but struggled to adjust to big league pitching over his first cups of coffee.
That brings us to Arenado. We know that Coors Field is the best offensive venue in baseball. It is one of the reasons why Arenado only has a 118 wRC+ despite a career slash line of .293/.349/.541 with a .372 wOBA. By comparison of other qualified players since 2013, Arenado’s .372 wOBA is tied for 22nd with guys like Christian Yelich and Anthony Rizzo. Yelich’s career wRC+ is 135 and Rizzo’s is 134.
Why? Because wRC+ is park-adjusted. It takes into account the fact that offensive performance is supposed to be higher in a given hitting environment. It’s one of the reasons why I like citing wRC+. It accounts for a lot of variables. Arenado’s .541 SLG ranks ninth out of 445 qualified players in the sample. The lowest wRC+ of the guys above him is 137 (Cody Bellinger). Former teammate Trevor Story is 11th in that sample in SLG and has just a 114 wRC+.
What is not properly accounted for is the Coors Field Effect on the road. Mike Petriello of Statcast and MLB.com highlighted Arenado and how his performance could be impacted away from Coors Field, using the Coors Field Effect on the road as a factor. There are a lot of factors as to why offense dips so badly on the road. The ball does carry better at Coors Field, but the outfield dimensions are such that hitters often wind up with higher batting averages and BABIPs than they otherwise would. The park regularly ranks in the top five in BA and BABIP because of the environmental factors, the outfield dimensions, and the pitch selection
But, ultimately, the biggest difference between Coors Field and the road is how guys are pitched and what those pitches do. Pitchers tend to throw more fastballs at Coors Field because there is less resistance on the baseball to create movement on offspeed and breaking pitches. On the road, Rockies hitters are forced to contend with breaking balls and offspeed pitches that move a lot more than what they see at home. They’re also likely to see fewer fastballs because pitchers are less worried about “hangers”, which are breaking balls that sit in the middle of the zone and are the easiest pitches to hit.
Therefore, not surprisingly, Arenado’s career slash line at home is .322/.376/.609 with a .409 wOBA and a 128 wRC+. His career slash line on the road is .263/.322/.471 with a .334 wOBA and a 108 wRC+. All in all, Arenado’s splits are a lot better than most. Take former teammate Charlie Blackmon as an example with a .416 wOBA at home and a 113 wRC+ and then a .321 wOBA and a 99 wRC+ on the road.
Arenado’s K% is higher on the road and his BB% is lower. His BABIP is nearly 50 points lower. His SLG is 138 points lower. This will be something that Arenado has to overcome. We saw DJ LeMahieu do it for the Yankees, at least in the short 2020 sample. Arenado is a good hitter with great bat-to-ball skills, much like LeMahieu, so it isn’t out of the question that Arenado finds success.
The reality is that the Cardinals should get something that falls between home Arenado and road Arenado. With his defense, that will be a tremendously important player. If it coincides with upgrades from Edman, DeJong, improvement from Carlson, and renewed power from Goldschmidt, you have an offense that can easily finish in the upper half of the league.
If you don’t get some of those things or the Coors Field Effect does plague Arenado, along with a drop from Goldschmidt or a similar power outage, then you’re looking at an offense that could struggle again, much like what we’ve seen the last several seasons.
The Cardinals win because they don’t have any players that are outright terrible. The guys that don’t perform well offensively make up for their shortcomings in the batter’s box by playing well in the field. Last season’s Cardinals led the league in Defensive Runs Saved and were among the tops in UZR/150 and they add Arenado to the mix and remove a bad fielder in Dexter Fowler.
The Cardinals were fourth in DRS in 2019 and second in FanGraphs’s all-encompassing Def metric. They were 12th in 2018 and eighth in 2017. This is how you help a weak offense and also bolster a pitching staff that could otherwise be viewed as kind of pedestrian.
The Cardinals have a high offensive floor, but I don’t see a high offensive ceiling. They’ll likely be a middle of the road offense again.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||3.92 (9th)||3.82 (5th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.58 (19th)||4.27 (11th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.52 (16th)||4.36 (12th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||23.3% (16th)||23.1% (14th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.3% (25th)||9.0% (20th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||74.0% (9th)||75.8% (3rd)|
So that means the pitching staff needs to be good. You can see the impact that the team defense had in both 2020 and 2019. The Cardinals managed a top-10 ERA under 4.00 in both years despite much higher FIP and xFIP marks. They don’t stand out in K% and have carried a high BB%. But, they’ve been able to be near the top of the league in run prevention on the shoulders of an outstanding team defense.
As a result, this is a pitching staff that also has a pretty high floor. While I would typically look for regression following a 3.92 ERA and a 4.58 FIP, it is much more difficult to do that with the Cardinals because they convert so many batted balls into outs. Only the Dodgers had a higher negative gap between ERA and FIP. Theirs was 0.77 runs. The Cardinals were at 0.66 runs. The Dodgers also had a 3.02 ERA with a 3.79 FIP. The underlying stats for the Cardinals were far worse than that.
Grading the Cardinals pitching staff from 2020 is tough to do. Due in some part to the COVID-19 outbreak that the team had early in the season, they wound up using 10 different starting pitchers. They also played 19 seven-inning games out of the 58 that they played. They were 12-7 in those games, so apparently they adjusted to it better than their opponents. They were only 18-21 in games that went nine or more innings.
The schedule was also helpful to St. Louis. As I mentioned, their 93 wRC+ as an offense was the best in the NL Central. That means that their 40 games within the division all came against bad offenses and they also faced some bad offenses in interleague play with the Indians, Tigers, and Royals. The .250 BABIP allowed by the Cardinals was the second-lowest in baseball. They were fortunate to play a lot of teams with low contact quality.
The starters collectively posted a 3.86 ERA with a 4.55 FIP. Adam Wainwright actually amassed the most fWAR with 1.1. He had a 3.15 ERA to go with a 4.11 FIP. Wainwright had a .247 BABIP against, but did shine in the exit velocity department. You won’t find me buying a lot of Waino stock as he’ll turn 40 in August, but he has managed to be pretty consistent within his new normal. His FIPs over the last five seasons, including an injury-riddled 2018, have been from 3.93 to 4.36. He’s a pretty projectable guy at this stage of his career.
Where the Cardinals need to shine is with the guys that have upside. Guys like Jack Flaherty. Flaherty posted a 2.75 ERA with a 3.46 FIP in 2019, but it was very much a tale of two halves. In the first half of 2019, Flaherty went into the All-Star Break with a 4.64 ERA. He had gotten a bit unlucky, particularly in the home run department. In the second half, Flaherty went nuclear with a 0.91 ERA and a .189 wOBA against. After allowing 20 HR in 406 plate appearances in the first half, he allowed five in the second half over 366 total batters faced.
Last season, Flaherty saw the home run rate increase along with the walk rate. His 23.1% HR/FB% should come down this season. I do find myself wondering what Flaherty’s ceiling actually is. I think it might be fair to say that 2019 was the peak. He’s probably a mid-3.50s guy to me, which is fine in the grand scheme of things, but I don’t think there is a ton of growth potential.
Admittedly, I have an inherent bias against pitching staffs like St. Louis’s for several reasons. Beyond Flaherty, none of the starters really have big upside in the K% department. Carlos Martinez will likely slot back into the rotation, but I prefer him as a reliever. As a starter, the stuff is there and the command profile is fine, but he’s a guy that has control problems. He’s also had some injuries lately. C-Mart grades well, though, in the contact metrics and induces a lot of ground balls, so he works around it.
Speaking of ground balls, Dakota Hudson has some ugly K/BB peripherals more often than not, but induces a ton of ground balls. We only saw 39 innings from Kwang Hyun Kim, but he profiles as a low-strikeout ground ball guy. Departed right-hander Austin Gomber was the same way, which must be why the Rockies targeted him.
It is sort of an old-school way of thinking from the Cardinals. I guess it works for them, so I have to put my personal biases and beliefs aside. I generally don’t like a BABIP-dependent approach, but as the game continues to change, with shifts and advance scouting reports and teams continuing to increase their launch angles, what the Cardinals are doing isn’t sexy, but it works. It doesn’t have to be flashy. Not everything has to conform to what I believe is the smartest.
There is some strikeout upside in the bullpen, with guys like Giovanny Gallegos, Alex Reyes, and John Gant that all had nice numbers. Even Andrew Miller racked up some punchies along with Genesis Cabrera. One thing I really don’t like about this bullpen is that a lot of guys ran high walk rates. The Cardinals were seventh in BB% from the bullpen. There aren’t really any new bodies out there either.
Interestingly, the Cardinals don’t have as much of that ground ball signature with the bullpen. If this unit doesn’t improve upon its walk rate, I do expect regression here more than I would from the rotation. The Cardinals bullpen had a 4.00 ERA, but a 4.63 FIP. That was the third-largest negative gap in baseball, tailing only the A’s and Dodgers, who simply ran higher LOB% marks and had much lower FIPs.
Positives & Negatives
The Cardinals are the team embodiment of what I wind up saying a lot about individual players in these previews. League average is a good thing. Collectively, the Cardinals wind up with groups of guys that grade out around league average. What that does in terms of St. Louis’s floor is that it makes it very, very high. The ceiling typically isn’t all that high, but when you have a high floor, it doesn’t take much to turn it into a playoff-caliber team. That is especially true in the NL Central.
There are some projection systems that do take fielding into account when throwing out records for teams. The Cardinals are going to be a top-five defensive team again. It will significantly impact this team in a positive way. It will elevate a pitching staff that I would otherwise pinpoint for regression and lessen the pressure on a mediocre offense.
There is something to be said about “The Cardinal Way”. They’re been consistent. They’ve had a losing record once since Y2K. That was back in 2007 when the Cardinals were 69-68 through 137 games and went 9-16 the rest of the way, so they were right there to be .500 or better.
You really have to respect that kind of run and also give a team like that the benefit of the doubt when there are areas of concern.
St. Louis Cardinals Pick & Prediction: Under 86.5
This one may come back to burn me, but I’m looking under 86.5 with the Cardinals here. I have yet to decide if this will be a bet or not, but it will be a pick for the Guide. I don’t think the ceiling is very high for this team. Facing more than just the nine opponents that they faced last season could have a big impact on the pitching statistics, even with an elite defensive squad. The teams in the NL Central made pretty poor contact across the board. As mentioned, outside of the Cardinals, none of them were better than 8% below league average.
The Cardinals are understandably the favorites to win the NL Central with the Arenado trade and the consistency that I mentioned earlier, but I really don’t think this team is that much better than all of the other teams in this division. Certainly not enough to be four wins higher from a season win total odds standpoint.
I will be giving this one some extra thought as one of the stronger leans in the NL and one of the stronger leans from the NL Central. For now, it is just a pick for the Guide.