Despite sitting over a decade since their last World Series title, the St. Louis Cardinals represent a fixture of consistency in the National League. They’re the envy of the league: An organization that can develop talent and is willing to supplement that talent when the opportunity presents itself. Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and now Willson Contreras make up a lineup that has the potential to be large in offensive production, to say nothing of their quality defense.
The Cardinals enter 2023 looking much the same as they came out of 2022. And that’s not a bad thing by any stretch. They sit alone atop the division. The offense isn’t terribly deep, but it’s top-tier in the NL. A healthy pitching staff could very well rank among the elite, as well. Sprinkle in a little bit of the ever-present Cardinals Devil Magic and they’re a contender for the pennant.
Cubs fan chokes down vomit having said positive things about St. Louis and now takes a deep breath
Even with the continuity and the stability that the team has, there’s still a level of intrigue with what some of the individual outcomes could look like, for better and worse. How will Contreras adjust? Can Jack Flaherty maintain his health? Can Tyler O’Neill or Dylan Carlson? When might we see Jordan Walker? The pitching runs deep in St. Louis, but can the offense match it in the event of injury? I don’t have the answer to any of those questions (though my opinion on Jordan Walker is, officially, the sooner, the better). Nonetheless, let’s talk about some of the things we actually have answers to. Maybe. I’m wrong about a lot of things.
Key Stat: Approach & Contact Rates
If you’ve read a single paragraph of my work, you know there’s a thing I love in baseball among most other things. It’s a guy that can play everywhere and hit just enough. Brendan Donovan is absolutely the first thing. And he’s probably a level up on the second thing. To be fair, Donovan isn’t a run producer. He hits for minimal power (.097 ISO) and a quick peak at his Baseball Savant page shows as a lot of blue in quality of contact. There were 389 qualifying position players in Major League Baseball in 2022. Donovan’s Barrel% was in the bottom 60 (3.1 percent). Not super inspiring. But it also doesn’t necessarily matter with Donovan’s skill set.
When you’re as choosy & make as consistent of contact as Donovan does, you can compensate for a lot:
That’s kind of a hodgepodge of stats, but they do a really good job of speaking to the type of player that Donovan was for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2022. He swung at an incredibly low rate, laid off pitches outside of the strike zone, and very rarely whiffed. Those are all positive trends. While he doesn’t make a ton of sweet spot contact, he works his way on base via walks and a high contact rate.
In certain respects, there’s a level of similarity with his compatriot Tommy Edman. The versatility, the high contact. But he has a far better approach in terms of being able to work his way on base via the free pass than Edman does. Is it a fine line to walk when you’ve got such a low swing rate and you’re going to be working from behind quite often? Sure. You can’t underscore the contact ability within that, though. And just as we saw Edman’s runs scored numbers shoot up with increased playing time, we could absolutely see a similar trend with Donovan. The on-base combined with the offense around him should provide a lot of value out of Donovan. Even if there isn’t a lot of sexiness from him in the box score as far as power is concerned (that’s never coming, either).
Key Stat: Sinker Usage
After battling injury woes and some inconsistency, Jordan Montgomery has had a remarkably consistent last two years:
For one, his groundball rate jumped up to an even 50 percent. That includes almost 57 percent on the sinker consistently. For another, he cut both his Solid% & SS% about two percent each. There was a little bit of variation in punchouts & walks, but that speaks to what the sinker is striving to do. You’re not going to generate as many strikeouts with that pitch. But you’re likely going to draw more swings and less quality contact, which is exactly what we’re seeing with Montgomery. He’s not an overpowering pitcher, but for a team like the St. Louis Cardinals, he might be the perfect pitcher. Especially when you consider the defense behind him.
The Cardinals were an upper-tier defensive team last year, to put it lightly. That infield group is phenomenal with the glove, and Tyler O’Neill & Dylan Carlson are not without their defensive merits. Sinker-curve-changeup right into the teeth of the defense? Sure. If there’s a question, it’ll be how Willson Contreras‘ lower-rated game behind the plate impacts Montgomery (and the rest of the staff, to be honest). His issues with framing, etc. are likely at least somewhat overblown, especially since Yadier Molina was probably overrated with his skill set (but not in his ability to handle a staff), but it’s not nothing.
Montgomery’s sinker-centric usage could be enough to overcome any insufficiencies from their new backstop, though.
Key Stat: Four-Seam Trends
I really, really like Jack Flaherty. But I’d be lying if I thought the answer to his woes the last few seasons was as simple as getting healthy. It would require quite a leap in command, especially as it relates to his most utilized pitch: the four-seamer.
Some stuff to unpack there. Obviously, the four-seam usage spiked. And with it, you’re going to see an increase in contact against and things of that nature. It just comes with a higher volume. But the dip in Zone%, CS%, and CSW% all speak to some issues with command. When you’re featuring a pitch almost half the time, that’s going to be problematic. What also didn’t help was that he wasn’t generating strikes with the secondary stuff, either. He walked over five hitters per nine in 2022. Velocity/spin rates changed only marginally, so there isn’t any sort of underlying issue anywhere else. It’s placement, which is something that Flaherty did extremely well with the four-seamer when he started to feature it prominently.
Now, here’s the caveat: it was nine starts. Hardly enough for us to scream about the command issues for very long. But the season before was only 15 starts. So now you’ve got some durability concerns on top of potential issues with command. There’s probably a link there somewhere. The positive for the St. Louis Cardinals is that they have plenty of starting caliber arms to rely upon. But from a ‘bust’ standpoint, you’ve got to readjust to fix those command issues while maintaining health. Both elements have seen a downward trend over three (shortened) years. He’s just too difficult to trust right now.
Key Stat: Whiff & (Lack of) Opportunity
Nolan Gorman came into 2022 as one of the more notable prospects on the cusp. There are a lot of offensive tools there. Decent power, decent on-base, but he’s kind of the anti-Brendan Donovan when it comes to the approach. While Donovan thrived in his rookie campaign thanks to the intense approach and high contact ability, Gorman went in the opposite direction. His 17.6 percent SwStr% and 30.4 percent CSW% both factored into the higher end of all qualified hitters. He ended up reaching base at just an even .300 clip, even with a solid .301 BABIP. That’s a problem, especially as the Cardinals sat closer to the top of the league in Contact%. It’s part of their offensive identity. Adjustment to the top level? Maybe. But it’s not as if it was an unseen element of his game prior.
Another issue for Gorman moving forward is going to be finding opportunities. While the Cardinals aren’t a roster that is stretched super deep, they are pretty set 1-9 in their lineup. Brendan Donovan needs somewhere to play. Paul DeJong will probably steal at-bats. Willson Contreras will DH plenty. Jordan Walker could force his way in there. It’s more moving parts than actual depth. Nonetheless, it could eat into any opportunities that Gorman could grab as a regular in the lineup.
What’s interesting about Gorman is that with the right swing, he could very well be on the other side of this. It’s not as if second base is loaded with premier offensive talent. There’s a top tier, for sure. You’ve got some on-base and plenty of steals at the position as a whole. There isn’t a lot of power to go around at the position, however. Even if he does garner some chances at the keystone and maintains a strong quality of contact, though, is there even enough power in there to compensate for the shortcomings? The prospect shine is fading quickly for Nolan Gorman.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)