In winning 91 games and capturing the NL Central title for the first time since 2015, the Cardinals benefited from surprisingly good performances from multiple individuals.
This is true of every successful team. Even the most talented of organizations need to have a few unexpected developments that lead to more wins.
This is also true: surprises can go the other way, work against a team, and create problems. The 2019 Cardinals experienced some of that as well.
Here’s my list of the biggest surprises, good and bad, during the Cards’ regular-season push for the division crown.
1. Tommy Edman, ignitor. The dynamic rookie played plus defense at three positions. He swiped 15 bases in 16 attempts. He routinely picked up extra bases on batted balls with his speed and sharp instincts. According to the baserunning metric developed by Baseball Prospectus — Base Running Runs — Edman was the Cardinals’ best runner at 4.7 BRR. That 4.7 BRR ranked 12th among all MLB players. That’s really impressive because Edman didn’t make his Cardinals’ debut until June 8, and the bulk of his playing time came after July 1.
Edman’s offensive game featured a helluva lot more pop than most observers anticipated; he slugged .500 to go with a .304 average and .350 OBP. He drilled 17 doubles, slashed seven triples, and ripped 11 homers.
Among Cards’ lineup regulars, Edman had the highest wRC+ (123.) Translation: Edman delivered offense at 23 percent above the league average.
Edman was the Cardinals’ catalyst in the late-season drive to the top of the NLC, batting .329 with a .379 OBP and .541 slug in 224 plate appearances over August and September.
Edman was 42 percent above league average offensively during the final two months of the regular season.
Edman amassed 3.2 Wins Above Replacement in only 92 games, topping the WAR totals posted by full-season lineup pieces such as Paul Goldschmidt (2.9 WAR), Marcell Ozuna (2.6) and Dexter Fowler (1.5.)
I completely underestimated Edman at first. I don’t think I’ve ever been as wrong in my initial read of a new Cardinals’ player than I was about Tommy Edman.
2. Adam Wainwright: old ace, restless heart, relentless competitor and still effective at age 38. No, I didn’t expect 171.2 innings from Waino, who has coped with a sequence of injuries in recent seasons. I didn’t expect to see him to go from start to finish without being disrupted by a physical issue. I didn’t expect a 14-10 record, or a 4.19 ERA, or Waino’s 2.2 WAR. Wainwright worked his magic, defeating opponents with his experienced mind and his cunning pitch-mixing ability.
We’re not trying to suggest that Wainwright was a dominant starter — though he did do that at times in 2019. And sure, he got clobbered in road games too often — as evidenced by an ugly 6.22 ERA away from Busch Stadium. But that was offset, and then some, by his 2.56 ERA in home games.
Sure, we can find flaws if we want to. But that misses the larger point: after a 2018 in which his career seemed to be on the brink of collapse and retirement, Wainwright was a positive presence in the rotation.
3. Giovanny Gallegos: I have to say something here, and forgive me for patting myself on the back … because it’s obnoxious and a bad look. Hell, I’m wrong about plenty of things … but not when it comes to Gio Gallegos, who was acquired from the Yankees in the Luke Voit trade at the July 31 deadline in 2018.
I can’t say I was stunned by Gallegos’ emergence as a bullpen force in 2019. If anything, I was surprised and confused by the Cardinals’ failure to realize what they had in this guy — and I said so many times. Gallegos is a RH reliever, but his success in the minors vs. LH batters was eye-catching. And he had a potent strikeout punch. And he didn’t walk a bunch of guys. But once the Cardinals figured it out and gave Gallegos an extensive opportunity he rewarded the team with an exceptional performance that included:
I’ll end with this: I wasn’t surprised by Gallegos stepping forward to take over an important bullpen role. But he even exceeded my expectations, which were set pretty high.
4. The Cardinals offense got worse in 2019. Yep, this one surprised me. I thought the Cards made an excellent hire in recruiting Jeff Albert to serve as the lead hitting instructor. And with Mark “Buddha” Budaska staying on as the assistant hitting coach, the Cardinals seemingly had an ideal combination of old-school pragmatism and logic (Buddha) and advanced thinking and techniques (Albert.) It didn’t work. Information overload was evidently an issue for the hitters, and Buddha and Albert didn’t mesh.
Budaska was fired on Aug. 13 by manager Mike Shildt, who sought to get the hitters synched under one voice and one message: Albert’s. This offense had way too many quiet nights after that, but in fairness the offense did improve after Shildt made a tough call. The team’s OPS — .722 before Aug. 13 — improved to .774 after the coaching change.
Most notable, perhaps, was an increase in the STL walk rate to 10.4 percent. That said, part of that OBP and slugging inflation had everything to do with Dexter Fowler’s increased playing time and relocation to the leadoff spot, Kolten Wong’s transfer to the No. 2 spot, and Edman spraying extra-base hits all over the place.
Bottom line: over the entire regular season the Cardinals finished 10th in the 15-team National League in runs, 11th in batting average, 11th in OPS, 12th in homers, and 12th in slugging.
5. Matt Carpenter’s alarming decline. I know that Matt is streaky, and that he endured an extreme early-season drought in 2018 before launching an extensive barrage of offense.
Despite another cool-down last September, Carpenter finished the 2018 campaign with 36 homers, 42 doubles, a .523 slug and a .897 OPS. He received some votes on the league MVP ballots.
In 492 plate appearances this season Carpenter batted .226, had a .334 OBP, and slugged only .392 as his OPS fell to .726. In terms of wRC+, Carpenter’s performance dropped 45 points from last year, when he came in at 40 percent above the league average offensively. Carpenter put together a lively September — .366 OBP, .500 slug. Perhaps it was a springboard to a good postseason showing for M-Carp.
Other players and trends that warrant a mention:
— Nice bounceback season by Dexter Fowler after his absolutely dreadful 2018. But I think most of us expected a better season from Fowler, and he came through.
— I have to say I’m still astounded by Paul DeJong’s dim offensive numbers from the beginning of May through the end of the regular season: .206 average, .298 OBP, .401 slug, .701 OPS.
— I totally expected the Cardinals to become a much better team defensively, and on the bases, simply because Shildt made it a big priority, and the players bought in. That said, the substantial defensive upgrade went above my elevated expectations.
— The Cardinals finished tied with the Nationals for most stolen bases in the NL (116) and had an 80 percent success rate in steals. Nope, didn’t see that coming. Not to this extent, anyway.
— Can’t say I expected a 0.93 ERA by Jack Flaherty in his last 16 starts of the regular season … but I did expect excellence from Flaherty, so…
— I didn’t think I’d see Marcell Ozuna tumble through such a severe flop over his final 29 games; he batted .144 with a .306 slug and .570 OPS over his final 129 plate appearances.
— I didn’t expect the Cardinals’ rotation to post a 3.78 ERA that ranked fifth overall and third in the NL.
— I thought Kolten Wong was poised to have a really good season; he finally had the chance to play for a manager that fosters confidence. But I did not expect Wong to have MLB’s fourth-best batting average (.342) and ninth-best OBP (.409) after the All-Star break. Well done.
Thanks for reading …