Speaking on the ESPN broadcast of his team’s Wednesday’s exhibition game against the Mets, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt made a point about the St. Louis offense in 2019.
You know, the maligned offense that ranked 10th in runs, 11th in OPS, 12th in homers, and 12th in slugging percentage among the NL’s 15 teams last season.
The ridiculed offense that got swept out of the NLCS in four games, batting only .130 with six total runs and a 39 strikeout rate while being bullied by Washington’s pitchers.
“We got better as the year went (on),” Shildt said. “Our offense picked up right after the All-Star break. You look and break down those numbers for the last couple of months, we were really a top-tier offensive team.”
Well, at least some of that is factually true. After the All-Star break, the Cardinals cranked out a better supply of offense from July 12 through the end of the regular season.
The slugging percentage increased by 30 points compared to the first half. The OPS went from .720 before the break to .757 beyond the break. In park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) the Cardinals improved by 10 percent over the second half.
And this is notable: the Redbirds averaged 5.2 runs per game after the turn compared to their first-half average of 4.72 runs. And they were tied for third for most second-half runs by an NL team.
After the All-Star break Cardinals struggled for consistency, scoring four or fewer runs (below the league average) in 51 percent of their games.
At least part of the second-half surge can be attributed to the schedule. The Cardinals played 49 games against pitching staffs that finished between 9th and 15th in their 15-team leagues in second-half ERA.
Next, the Cardinals’ overall runs-scored total after the All-Star festival was inflated by random, savage attacks. The Cards scored 10 or runs more 11 times after the break, averaging 11.2 runs in these form-busting ambushes.
But these adventures weren’t representative of who the Cardinals were. The picture was distorted. Surely a more accurate reading could be found in their other 63 second-half games; the Cardinals averaged only 3.9 runs.
With all due respect to Shildt, I don’t think the Cardinals had a “top-tier” offense after break. A top-tier offense would have finished higher than 11th in batting average, seventh in onbase percentage, eighth in slugging, eighth in homers and ninth in OPS.
And that’s where the STL offense ranked among the 15 NL teams in those second-half categories. Top tier, no … middle of the pack, yes. But yes, that’s preferable to having your offense drifting near the bottom.
Now comes the time to point something out. One of the Cardinals’ most damaging flaws actually got WORSE after the All-Star break.
In the first half St. Louis hitters had a .255 average and .749 OPS with runners in scoring position. In the second half they posted a .246 average and .721 OPS with RISP.
Now, let’s talk about something more meaningful: identifying factors that elevated the Cards’ offense through the second half. And I’m only going through this stuff because I believe it’s pertinent to the upcoming 2020 regular season.
The Cardinals’ improvement can be explained by several developments:
1-Kolten Wong was fantastic after the break. He batted .342, reached base at a rate of 41 percent, and slugged .487. All in all, Wong was 39 percent above the league average offensively during the second half.
Why this is relevant: to pump up the offense in 2020, Wong has to provide more of what we saw in his final 230 plate appearances of 2019.
2-Tommy Edman became a fuse for the offense. In his 294 second-half plate appearances, the rookie jumped in to hit .308 with an .848 OPS, 29 extra-base hits and 51 runs scored. And he swiped 12 bases in 13 attempts. Edman led the Cardinals with 2.7 WAR after the All-Star Game convention.
Why this is relevant: for the Cardinals to emerge with a more robust and dangerous offense in 2020, they’ll need to light it up with impactful contributions from another rookie or two or three. Isn’t this supposed to be The Season Of Opportunity For Young Outfielders? That’s what John Mozeliak keeps telling us. We’ll soon know if the plan is just a lot of talk — or legit.
3-Paul Goldschmidt’s second-half improvement didn’t get enough attention. He not only slugged .538, drove in 60 runs and finished 28 percent above league average offensively during the second half — he was provided with more RBI opportunities during the final two months of the regular season.
Yeah, opportunities matter. In his final two months of ‘2019, Goldy had nearly as many plate appearances with runners in scoring position (70) as he did over the first four months (77.)
Goldy ranked 166th among MLB hitters in plate appearances with RISP through July. But after July, he ranked third in the majors for most PA with runners in scoring position.
Big difference, yes?
Why this is relevant: When opportunity knocks and knocks and knocks … the RBI count will rise. Unless Goldy drives in himself with a solo homer, his RBI chances will be limited if the Cardinals don’t put more runners on base for him. Goldy’s year wasn’t as blah as it seemed at the time.
4. Yadier Molina’s injured hand healed, which gave him a stronger grip and more dexterity. In the first half Molina’s offense was 29 percent below league average. In the second half, Molina’s offense was 11 percent above the league average. Molina returned Aug. 13 after a lengthy stay on the injured list. From that point until the end of the regular season he batted .282 average, with a .352 OBP, and .449 slug. When Molina’s pain subsided, his offense got healthy.
Why this is relevant: a fresh and healthy Molina has a more lively at-bat, and perhaps the Shildt and the Cardinals should remember that before playing their proud catcher into exhaustion. How about giving him more days off?
5. Shildt stoked the second-half offense by redistributing plate appearances to give more swings to better hitters … and also by adjusting his lineup to slot guys with higher onbase percentages near the top of the lineup.
Fewer plate appearances for Harrison Bader and Matt Carpenter in the second half — and more PA for Edman, Tyler O’Neill and Dexter Fowler. O’Neill mostly played during Marcell Ozuna’s residency on the injured list. But in the second half O’Neill contributed offense that was 10 percent higher than league average. Whatever the reason, he deserved a look. Just as rookie outfielder Lane Thomas should have been utilized more frequently until suffering a hand fracture late in the season.
You may be puzzled by Fowler’s mention on this list, but it’s there for a reason that requires context. Though he cooled down dramatically in September, Fowler jump-started the offense when Shildt moved him back to leadoff in early August.
Fowler responded with a .357 leadoff OBP over his final 45 games. And that Fowler OBP skill created more RBI opportunities for Goldschmidt and others.
I’m not advocating for Fowler having 500 at-bats as the leadoff man in 2020; his inconsistency is a major issue. Let’s not miss the point here. And here’s the point: Shildt tried to stir Fowler and get his team’s offense going by giving Dex another assignment at leadoff. And it worked.
For about 25 games or so, before the revival crashed, Fowler was a catalyst. Lesson: it’s always a good idea for a manager to try something different instead of sticking with mediocrity. And it’s always a good idea to go with a sizzling bat for as long as it lasts. A torrid streak that lasts for only a few weeks and fades out is still better than not having a hot streak at all.
I think Shildt waited too long to move Kolten Wong into the No. 2 spot. Given the first-half malaise at the top of the lineup last season, Wong should have been tabbed for a much earlier turn batting second. After Shildt made the switch, Wong had 105 plate appearances at No. 2 and hit .312 with a .365 OBP. He spiced the offense by performing 22 percent higher than league average.
Why this is relevant: Shildt is a good manager and deserves praise for his work in multiple areas. But managers should give more at-bats to their better hitters … and fewer at-bats to their weaker hitters. I don’t know why so managers are reluctant to shake it up when warranted. Move the icy bats out of there, and replace them with scorchin bats. And when your first two lineup spots aren’t getting on base much, then go with higher OBP guys there. I’d like to see Shildt be more aggressive in making such changes in 2020.
Thanks for reading …