Cardinals news and notes from the 2019 Baseball Prospectus Annual



I picked up two books yesterday at Kramerbooks here in DC (a store which garnered a little bit of fame during the Monica Lewinsky scandal): Meet Me in the Bathroom, a book about the New York indie rock scene during the 2000s; and the 2019 Baseball Prospectus Annual. Meet Me in the Bathroom is called Meet Me in the Bathroom because that's the name of a deep cut from the Strokes' second album. That's my main assumption anyway, I haven't read the book yet.


The 2019 Baseball Prospectus Annual is called the 2019 Baseball Prospectus Annual for reasons that are more self-explanatory. It's a preview of sorts, this version being the 24th edition. It used to signify when the season for at least thinking about baseball was upon us, but that was back to a simpler time when most of the free agents signed before spring training. (That used to happen, I swear!) But for the uninitiated, the Annual has an essay penned by a different author for each franchise, as well as notes on each player, from Paul Goldschmidt all the way down to the guys who are still looking to graduate from Peoria.


It's a yearly publication that I could not recommend more. I do a book report of sorts every year on the Annual, pointing out the Cardinals-related nuggets that caught my eye and here lies the 2019 version (and the fourth one I've done in total so I'm about due for a personal pan pizza).


What if the Cardinals had just signed Albert Pujols?


So asks Russell Carleton to begin the second paragraph of his essay on the Cardinals, a question many Cardinals fans and scribes alike have asked without breaking it down year-by-year like Carleton does here. It's an interesting question as soon as you move past the obvious "It would have been an unwise thing to do because Albert Pujols is no longer that great at baseball but still costs a ton of money" instinct which is not wrong, but it's also not that simple either. Or, at least as Carleton shows, the Cardinals probably haven't benefited as much as is perceived by not signing the legendary slugger, or at least have not benefitted as much as they perhaps could have.


A tl;dr version would be that the Cardinals deserve credit for not signing Pujols to the same ten-year contract he inked with the Angels, but let's not go overboard as it was obvious to many even back in 2011 that this was a potential pitfall (although few predicted just how far his value would plummet by year five). But how did the Cardinals pivot with the money saved? Well, as Carleton notes, they got two solid years from Carlos Beltrán. They were able to sign Jhonny Peralta for a few good years of baseball and a few bad ones. They ensured that Cardinal luminaries Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright will likely retire with the organization and possibly have statues one day near the corner of Clark and Broadway.


These are mostly good things, and the Cardinals have benefitted from each of the moves in one way or another. But we can't guarantee that Pujols's career would have cratered in St. Louis quite like it did in Anaheim - although it's likely, and the flip side to that is that he never would have had the benefit of the DH so it could have been even worse had he stayed, too. Home runs number 500 and 600 and hit number 3,000 would have happened while he was wearing a Cardinals uniform, and while that's not the same thing as winning a Pennant, those moments and memories aren't trivial either.


If we're being honest with ourselves, we have a decent idea, but no one truly knows how different - good or bad - things would have been had Pujols played these past seven seasons with the Cardinals. We're left to cherish the eleven seasons he did spend with the club, a stretch that's nearly impossible to tarnish, and to give him the ovation he deserves when he returns to town this summer. That'll do. But read Carleton's essay if you get the chance. He's one of the most intelligent and accessible baseball writers you will find, and since he has recently left Baseball Prospectus for employment with the Mets, this could be one of the last things we get to read from him in a while.


A few notes from the player comments (which were written by Matt Trueblood and the Baseball Prospectus staff)...


Let's appreciate Jedd Gyorko


I'm not sure if the following should have gotten my attention because it seems like something I should have known already, but:

For the third time in three years with the Cardinals, Gyorko set a new career mark in on-base percentage, struck out less often than ever, and walked more than ever.

From 2013-2015, in which Gyorko accumulated almost 1,500 plate appearances with the Padres, he had a .293 on-base percentage, and topped out at .301 during his rookie year. Since joining the Cardinals, that has climbed to .306, .341, and .346, respectively, while dropping his strikeout rate over four percent since 2015, even while the rest of the baseball has gone in the opposite direction. It's an admirable improvement.


Because of the Paul Goldschmidt acquisition, Gyorko has been squeezed out of the everyday lineup in 2019, but he should still find plenty of at-bats. When you account for injuries, and the fact that Gyorko can play every position in the infield if he has to - something he has done two of his three seasons in St. Louis (he was not penciled in at shortstop in 2017) - there's under-appreciated value here, even before taking into account his improved plate discipline. Is he going to win a gold glove at any of these positions? Probably not. But in this era of historic strikeout rates, fewer ground balls, and defensive shifts, it probably doesn't matter all that much (note: this applies to Matt Carpenter at third base, too).


I'm still not sold on Tyler O'Neill


From the Annual:

...but (O'Neill's) failure to make contact against big-league pitching was historic - 'no batter has ever made contact on a lower percentage of swings in a season where they saw 500 or more pitches' historic.

Yikes.


O'Neill had a 40.1 percent strikeout rate in 2018, the third highest in MLB for players with at least 120 plate appearances. Via FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards, here's the list of players over the last five seasons who have struck out at least 40 percent of the time over the course of a season (min: 120 PA)

This list is as short as it is unimpressive. The outlier might be Javier Báez, who is the only player on the list to lower his strikeout rate to below 30 percent after hitting (or starting) at the 40 percent mark, and to accumulate a 3.0 WAR season. O'Neill's walk-to-strikeout ratio ranks in the bottom two percent for all seasons (min 120 PA) going back five years. It's simply not a good batting profile. I am skeptical of Jeff Albert's ability to fix this. Not because I doubt his pedigree but because some players simply are who they are.


I will say this: If in the near future O'Neill is able to lower his strikeout rate to 25 percent and improve his walk rate to near eight percent while still hitting bombs like the aforementioned Joey Gallo, then let's go ahead and build a statue of Jeff Albert alongside Molina and Wainwright.


I am sold on Harrison Bader


Again, from the Annual:

The only batters who fanned more often that Bader and had an ISO as low or lower than his were JaCoby Jones, Lewis Brinson, and Chris Davis. Unless and until he fixes that, he's going to be a suspect starting center fielder for a contender.

Now here I take issue. Bader's struggles against righties are well documented, and that's a legitimate issue given that around 75 percent of pitchers in MLB are righties. But he plays elite defense at a position which typically hits for below league average. For comparison sake, center fielders had a 98 wRC+ in 2018, while Bader finished the season at 106. He also has elite speed which he seems to know how to use. Mostly, dammit, he's fun to watch and sometimes it's best just left at that. I have concerns about the 2019 Cardinals, but Bader in center field is not one of them, even taking into account his predictable regression at the plate.


To be fair, this wouldn't be the first time an evaluator got Harrison Bader wrong, they all have at some point, and that includes Baseball Prospectus, which had this to say in the 2017 Annual:

He doesn’t have the raw speed of a prototypical center fielder and would at best be average there, but there’s enough juice in his bat to carry an outfield corner.

Ehh, we all miss sometimes. Check this book out anyway, it can probably be found at your local bookstore. There's so much more than what I covered here (over 500 pages, in fact) and maybe by the time you're done reading it Bryce Harper will have found a team.


Now on to the Strokes.