The 2019 St. Louis Cardinals should be a fun team to watch this year. The manager, Mike Shildt, seemed to find a way to push all the right buttons (in August especially). Shildt's 69-game managerial stretch had the team on 96-win full-season pace.
The team started to do more interesting things like: play with emotion, interact on social media, talk to the press in a way that wasn't condescending (or at least as much so), hit and run, steal bases, etc.
So what exciting things can we look forward to this year by looking back through data from last year? Statcast data (found over at the invaluable website Baseball Savant) can show us a lot if we know what we're looking for.
Let's use the rest of this post both as an informational tool about last year's stats for this year's Birds on the Bat and also as a primer on some Statcast data.
Before getting started at all, there is one term that you will need to be aware of: Batted Ball Event (BBE). A batted ball event is defined at Baseball Savant as "any batted ball that produces a result. This includes outs, hits and errors. Any fair ball is a Batted Ball Event. So, too, are foul balls that result in an out or an error." Now that that definition is out of the way, let's talk about the crux of what I wanted to impart upon you today.
The remainder of this post will reference this set of data that I researched this offseason. The 45th-55th percentiles in the chart are un-shaded (white background) whereas the darker blue the cell is represents how much worse than average the player was in 2018 and the darker red the cell is represents how much better than average the player was in 2018.
One statistic that Statcast tracks is Exit Velocity (EV) - a term that has made it's way into the mainstream, especially on home runs. Statcast tracks both average and maximum (max) EVs. 332 different MLB players had at least 150 BBEs in 2018. Their average EVs ranged from 79.3 miles per hour (mph) to 94.7 mph off of the bat. Their maximum EVs ranged from 100.2 mph to 121.7 mph off of the bat. Yankees outfield teammates Aaron Judge (average EV) and Giancarlo Stanton (max EV) took the top honors on those two lists. Former Reds and current Royals OF Billy Hamilton took the honors on the lowest average EV while Astros LF Tony Kemp had the lowest max EV in the majors last year.
Turning the EV conversation Cardinals-centric, out of the 15 guys that I chose as the potential MLB candidates to start the 2019 season, 7 were above average in the average EV statistic last year, while 4 were average. Turning to max EV, only 5 were above average and 4 were average. While Tyler O'Neill had the highest average EV on the club, Marcell Ozuna had the top EV. It was 117.2 mph off of the bat and resulted in his first home run with the Cardinals back on April 3, 2018. He wouldn't hit a ball harder all year long - although can you really blame him? He hit a freakin' ball 117+ miles per hour! Here it is:
This next section goes along well with the section on exit velocity. A "hard hit" ball category has been around for years on Fangraphs and other sites tracking that sort of thing. Statcast's definition of a hard hit ball is 95+ miles per hour. Thus the following statistic:
That is the percentage of batted ball events that were hit 95 miles per hour or more. Looking at the two that were the lowest: Francisco Pena will likely not make the major league team this year, while Dexter Fowler had his worst year ever. Everyone else on the list above was at least in that 45-55 percentile range or (way) higher during the 2018 season. The Cardinals have 8 of the 15 guys listed above as potential pieces in the order that all had above to well-above average percentages in hitting the ball really hard. In fact, 5 of the 15 were at the 75th percentile or higher in terms of how often they had "hard hit" balls on batted ball outcomes. Tyler O'Neill was at the top of that list for the Cardinals with over 45% of the balls he made contact with going 95+ mph off of the bat. Incredible.
One that stuck out on this list for me was Kolten Wong. When I saw that both his avg EV and his max EV were below average, never in a million years would I have guessed that his 95+ mph% would have been average...but it was. That screams to me a guy who either hit the ball incredibly hard or hit the ball incredibly softly all year long with very few median outcomes. That kinda makes sense to the eye test, no?
Jose Martinez hits a ball extremely hard quite often. That's why he's one of the better hitters in the league. The reason that launch angle matters along with hitting the ball hard can be illustrated by two swings from Jose Martinez in 2018. The first is him crushing a ball into the ground with a runner on first that ends up being a double play.
The second is a pitch that comes in at less than 80 miles per hour, but Martinez barrels it up (see next section!) and absolutely hits a frozen rope to score a runner. If he hits that ball any lower, it's quite possibly an inning ending play; not too much higher or it's quite possibly caught (if there's a very good center fielder).
On Baseball Savant, a player is said to have "barreled" a baseball when there are:
batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015...To be Barreled, a batted ball requires an exit velocity of at least 98 mph. At that speed, balls struck with a launch angle between 26-30 degrees always garner Barreled classification. For every mph over 98, the range of launch angles expands.
Last year, there were very few batters in baseball, and none who played regularly for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018, who barreled up a ball as well as current Cardinal Paul Goldschmidt. At 8.3%, Goldschmidt even beat out 2018 MVP candidate, Matt Carpenter, in how often barreled a baseball despite Carpenter having a higher percentage of balls hit 95+ mph. Tyler O'Neill had a ridiculously small sample size considering he only had 140 plate appearances and 40% of those were strikeouts...but his Brls/PA% was 12.00%! Incredible. Yet another reason I want him in the lineup this year.
To illustrate a "barrel," here is a .gif of Paul Goldschmidt absolutely annihilating a ball last year for the Diamondbacks.
Similar to barreling a ball is our next statistic today.
SwSp% stands for Sweet Spot Percentage. The "sweet spot" at Baseball Savant is defined as any ball hit between a launch angle of 8 and 32 degrees. How hard you hit a ball in the sweet spot can make or break how this percentage matters.
This particular DeJong swing had a 16.0 degree launch angle and 91.5 mph exit velocity. In 2015-2018, on balls hit 92 (rounded) mph at 16 degrees MLB hitters had a .722 batting average, with ~61% of those hits going as singles. In 2018, those numbers were
.763 with ~64% going for singles. At a 16 degree launch angle in 2018, it took hitting the ball at an EV of at least 108 miles per hour to have a better than % chance of hitting the ball out of the park.
Sprint Spd (sprint speed)
Eleven of the 15 players potentially (and likely to be) on the Cardinals roster in 2019 had sprint speeds above league average of 27 ft per second. Bader was elite with O'Neill very close behind. Surprisingly to me, Paul DeJong and Yairo Munoz were both up there with the best on the club, finishing third and fourth on the team, respectively.
I truthfully would never have guessed Carpenter being less than 0.5 f/s behind league average and in the 55th-65th percentile range on my chart (based on the median). Plays like the one shown below (the end of the DeJong sweet spot single above) are what make me think that Carp has a lower top gear than stated.
Especially when you compare it to the high gears like this:
The last thing that i want to do today is take one more look at that original chart that I have at the top of the article. To save you scrolling, and to introduce slight changes to the chart, here it is again:
Notice Francisco Pena, now highlighted blue, was below league average in every single category. I believe that is a very large reason that the Cardinals felt the need to go get Matt Wieters this offseason. If the two can be equal on defense, even, Wieters' offensive potential dwarfs Pena's to the point that it's worth it even for just the 150-165 PA that they're likely to bring.
Also notice Jose Martinez, Paul DeJong, Paul Goldschmidt, and Tyler O'Neill's Statcast numbers above. Those four are the only position players on the team who were above the median in all six categories listed last season. Both Marcell Ozuna and Matt Carpenter come close, with 5 of the six being above the median and one of the six categories (max EV for Carpenter and SwSp% for Ozuna) being below the median.
Putting those six into the lineup would mean an outfield of Ozuna, O'Neill, Martinez. I don't believe that is something likely to happen as Bader was otherworldly defensively in center field last year and seems to be the Cardinals poster child this offseason. The infield's offense should be pretty fun to watch with both DeJong and Goldschmidt on that list above with Carpenter coming close. Wong is obviously the infielder that is most inferior at the plate and he was nearly as good as Bader defensively, just in the dirt instead.
If the Cardinals start Bader, Molina, and Wong (as they likely should), even without having the Ozuna, O'Neill, Martinez OF imagined above based on my chart, the team would have five players in the everyday lineup (with only 2 of Ozuna/O'Neill/Martinez in there) that are above median in 5 of the 6 categories in the chart and three players who are likely gold glove contenders.
I hope the Statcast data primer was beneficial for you, the readers. If you were already familiar with the data, I hope it was fun to just take a walk down 2018 memory lane, mostly looking at good stuff.
A few of those .gifs by the wonderful Nicholas Childress got me absolutely fired up for this season. (He is also responsible for the cover art above, by the way.) Thinking about a lineup featuring all of that potential above is also getting me excited to see what these boys can do this year. Let's hope that Shildt's 96-win pace is just the starting point for this group we have currently gathered, no?