It will be a contrast of styles as the pitching, speed, and defense Cardinals come to Minnesota to face the Bomba Squad for the Twins’ first homestand of 2020. The Cardinals took two of three from Pittsburgh to open 2020, while the Twins did the same against the White Sox.
The Cardinals were the winners of the NL Central a season ago, finishing 91-71 (good for a two-game margin over the wild card Brewers). St. Louis went on to defeat Atlanta in the NLDS before being swept by the eventual champion Washington Nationals in the NLCS. The Cardinals had a quiet offseason, letting outfielder Marcell Ozuna move on, trading 1B/OF/DH Jose Martinez to Tampa Bay for prospects and draft picks while bringing back long-time stalwart Adam Wainwright and adding international free agent left-hander Kwang-hyun Kim. The Cardinals essentially return the same club as 2019, with optimism they’ll reap the rewards of continued growth of young position players Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and pitchers Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and Giovanny Gallegos. Top outfield prospect Dylan Carlson should arrive soon.
In addition to those young players the Cardinals are again led by veteran backstop Yadier Molina. First basemen Paul Goldschmidt is in his second year in St. Louis, looking to rebound from a slightly disappointing first campaign and patient hitter Matt Carpenter is a much better fit as a designated hitter than a position player. Although the Twins will miss Flaherty and Wainwright in this quick two game series, they will see veteran right hander Carlos Martinez who is returning to the rotation after spending last season a combination of injured and in the bullpen. The bullpen will be chaired by Kim but is otherwise a collection of homegrown arms you probably don’t know and Andrew Miller. The Cardinals are also without two key bullpen pieces as owner of baseball’s biggest fastball Jordan Hicks has opted out of the 2020 season and steady right hander John Brebbia recovers from elbow surgery.
The Cardinals are a pitching, defense, and baserunning style club. They aren’t flashy and they do a lot of little and less visible things well. St. Louis finished toward the bottom of MLB in power hitting in 2019 (24th in homeruns, 27th in exit velocity), but near the top in stealing bases (4th most). On the run prevention side, they coaxed groundballs on the mound (4th most) and turned those batted balls into outs at a high rate (3rd in Statcast outs above average, 5th best batting average allowed on balls in play). Put it all together and the Cardinals are a bit of a throwback that will be an interesting contrast to the powerful Twins.
★ ★ ★
1. Making the routine plays
The 2018 Cardinals infield defense ranked 28th in MLB as measured by Statcast’s Out Above Average (OAA) metric. A key culprit of that porous infield was the inability to turn easy and routine plays into outs. Of batted balls with a 90%-100% probability of becoming an out the 2018 Cardinals turned the lowest percentage into an out (97.1%) and committed the most errors in MLB. The club flipped the script last year, increasing that conversion number to 98.3% and committing the fewest errors in MLB on the way to finishing 3rd in OAA. Heading into this season the club has again doubled down on this defensive mindset through the offseason attrition of Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez, which rid the Cardinals of their two lowest rated defenders.
Defense is an oft-hidden component of the game – the highlight reel plays get the attention but it’s often the routine plays (made or not made) day after day that have the biggest impact on a teams’ outcomes.
You might be thinking a 1.2 percentage point jump does not seem like a lot, but it works out to 32 more outs made than not. That’s potentially 32 opponent rallies not extended by a misplay or failed play over the course of a season, which can really add up and be the difference in a competitive division.
What to look for:
Interestingly, the Cardinals defensive success stands out because of their limited use of defensive shifting. St. Louis has ranked at or very near the bottom of the league in percentage of plate appearances utilizing the shift since Statcast began tracking that in 2016. Last season their use of shifts rose slightly to 15.8%, a change driven almost exclusively by shifts against left-handed batters (up to 30.8%), but they still ranked just 25th in MLB in shifting frequency. It will be interesting to see if St. Louis holds to form against the Twins, who have some of baseball’s most pronounced batted ball tendencies (3rd highest pull rate, highest fly ball rate).
★ ★ ★
2. Taking the extra base
One of the ways the 2019 Cardinals countered their relative lack of power hitting was with aggressive and efficient baserunning, tying for the National League lead (and 3rd in MLB) in stolen bases with 116, on the back of an 80% success rate that tied for 4th best in MLB. Baserunning is more than just stolen bases, though, and the Cardinals were also effective in advancing extra bases (like going first to third on a single) and avoiding making outs on the bases. By Fangraphs’ all-encompassing Base Running runs above average metric (BsR), the Cardinals were the 2nd most valuable group of baserunners in baseball in 2019.
Second basemen Kolten Wong led the club with 24 steals and 7.1 BsR and teammates Harrison Bader and Paul DeJong are also above average runners and opportunistic on the bases. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt has long been an above average base runner despite pedestrian speed, rookie third basemen Tommy Edman swiped 15 bases in 16 tries and racked up 6.6 BsR in a little more than half a season, and young left fielder Tyler O’Neill ranked in the 99th percentile in sprint speed according to Statcast. Given the players on the roster it’s no surprise the Cardinals are looking to be aggressive once again in 2020.
What to look for:
This isn’t a great matchup for the Twins. Primary catcher Mitch Garver successfully threw out only 6 of 37 attempted base stealers in 2019 (16%) and his average time throwing to second base on a steal attempt (known as POP time) was a below average 2.04 seconds. Second catcher Alex Avila has been more successful with a career rate of throwing on base stealers of 29.9% and 2.01 POP time that is exactly the major league average. Expected starters Homer Bailey and Rich Hill will need to pay close attention to Cardinals runners and mix up their timing to home plate in hopes of slowing them down. Look for Bailey and Hill to hold the ball longer after coming set and to step off the rubber without a throw occasionally to disrupt the Cardinals jumps.
★ ★ ★
3. Scouting the Starters
Carlos Martinez – Martinez has moved between the rotation and the bullpen throughout his career, but when he’s been healthy he’s been a solid major league starting pitcher (career .300 wOBA allowed as starter). Last year he worked solely as a reliever but he’s back in the rotation for 2020. Martinez has always gotten a high percentage of ground balls (53.1% career ground ball rate) and he’s the rare pitcher whose arsenal includes six pitches: a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a cutter, a slider, a changeup, and a rare curveball. As a starter we can look for Martinez to rely heavily on his three fastball varieties, throwing them more than 60% of his pitches against both right-handed batters and left-handed batters. You’ll see the sinker more against righties and the cutter more against lefties. The four-seamer will sit around 95 miles per hour, the sinker a few ticks below that, and the cutter around 90-91. For the remainder of his tosses, he’ll turn to his slider most often against righties (28.6%) and pair his changeup (16.8%) off the cutter against lefties. The groundballs come as a result of a career average launch angle allowed of just 6.9 degrees, driven by the sinker (-1 degrees) and change (-6 degrees). It’s difficult to get the ball airborne against Martinez which makes him an interesting matchup for the fly ball happy Twins.
Miles Mikolas – Mikolas is a fairly unheralded, yet solid major league starter. For those unfamiliar with his story: after struggling through parts of three seasons with San Diego and Texas 2012-2014, Mikolas revived his baseball career with three very successful seasons in Japan. The Cardinals signed him as a free agent before the 2018 season and he has started 64 games covering 384.2 innings for them the past two seasons. In that time, he’s allowed a wOBA of just .294 and been worth 6.7 WAR. His 2018 numbers were stronger but were driven in part by some batted ball luck (just 9.2% HR/Fly ball; MLB average: 15.3%). Even after experiencing some regression in that area last season, he posted a 4.27 FIP that was better than league average. Mikolas is absolutely a command, control, and soft contact ground ball pitcher – his 1.43 BB/9 over the past two years is tied for the lowest in baseball among qualified pitchers. Like a lot of this Cardinals club, there is nothing flashy about Mikolas. He attacks the zone with a lot of strikes, mixing four pitches more than 20% of the time to both right-handed batters and left-handed batters, inducing groundballs at 47.4% clip.
★ ★ ★
4. The beginning of Goldy’s decline?
Prior to the 2019 season, the Cardinals acquired first basemen Paul Goldschmidt from Arizona for prospects and picks and promptly extended him to stay in St. Louis, 5 years, $130 million. In Goldschmidt, the Cardinals were acquiring an exceptionally productive and well-rounded player who was still in his prime – to that point in the 31-year-old Goldschmidt’s career he had tied for sixth in wRC+ (144) and ranked ninth in fWAR (36.2) across MLB. So, it was surprising when he struggled in 2019 to a career worst 116 wRC+ (still productive, of course). Digging under the hood, Goldschmidt made a noticeable change in his swing aggressiveness, offering at a career most 46.5% of the pitches thrown his way, including nearly 65% of first pitches, and chasing 28.4% of pitches thrown out of the zone. The approach yielded career lows in average exit velocity (90.1 mph, 84th in MLB) and hard-hit percentage (42%).
What to look for:
It’s difficult to know for sure if this is signal or just random noise. 2020 ought to be a telling campaign in determining if 2019 was the beginning of Goldschmidt’s age related decline, or just an aberration as he adjusted to a new team and division. It’s fair to wonder if the aggressiveness was in response to slowing bat speed. Goldschmidt did not perform as well against fastballs in 2019 as he had previously in his career – perhaps the aggressive approach was a result of him cheating to catch up to fastballs? At any rate, he’s still the best hitter in the Cardinals lineup and I expect to see the Twins be careful with him. That could mean they will try to use his aggressiveness against him and attack him with breaking balls in the zone or fastballs just off the plate early in counts in an attempt to generate weak contact.
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John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher.