Cardinals: Best Shape of Their Life

Alex Reyes, Matt Carpenter, and Carlos Martinez at Cardinals Spring Training camp in Jupiter, FL ; Photo Credit: Laurie Skrivan — Louis Post-Dispatch

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It’s a tired Spring Training cliche — so much so that it has turned into somewhat of a running joke among fans and media alike. Every year players report to camp, fresh off of 3 months in the gym, sporting better fitness or being declared — by themselves or by observers — to be in the best shape of their life.

For the most part, we should expect this. Professional athletes — especially the veterans with the resources to afford the best offseason programs —  should be reporting to training camps in excellent shape. So, the phrase is mostly just white noise.


Sometimes, there are specific cases where this matters and should be taken note of.

Quick Hits

Brett Cecil, for example, had gained quite a bit of extra poundage by the end of 2018. He showed up to Spring Training 2019 with a dramatic 60 pounds of weight loss. Though this was not the cause of the carpal tunnel that derailed his season, adjusting to a new body did complicate his mechanics for the short time he threw in camp. This season, he has reported with 15 pounds added back on — a natural leveling to a normal weight, recall Lance Lynn’s ebb and flow — hoping for a bounce back.

In his case, it is worth monitoring the results that accompany his physical condition.

Also noted this spring by Derrick Goold in various podcasts, is the leaner look of Tyler O’Neill, who sought to trade some bulk for flexibility this season after experiencing various injuries the last 2 years. Though, it’s worth noting, he is still ridiculously ripped out of his mind. Tyler has had a couple chances for an extended look the last two seasons, and both times an injury cut it short. Durability is a big thing for him, so this is worth keeping an eye on.

Alex Reyes

Then there is much maligned Alex Reyes. Reports from Spring Training have noted a slimmer, more athletic frame. The comparison of his 2019 and 2020 head shots show it clearly.

In 2017, The Cardinal Nation reported his weigh as 230 pounds in their scouting report. In 2018, when returning from Tommy John surgery, Derrick Goold reported that he had lost about 20 pounds during his rehab work, while getting stronger and leaner. Then, prior to last season, Mark Saxon wrote about his rehab following the pectoral injury and surgery, with this being noted:

When Reyes first showed up at Next Level Fitness in November, he was a doughy 248 pounds. With spring training approaching, he’s down to 233 even after adding several pounds of muscle.

So he seemed to have really added weight after the 2nd injury hit. I think there is a chance he pulled a 2016 Wainwright and got too strong/bulky in rehab and this season we are seeing a course correction to a more athletic frame, which hopefully is less susceptible to injury. We shall see.

Matt Carpenter

As we moved through the winter it was revealed that the offseason prescription for Carpenter was to add strength. Reported here by Derrick Goold, the team sought an answer for dips in exit velocity and, ultimately, production, isolating it to weight and strength loss. As Goold reported:

Carpenter, who turned 34 in November, had moved away from weightlifting in the past year or two as a way to avoid some of the back trouble that interrupted spring training. Instead he focused on getting his shoulder healthy and – a year ago – his return to third base.

The priorities had shifted for Carpenter and he had, in effect, pulled a Brandon Moss. You may remember that Moss — who hit 30 and 25 HR’s in 2013-14 — struggled to regain that power in 2015 with Cleveland following an offseason hip surgery that significantly limited his ability to strength train his legs. He hit just 19 HR’s — only 4 in 151 PA’s with St. Louis — and noted a lot of balls that felt like HR’s dying short of the wall, as reported by Derrick Goold. With the ability to return to his normal routine after 2015, he would go on to hit 28 HR’s in just 463 PA’s in 2016. This is what Derrick wrote of his 2014-15 offseason:

The surgery meant he spent most of the winter rehabbing and working on mobility, just so he could be ready for spring training and move comfortably in the outfield. It wasn’t until after last month’s All-Star break that he gained clearance to begin more aggressive strength training with his legs.

Carpenter didn’t have surgery, but the two cases are very similar.

And when looking at some StatCast metrics, I found that Carpenter’s average distance on fly balls dropped from 335 feet in 2018, to 326 feet in 2019. His average exit velocity dropped from 94.7 mph to 92.3 on fly balls between the two seasons.

This is a spray chart of all of his fly balls in 2019:

This is an oversimplification, but I count about 16 “warning track” outs on that chart. There may be more than 20, depending on ballpark dimensions or how generous you want to be. Many are in CF and Left-CF, where he collected a lot of HR’s in 2018. MLB warning tracks are 15 feet wide. On average, Carpenter lost 9 feet of distance on fly balls, or 60% of the width of a warning track. If 8 of those 16 outs get a little more carry and find the first row, Carpenter’s season line goes from 15 HR’s, .226/.334/.392 to 23 HR’s and .245/.350/.469. The OBP is still a little low for him, but the HR’s, AVG, and SLG are much more aligned with his 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Again, this is an oversimplification and a long way of saying, I buy it. Carpenter is notorious for getting lean to the point of being too lean. Added strength could go a long way into turning his 2019 warning track power into actual HR’s and production in 2020.

His 2019 struggles cannot be solely contributed to decreased strength, but there is tangible evidence that it had a negative effect, which can decrease his productivity, and poor results can lead to compounding swing/approach issues in an attempt to course correct.

Comments from reporters on-site have said he looks stronger this spring. It’s hard to tell from batting practice videos, so this is something I will watch closely as televised games begin.

Carpenter in the “best shape of his life” is a positive sign for a potential — and much needed — rebound.

Carlos Martinez

Contrary to popular belief, Carlos Martinez is a really good pitcher. Not long ago, he was one of the 15-20 best starting pitchers in baseball. His return to the rotation is pivotal to the 2020 Cardinals, as a 1-2 combo of Flaherty and Martinez can rival almost any team’s top pitchers.

The return to the rotation is dependent on his health, which is dependent on his physical condition.

Unlike last year, reports from Jupiter are saying that he used his offseason very wisely and has returned in much better shape than he has been in the last few years. The number being reported — as done so here by Benjamin Hochman — is 15 pounds of weight loss. Fifteen pounds and a good conditioning program can cause a pretty dramatic transformation.

Feb 21, 2019; Jupiter, FL, USA; Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 19, 2020; Jupiter, Florida, USA; Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

I have thought over the last two years — and I’ve heard it noted by Derrick Goold on the BPIB podcast this spring — that Carlos looked uncomfortable and somewhat bloated on the mound. Carlos has never been fat, or even chubby, but he just seemed a little puffier than he should be. Not quite in as good of shape as he needed to be, considering his temperamental right shoulder.

Compare his 2019 and 2020 spring training photos.

It’s slight, but you can see what I’m talking about. The Cardinals were frustrated by a 2018-19 offseason that brought him to camp unready to perform, and ultimately unable to return to the starting rotation. The hope is that this season is different. So far, he has been a full participant in the normal spring training program, which is a stark difference from a year ago. Showing up to camp in better shape can go a long way towards improved health, so I take this “best shape of his life” development as a positive sign for the 2020 club and hope to see it make a difference on the field in the form of an All-Star caliber starting pitcher.

Carpenter and Martinez are prominent players, in particular, that I wanted to pay close attention to. Their return to past form could jettison the team far beyond current fan expectations. A healthy Reyes is the bonus of all bonuses.

Thanks for reading.

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