Comparing the Cardinals to the Contenders: Position Players

Four days ago I set out to look at potential starting pitching match-ups for the postseason. 1000 words later I realized that there was no way I could cover all the ground I wanted to in a single post. And then I realized that I couldn’t stop at the starting rotation, or pitching for that matter. So I ended up, unintentionally, launching this 4-part series. And so we have arrived at the final chapter, looking at the position players.

It seems unbalanced that pitching required 3 posts, but position players only get one. The reason is, I feel that most of the comparison can come from a collective standpoint when it comes to offense, defense, and base running.

Yes, there are stud hitters that will be highlighted, but generally I think this is best left as clean as possible. Too much individualization in this category would lead to a 5000 word mess. I don’t want that and neither do you. Additionally, as this series has moved along, the Diamondbacks have grown further and further from the playoff picture. With Fangraphs giving them less than a 3% chance to claim a postseason birth, I’m not going to include them in this installment.

So, let’s get on with it.

Here Come the Numbers

Here is how all of the contenders stack up by position, with wRC+ indicated in parentheses:

Position Cardinals Cubs Brewers Braves Rockies Dodgers
C Molina (109) Contreras (106) Pina (85) Suzuki (110) Ianetta (82) Grandal (122)
1B Carpenter* (147) Rizzo* (125) Aguilar (133) Freeman* (136) Desmond (79) Muncy* (156)
2B Wong* (93) Baez (134) Shaw* (116) Albies" (106) LeMahieu (96) Taylor (110)
SS DeJong (99) Russell (81) Arcia (41) Swanson (82) Story (125) Machado (144)
3B Gyorko (113) Bryant (129) Moustakas* (107) Camargo" (120) Arenado (135) Turner (154)
LF Ozuna (104) Schwarber* (114) Braun (96) Acuna (149) Dahl* (108) Kemp (117)
CF Bader (107) Almora (92) Cain (130) Inciarte* (87) Blackmon* (112) Bellinger* (118)
RF Martinez (123) Heyward* (101) Yelich* (148) Markakis* (119) Gonzalez* (98) Puig (113)
PH Adams* (113) Zobrist" (126) Schoop (84) Culberson (116) Holliday (181) Hernandez (107)
PH Munoz (111) Happ" (105) Thames* (106) Tucker* (100) Parra* (77) Pederson* (123)

So let’s start by using those wRC+ numbers. Among their starters and top pinch hitting options, this is how many above average (100 or higher) hitters each team can boast:

Cardinals (8/10), Cubs (8/10), Brewers (6/10), Braves (8/10), Rockies (5/10), and Dodgers (10/10).

Here are all of the starting position players above 120 wRC+, ranked:

Player wRC+ Team
Muncy 156 Dodgers
Turner 154 Dodgers
Acuna 149 Braves
Yelich 148 Brewers
Carpenter 147 Cardinals
Machado 144 Dodgers
Freeman 136 Braves
Arenado 135 Rockies
Baez 134 Cubs
Aguilar 133 Brewers
Cain 130 Brewers
Bryant 129 Cubs
Rizzo 125 Cubs
Story 125 Rockies
Martinez 123 Cardinals
Grandal 122 Dodgers
Camargo 120 Braves

On that list, all teams have at least 3 of these excellent hitters, except for the Cardinals and Rockies, who have 2, each.

Here is a look at how the teams stack up collectively this season, based on wRC+ by non-pitchers.

Team wRC+
Dodgers 114
Cubs 109
Braves 107
Cardinals 104
Brewers 102
Rockies 94

That table makes sense. The Brewers and Rockies feature fewer above average hitters than any other team and are the bottom two teams overall. The Dodgers feature the most and are the top team. The Cardinals feature less high-quality hitters than the Braves and Cubs, and therefore fall in behind them.

Here is where the Cardinals’ non-pitchers rank in some of the major offensive categories, among these 6 teams:

Stat Cardinals Rank (out of 6) Value
AVG 5th .256
OBP 5th .329
SLG 6th .423
K% 3rd 21.4%
BB% 3rd 8.8%
wOBA 6th .324
HR 4th 185
Runs 5th 667
2B 6th 218
3B 6th 8
SB 5th 59

Now, let’s talk it out…

The Dodgers are weird because they basically play musical chairs with their position players. Depending on alignments, you could see Brian Dozier at 2B, and he would be their only below average hitter for this season. He’s had a down year, but has been arguably the best 2B in baseball over the previous two seasons. They are just super deep and can change their lineup to address any match-up. Seemingly, every hitter they have can hit 20+ HR’s.

The Rockies are the worst all-around offensive team of the bunch, though a resurgent Matt Holliday helps. They feature two great hitters in Arenado and Story.

Similarly, the Braves have great duo with Freddie Freeman and the probable Rookie-of-the-Year, and likely MVP vote-getter, Ronald Acuna. Atlanta’s lineup runs deeper than the Rockies beyond their top two.

The Brewers have a major offensive hole at SS if they side with the defense of Arcia. They can trot out a much lesser defensive SS in Schoop and improve their offense. They also have a below average hitter at catcher. However, they have a legitimate MVP candidate in Christian Yelich (and some Cardinals fan didn’t want him…) and two more great hitters in Cain and Aguilar.

The Cubs have a big-three situation, as well, with Rizzo, Bryant, and Baez. We know how tough they can be and the lineup has a lot of length. They have proven themselves to be very good in big moments.

As for the Cardinals, they have Matt Carpenter, who can go toe-to-toe with anyone in baseball when he is in a groove. After that, Jose Martinez is their next best. There is probably some recency bias talking — Martinez has come up empty in several game changing spots lately — but he seems far less imposing than the #2 hitters on the other contenders. Now, we have seen Ozuna coming on lately and he should probably be the 2nd best hitter on this team. His 104 wRC+ isn’t indicative of the damage he can do when he is hot.

What we can see from the numbers that the Cardinals are not one of the most potent lineups in the playoff picture, but they aren’t bad. Now, the overall numbers take into account the season of Dexter Fowler (no longer a factor), and significant missed time from Molina and DeJong, both case in which the substitutes of Pena and Garcia were far from the same quality.

So their “A-squad” is likely better now than the overall numbers indicate, but its hard to say exactly how it would stack up. At their best they can keep pace with any lineup in baseball, but they have also been known to go ice cold for multiple games and run up the strikeouts. Two no-shows in the playoffs can send a team home very quickly.

Maybe it’s because I see them nightly and don’t see the other teams nearly as often, but I feel that they lack the element of having multiple “game-changers” that other contenders can boast.

A quick look at baserunning.

Fangraphs has an all-encompassing Base Running stat, which I will let them explain to you:

Base Running (BsR) is FanGraphs’ all encompassing base running statistic that turns stolen bases, caught stealings, and other base running plays (taking extra bases, being thrown out on the bases, etc) into runs above and below average. It is the combination of Weighted Stolen Base Runs (wSB), Weighted Grounded Into Double Play Runs (wGDP), and Ultimate Base Running (UBR).

And so, this is how contenders line up in this metric:

Cardinals (9.7), Dodgers (8.3), Braves (8.0), Brewers (6.9), Cubs (3.2), Rockies (2.7)

Perhaps surprisingly, the Cardinals are strong in that category. They have done a nice job when it comes to going 1B to 3B when the opportunities come, and in the 2nd half they have become an efficient base stealing team.

And so, speaking of stolen base efficiency:

Brewers (79.4%), Rockies (74.8%), Dodgers (74.7%), Braves (70.8%), Cardinals (66.3%), Cubs (63%)

The Cardinals were terribly inefficient under Mike Matheny, stealing just 33 of 55 (60%).

In the 2nd half, under Mike Shildt, they are 28 for 37, at a 75.7% success rate. So this picture is less dreary than it appears by only looking at the overall numbers.

In the last few years, the Cardinals were very mistake-prone on the bases. This season, especially under Shildt, they have shown to be a capable and opportunistic baserunning team. That opportunistic style can prove to be an advantage in close games.

And A Quick Hit on Defense

Based on the Fangraphs version of Defensive Runs Saved, this is how they stack up:

Brewers (88), Braves (54), Cubs (40), Cardinals (35), Dodgers (19), Rockies (-23)

And then looking at the 150-game scaled version of Ultimate Zone Rating:

Cubs (7.5), Brewers (4.6), Braves (2.6), Cardinals (2.1), Rockies (-1.1), Dodgers (-5.0)

The Cardinals are a solid defensive club, but not elite. They are firmly in the middle of the pack as far as the NL contenders go. There are better defensive teams and some worse.

They have a couple of excellent fielders in Bader and Wong. Those two can change a game with their gloves. The Cardinals are average to above across the infield. Ozuna has solid range for a LF, but his arm is compromised and he ocasionally does strange things. Martinez is better in RF than at 1B, but still below average.

Bottom line, I’m not concerned about the defense hurting us in a potential postseason series. It may not give us the type of edge that the Cubs or Brewers can gain, but it will make the plays it should and occasionally dazzle.

Final Line

Overall, if the Cardinals end up as the #4 seed (or #5 in the case of the Wild Card game), that would be better much on par with their current talent level. However, as we saw in August, this team can get hot. As we know very well, sometimes that’s all that matters in October.

Thanks for hanging with me through this series

Thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference, I wouldn’t be able to write without you.

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Last updated: 10/06/2022