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The St. Louis Cardinals’ Single Weakness

Oh happy day, it’s another column about how the St. Louis Cardinals are better than everyone else.

I’m as tired of writing them as Cubs, Brewers, Pirates, and Reds fans are of reading them—the Cardinals are now such a cliché of “playing the game the right way” that I wouldn’t be surprised by the emergence of a scandal involving John Mozeliak having Big Science in his pocket and Matt Holliday being replaced by an incredibly life-like robot a few years ago. Even then, I’m sure some broadcasters would breathlessly praise them for “finding a competitive advantage” in a creative way.

But the preceding paragraph only serves as further proof they’re one of the best franchises in all of sports—the St. Louis Cardinals belong in the same class as the last decade of San Antonio Spurs teams, the late ‘90s/early ‘00s Yankees, the Messi era of Barcelona F.C. football, and the Yzerman/Fedorov-fronted Detroit Red Wings of the 1990s. Those teams were all stacked with talent throughout their entire rosters and rarely looked like they had any weaknesses.

This current Cardinals club is keeping their run of success going in superlative fashion—to go along with their MLB-best 35-18 record, they’ve allowed the fewest runs in baseball (154, a robust 25 fewer than the club with the second-fewest, Kansas City) leading to their league best +63 run differential, and the third-best on-base percentage in baseball at .331. Prevent runs, get on base a lot, and score an average of 1.19 more runs per game than your opponents—that’s the best possible recipe for having the best record in baseball.

If there’s any flaw in the Cardinals game it’s a distinct lack of power in the lineup, which may become a bigger issue after Matt Adams’ injury. The team’s .397 slugging puts them right around the middle of the pack overall, but Cardinals hitters have hit just 40 home runs thus far (tied for fifth-fewest in baseball) over half of which (22) have come from Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, and Kolten Wong. Though Adams’ .375 slugging percentage in 2015 is underwhelming for him in light of his last two seasons, he was one of only five Cardinals with four or more homers (Holliday and Adams’ primary back-up Mark Reynolds both have three).

14 May 2015:  St. Louis Cardinals Left field Matt Holliday (7) [2901] at bat during the game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH.  St. Louis defeated Cleveland 2-1.

Is there reason to think the Cardinals have more power than they’re showing? Certainly Holliday (who hasn’t hit fewer than 20 homers in a season since 2005) and Yadier Molina’s home run totals are below what’s expected (Molina has yet to hit one in 2015) and Heyward and Reynolds both have room for improvement. Part of it may be how their lineup is collectively hitting the ball—St. Louis has one of the lowest fly ball rates in the majors (32.1%) paired with the sixth-highest line drive rate (22.2%). Thus, the doubles are coming in droves (103, third-most in baseball) in lieu of balls going over the fence.

But, suppose the Cardinals collectively start hitting the ball with a bit more loft—will those doubles convert into home runs? Not necessarily. Fly ball distance averages are not kind to the Cardinals lineup. Using Baseball Heat Maps’ leaderboard (which includes 218 hitters with Bryce Harper at the top and Ben Revere at the bottom), St. Louis only has two hitters in the top half of the group: Jhonny Peralta (50th, sandwiched between Brandon Moss and Andrew McCutchen) and Mark Reynolds (67th, flanked by Wil Myers and Edwin Encarnacion). Wong and Carpenter are right around the middle of the pack while Heyward (157th) and Molina (178th) are near the bottom. Matt Holliday isn’t counted on the list at Baseball Heat Maps (probably due to a small sample size or incomplete data), but his average distance of 274.41 feet would put him just ahead of Yunel Escobar at 141st.

Perhaps it’s simply the reality of aging and the erosion of power that comes with it. Molina’s home run totals have hinted at this, but better still is to look at his and Holliday’s spray charts. Keep an eye on the blue dots and how they’ve receded over the last few seasons for both:

Molina:

Molina power outage

Holliday:

Holliday power outage

It’s pretty glaring when you look at it that way. Since we don’t really know when batted ball distance averages stabilize it’s hard to know for sure that Molina and Holliday’s dreadful nadirs this season are what we should expect going forward, but it certainly lines up with their yearly averages:

holliday-molina dist

Holliday’s drop-off is far more severe, but both have lost a great deal of distance since 2012.

Heyward’s issue certainly isn’t age, but there is an intriguing outlier in his batted ball splits—he’s hitting a whopping 51.4% of flyballs to the opposite field. He’s certainly carrying over a tendency from last season when that same metrics jumped from 38.9% in 2013 to 43.5%. Compare those numbers to 2012—when he set his career-high for homers and HR/FB in a season—when his put up a mark of 38.8% of fly balls to the opposite field. This season he’s actually putting up a HR/FB rate of 14.3%, but that is largely inflated by just how few fly balls Heyward’s hitting (24.3%).

Taking a look at Jason Heyward’s spray chart for this year shows how that’s killing his average distance:

Heyward 2015 spray

Thus, it may just take an adjustment or two at the plate for Heyward to start turning on more pitches.

Regardless, the Cardinals don’t exactly need to hit more home runs; they’re doing just fine without them. It does, however, put some more pressure on Carpenter, Wong, and Peralta to keep this up, especially following Matt Adams’ injury. Interestingly enough, if St. Louis does feel the need to address this, the best external solution lies at the opposite extreme of the NL Central in the form of the Brewers’ Adam Lind. Intradivsion trades are hard to pull off, but that one may be too good of a match for John Mozeliak to pass up.



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