Let’s take one final look at the impact the defensive alignments have had on the 2018 edition of the St Louis Cardinals.
Yadier Molina has been less indestructible this season than he has been in the past. A couple of injuries have forced him into extended periods of “rest.” His reputation as the most irreplaceable Cardinal has been heightened by his absence.
In the 112 games that Yadi has started, the Cards are 63-49. When Yadi doesn’t start, they are 21-20.
Of the backups, Francisco Pena has acquitted himself well. The team is 15-14 in his 29 starts, and the team ERA when Pena starts (3.53) is actually slightly lower than when Molina starts (3.83).
The infield has been in a state of flux most of the year, but since the All-Star Break, the Cards have played their best baseball with Matt Carpenter starting at first. Carp has made 36 of the 59 second-half starts at third, with the team responding with a 23-13 record.
They haven’t been terrible without him at first, though – 13-10 since the break.
Since he was rescued from Washington, Matt Adams has seen more work than I would have anticipated. He has started 12 games at first, with the team going 6-6 in those starts.
Although he has been the predominant starter since the break, Carpenter still does not lead the team in starts at first base for the season. That honor still belongs to Jose Martinez, who was supposed to be the first baseman all year. He has made 84 starts there this year, against 53, now, for Carpenter. The team record with Jose at first is an effective 45-39 (.536), but much better with Carpenter – 31-22 (.585).
As the season winds down, keeping Kolten Wong healthy and in the lineup becomes increasingly important. Kolten has only been available for 11 of the first 18 games this month, and the difference shows. With Wong at second, the team is 6-5 with a 4.53 ERA while scoring 5.55 runs per game. They are 2-5 with a 5.06 ERA and 5.00 runs per game in the 7 that he has missed.
This importance is even more graphically portrayed when the whole of the second half is considered. Since the break, Wong has started 31 games at second, with Yairo Munoz starting 17 times and Greg Garcia making 11 starts. The team is 22-9 in Wong’s starts, 9-8 with Munoz, and 5-6 with Garcia.
Over the course of the season, five different Cardinals have started at second base – all of them starting at least 11 games there. Wong has more than 5 times as many starts (94) as the next closest participant – the 18 starts that Munoz has made. The records overwhelmingly favor Wong. St Louis is 55-39 when he starts at second, 9-9 with Munoz, 8-8 with Garcia, 6-8 with Jedd Gyorko, and 6-5 in Carpenter’s 11 starts at second.
In retrospect, one of the glaring challenges the Cardinals have faced this year has been the long absences from the lineup of their starting middle infielders. The drop-off has been just as notable during Paul DeJong’s absences. Although he has not had the offensive consistency that he displayed in his rookie season, St Louis is still 59-43 (.578) when DeJong starts and 25-26 when he doesn’t.
Much of the reason that the Cardinal record is so good with Matt Carpenter at first is that it allows Jedd Gyorko to start at third. Since the break, Gyorko has made 31 starts at third – with a corresponding 22-9 record. In Carpenter’s 17 second-half starts at third, St Louis is only 9-8. They are 5-6 in the second half when anyone else starts there.
Since Carpenter began the year at third, he still has the most starts there with 74 to only 63 for Gyorko. St Louis is 39-35 when Matt starts at third, and 37-26 with Gyorko.
The single most stable position in the Cardinal lineup is left field where Marcell Ozuna starts every time he is healthy. Marcell has started 17 of 18 this month, 50 of 59 since the break, and 138 of the first 153 games of the season. Tellingly, in those few games when Ozuna has not made the start, the team record doesn’t suffer from his loss. This season, the birds are 74-64 when Marcell starts in left, and 10-5 when he doesn’t.
While left field has remained eerily stable, both center field and right field have undergone major revisions from the offseason plan.
As the Cards head down the stretch fighting for that last playoff spot, center field remains firmly in the grip of rookie defensive specialist Harrison Bader. The team’s fourth outfielder (when the season began), Harrison has started 16 of 18 games this month in center.
Tommy Pham, of course, began the season in center. His surprise trade to Tampa shortly after the All-Star break opened the way for Bader to play fulltime. In his 10 second half starts in center, Pham led the team to a 5-5 record. Harrison has had 44 post-break starts in center, with the team going 28-16 in those starts.
For the season, Bader still trails Pham in starts in center, 90-56. St Louis was 45-45 in Pham’s starts. They are 35-21 (.625) when Bader starts in center.
Right field has also undergone a major shift. This spot of turf was supposed to belong to Dexter Fowler. Even though a season long slump threatened his grip on the position, new manager Mike Shildt re-committed to Fowler shortly after his ascension. How that would have played out, we will never know. A broken foot sidelined Fowler early in the second half.
His loss opened a spot for deposed first-baseman Jose Martinez – whose defense in right isn’t nearly as shaky as at first base. Still not fully committed to Martinez as a fulltime answer in right, Jose has started only 12 of the month’s first 18 games there. St Louis is 7-5 in those games. They are 1-5 in the other 6 games.
In the 14 second half games that Fowler started before his injury, St Louis was just 6-8. When Martinez has stated. The team has been 23-8.
As the season heads into the home stretch, the elements that have shaped the Cardinals’ resurgence are fairly obvious. First and foremost is the bullpen. The team thrived during the bullpen’s exceptional August and has scuffled as the relievers have reverted during most of September.
But the lineup adjustments and the return to health of the middle infield have had a great deal to so with it as well.