Position Wars as we Approach Mid-Season

We currently sit 77 games into the championship season, with the All-Star Game looming on the other side of the upcoming road trip, and the Cardinals still have three players who have made 96% of the starts at their respective positions.  This is uncommon territory for the Cardinals.  Throughout recent history, numerous injuries have kept almost all of the Cardinal starters out of the lineup for some stretch of the season.

Even when injuries haven’t been a factor, previous Cardinal managers Mike Matheny and Tony LaRussa made sure that the bench got their chances to start games and make contributions there.  Current manager Mike Shildt is less concerned about his depth.  His job – as he perceives it – is to start as many of his regulars for as many games as possible.  The secondary players are left to their own devices to maintain game-readiness in the event they might actually get into a game.

That being the case, with half the season almost over, we don’t really have any idea what this team would look like without Paul DeJong (75 starts) at short, Paul Goldschmidt (74 starts) at first, and Marcell Ozuna (74 starts) in left field.

What’s really interesting here is what this implies for the rest of the “starters.”  Injuries at catcher and centerfield have forced a little shuffling.  But, for whatever reason, Shildt seems much more willing to insert fresh bats into the lineup at some other positions – especially when the established starter might be fighting through a bit of a slump.

Every so often we do a position wars column to see how the team responds to different players in different positions.

Catcher

Yadier Molina spent some time on the injured list this month with a tendon strain in his right thumb.  Yadi out of the lineup is never a good thing, but it did buy us an extended look at his backup Matt Wieters.

Matt has started 7 games this month, leading the team to a 4-3 record.  They are 7-5 in Yadi’s 12 June starts.  In past years, the Cards struggled to win even an occasional game if Molina was out of the lineup.  In that sense, Wieters’ addition has been significant.  In fact, for the season, Matt has made 14 starts, leading St Louis to an 8-6 record (they are just 31-30 when Molina starts) and a team-ERA of 3.82 (the team ERA when Molina starts in 4.27).

These numbers don’t suggest that the Cards need to switch catchers.  But they do suggest that this team has an exceedingly capable backup.

Right Field

The only real shifting of positions so far for the Cardinals this season not directly related to injuries has come in the outfield, and revolves around the status of Jose Martinez.  Jose began the month as an observer, but has recently taken over as the regular in right field.  Jose has made 5 straight starts there, and has been the starter in 9 of the 21 games so far in June.  Dexter Fowler has made the other 12 starts.

The team is 6-3 when Jose starts, and 6-6 with Dexter.  Curiously, the difference in the team’s performance hasn’t been so much offensive.  The numbers this month are pretty even, with the team scoring 3.89 runs per game with Fowler in right as opposed to 3.81 runs per game when Martinez starts.

The biggest difference has been defensive, where the team has a 3.28 ERA when Jose plays right and a 3.72 ERA when Dexter plays there.

For the season, so far, right field has belonged to Martinez (42 starts) more than it has to Fowler (34 starts).  St Louis is 25-17 with Jose starting there, and 15-19 when it’s Fowler.  The season long numbers fall along more expected lines, with the team ERA’s virtually the same (4.18 when Jose starts and 4.19 when it’s Dexter), but a significant uptick in offense when Martinez starts (5.05 runs per game vs 4.18).

Second Base

In 2019 Kolten Wong has gotten the one things he’s always wanted.  He’s been written into the lineup almost everyday and given a chance to show what he can do.

While the jury is still out on whether Kolten will be a consistent offensive contributor, his defense has been solid and often spectacular.  Even so, Kolten has made a few fewer starts (71) than infield mates Goldschmidt and DeJong.  In his absence, Yairo Munoz (3), Tommy Edman (2) and Jedd Gyorko (1) have had limited opportunities to show what they can do at the position.

Combined the team has gone 3-3 in those six games (they are 37-34 when Kolton starts).

Third Base

Were Gyorko not currently nursing an injury, it would be interesting to see if regular third baseman Matt Carpenter might have seen more time off as he fights his way through yet another slump.  As it is, Jedd has made 8 starts at third (Matt has started there 67 times).  The team is 35-32 when Carpenter starts and 4-4 with Gyorko.

Center Field

Center field is the other lineup spot that has shown some opportunity for movement.  Harrison Bader – valued for his elite defense – is currently entrenched here even though he is mired in a 1-for-29 slump.  He has now made 48 starts in center, with Dexter Fowler accounting for 24 others.

The numbers do certainly seem to indicate that Bader has a significant impact on the defense.  When he starts in center, the team has a 3.79 ERA with a .239/.319/.393 batting line against.  While Fowler is far from being thought as a defensive liability in center (his defense was actually one of the reasons the Cards pursued him) the teams’ numbers drop off significantly when Dexter plays in center (4.48 ERA; .238/.300/.424).

Conversely, the offense profits from Fowler’s bat – 5.29 runs per game v 4.15 with Bader.  In the bottom line, St Louis is 25-23 (.521) when Bader starts in center, and 13-11 (.542) when Fowler does.

The fun thing about these numbers is that since so much goes into wins and losses, team ERAs and such, that the relative records cannot be considered by any means conclusive.  The most they can do is suggest a relationship.

Here the suggested relationship is that – in the short term anyway – the team might benefit from seeing a little more of Fowler and a little less of Bader.  For the record, I am a firm supporter of Harrison Bader.  He hit everywhere in the minors, and I believe that he will develop into a plus hitter at the big league level.  I believe that Bader is the future of centerfield.

It is possible, though, that he may not be the best choice there for the present.

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