First Position Wars for 2021

No lineup is 100% static (or even 80%, for that matter).  While Mike Shildt is a guy who – I think – would run the same eight players out there 160 times a season if he could, the wear and tear of a baseball season prohibits that level of usage.

So every year, baseball fans get to see the eight defensive positions manned by a variety of players.  A few times a year we look in to see how the team responds to those changes.  I employ three simple markers – record (wins and losses), runs scored per game, and team ERA in those starts – to create this picture, and I call it position wars.

Since there are many factors that add up to victory and defeat, these numbers should always be taken with a grain of salt – and especially during the early part of the season.  There are observations to be made here, but they should be made cautiously.

So far, Nolan Arenado has started all 41 games at third, Paul Goldschmidt has been the starting first-baseman in 39 of the 41, and Paul DeJong has made 35 starts at short – so there is not much to discuss there.  But all the other positions have seen some shuffling.

Catcher

All-time great Yadier Molina is working his way through his eighteenth season as the starting catcher for the Cardinals.  When he is healthy, he rarely takes a day off.  Yadi has started 25 of the 30 games he’s been on the roster for.

But a strained tendon in his right foot pushed Molina to the sidelines for about a week and a half, providing an extended look at the heir-apparent.  As the catcher-in-waiting, Andrew Knizner acquitted himself quite well.

In his 15 starts, Knizner has led the Cards to a surprising 12-3 record.  The team ERA during his starts was a miniscule 2.17.  Andrew’s bat hasn’t quite set the world on fire (he’s hitting .207 with only one run batted in in 58 at bats) but his handling of the pitching staff has been more than a little encouraging.

Second Base

Tommy Edman has started at three different positions already this season, but the team only has a winning record when he plays second.  In 27 starts at second, St Louis is 17-10.  They are 5-6 in his 11 starts in right, and 1-2 when he starts at shortstop.

When it hasn’t been Edman at second, it’s mostly been Matt Carpenter.  St Louis is 6-7 in his 13 starts there.  Surprisingly, the team ERA is slightly better when Carp plays second (3.57 v 3.65), but (not surprisingly) the offense is much healthier when Edman starts (4.56 rpg v 4.15).

Outfield

The plan had the Cardinal outfield lining up as statically as the infield, with Tyler O’Neill occupying left, Harrison Bader in center, and Dylan Carlson in right.  Injuries have scrambled the Cardinal outfield more than any other position.

Harrison Bader missed the first 25 games of the season with a right flexor tendon strain, and in the middle of that stretch, O’Neill missed ten games of his own with a right groin strain.  The shuffle brought Carlson into center field, sent Edman to right for several games, and gave Justin Williams a significant opportunity to write a larger role for himself in the outfield picture.

Left Field

O’Neill has started in left 28 times in the 31 games that he has been active.  Williams has made 10 starts there.  The team is 18-10 with O’Neill in left, and just 4-6 with Williams.  Of the two positions, Justin has seemed much more comfortable defensively in left than in right – a perception hinted at by the numbers.  The Cardinal ERA is 3.65 in the games that Williams has started in left, and 4.46 in the 13 games he’s started in right.

Center Field

Carlson has still started more games in center (23) than Bader (16), but even figuring in the sweep they suffered at the hands of San Diego, the Cards are still 10-6 since Harrison has returned, with a team ERA of 3.65.  They didn’t do poorly, though, with Carlson there.

In Dylan’s 23 starts in center, the Cards were 13-10 with a 3.79 ERA.  Offensively, they were better with Dylan in center.  They scored 4.65 runs per game in his starts.  When Bader has been the starter, the run support has dropped a bit to 4.38.

Right Field

Right field has been the most jumbled of the positions.  With just 41 games being played, three different players have made at least ten starts in right.  Even in the limited sample size, though, the best results have come when projected starter Dylan Carlson has lined up there.  St Louis is 10-6 in his right field starts.  They are 7-6 when Williams starts, and 5-6 with Edman out there.  The team ERA is best with Carlson (3.66), with Edman finishing second (3.73).  The run scoring numbers are all very close, with the slight edge going to Carlson (4.44 runs per game), followed by Williams (4.38) and Edman (4.36).

Takeaways

At the quarter pole of the season, none of the Cardinal secondary players have made any kind of push for expanded playing time, even though some have had those opportunities.  In fact, if there is a takeaway from all of this, it raises a little concern about the Cardinal depth (except at catcher).

No bench player carries a batting average higher than .222, a slugging percentage higher than .407, or an OPS better than .731.  I know management had higher hopes than this.  They believed coming out of spring training that they had several impact bats on their bench – and before the season is over, it might turn out that way.

But so far, when a starter has had to miss time, the drop-off has been noticeable.  Thus far, with the overlap of injuries, the Cardinals have been able to field their “A” lineup just three times this season: for a 9-8 win over Colorado on May 8, and the first two games of the last Milwaukee series (a 6-1 win in 11 innings, and a 1-4 loss).

They have gone the last 4 games without shortstop Paul DeJong.  With a non-displaced left rib fracture, Paul will likely miss several more games at least – providing an opportunity for someone (Edmundo Sosa, Max Moroff, or perhaps, Carpenter) to show they can bring a little pop off of the bench.

The Cards could use a little good news off the bench about now.

Pitching Injuries

We’ve talked a bit about injuries that have scrambled the lineup.  The pitching staff – it should be noted – has also been impacted by injuries.  Heading into tonight’s contest against Pittsburgh, St Louis has already lost 148 player games from the pitching staff.  This breaks down as follows:

Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas have missed the entire season so far.  Mikolas is expected back soon, while it will most likely be most of the season – if not the entire season for Hudson (coming off Tommy John surgery).  Andrew Miller and Daniel Ponce de Leon have each missed 16 games (and counting).  Kwang Hyun Kim missed 13 games at the start of the season.  Jordan Hicks has missed 12 and counting.  Carlos Martinez has missed the last six (and counting).  And Adam Wainwright spent 3 games on the COVID list.

Organizationally, the Cards have always been resilient.  The first quarter of this season has been a pretty substantial test of their all-around depth.

My biggest takeaway is that we don’t really know how good (or bad) this Cardinal team is, because we haven’t really had an opportunity to see all the pieces work together.  Hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later.

My Designated Hitter Rant

Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter.  Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH.  While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it.  So, I have re-written it here.  The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks.  I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.

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