Twice this season, the Cardinals have had to soldier on without their starting centerfielder for extended stretches of time. This, as you know, has been par for the course in St Louis this year, as most of the team has spent at least some time on the IL, leaving St Louis to do a great deal of soldiering on.
But I mention this, because the temporary loss of a Harrison Bader isn’t something that will necessarily make headlines the way that the temporary loss of ace pitcher Jack Flaherty has. In short, it may be that Bader – especially the new Harrison Bader – is more important to the team than many have realized. I say the new Bader, because Harrison Bader 2.0 brings an impact bat to the game.
Through his first four major league seasons, Bader backed his highlight-reel play in center with a series of uninspiring offensive performances. Bedeviled by breaking balls, Harrison struck out 306 times in his first 917 at bats. He came into 2021 with a .234 lifetime batting average, and a .721 OPS.
But this has been a different Harrison Bader. He is homering at a higher rate than ever (5.0%) striking out at a lower rate than ever before (16.4%), and is comfortably on his way to career highs in all of his slash-line averages. He will hit the field tonight in Cleveland boasting a .289/.358/.507 batting line and an .866 OPS – levels, to be honest with you, I wasn’t entirely sure he could rise to.
The difference now between the Cardinals with Bader in the lineup and without him is beginning to be a little bit glaring. This, of course, is another aspect of the Bader narrative that has been a bit frustrating. Now in his fifth season, Bader has never played in more than 138 games. Some of this is due to earlier offensive struggles, but mostly it’s because Harrison has routinely struggled to stay healthy.
He won’t make it to 138 games this season either. A strain of his right flexor tendon cost Bader the first 25 games of the season. Then, 22 games later, Harrison suffered a hairline fracture of his right rib when he rolled over on the baseball trying to make a catch. That cost him 34 more games. Tonight will be only the forty-second game all season that Bader will be active for. And it will be his forty-second start in center. St Louis is 23-18 (.561) with Bader in the lineup, scoring 4.24 runs per game. They are 27-32 (.458) when he is not there, scoring just 3.88 runs per game.
Some of that is to be expected. Replacing an elite defender with a mid-.800 OPS isn’t easy under any circumstances. And the Cardinals’ surprising lack of depth has made any and all of the myriad of injuries they’ve sustained surprisingly damaging. A season-long quest for a fourth outfielder (and they’ve tried everyone from Austin Dean to Lars Nootbaar) has failed to produce anyone with an average over .222. Tommy Edman has become the defacto fourth outfielder, but that only opens a hole at second base that neither Edmundo Sosa (who has cooled off after a hot start) nor Matt Carpenter (who brings a .188 average and defensive limitations to the position) have been able to adequately fill.
Tonight, Bader will make his twentieth consecutive start in center, while Dylan Carlson – who had moved to center during Harrison’s absences – will make his fifty-fifth consecutive start at one of the three outfield positions. Tyler O’Neill will make his thirteenth consecutive start in left after recovering from his own injury. One way to mitigate the lack of a fourth outfielder is to play your starting three every night. You can only do that for so long, though. At some point, someone is going to have to succeed in that role.
To a lesser degree, the same can be said for most of the other starters who have missed considerable time. St Louis is 36-32 (.529) scoring 4.12 runs per game when Paul DeJong starts. They are 14-18 (.438), scoring 3.84 runs per game when he doesn’t. They are 39-35 (.527) and scoring 4.15 runs per game when O’Neill is in the lineup. They are 11-15 (.423) scoring 3.69 runs per game when he is not.
The health of the starting pitchers has grabbed the headlines – and rightfully so. The losses of Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Carlos Martinez have clearly hindered the club from reaching anything approaching its potential. But the downtime among the regulars has been damaging, too. Perhaps, even, just as damaging.
Tonight in Cleveland the Cardinals’ projected everyday lineup will all be starting together in their preferred positions for just the tenth time this season.
Batting Order Dominos
Edman stuck it out at the top of the order for most of the first 74 games of the season. Since then, he’s bounced around between sixth and seventh. Goldschmidt stuck at second for only 18 games before he was moved to third in the order. He stayed there until Edman was dropped from the top spot – at which point Paul was moved back up to second in the order. Arenado has moved pretty much in parallel with Goldy – dropping to fourth when Goldy was moved to third, and then back to third when Goldschmidt moved back up to second.
Off to a 3-for-28 start, DeJong lasted only 8 games as the cleanup hitter. He bounced around a little after that, settling into the fifth slot at about game 20 and holding forth there until game 37 when he went on the injured list with a non-displaced fracture of the left rib after he was hit by a pitch. He missed the next 24 games, and since his return has hit almost exclusively at the bottom of the order – mostly seventh, although he’d been back up to fifth during the three games in Cincinnati. Paul is in the lineup batting ninth tonight.
O’Neill lasted only 4 games in the fifth hole before bouncing around lower in the order – mostly hitting sixth. Then just before the All-Star break, he inherited the cleanup spot. Tyler will be hitting cleanup tonight for the sixteenth consecutive time in his starts, and for the twenty-first time in his last 22 starts.
Molina has never hit lower than sixth, nor higher than fourth – and has pretty much bounced around between those three spots the entire year.
Carlson spent the early days of the season mostly in the seven-hole, although he also had some games hitting fifth, sixth and eighth. At the 18 game mark – when Goldy and Arenado were moved down in the order – it was to accommodate Dylan, who moved into the second spot. From there, he inherited the leadoff spot when Mike Shildt decided to move Edman down in the order.
Since his return, Bader – in spite of his production – has mostly hit eighth in the order (becoming a kind of second leadoff man).
So this is a lineup that’s undergone some significant shifts and re-designs over the first 100 games. Which of these combinations have worked out the best?
Through the 100 game point of the season, the order seems to do better with Carlson leading off. St Louis is 15-10 (.600) when Dylan bats leadoff. They were just 35-39 (.473) with Edman. The runs per game have also perked up to 4.32 with Carlson leading off over the 3.96 they scored when Edman led off.
The second through third slots in the order all reflect the benefit of that change. St Louis is 23-21 (.523) with Goldschmidt batting second, as opposed to 26-28 (.481) when Carlson hits there. They are 22-21 (.512) with Arenado batting third, while they went 25-28 (.472) when Goldschmidt batted there.
Four different players have hit fourth at least 10 times for the Cardinals through their first 100 games. Surprisingly, the best record belongs to DeJong. The team is 6-4 in his ten starts. Among players who have hit cleanup at least 20 times, the Cards are 12-10 (.545) when O’Neill hits there. Arenado has still hit there the most – 54 times so far this season – but the team is only 26-28 (.481) in those games. In runs-per-game, the team has averaged 5.50 runs in DeJong’s starts, 4.36 for O’Neill, 3.80 with Arenado batting fourth, and 3.67 in Molina’s 12 starts batting fourth (the team is 5-7 in those games).
Three players have batted fifth 20 or more times, led by Molina’s 38 starts batting fifth. The team, though, is only 18-20 in those starts, scoring just 3.82 runs per game. The Cards have prospered most, though, when they’ve batted DeJong there. He has hit fifth 21 times, with the team winning 14 of those games (.667) and scoring 4.90 runs per game. O’Neill has hit fifth 20 times leading to a record of 7-13 and 3.65 runs per game.
Twelve different players have hit sixth at least once for St Louis this season, with 4 of them doing so at least 10 times. Yadi’s 23 starts batting sixth lead the team, and here the record behind it is encouraging – a 13-10 won-lost mark (.565) and 4.35 runs per game. They’ve done better, though, with O’Neill in this spot. St Louis was 13-7 (.650) and scored 4.50 runs per game the 20 times that Tyler hit here. The other two with at least ten starts are Edman (14 starts, 6-8 record, 4.43 runs per game) and DeJong (10 starts, 4-6 record, and 3.60 runs per game).
No fewer than 14 different Cardinals have hit seventh for the team so far this year, none of them starting more than 15 games there. The four players who have made at least ten starts batting seventh (with the team records in those games) are: DeJong (9-6), Bader (8-6), Sosa (6-8) and Carpenter (3-8).
Twelve players have batted eighth for this team so far, five of them appearing in that role at least ten times. Although a bench player, Edmundo Sosa has batted eighth 20 times – more than all of the others – and with reasonable success. St Louis is 11-9 while scoring 4.20 runs per game in those contests. But the best results are logged with Bader batting here. In the 17 games that Harrison has been penciled into the eighth slot, St Louis has gone 11-6 (.647) and has scored 4.82 runs per game. The team actually scored 5.06 runs per game during the 18 games that Justin Williams batted eighth, but with only an 8-10 record (.444). The other two who have hit eighth at least ten times are Andrew Knizner (7-10, .412, 3.59 runs per game) and DeJong (3-9, .250, 2.83 runs per game).
As a National League team, the ninth spot in the order has almost always been inhabited by the day’s starting pitcher. They have played 5 road games this season in American League parks – games in which someone other than a pitcher hit ninth. St Louis is 1-4 in those games.
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.