The Cardinals offense hasn’t been good yet, but the team needs to know that worse may be ahead.
This whole Cardinals season seems a bit off. The team started poorly, but we believed that would change. Now they’re winning games, but in unconvincing fashion. Mike Leake, Trevor Rosenthal, and Jedd Gyorko are good. Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, Brett Cecil and Seung-hwan Oh are struggling.
With nothing going as planned, it can be hard to figure out how good the team really is. While the Cardinals work on that, they have another problem: the offense is about to get worse.
The players won’t change, and their skills won’t diminish, but the Cardinals are in for some BABIP regression. The Cardinals offense scored the second most runs in the National League last season and returned many of the same starters. Instead of leading the NL, the Cardinals offense is in the middle of the pack this year. They are currently tied for 9th in the NL in runs scored.
Already a minor disappointment, the Cardinals offense is doing a little too well on balls in play. As a team, the Cardinals rank 9th in the majors in batting average on balls in play, but just 20th in hard hit rate. They are just one percent below Major League average in hard hit rate, but their BABIP is 17 points above the average.
Some Cardinals (Matt Carpenter) are hitting the ball hard all the time. Other Cardinals are getting on base despite soft hits, and that is not a skill. The Cardinals need to have plans for how to deal with the following players who are about to regress.
Gyorko is a nice story. He looked like a bust for most of his time in San Diego. Now he is crushing homers for the Cardinals. Regardless of what happens with the home runs, Gyorko won’t sustain his .392 BABIP. Gyorko’s hard hit rate is not bad (35.8 percent), but it can’t sustain .392. The Cardinals should not be surprised if Gyorko hits under .300 on balls in play the rest of the season.
The good news for the Cardinals is that they can easily plan for Gyorko’s regression. Gyorko was never supposed to start for the team. Going into the year, Jhonny Peralta, Aledmys Diaz, Kolten Wong, and Matt Carpenter were the starting infield. They may not be able to replace Gyorko’s current production, but the Cardinals can mitigate the effect of the drop-off.
Jose Martinez, Tommy Pham, and Magneuris Sierra
None of these guys were starting outfielders on the Opening Day roster. The Cardinals still need all of them right now. So far, they have filled in very well, but it won’t last. At least not like this. Small sample size caveats apply with all three of these players, but the outfield replacements will regress in their next plate appearances.
Martinez had a great spring and then followed it up with a strong April. He is hurt now, but he likely won’t keep up his .368 BABIP when he returns. Martinez currently owns a pedestrian 30 percent hard hit rate, and had a high ground ball rate in the minors. ZiPS and Steamer both project him to hit .315 on balls in play the rest of the way, which would be very good. The Cardinals just have to figure out how to handle the 50 point drop.
Pham and Sierra were both called up after the recent injuries. Both have raked since making their 2017 debuts. If you combine the two, you get a high .400’s BABIP in 67 plate appearances. Nobody can sustain that kind of production for a long time, and these two certainly won’t be the firsts.
Pham can hit the ball hard, but low .300’s is the right ballpark for him. Sierra may not be major league ready yet, as he has yet to hit a ball that classifies as “hard” by Baseball Info Solutions.
You could reapply the Gyorko argument here: none of these guys were Opening Day starters. On the other hand, we are talking about three players, and the team needs to use at least one backup.
The Cardinals can put their starting outfield in, and they will still feel the effects of all three of these guys regressing. Someone has to fill in for the injuries now, and someone has to fill in throughout the year.
The Cardinals have no good replacements in the outfield left. In fact, they have used up every outfielder on their 40-man roster. If Martinez, Pham, and Sierra all drop too far, then the team won’t have internal options to upgrade a poor bench.
Grichuk actually has the hard hit rate (37.4 percent) to keep up his .322 BABIP. He also is hitting enough line drives to maintain a .322 BABIP. I just don’t know if the line drives are real.
Usually when players make adjustments to improve their launch angle, they hit more fly balls. Instead, Grichuk has decreased both his ground ball and fly ball rates in favor of line drives. In theory, this is a good change. Line drives become hits more often than anything else.
However, I would believe it a bit more if Grichuk was elevating everything a bit more. Instead, everything is becoming a line drive for him. I don’t know how feasible it is for a player to turn both ground balls and fly balls into line drives in just one season.
If Grichuk regresses, the Cardinals do not have anybody else to turn to. Grichuk’s potential replacements should all regress, so the Cardinals would have to turn to the trade market for any kind of a solution. Grichuk is definitely the most likely player to keep up what he has been doing, but I see cause for concern. The Cardinals know that regression for these players is possible, the question is whether or not they are ready to act on it.
Buying or Selling
At this point, I can see the Cardinals as either buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. I do not mean that as a criticism, but rather that it could make sense to go either way depending on how the next two months play out. Specifically, I am talking about the guys I mentioned in this article.
Harrison Bader is the Cardinals most big league ready outfield prospect. He may add some speed and defense, but he won’t move the needle much in 2017. If the Cardinals are going to stay in first place, then the guys I mentioned won’t be the ones keeping them there. The Cardinals may have to look to the trade market in order to find the boost they need.
Their bench is fine right now, but if Gyorko, Pham, and Martinez do not do enough then that could be a problem. If Grichuk joins them, then the Cardinals will need another starting outfielder. The options may not reveal themselves until later this year, but the Cardinals could be looking for someone who can play everyday out there.
The alternative, of course, is to trade the guys who should regress. All it takes is for one team to think those players will continue to hit. The Cardinals may throw away a chance at the playoffs by getting rid of Gyorko and possibly Grichuk, but do you feel great about their chances with them?
The good starts give the Cardinals more trade bait, but the team will first have to figure out how likely they are to hold onto first place in the NL Central. If they are relying on guys who will regress, then they need a backup plan.
Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell – USA TODAY Sports