Small sample size or an omen of things to come for the Cardinals?

Ah yes, the first week of baseball. Nothing quite like the smell of fresh cut grass, hot dogs and early season panic as teams get off to slow starts. It’s no secret the Cardinals have been slow out of the gate.

After taking the first game of the season from the defending champions, nothing really went according to plan.

The Cardinals are 2-5 and in last place in the NL central. The rotation has been solid, the defense has been adequate but the bullpen and offense have been…less than satisfactory.

Mack Hoyt has already discussed the struggles of the bullpen, so now it’s time to look at the offense. We’ll go down the line and try and determine which players are putting up red flags and which players are just a victim of small sample size.

Also, reminder that this is all an exact empirical science and none of these predictions will prove to be incorrect in 3 months. The three stats I’ll be relying on heavily are BABIP, and plate discipline. BABIP (batting average on balls in play) determines how lucky/unlucky players are getting when they put the ball in play.

A BABIP way above average (usually around .300) indicates good luck, way below average indicates bad luck. Small sample size wrecks havoc on this stat, but I’m gonna use it nonetheless.

The stats that normalize the fastest are the o-swing% and contact%, but most of the plate discipline statistics on Fangraphs will be useful. O-swing% is a measure of how often a player swings outside of the zone, while contact% is what percent of their swings make contact.

They normalize quickly because making contact isn’t as random as where the ball goes after contact. “Normalize quickly” usually means a lot more time than a week, but THAT WON’T STOP ME.

Dexter Fowler

The prize of the offseason has not quite reached expectations this season. As of now, Fowler has a slash line of .148/.258/.148 in 31 PA.

We knew that Fowler probably wouldn’t match his production from last season, but those numbers are a long way off from what he’s being paid for. Right now, he has a .222 BABIP, which indicates his luck has been pretty poor.

His career average BABIP has been around .340, so expect his BABIP, and his numbers, to go up by a lot.

His plate discipline is marginally worse than his previous years, but nothing completely out of the ordinary. Most of the numbers indicate worse plate discipline than his career would indicate. His O-swing% is a little high, but not so high that it shows a significant change in approach to the plate.

My guess is Fowler has been a little eager to prove himself to his new franchise, and thus has been a little over aggressive at the plate. As he settles in, his plate discipline will come back and he’ll start getting on base again.

Aledmys Diaz

As of right now, the young shortstop is hitting .250/.250/.500 in 32 PAs.  Diaz has only struck out 3 times but he’s also yet to take a walk this season. If I had to guess, I think Diaz is probably gonna get at least one walk this season, so that OBP should go up. His BABIP is at a cool .222, way below his average of .312, so yes, bad luck is an issue. However there is a little concern with the plate discipline.

His O-swing% is nearly 20% higher than last season, despite seeing an equal percentage of pitchers in the strike zone this year and last year.  The good news is his contact% is not that much lower than last year, so I expect that number to normalize.

Diaz’s main struggle right now is swinging at pitches outside the zone. This is again probably due to increased expectations and an overly aggressive attempt to stop a sophomore slump. Since he’s so young, there’s no reason for Diaz to stay at this level for the coming years. I predict a bounce back for him as well.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter is literally a machine, churning out quality offensive numbers for the past 5 years. He’s currently slashing  .208/.310/.208 in 29 PAs. His BABIP is way below average, so he is a victim of bad luck.

However, his O-swing% and contact% are actually better than previous years, so what’s the problem? Probably nothing besides bad luck. Matt Carpenter getting good offensive numbers is a scientific constant, like gravity. Once the sample size grows larger, Carpenter’s numbers will improve.

Jhonny Peralta

Peralta was a big question mark coming into this season. After missing most of last season due to an injury, people questioned whether the 35 year old could maintain a high level of production. So far he has not in his limited plate appearance. I won’t post his slash line because of how small his sample size is, but rest assured it’s not pretty.

Like Diaz, Peralta is swinging at a lot more pitches outside the zone than usual, but he’s also swinging a lot more in general. His swing% is up nearly 15% while his contact percentage is down about 8%. Peralta’s plate discipline actually looks very similar to Diaz’s.

The difference being, it’s easy to see Diaz making adjustments on the fly, but Peralta may not have the same batspeed or contact ability he once did. Peralta’s numbers will definitely improve, I’m just not sure if they’ll make it back to his former self.

Yadier Molina

Molina is the one of the few Cardinals with above average offensive production this year. He’s slashing .318/.407/.364 in 27 PA. His BABIP is at .350 (he averages around .300) so unfortunately these numbers will probably go down.

Nevertheless, his plate discipline has been excellent and he will probably continue to put up passable offensive numbers throughout the season. So much for the old catcher syndrome.

Randal Grichuk

The young outfielder has also been struggling, hitting .185/.214/.333 in 28 PA. His BABIP is pretty low, at .235, so he has been a bit unlucky. Even more telling is his plate discipline, which actually looks better than his previous years in the majors. He’s actually making a lot more contact on pitches inside and outside the strike zone.

In fact, Grichuk’s plate discipline looks better than just about any other Cardinals player. Could this be a breakout season? Only time and a bigger sample size will tell. Regardless, his numbers are definitely going to improve.

Jedd Gyorko

Gyorko hasn’t played in all of the games this season, so his sample size is even smaller than most with only 16 PA. It’s hard to extrapolate anything from that kind of volume.

His plate discipline has no completely alarming stats, so Gyorko will probably be fine. Whether or not he will match his production from last year is a different story (he won’t) but he definitely won’t continue hitting .214.

Kolten Wong

The enigmatic second baseman is expected to figure it out sooner rather than later, so Cardinals fans are looking for any sign of a breakout season from Wong. Sadly the first week was not the sign they were looking for as of yet.

However, Wong’s plate discipline has been excellent so far. He’s not swinging at a lot of pitches outside the zone and he’s making contact nearly 10% more than previous seasons. If Wong can maintain his good plate discipline once his luck starts to improve, then this may be the year he finally puts it all together.

Stephen Piscotty

Piscotty also has very limited appearances in the lineup due to various shenanigans. His sample size is too small to make any big assumptions, but he actually has a .375 BABIP despite having a batting average of only .231.

That’s probably due to the fact that he’s already walked 3 times and struck out 5 so he’s only actually put a ball in play 9 times. That’s basically 3 games worth of stats so I’m done extrapolating here.

The only thing I will say is that Piscotty probably won’t get hit by a baseball 3 times in an inning again this season. I hope.

Conclusion

Look, I know it’s easy to panic at the very first sign of trouble, but the Cardinals will be fine. Their predicted season win total has barely moved even after the past week. The Giants, Dodgers, Mets and Pirates are all at or below .500.

The only player to be really concerned about is Peralta, just because of his age and injury history, but no other player will be crashing and burning like it seems right now.

The Cardinals probably won’t be a juggernaut by any means, but they certainly won’t be this anemic for the rest of the season. Once the offense and bullpen regress to the mean, the Cardinals will be back to playing winning baseball in no time.