The Cardinals are always full of surprises, but who surprised us the most this year?
Baseball is not a predictable sport, and the Cardinals are no exception to this rule. Despite a ridiculously large amount of data, it’s impossibly difficult to predict how a player’s season is going to go. More often than not, players do not exceed expectations, and every team has a few that just never pan out the way we expect them to. However, sometimes there are those who exceed expectations in a way nobody saw coming.
It’s hard to determine exactly what the expectations for a player were coming into a season, especially with recent performance bias. Fortunately, the folks at FanGraphs do something called a ZiPS projection for every player on every team at the beginning of the season. ZiPS projects a myriad of statistics for every player using complicated math that’s way over my head. In baseball, we always have to be careful when players randomly exceed expectations, because there is a lot of luck in this sport. With the season winding down, it’s time to look at the players who beat the algorithms and figure out how they out performed the projections.
Carlos Martinez: Actual Ace Starting Pitcher. It hasn’t always been this way. ZiPS didn’t project any Cardinals starter to really stand out much, so Adam Wainwright was projected to be their most valuable pitcher almost by default. Still, Carlos Martinez was projected to be a solid young arm working his way towards prominence and eventual stardom. That transition happened much faster than anticipated. The most shocking part about looking at his ZiPS projections is how seemingly accurate they are. ZiPS calculated his strikeout and walk percentages to about 1 percent off from their actual value. In fact, the only numbers where Martinez’s projections differ significantly from the actual numbers are ERA, ERA+, WAR and BABIP.
It seems like BABIP holds the key to Martinez’s emergence as an ace. If you’re wondering “Say, what the heck is a BABIP anyways?” you’re not alone. BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is a pretty good measurement of how well batters are hitting a pitchers stuff. If a pitchers BABIP is very high or very low, that could indicate bad or good luck, but most players’ BABIP tend to hover around the league average of .300. ZiPS projected Martinez to have a BABIP of .303 and in 2016 he had a BABIP of .287, well below his career average of .315. A sharp decline in BABIP could indicate that Martinez has been benefiting from luck. However, since this decline has happened over the course of the whole season, it’s more likely that Martinez’s stuff is just better this year.
The decreased BABIP leads to fewer hitters on base which means fewer earned runs, a better ERA+ and more innings pitched. Martinez has already outpaced his projected 172.1 innings pitched by 16, and there are still more games to be played.
ZiPS did a pretty good projecting how good Martinez’s command would be, evidenced by the accurate K% and BB%, but they just did not project how good Martinez would be at getting runners out. As a result he’s been worth almost 50% more wins (3.4 WAR vs. 5.0 WAR), and that’s pretty awesome.
Jedd Gyorko has hit 20 HR since the All Star Break. Next closest Cardinal is Randal Grichuk with 13. #stlcards
— Jon Doble (@JonDobleRBD) September 21, 2016
Ok are we done here?
In all seriousness Jedd Gyorko has been mashing this year. He has as many home runs as Buster Posey and Javier Baez combined, and you can bet ZiPS did not project that. While it’s true that his success is mostly due to the long ball, he has markedly improved in some areas. ZiPS projected Gyorko to be a low contact, high power guy, (K% of 21.3 and a BB% of 6.5.) which is fairly in line with what he has been his whole career. This year he had a K% of 21.6, almost identical to the ZiPS projection, but a BB% of 8.3, significantly higher than projected.
A lot of Gyorko’s dinger mashing could be a mirage due to luck, as Adam Kaufman discussed earlier this month, but at least some of it may be from his increased plate discipline. Taking more walks means pitchers have to throw you more pitches in the strike zone. More pitches in the strike zone means more baseballs over the fence.
Let’s talk about those baseballs over the fence. Gyorko was projected to hit 18 HRs with an OPS+ of 95. Combined with his subpar defense and baserunning, this made his estimated worth at the beginning of the season about 1.6 wins above replacement, because second base is not generally an offensive position.
It’s safe to say that Gyorko has outpaced those expectations. He’s hit 27 HRs(!) with an OPS+ of 105. He’s been worth 2.5 wins above replacement. Production like this out of a second baseman is pretty unheard of (except for Brian Dozier). Once the long ball bug bit Gyorko, there was no doubt that he’s turned in one of the most surprising seasons in all of baseball, let alone on the Cardinals. Make no mistake, hitting bombs helps teams win.
Seung-hwan Oh is a 33 year old rookie closer, which are 3 labels that usually do not go together. He’s also having one of the best seasons in the league despite being a virtual unknown before coming to America from Korea. It’s always difficult to predict how players from overseas will perform in the big leagues. With the recent success of a lot of international players, the Cardinals gambled on the 33 year old reliever and he was projected to have pretty modest numbers. His stuff wasn’t seen as overwhelming with a K% of 25 and a BB% of 6.2. He was supposed to be a 7th or 8th inning guy, with an ERA of 3.45 and an ERA+ of 111. FanGraphs actually made his comparison player Guillermo Mota, which…would have been okay, but certainly not great.
Seung-hwan Oh has been great. He’s lived up to his killer nickname, “The Final Boss,” and dominated opposing hitters. Oh has a K% of 32, an ERA of 1.89 and an ERA+ of 217. He’s already pitched 13 more innings than projected (with more games left to play) and he has a 2.7 WAR. The numbers are stellar for Oh, and he’s arguably the best closer in the National League. So how did ZiPS get his projections so wrong? Put simply, it’s almost impossible to project international players. It’s hard for math to understand whether they are dominating the competition or the competition is just not very good. International players consistently exceed or underwhelm their expectations (see: Jose Abreu) because it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what their expectations should be.
Somehow, the Cardinals organization keep churning out infielders that exceed expectations like it’s their job. Which I guess it is. Regardless, Aledmys Diaz can be added to the list of players that have come out of nowhere to immensely help the Cardinals this season. Diaz was on the bench at the beginning of the season, and he was projected to have a pretty solid season as a backup. His projected slash line was .247/.290/.383, and his player comparison was Jose Castro, a player that never made it out of the minors (and is currently a hitting coach for the Braves). It’s safe to say that Diaz exceeded expectations, not only becoming a regular starter, but also an All Star. His current slash line is .301/.370/.510, which is pretty amazing for a player that was supposed to never make it to the majors. How did that happen?
Put simply, Diaz’s evolution can be most easily explained by a more patient approach at the plate. His K% and BB% were projected to be 19.8 and 4.7 when in actuality they turned out to be 13.6 and 8.8. Walking more and striking out less is the number one way for a hitter to develop because it lets them see better pitches more often. Diaz’s patience has paid off. Looking at his spray chart from FanGraphs, we can see how he gets hits all over the diamond instead of hitting to one side of the field. This is indicative of a more diligent approach. Rookies who go the opposite way are rare, and Diaz is doing an excellent job.
Diaz’s out of nowhere performance has been a huge boon to the Cardinals. He has doubled his WAR projection from 1.4 to 3.2. Best of all, Diaz is only 25 and still has room to improve.
Photo Credit: USA Today Adam Hunger