The 2016 Cardinals were a disappointing team. The year before, they’d been the first team since the 2011 Phillies to win 100 games. Their loss to the Cubs in the Divisional Series stung, but it was the team’s fifth straight trip to the postseason. With a strong pitching staff—the team’s 2.94 ERA was the majors' lowest in 27 years and the first team ERA under 3.00 since the 1989 Dodgers—and a farm system that produced a seemingly endless supply of new talent, they seemed poised to remain a playoff contender, if not fend off the fast-charging Cubs.
We know what happened next. As the stat-heads predicted, the team’s FIP (3.50, fifth in the league) and DRA (4.11, sixth) presaged 2016 better than the sparkly ERA, as the Redbirds compiled a 4.08 ERA that ranked seventh in the league. That decline in pitching pretty much summed up the story of the season, as the team finished with an 86-76 record, one game behind the Mets for the second Wild Card.
The team’s pitching woes and absence from the postseason overshadowed a dramatic offensive improvement. In 2015, the Cardinals scored 647 runs. Only the decidedly non-contending Reds, Phillies, Marlins, and Braves scored fewer. In 2016, the Cardinals scored the third-most runs in the league with 779, trailing only Colorado and Chicago. Measured by True Average, the team improved from .262 in 2015 to .278, which was second in the league. Their year-over-year improvement of 132 runs was the largest in baseball.
How did they do it?
As I did a while back with the Pirates, I’m going to compare the 2015 and 2016 lineups, position by position. The reason I’m doing it that way instead of player by player is that the players change. The team’s primary center fielders in 2015 were Peter Bourjos (29 percent of plate appearances), Jon Jay (28 percent), Randal Grichuk (20 percent), and Tommy Pham (16 percent). It was a group effort in 2016 as well, primarily Gruchuk (65 percent of plate appearances) with assistance from Pham (16 percent) and others. Right field was Jayson Heyward’s job in 2015 but Stephen Piscotty’s last year. By looking at positions rather than players, we can get a fairly apples-to-apples comparison in terms of role.
To evaluate the differences, I’m going to use Baseball Reference’s sOPS+. It measures OPS, adjusted for park and season, relative to the position, rather than relative to all batters. That way I can see how the team did at each position, relative to the position, rather than relative to the league as a whole. For example, Cardinals first baseman had an OPS of .759 last year. In a league with an average OPS of .734, that’s decent. But relative to other first basemen, the sOPS+ was only 91—9 percent below average, given that first base is an offense-oriented position where the average OPS was .809.
Here’s the breakdown by position, with sOPS+ listed for 2015 and 2016:
Catcher: 89 in 2015, 117 in 2016. This, of course, was mostly Yadier Molina both years. He started 131 games behind the plate in 2015 and 152 in 2016. And he was a lot better last year, with his TAv rising from .239 in 2015 to .278 in 2016. The 28-point improvement in sOPS+ for Cardinals catchers from 2015 to 2016 was the greatest of the eight positions, and it's pretty much completely tied to Molina’s renaissance at the plate (even if it contributed to the Cubs’ success).
First Base: 78 in 2015, 91 in 2016. First base was not a Cardinals strength in 2016. Matt Adams was hurt for much of the year, starting only 69 games and hitting .238/.308/.438. He was supported primarily by Brandon Moss (.220/.310/.366 in 40 starts), and Matt Carpenter (.231/.331/.463 in 35 starts), who went from the regular third baseman in 2015 to all over the infield in 2016. The overall .759 OPS was 10th in the league and the 91 sOPS+ was 11th. Cardinals first basemen not named Carpenter or Holliday batted in the first four positions in the lineup only 34 times after Adams went 0-for-3 batting cleanup on May 17, indicating that manager Mike Matheny’s lack of confidence in what's supposed to be a bat-first position.
But it was a lot worse in 2015. Mark Reynolds batted .237/.331/.426 and struck out in 26 percent of his plate appearances, Adams hit .226/.271/.358, and late-season acquisition Moss chipped in with a .213/.278/.360 line and a 31 percent whiff rate. The Redbirds were last in the National League in OPS at first base, .702. That makes for what we call in finance an easy comp. Reynolds had a Coors-inflated .282/.356/.450 comeback for the Rockies in 2016, and both Adams and Moss improved for the Cardinals.
Second Base: 99 in 2015, 105 in 2016. That is not a typo. Cardinals second basemen, as a whole, improved in 2016 even as Kolten Wong slid from a .707 OPS in 2015 to .682 in 2016. He was hitting .222/.306/.286 on June 5 and was demoted to Memphis, where he tore up the league (1.458 OPS in seven games). He hit .251/.341/.401 after his return, allaying some concerns about the 26-year-old.
The reason Cardinals second basemen were better in 2016 than 2015 wasn’t Wong, it was his backups. Jedd Gyorko hit .291/.364/.588 with 13 home runs in 165 plate appearances as a second baseman, and Carpenter hit .285/.413/.482. Their combined .849 OPS in 332 plate appearances more than outweighed Wong’s .633 in 288 plate appearances.
Third Base: 116 in 2015, 103 in 2016. Carpenter was every bit as good in 2016 (.313 TAv) as he was in 2015 (.317 TAv). But as noted above, because of injuries (Adams) and ineffectiveness (Wong), he had to move over to the other side of the diamond, starting 37 games at second, 35 at first base, and only 52 at third. In 2015 he started 141 games at third base. So the Cardinals' third base job went from being held primarily by a down-ballot MVP candidate to a combination of Jhonny Peralta (67 starts), Carpenter (52), and Gyorko (28). Carpenter held up his end, batting .282/.385/.538 in 234 plate appearances at the hot corner, but both Peralta (.248/.301/.406) and Gyorko (.200/.238/.452) dragged down the seasonal totals.
Shortstop: 112 in 2015, 120 in 2016. That didn’t go according to plan. In 2015, Peralta had his second straight strong season for the Cardinals with a .273 TAv. Through two seasons of a four-year deal, he’d supplied strong offense and better-than-expected defense (11.8 FRAA) and thump (38 homers). Thus, he justified the first half of the $53 million contract he signed before the 2014 season, a contract that was criticized in some quarters. Last season he hurt his thumb in spring training and didn’t join the Cardinals until June 7, and he missed time due to the thumb in July as well.
By the time he’d joined the club, unheralded rookie Aledmys Diaz had seized the shortstop job, batting .327/.355/.541 throughn the day Peralta joined the Cardinals. (He hit .274/.381/.481 for the rest of the season.) Diaz was on the disabled list from the beginning of August to the middle of September, and his replacements (Gyorko started 25 games, Greg Garcia 24) combined to hit .215/.301/.366, so the Cardinals’ production from the position could easily have been higher. As is, only the Dodgers (Corey Seager) and the Rockies (Trevor Story) got more offensive production out of shortstop than the Cardinals.
Left field: 131 in 2015, 99 in 2016. Because of injuries to Matt Holliday, the Cardinals had to mix and match in left field in 2015. Holliday started 64 games, Stephen Piscotty 40, and Grichuk 37. Holliday’s .815 OPS was the worst of the trio, as St. Louis left fielders compiled a league-best .852 OPS.
They had to mix and match due to injuries to Holliday in 2016 too; it just worked out worse. Holliday started 82 games (and completed only 38), batting .219/.307/.374 in his last year in St. Louis. Moss started 42 games, hitting 14 homers but contributing little else with a .204/.269/.522 line. Jeremy Hazelbaker started 19 games and was hitting .321/.355/.714 on April 26; he hit .201/.272/.389 the rest of the way.
Center Field: 89 in 2015, 95 in 2016. Cardinals center fielders had a .696 OPS in 2015, third-worst in the league. The primary center fielders, as discussed above, were Bourjos, Jay, Grichuk, and Pham. Grichuk (.845 OPS) and Pham (.791) were good, while Bourjos (.660) and Jay (.546) were not. The problem was that Bourjos and Jay got 58 percent of center field plate appearances, while Grichuk and Pham got 38 percent.
With the Phillies picking up Bourjos on waivers and Jay going to the Padres in a trade for Gyorko last offseason, the Cardinals appeared positioned to improve. Indeed, Grichuk and Pham started all but 31 games in center last year, compiling 81 percent of plate appearances. Even though both fell off sharply from 2015—Grichuk’s TAv from .316 to .275, Pham’s from .298 to .270—they both easily out-hit Bourjos and Jay from the year prior.
Right Field: 114 in 2015, 112 in 2016. Even without Jason Heyward’s offensive skills hitting a wall in Chicago, the transition from Heyward to Piscotty went as well as could be expected (offensively, at least). Piscotty in right field in 2016: 605 plate appearances, .274/.348/.456. Heyward in right field in 2015: 576 plate appearances, .290/.355/.439.
Pitchers: 100 in 2015, 152 in 2016. Cardinals pitchers led the National League in batting average and slugging percentage, and were third in on base percentage. Does that mean they were good? Of course not. That’s only 24th-best for Cardinals pitchers since World War II. I mean, they hit .167/.196/.226. In 2003, Cardinals pitchers hit .206/.249/.271 and didn’t even have the best OPS in the league. (Frame of reference: J.B. Shuck slashed .205/.248/.299 last year.)
It’s odd to think of the Cardinals dramatically improving offensively last year. First base remained a weak point. Wong, Grichuk, Piscotty, and Pham all regressed, and Holliday fell off a cliff. Peralta was hurt. Heyward was gone. The resurgence of Molina, the elimination of dead weight, the emergence of Diaz, an uptick from Gyorko in a utility role, and continued excellence from Carpenter were the key drivers.
There was a cost, though. Moving players around the diamond, plus replacing Heyward’s glove in right and Bourjos’s in center, affected the defense. In 2015, the Cardinals were eighth in the league in defensive efficiency (.703) and park-adjusted defense efficiency (-0.00). In 2016, they slumped to 11th in DE (.696) and 10th in PADE (-0.43).
St. Louis’s top five starting pitchers (Adam Wainwright, Martinez, Mike Leake, Jaime Garcia, and Michael Wacha) started all but 14 of their games. Only the Blue Jays (fourth in the majors in starter ERA) and the Cubs (first in starter ERA) had a more durable quintet. Unlike those teams, the Cardinals’ rotation failed to produce strong outcomes (13th in starter ERA). Yet their starters’ DRA, which takes defense into account, was virtually unchanged: 4.04 in 2015, 3.99 in 2016. A weaker defense behind the starting pitchers certainly played a role, contributing to a deficit that stronger hitting couldn’t overcome.