On Monday, the Cardinals muscled their way to a 5-2 victory over the San Diego Padres by way of three home runs launched by José Martínez, Marcell Ozuna, and Jedd Gyorko. All five Cardinals runs scored as a result of one of these homers, which has become somewhat customary for the Birdos this season. In fact, last Thursday, Joe Sheehan penned a chapter on the 2018 Cardinals in his essential newsletter and noted the following:
It’s a strange offense in many ways; the Cards are last in the NL in doubles and triples, sixth in homers, 12th in walks drawn. They’re basically homers-or-nothing (40% of their runs have scored on homers, fifth-highest in the NL), the antithesis of how you’d prefer to play in Busch Stadium. They’ve also dropped from third in the NL in walk rate to 11th, with much the same roster as a year ago.
Fast-forward a week later and those statistics pretty much remain the same only the Cardinals have now hit the third most home runs (81) in the National League, which have accounted for approximately 42 percent of their total runs this season. That figure is also fourth in the NL behind the Brewers (44 percent), Phillies (43.5 percent), and Rockies (42.5 percent).
Ignoring the 42 percent stat for a second and focusing on the 81, I think we can all agree that home runs are a good thing. Given the choice, it’s hard to envision a scenario where anyone would want a player donning their favorite uniform to not hit a home run in a given at-bat. Sure, triples can be more exciting than home runs as they are much more rare and involve a man running very fast (or a slow man running as fast as he can), but when narrowing it down to the “what most helps my team in this situation” metric, it’s pretty tough to beat the home run.
So given that the Cardinals have hit the third most home runs in the NL, it’s clear that they do not have a home run problem. Nope, home runs have kept the Cardinals’ head above water and still in the thick of the NL Central, as evidenced by the 42 percent number above. And if the Cardinals are scoring a high percentage of their runs via the homer then it’s fair to assume that they haven’t been hitting a lot of solo shots, right?
Unfortunately, no, that’s hasn’t been the case at all. And this is where the biggest problem with the Cardinals offense comes to light: They haven’t been getting enough runners on base to maximize the damage of those 81 home runs. Or, forget the home runs, they just haven’t been getting enough runners on base in general, and this has caused a scoring problem, where the Cardinals currently rank 11th (281 total runs) in the NL.
Entering today, the Cardinals had a .314 on-base percentage, which ranks tenth in the NL and below the league average (.317). It will probably not surprise many of you to hear that Kolten Wong, Yadier Molina, and Dexter Fowler are the main offenders here (Fowler this season is about 90 points below his career OBP average). A possible side-effect? Of those 81 home runs mentioned, 53 have occurred with the bases empty, which is the second highest number of solo home runs in the NL (the Dodgers have hit 55), and roughly 65 percent of their home run total. If you’re having trouble putting that number in proper context, the NL average for solo home runs is 58 percent.
As of Wednesday morning (so not accounting for Ozuna’s two-run home run last night), here’s how each team ranks in the NL by percentage of solo home runs:
I’m not trying to draw a profound conclusion from this graphic because I don’t think there is one. A high percentage of solo home runs is a likely symptom of a team that hits a lot of home runs overall. In fact, the Cardinals, Nationals, and Dodgers – the top three for percentage of solo home runs – all rank in the top five for total home runs in the NL. The Diamondbacks (7th) aren’t that far behind. And the correlation is not perfect by any stretch, but there seems to be more good teams on the left side of the graphic than the right.
But I think the obvious point still remains: The Cardinals need to do a better job at getting on base so more of these home runs are hit with runners aboard, or to at least create better scoring opportunities when the home run isn’t there. They can start by taking more walks. As Sheehan wrote above, unlike last season, they aren’t getting to first for free very often. They have an 8.4 percent walk rate (league average is 8.9 percent), and only three teams in the NL are worse.
And while we’re discussing getting runners on base, that brings me to another part of Sheehan’s essay:
The bullpen hasn’t been good — 13th in ERA, 14th in FIP — and they’re a pretty awful baserunning team: a 59% success rate on steals (28th in MLB) with 23 baserunners killed (tied for sixth-most).
We know the Cardinals don’t excel at getting runners on base. They don’t excel at scoring runs and rank in the bottom third of the NL. And we know that when they do score, it often comes by way of the home run. So if they’re not going to do a good job at getting on base in the first place, then it seems irresponsible to employ this aggressive approach on the bases which has often been the hallmark of a Mike Matheny-led club and has shown to be a failure. This is especially true for a team that hits a lot of home runs because in that instance a runner on first is just as valuable as a runner on second.
So the 2018 Cardinals shouldn’t try to be the 1985 Cardinals. That team was the bizarro version of this year’s squad (and modern baseball, in general) by scoring only 20 percent of their MLB-leading 747 runs by way of the home run. The 2018 version has needed the home run. But to be more than just a middle-of-the-pack offense, they will probably need to do a bit more, like drawing more walks, or just somehow finding a way to get on base. And good luck. Identifying potential problems is easy, fixing them at the Game 66 mark is, I imagine, a bit harder.