The Cardinals’ Five Biggest Surprises In the Season’s First Half

With every Cardinal except National League All-Stars Yadier Molina and Carlos Martinez taking a breather during the baseball’s annual recess, let’s take a look at the team’s most surprising players in the first half of 2017.

1. Tommy Pham is the Cardinals’ best all-around player. People who paid attention knew that Pham was a really talented player who produced at the major-league level when given a chance to play regularly late in the 2015 season. Pham’s career has been detoured by injuries and vision problems, but when Pham is good to go his physical ability is impressive. Even though I sit on the board of directors of the Tommy Pham Appreciation Society, I must admit that I didn’t expect him to take over and become the best player on the team.

And yes, Pham has been the Cardinals’ best player since his emergency promotion from Triple A Memphis on May 5 to fill in for injured outfielders. Pham is batting .299 with a .386 OBP and .510 slug for an OPS of .896. He’s socked 11 homers, driven in 34 runs, scored 42, and swiped 11 bases in 15 attempts. He’s a +10 in Defensive Runs Saved. The base-running metrics that I go to rate Pham as the team’s most effective base-runner.

Pham’s park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) is 36 percent above league average. Because he spent the first month in the minors, Pham’s 236 plate appearances aren’t enough to qualify him for MLB’s official leader boards. But let’s carve it up like this: among hitters that have at least 230 PA this season, Pham’s wRC+ is 33th overall in the majors and 12th among outfielders.

Pham’s 2.4 WAR (wins above replacement) is 29th overall and 10th among outfielders. And in looking at the WAR standings, all nine outfielders that rank ahead of Pham have had more plate appearances than Pham this season.

Keeping in mind that the WAR metric incorporates all phases of the game — offense, defense, base running — Pham’s across-the-board 2.4 WAR is the same as Mookie Betts and higher than many notable MLB outfielders including Cody Bellinger, Giancarlo Stanton, and Jackie Bradley Jr.

Even though Pham has started 18 fewer games than third baseman Jedd Gyorko, Pham now leads all Cardinals with 2.4 WAR. (I use the FanGraphs version of WAR; the STATS LLC version has Gyorko with more WAR than Pham.) But in Pham the Cardinals are benefiting from one of the better all-around performances by a major-league outfielder in 2017. And to think that he wasn’t in the Cards’  plans for ’17 after having an awful spring training that stemmed from his blurred vision in one eye … a condition that was finally resolved with a special type of contact lens.

2. Jedd Gyorko was good in 2016, his first season with the Cardinals. Through the first half of 2017, he’s been even better. The acquisition of Gyorko represents one of the best trades ever made by John Mozeliak, the president of baseball operations. Gyorko walloped 30 homers and played above average defense for the ’16 Cardinals, and this year he’s produced a more complete offensive profile and played superbly at third base.

Compared to last season, Gyorko has improved his walk rate (it’s 9.2%), cut down on his strikeouts, and has shown a more refined approach that has him hitting more balls to the opposite (right) field.

It adds up to a .300 average — Gyorko hit .243 last year — with a .364 OBP (up 58 points) and .519 slugging percentage. Gyorko already has more doubles this season (16) than he did in all of 2016 (only nine.) And that’s why his slugging percentage is up 24 points from last season. And Gyorko is still hitting home runs; he has 13 at the break along with 45 RBIs. Gyorko is really delivering on timely hits, batting .356 with runners in scoring position.

And the defense? Glad you asked. Gyorko’s +11 Defensive Runs rank second among MLB third basemen. Only Nelson Arenado (+16) has saved more runs with his defense at 3B than Gyorko.

Because of his .345 average on balls in play, we can expect Gyorko’s numbers to level off some in the second half. But he’s having an outstanding season to build on his improvement in 2016. And he’s no fluke.

Remember last offseason, and during spring training, when we wondered if it would be best to start Jhonny Peralta or Gyorko at third base? Wow.

I’m not surprised that Gyorko is playing well for the second consecutive season. But I didn’t think he’d match his power of 2016. Well, he’s done that and is improving in other areas.

3. Paul DeJong, making a bid to be the Cardinals’ shortstop of the future. The power bat, we know about. And we’ll get back to it in a minute. But what about DeJong’s defense? It’s early, and the results are hardly conclusive, but DeJong has earned positive reviews from manager Mike Matheny and team management for his play at shortstop. Again, we’ll see if DeJong continues to validate the Cardinals’ belief that he can play (at least) average defense at short. But in 129 innings there so far, DeJong is a +1 in Defensive Runs Saved and a +3 in the Fielding Bible plus-minus system. That +3 puts DeJong tied for 7th among MLB shortstops. And he’s been especially good (+4) on balls hit to his left.

Now, back to the dynamite in his bat …

In his first 133 big-league plate appearances DeJong has propelled nine home runs into the stands, hitting one every 14.7 at-bats. Add in his 10 doubles, and it comes to a booming slugging percentage of .602. Sure there are long-term concerns over DeJ’s plate discipline — walks, what are walks? — and he’ll go through severe strikeout storms. DeJong’s rookie-season strikeout rate is 28.6%, and if he keeps chasing so many pitches out of the strike zone — 37 percent of the time so far according to FanGraphs — then he’ll wander into Randal Grichuk territory.

But the power … 19 of DeJong’s 40 hits have gone for extra bases, and his Isolated Power number (.289) is the best among Cardinals with a minimum 100 plate appearances this season. Major-league pitchers have been challenging DeJong with a lot of fastballs, and he seems to like it; according to STATS the rookie is batting .317 with an .894 OPS in at-bats that end with a fastball. This may be random, because it’s so early, but DeJong seems to have an alert eye for spotting changeups(.462 average, 1.154 OPS). Pitchers will definitely be seeking other ways to trick DeJong. The data shows that he’s murdering low-strike pitches, and hasn’t been nearly as dangerous against strikes up in the zone. But I’m getting to deep into the numbers here; sorry.

DeJong’s power crackles.

4. You are all in love with Luke Voit, who idolized Mark McGwire growing up in St. Louis. Hell, Voit looks like he could be Big Mac’s son. Are we sure this isn’t the grown-up Matt McGwire — the actual son of Big  Mac? You remember the kid serving as the Cards’ bat boy for home games late in the 1998 season, getting hoisted into the air by Daddy Mac at home plate to celebrate the latest home run. OK, Luke Voit isn’t McGwire’s son. I’m just kidding about that.

Last week, I wrote a piece on Voit and expressed an opinion: he isn’t a fluke. I cited his plate discipline through the minors. And the way he adjusted and improved each year in the minors. And the way he lowered his ground-ball rate and elevated his fly-ball rate (and power) after joining the launch-angle craze. I don’t have much to add to that.

Let’s just recap: a year ago, Voit was in Class AA Springfield. And other than family and friends and a relatively small number of prospect fanatics, no one knew Voit’s name. He didn’t appear on any “Top 100 Prospects” lists. He wasn’t even invited to join the Cardinals in spring training … and this team usually invites 6,000 players to camp (OK, that’s an exaggeration.)

Now, after a couple of months in Triple A Memphis — where he slugged .561 and homered every 19 at-bats — Voit is starting at first base in St. Louis. For the big club. In his first 41 MLB plate appearances, Voit has bashed five doubles, three homers, and slugged .684. As for what’s next, the Baseball Son of Big Mac is giving the Cardinals a lot to think about. It’s going to get interesting around here after the All-Star break, when second baseman Kolten Wong returns from the DL, and the Cardinals have to figure out a way to make all of the infield pieces fit in a way that will keep Voit busy with at-bats.

5. John Brebbia, who found a home. I still don’t know who he is, really. But the journeyman RH reliever is making a place for himself in the Cards’ bullpen. In 17 appearances covering 19 innings, Brebbia has a 1.89 ERA and 0.84 WHIP.  Yeah, he’s allowed too many inherited runners to score (46 percent) but I’m not trying to peddle him as the next Bruce Sutter. Opponents have hit .174 against Brebbia with a .304 slug. He’s held LH batters to a .214 average, and RH bats to a .146 average. And he hasn’t permitted an inherited runner to score in his last six appearances. Why is this working? Brebbia has a slithering slider. He’s thrown 108 of them. And in at-bats that end with a slilder, opponents have hit .120 with a .226 slugging percentage.

I’ll be posting another (and shorter) piece in a little while on the Cards’ most disappointing players in the first half.

Thanks for reading …


More: Miklasz – The Odds Are Still Working Against the Cardinals, But Recent Trends Offer Hope