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Here Are Five Delightful (and Unexpected) Cardinals 2017 Surprises

The 65-65 Cardinals have trudged through plenty of disappointment this season. They’ve been walloped — and hard — by unexpected surprises that include the collapse of shortstop Aledmys Diaz’ career and the stressful season-long struggle of right fielder Stephen Piscotty.

Hey, it isn’t all bad. There have been some unexpectedly delightful surprises as well.

Here’s my list …

1. Tommy Pham

What more can we say about the Phamtastic one? Written off by management, excluded from manager Mike Matheny’s preferred members club, Pham seemed to be a past-tense player for the Cardinals. He would play the season in Triple A Memphis, and maybe get traded or released after the season, or perhaps he would sign to play in Japan or Korea for 2018.

Ah, but when Cardinals’ outfielders began to fall and limp to the disabled list, Pham was recalled on May 5 to serve as an emergency replacement. And he’s never left. And he’s been the team’s best all-around player. And Pham has surprised even me, and I serve on the board of directors of the Tommy Pham Appreciation Society.

In 416 plate appearances Pham enters the series at Milwaukee with some dashing numbers, batting .302 with a .398 OBP and .497 slugging percentage. His .895 OPS is the best on the team. His park-adjusted runs created (wRc+) is 38 percent above league average and the best on the team. His 4.0 WAR is the best on the team. His 17 stolen bases are tops on the team. His outfield defense (+8 runs saved) is the best on the team. His +3.88 BRR base-running metric: best on the team.

Mix in 17 homers, 16 doubles, 55 RBIs, and 72 runs scored and you have one of the breakout stars of the season. Not just in St. Louis … but in the majors.

I’ve mentioned this before so here’s a repeat. There are only three MLB hitters this season who have batted at least .300, put up a .398 OBP or higher, slugged .497 or higher, hit 17 or more homers, and swiped 17 or more bases.

Jose Altuve, Paul Goldschmidt and Tommy Pham.

2. Paul DeJong

You knew that the Cardinals had a positive opinion of DeJong, a middle-infield prospect with power. And if you saw him in spring training you were impressed. But … I didn’t expect such a forceful display of instant impact from the rookie hitter. And I certainly did not didn’t expect above-average defense at shortstop, a position DeJong had barely played until this season.

I didn’t expect DeJong to mitigate the tremendous disappointment of watching Diaz play so poorly, offensively and defensively, that he was sent to the minors. Since his first promotion to the majors on May 28, DeJong has rifled 20 homers and slugged .565. He’s tied for 13th in the majors in homers and is 13th in slugging percentage since May 28. DeJong’s park-adjusted runs created — 30 percent above league average — is No. 2 to Pham among the Cardinals. DeJong’s .893 OPS also ranks second on the team, and only Pham has accrued more than DeJong’s 2.3 WAR.

Since May 28 DeJong ranks third among MLB rookies with the 20 homers; only Cody Bellinger (25) and Aaron Judge (22) have more bombs over that time.

With four more homers this season, DeJong would move into second place behind Albert Pujols in 37 in team history for most rookie home runs in a season. Pujols swatted 37 in 2001. DeJong has showed well after being moved to the No. 3 lineup spot. This move — credit to Matheny — actually had a positive effect on DeJong’s worrisome plate discipline.

Here’s a snapshot of what I’m talking about:

— DeJong, before he hit third in the lineup: 2.3 percent walk rate, 32.8 percent strikeout rate.
— DeJong as a No. 3 hitter: 5.0 percent walk rate, 25.7%
strikeout rate.

That’s a sign of a smart hitter.

I wasn’t sure if DeJong could play big-league shortstop at an adequate level but the early results are positive. In his first 487 innings at
short, DeJong is a +1 in defensive runs saved. That may not seem like much, but … Diaz was an enormous liability at shortstop, with a minus 14 in defensive runs saved over the last two years. And DeJong’s +1 actually ranks 14th among MLB shortstops this season. He’s above average. Another
pleasant surprise.

3. Kolten Wong

Wong isn’t a kid; he’ll turn 27 in a couple of months. But we’ve waited for a while, a long while, for Wong to put everything together and become the player the Cardinals insisted he would be.

Wong isn’t entirely there yet. He’s missed too much time with assorted injuries this season. His defense at second base doesn’t pass muster with the Fielding Bible metrics; Wong is below average (minus 5 runs saved) so far this season. (He seems better than that to me. Oh, well.)

But I don’t want to chew on the negatives too much here. Given the full support of Matheny for the first time in his career, Wong is easily having his best offensive season. He made it happen by changing his hitting approach to focus on taking more astute at-bats instead of mindlessly trying to launch homers. Wong’s new and improved plate discipline kicked in last season, and he’s thriving in 2017.

Coming into 2017, Wong had a .248 career batting average. This season, he’s hitting .315. That’s a 67-point increase. Wong’s career onbase percentage before this year was .309; this season it’s an outstanding .396 … up 87 points.

Wong’s career slugging percentage before 2017 was only .370; this season he’s cranked that up to .460 on the strength of 24 doubles, three triples and three homers. (Lesson: DOUBLES ARE GOOD.) The Wong slug has jumped 90 points higher than his career norm.

Wong’s park-adjusted runs created — 12 percent below league through 2016 — is 23 percent above league average this season. That’s a dramatic swing.

Along the same lines, Wong’s current .857 OPS is 179 points above his career standard coming into the season. Among MLB hitters with at least 330 plate appearances this season Wong has a higher OPS than notables such as Manny Machado, Edwin Encarnacion, Jay Bruce, Christian Yelich, Brian Dozier, Yasiel Puig (and many others).

For that matter, Wong’s current OPS is perched above that of teammates Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler. Before the season, I wouldn’t have wagered a nickel on the possibility of Wong having a better batting average, OBP and slugging percentage than Carpenter. But Wong has the superior numbers in all three categories.

4. Jose Martinez

At 29 years old, Martinez figured to have brief run as a major-league hitter. He waited a long time for his shot in the majors, and the Cardinals did a gracious thing last season by promoting Martinez to the big club in September. He looked good in a quick trial, then was given a chance to make the Cardinals in spring training. And Martinez came through, earning a spot on the opening 25-man roster.

The Cardinals made the mistake of demoting Martinez to Memphis earlier this season in the silly decision to give priority to lesser players. But Martinez would not stay down.

In 205 plate appearances for the Cardinals this season Martinez is batting .286 with a .353 onbase percentage and .505 slug. That sturdy .858 OPS is backed up by a park-adjusted runs created figure that’s 23 percent above league average. Among Cards with 200 plate appearances this season, only Pham and DeJong have a superior wRC+.

Martinez takes good at-bats (10% walk rate) and hits for more power than anticipated. His rate of homering every 14.95 at-bats is second on the team to DeJong. As a bonus, Martinez is batting .391 as a pinch-hitter this season, with two homers and a pair of doubles in 23 at-bats.

Someone please tell Matheny that Martinez is a stronger hitter than Piscotty in 2017. As we mentioned yesterday, the Cardinals are passing on the opportunity to generate offense by not playing Martinez more often. He hasn’t started a game since Aug. 19, and has started only three games since Aug. 10. What a shame, what a waste.

5. Jedd Gyorko and Tyler Lyons.

A tie, because I didn’t want to leave either guy out. There’s Gyorko because of his plus 16 defensive runs saved at third base. Only two MLB third basemen, Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman (each with 18) have saved more runs than Gyorko. That’s a surprise. If anything, I think the Cardinals and their fans would have been pleased with average third-base defense from Gyorko. Instead, he’s given his team elite defense at the position to go with a healthy dose of offense. Upon further review, Lyons should be much higher on this list. (Not that it really matters. miscast as a long reliever by Matheny, Lyons has dominated after belatedly being moved to a late-inning, short-relief role.

That transition was made on June 28. Since then, in 24 appearances and 20.2 innings as a late-game puncher, Lyons has an 0.87 ERA, allowed hitters a scant .388 OPS, and is striking opponents out at a sizzling rate of 36.4 percent. Lyons hasn’t been nipped for a run since July 6. In 18 subsequent 18 appearances (16.2 innings) Lyons’ spotless 0.00 ERA is made even shinier by his 39 percent strikeout rate and opponents’ skimpy .305 OPS.

Lyons is a lefty pitcher, but as a short reliever he’s struck out RH batters (36%) at about the same rate as LH batters (37%). In fact, RH batters are hitting only .091 with a .326 OPS against Lyons since June 28.

A killer slider is effective against hitters on either side of the plate. And for that and other reasons, Lyons should be the team’s closer, but Matheny is keeping him in a mix-and-match
system.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Tommy Pham’s Historically Good Year Is Getting Lost in the Shuffle