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Four Case Studies on Struggling Cardinals: Fowler, Ozuna, Wong, Carpenter

Nearly two months into the 2018 season, the Cardinals are trying to ignite a torpid offense. With the St. Louis starting pitchers going into the holiday weekend with the best rotation ERA in the National League at 2.94, the hitters need to amp up.

This won’t be easy, of course. Not with two above-average hitters, Paul DeJong and Yadier Molina, on the disabled list. Using my go-to metric, park adjusted runs created (or wRC+) DeJong was 29 percent above the league average offensively when he suffered a fractured left hand on May 18. Molina — out since May 5 with an injury to the private region that every man fears — was 3 percent above league average offensively.

Among Cardinals’ available regulars that have enough at-bats to qualify or a batting title, only two are above average in park-adjusted runs created: center fielder Tommy Pham (+51% ) and first baseman Jose Martinez (+39%.) Given the circumstances,  the number of deep-slump hitters, and the plain-site reality, no one should be even mildly surprised to see the Cardinals rummaging for runs.

As the Birds on the Bat  land in PNC Park for a three-game weekend series against the NL Central rival Pittsburgh Pirates, the STL offense ranks 10th in the league for May with an average of 3.95 runs per game, 10th in slugging percentage (.388) and is 9th in OPS (.704.)

The most glaring problem — as you know — centers around several core-nucleus hitters that are misfiring offensively.  We’re talking about outfielders Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna, infielder Matt Carpenter, and second baseman Kolten Wong.

Using park adjusted runs created, I’ll show you each hitter’s final wRC+ for 2017 and compare it to where they are in wRC+ as of Friday afternoon. And then I’ll assess each player’s chance of successfully fixing the flaw.

MATT CARPENTER

Standard stats: .199 average, .320 OBP, .370 slug, and .690 OPS.

Park-adjusted runs created: 23% above league average offensively last year; 6% below average now.  That’s a change of minus 29%.

The problem: elevated swing and miss rate. Not hitting the ball up the middle or to the opposite field with greater frequency to beat the defensive shifts.

Why he’ll turn it around: Despite going hitless in the final two games of the KC series this week, Carpenter is heading in the right direction after leaving the starting lineup for three games in San Diego to put himself through intense swing therapy sessions. Too early to say for sure, but his swing looks much better.  His swing-miss rate is still too high, but he’s brought it down. Same with his 26% strikeout rate that was nearly 30% a while back. Also: his batted ball luck is on the upswing. It’s still on the low and unlucky side (.255 average) but heading north. The important indicators are in good shape; MCarp’s average exit velocity (89.7 mph) is up from last season, his percentage of times barreling the ball is way up (to 15.7% from last year’s 8.2%), and his hard-hit percentage is a fine 44..1% compared to 36.7% in 2017. According to Statcast, because Carpenter has hit the ball so hard this season, he should have an average .270 with a .566 slug. That tells us a lot about what should be coming.

Why he won’t turn it around: The shift eats too many Carpenter hits. He does a lot of experimenting and adjusting and tweaking of his swing and I think that can cloud his mind and mess with his confidence.

Prediction: He’ll get through this and get back to being an above-average offensive player.

Let’s move onto the next case … 

And it’s a baffling case indeed… 

KOLTEN WONG 

Standard stats: .179 average,  .276 OBP,  .299 SLG,  .575 OPS

Park-adjusted runs created:  Was 7% above average in 2017, and has fallen to 36% below league average this year. That’s a downturn of minus 43 percent.

Why he’ll turn it around: First of all, Wong’s hit into some tough luck, with a .191 average on balls in play. That said, part of the issue there is his weakness against outside pitches this season; he doesn’t hit the ball to the opposite field as much as he should and the result is an .088 average on ground balls to the right side. His plate discipline has slipped some but can be restored without too much hassle; his 8% walk rate is about 3% less than it should be and his strikeout rate if about a point higher than last season. Wong must alter his hitting approach. It’s that simple. I’ll explain more on this in the next section.

Why he won’t turn it around: This is alarming; Wong has a line drive rate of just 10% this season, the lowest among MLB hitters with at least 67 plate appearances and way off the league average of 23%. Wong’s line drive rate against starting pitchers almost defies belief; it’s only 3.9% It’s true; against starting pitchers Wong has put 51 balls in play this season and only   three  have been line drives. The league average is 23.%. So why isn’t Wong hitting the ball hard? Two reasons: the pitchers have targeted him with outside pitches and he’s pounding high percentage of those outside pitches into the ground. A few numbers to illustrate the point: Wong is slugging .100 on fastballs away this season, tied for second lowest in the majors; he has a line drive rate of 7.5% on outside pitches, 3rd lowest in the majors; he is batting .117 on outside pitches, third worst in the majors; he is batting .100 (4-for-40) on fastballs away,  tied for 3rd worst in MLB; and on outside pitches Wong had a ground-roundball rate of 66% that’s 10th highest in MLB and 17% above the league average.

Prediction: Pessimistic. I am, yes. This is correctable, but Wong is easily distracted and his confidence tends to waver quickly. Here’s another disturbing sign: Wong is doing about as poorly as possible when he’s ahead in the count and has an obvious advantage over pitchers; in those situations he’s batting .100 (3 for 30) which is the 2nd lowest in MLB and not even on the same continent with the league average of .347. Wong can’t turn anything around until he stops getting himself out.

Time for the next case… and no more oversleeping jokes….

We expected a lot from this next man, but he’s yet to break through… 

MARCELL OZUNA 

Standard stats:  .253 average,  .295 OBP,   .331 slug,  .626 OPS

Park-adjusted runs created:  The Big Bear was 42% above league average for Miami in 2017 but is drifting at 25% below league average through his first two months as a Cardinal. A change of minus 67 percent.

Why he’ll turn it around:  The most important markers are positive. Yes, Ozuna’s .331 slugging percentage is shockingly weak, but more on that in a minute. But consider this: Ozuna’s current average exit velocity (92.5 mph) is 17th highest among MLB hitters, his hard-hit rate (49.3%) is 14th best — and Statcast computes that Ozuna deserves to be slugging .471.

Why he won’t turn it around: There are flaws to clean up.  To begin with, he’s refusing some opportunities to walk; his walk rate is down nearly four percent from last season’s 5.8%. Next habit to break: Ozuna is pulling balls in play at a rate of 42%, up nearly four points from last year, and he hasn’t been this pull crazy since his rookie season in 2013. Against starting pitchers this season, Ozuna has hit the ball to the right (opposite side) only 21% of the time, the 11th lowest by a MLB hitter. Last season when Ozuna hit his peak with a powerful and complete display of offense, he hit the ball to the opposite field 25% of the time. This season? That oppo is 20 percent.  Ozuna’s hitting the ball hard yes, but too many are grounders. His GB rate is 50%, but that jumps to 53.3% on fastballs (14th highest.)  And unless the jumpy Ozuna can develop some patience and focus on establishing a smarter approach, he’ll continue to cheat himself out of doubles, homers and a higher slugging percentage.

Prediction: It’s taking too long, but I’m confident Ozuna will roar. And while Ozuna won’t match last season’s 37 homers, 124 RBIs and .548 slug, his power ball can become (belatedly) the wrecking ball capable of rearranging the shape of the NL Central race.

Finally, let’s move onto Case No. 4 … and this is a doozy. 

2nd year of a five-season contract for $82.5 million. 

The Cardinals will still owe him a guaranteed $49.5 million over three seasons beginning in 2019. 

DEXTER FOWLER 

Standard stats:  .155 average,  .274 OBP,  .284 slug,  .558 OPS. Among 165 qualifying MLB hitters, those four statistics rank 155th,  152nd,  158th,  and 158th, respectively. Tough start.

Park-adjusted runs created: Last season Fowler was 21% above the league average offensively, and how he’s 39% below average for a big drop of minus 60 percent.

Why he’ll turn it around: Let’s start with Fowler’s batting average on balls in play. It’s sitting at the bottom of the majors at .164. Yes, the bottom. That’s the lowest BIP average by a big-league hitter this season. And given that Fowler’s career BIP is .332, we’re very likely to see him benefit from considerably better batted ball luck  the rest of the way. And there’s nothing afoul with Fowler’s plate discipline; compared to last season his walk rate is up by a point (to 13.1%) and his strikeout rate is down slightly to 20%. That’s a good foundation for a comeback.

Why he won’t turn it around: The Statcast data seems to be chirping “Getting Old” in Fowler’s direction. That’s because his average exit velocity has slowed to 85.4 mph — no small development after Fowler averaged 88.4 mph last season. His hard-hit percentage is down to 29.6% after cresting at 37.5% last season. Fowler has barreled the ball at a rate of 4.3%, a slip from last season’s 6.5%. And the exit velo isn’t the only thing that’s slowed; Fowler has lost mph in his sprinting speed.  Follow this trend line:  28.5 mph in 2015, which ranked 92nd in MLB… followed by 28.3 mph in 2016, which ranked 127th … then 28.1 in 2017, ranking 168th … and this season he’s at 27.2 mph, ranked 272nd.  Yikes.

Prediction: I’m definitely pessimistic. But the Cardinals aren’t going to quit on Fowler, so he;ll receive more chances to revive his offenseOK, we’ve seen the evidence of a decline phase. But I’m not convinced Fowler is done. A lesser hitter, sure. But a worthless hitter, no. Something is out of whack with Fowler’s swing; he’s lofting too many fly-ball balloons with a fly rate that’s increased eight percent from a season ago, up to 46% this year. And Statcast data shows that Fowler is undercutting these fly balls, failing to drive them hard, which is why I referred to them as balloons. His “under” rate is 33%; until this season it had never been higher than 26.6%. These balloon fly balls have meant an six percent reduction of Fowler’s line drive rate to 17.4%. … and here’s another concern, which may have to do with swing timing: pitchers are making easy work of Fowler by throwing him an increasing stream of breaking pitches and offspeed junk. He’s put only  16.4% of his swings in play on breaking pitches this season, 3rd lowest in the bigs. Fowler has a horrendous swing-miss rate of 49.1% on breaking balls; 11th worst in the majors. He’s put the ball in play on only 26.6% of his swings on non-fastballs. And when Fowler is offered something other than a fastball, Fowler is batting .109 (5 for 46) and slugging .130. Here’s what I think: there  must  be a way to  get Fowler’s swing synchronized so he can make harder contact instead of floating these balloons. Either that or it’s time to get him on a weight-lifting program.

Thanks for reading…

Have a safe Memorial Day Weekend and please remember what this holiday stands for.

–Bernie

More: It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night For Marcell Ozuna