Unless the Cardinals can have a set lineup with no glaring weaknesses in 2022, they’ll have to resolve a problematic issue that’s put them at a disadvantage offensively.
I’ve discussed the need for more balance in the composition of the lineup and bench. To recap and summarize: over the last five seasons the Cardinals have the fewest plate appearances by left-handed batters in the major leagues. In 2021 they had the fewest plate appearances by LH batters in the NL, and second fewest overall.
As you might imagine, this isn’t helpful. Why? Because the Cardinals have more plate appearances vs. RH pitching than any team in the majors over the last five years.
With their LH batters having a relatively minor presence, their impact is negligible. It’s no surprise to see that St. Louis has rated no better than 16th overall in OPS vs. right-handed pitchers in a season over the five-year period. This platoon disadvantage has turned more extreme over the last three seasons, with the Cards ranking 22nd in the bigs with a .715 OPS vs. righties.
By all means, set lineups can work. Set lineups can work very well. Tony La Russa wasn’t a big platoon guy while managing St. Louis, but he didn’t have to be. Set lineups can get it done — but only if you have enough complete hitters up and down the lineup and don’t have to worry as much about matchup weaknesses. Or, as is the case for the Cardinals in recent years, an ongoing struggle against righthanded pitchers.
Let’s talk a little more about platoon-split advantage. Here’s what that means: it’s the percentage of plate appearances in a season that give the Cardinals a platoon-split edge. LH batter vs. a RH pitcher, and vice versa.
I excluded 2020 because of the short season and the Cards’ 58-game schedule. Here’s where the Cardinals have ranked in platoon-split advantage in each of the last four seasons:
2021: 44.7 percent, 29th overall, lowest in NL.
2019: 44.3 percent, 26th overall, 13th in NL.
2018: 41.4 percent, 30th overall, 15th in NL.
2017: 42.3 percent, 29th overall, 15th in NL.
That’s an average platoon-split advantage of 43.1 percent per season — 10 percent under the overall MLB platoon advantage of 53%.
The San Francisco Giants led the majors this season with 107 victories. They had a top-five scoring offense and led the majors in home runs. A large part of the success was a deep roster that allowed manager Gabe Kapler to take an aggressively flexible approach to assemble lineups based on favorable platoon matchups. Kapler had more ways to outmaneuver the opposing manager.
This season the Giants had 18 players with 100 or more plate appearances. The Cardinals had 13. And while the Cardinals had seven hitters with 400-plus plate appearances, the Giants had only four. But the “only four” was a positive; it means Kapler spread the at-bats around to sharpen and pinpoint the matchup battle within the competition. The 2021 Giants had a 58 percent platoon-split advantage — or 15 percent higher than the Cardinals.
The Giants won the NL West with MLB’s 10th highest payroll and spent 40 percent less on players than their rival Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Giant lineup was always changing, evolving, with Gabler moving the pieces around. Kapler put together his daily batting order to give his team the maximum chance to exploit opponents with matchup muscle. And he didn’t hesitate to use his bench early and often in search of another matchup edge.
This season Kaper led all MLB managers in pinch-hitters used per game. The Giants had the most pinch-hit at bats than any team in the majors, and led all teams in pinch-hit homers (18) and RBI (51.)
In St. Louis Mike Shildt ranked 15th among MLB managers in pinch hitters per game. More telling: the Cardinals’ pinch hitters were deployed in more low-pressure situations than any MLB team. By contrast Kapler’s superior options allowed him to use the most pitch hitters in high-leverage scenarios than any manager in the bigs.
When subbed into a game, Cardinals’ bench players performed 21 percent below league average offensively. The Giants’ sub-ins delivered offense at a rate of 14 percent above average.
“It seems like our whole roster is, maybe not in one game, but through the course of a few games, our whole roster will probably be used,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said during the season. “Whether it’s a pinch-hit or coming out of the bullpen or whatever it may be. And the players have the mindset for it.
“When guys come up from the minors or sign with us, they see everyone in here being willing to take on any role that will help us win. They see that the roster was built to get us better matchups, and they see how it makes a difference. And the mindset is ‘I’m going to follow their lead, do whatever it takes to win.’ ‘’
New manager Oliver Marmol wants to cultivate the same mindset with the Cardinals.
More on that later.
Marmol and the Cardinals have a lot of work to do.
Want better matchups?
Want to use more platoons?
One way or another the Cardinals have to add better players, and more players. And they must make sure that the team has a deeper supply of relievers that can be shuttled between Memphis and St. Louis to give the Cardinals a more capable matchup-ball plus on the pitching end of things.
Much of this is on John Mozeliak, Michael Girsch and the front office. You can’t do platoons without having the depth and variety to do so. You can’t play matchup baseball by sticking to a lineup stacked with RH batters.
The Cardinals’ weak and largely inflexible bench limited the possibilities and potential in 2021. There weren’t enough good pieces for a Giants-style platoon-and-matchup system. And again, this team absolutely needs a more robust lefthanded-hitting presence.
Back to Marmol.
One Cardinal problem that rarely gets discussed is the desire of recent managers — Mike Matheny, then Shildt — to appease veteran players to keep them happy and loyal. But what about putting the entire team first? This is probably the most complex challenge for a first-time, big-league manager.
Next up: Oli Marmol, age 35.
Dealing with veterans isn’t always easy, and this will test him.
Marmol has clearly put a lot of advance thought into his assignment. If the front office lends a hand to give Marmol the necessary personnel, the St. Louis players can expect more platoons going forward. But it won’t be a smooth transition if Marmol can’t convince his players to do what’s best for the team — even if it means embracing a lesser role.
The politics of this situation can be tough.
“You’re constantly figuring out the best way and intentional ways to have those conversations, and they’re tough conversations,” Mamol told Dan McLaughlin and Brandon Kiley on 101 ESPN. “But at the end of the day that is the job, to create a culture where the player understands that you do have their best interest at heart, but you also have a responsibility to the team.
“And there will be conversations that take place where there will be some platooning, and there will be some things that, sometimes you’re hitting first, sometimes you’re hitting eighth. Whatever the case may be. The spirit of all of this is, this is what’s best for us to get a ‘W’ today.
“That’s not created by just spontaneously saying ‘Hey, you’re going to go ahead and hit first today without (talking to the player.) You have to be very intentional with these players, especially today, with what their roles are, what that looks like, how they’re going to be used, why they’re going to be used that way. And the more intentional you can be and up front with them, and them understanding that, I think you create a culture where it’s acceptable.”
“We haven’t seen it here in St. Louis as much as when we play San Francisco or some of these other teams,” Marmol said. “But I think that’s a culture thing. It’s something that you create, and you have intentional conversations with the players to let them understand that, at the end of this day, it actually helps them with where they want to end up at the end of the year when it comes to their numbers. But ultimately it helps the team and makes sure that we are all pulling in the same direction towards the World Series.”
Marmol must also campaign on the front-office turf — the lobbying that managers do to get what they need from the bosses.
This should fire up the fan base. The Cardinals have a young manager who isn’t afraid to have uncomfortable conversations that will lead to an overdue and necessary adjustment in approach.
Remember how I gave you the pathetically low percentage of platoon-split advantages for the Cardinals over the last four full seasons?
Well, now let’s look at the percentage of plate appearances that gave the Cardinals a massive platoon-split advantage under Whitey Herzog.
All of his yearly percentages are very high, but I’ll just give you the rates from the three big seasons: 1982, 1985 and ‘87.
1982: 72.1 percent, No. 2 overall and 1st in NL.
1985: 83.2 percent, No. 1 in the majors.
1987: 80 percent, No. 1 in the majors.
On a yearly basis, Whitey had a platoon advantage at a rate that was anywhere from 20 percent to 35 percent above the league average.
Sure, Herzog had a plethora of switch-hitters that played substantial roles in the 1980s success: Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith, Tom Herr, Vince Coleman, Terry Pendleton, Jose Oquendo. That created most (but not all) of the platoon-split edge. But that’s also the point: Whitey coveted these switch hitters for several reasons — talent, speed, defense, leadership … and, yes, also to have a strong, built-in platoon advantages.
Such a roster composition would be much harder to replicate now — virtually impossible — but the 2021 Cardinals did have two switch hitters in Dylan Carlson and Tommy Edman. In today’s game, you don’t need to have a ton of switch hitters. You just need to add in some lefthanded hitters.
And it’s a plus to find guys that can handle both RH and LH pitching. But at this early stage of their careers, Carlson and Edman are weaker against righthanded pitchers, and that underlines the need for a pure and effective LH bat.
Marmol has the right ideas.
The bosses wanted him? Great. Now help him give the offense a more versatile and interchangeable element in 2022. Marmol has a smart vision of what this offense could be, but he doesn’t make the trades, or sign the players. That’s entirely on the front office.
Thanks for reading …
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.