While both the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs have delved deeply in recent seasons into baseball numerology, it seems that there is a serious disconnect in the way the two teams have been assembled and how they are evaluated by their creators.
The Cardinals seem to value the concept of team chemistry, experience and hunches about their talent much more than the Cubs who are the darlings of sabremetrics while fielding a team of young players who haven’t been deep into the game’s post-season wars.
The Redbirds seem perfectly comfortable with the club they will field. They’ve replaced right fielder Jason Heyward’s often disappointing bat with an emerging offensive force in Stephen Piscotty, installed slugger Randal Grichuk in centerfield in place of enigmatic flychaser Peter Bourjos and powerless hitter Jon Jay and they added starting pitcher Mike Leake to an already deep rotation. Let’s not forget they’ve also regained the services of elite starting pitcher Adam Wainwright and fortified the bullpen with four guys who have closer experience.
So what does the baseball world think of these moves?
FanGraphs predicts the Cardinals will tumble from 100 wins in 2015 to 84 this year, falling behind the Wee Bears by double digits in the standings.
I couldn’t care less what the “experts” think about the Redbirds’ chances. Games are played on the field and the St. Louis front office has proved it’s more than capable of putting together a winner.
What I want to know is: What lies in the stats to make pencil pushers fawn over the talented young players with Chicago -- and yawn over the likes of Piscotty, Grichuk, Kolten Wong, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez?
Grichuk hit .276 with an .877 on base plus slugging percentage in 2015. He hit 17 homers in 323 at bats. Cubs top prospect Kris Bryant hit .275 with an .858 on base plus slugging percentage and hit 26 home runs in 559 at bats. He also struck out 199 times to lead the National League in that stat.
Yet Grichuk, 24, doesn’t register a blip of the radar of the prognosticators?
Heyward is the ultimate metrics darling. His traditional stats like batting average homers and runs batted in are mediocre at best. But he gets huge WAR (wins above replacement) numbers based, largely, on his defense.
Piscotty seems to have a lot more potential as a hitter. And, in the games I have seen him play in the outfield both in spring training and last regular season impress me with his ability to track balls, range and other defensive abilities.
But we’re not taking about a shortstop here. We’re talking about a corner outfielder. How many plays does a special corner outfielder make in a game that an average one doesn’t? Not a lot. Heyward is projected to play centerfield for the Cubs this year which sort of throws his right field accomplishments out the window.
A notorious slow starter, I can’t wait to see how fast Wrigley Field fans let him know about it if he hits .210 in April.
Even Heyward, himself, took a poke and the Cardinals youthful players by declaring that he wanted to play for the Cubs because St. Louis’ stars were running out of steam.
I’d be less insulted by those remarks if I was Piscotty, Grichuk or Wong than I would be if I was one of the players he named, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina.
But here’s where we go off the statistical chart:
One of the REAL reasons Heyward isn’t still with the Cardinals isn’t because of his WAR, his OPS or any other number you can dream up. It’s because he isn’t a leader. He doesn’t want to be THE guy, he wants to be A guy -- just like Colby Rasmus.
Heyward was going to have to be paid as an elite, cornerstone player to remain with St. Louis in an overheated free agent market. From what I have heard -- and from the way things played out -- it’s fairly obvious the Redbirds were reluctant to think about a guy who isn’t really a power hitter and isn’t a .300 hitter who doesn’t want to be the vocal leader of the team as THE cornerstone guy of the future.
More obvious than the fact that the Cardinals didn’t think of Heyward as a superstar was the fact Heyward, obviously, doesn’t think of himself that way either.
It speaks volumes to hear him say he wanted to play for the Cubs where he could be surrounded by good, young players. There, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are the big men on campus. When Holliday, Molina and Wainwright are gone, Heyward would have had to be that guy here -- not somebody else.
The idea that the Cardinals would have been too old had Heyward stayed is ridiculous.
He’s in his mid 20s. If Holliday’s option is not picked up for 2017, the Redbirds would have had Piscotty and Grichuk taking up the other two outfield spots. Wong, Matt Adams, Wacha, Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Seigrist... all in their mid 20s. And then there are prospects Sam Tuivailala, Marco Gonzales, Alex Reyes...
Bottom line is that the Cubs view Heyward as a $200 million franchise player in their evaluation system and the Cardinals don’t.
So we’re going to find out if the 100 wins St. Louis put up last year are a fluke and GM John Mozeliak tried to be a cheapskate -- or if Jason Heyward and the national writers are full of beans when they say the best National League team of the past five years is over the hill and outclassed by the Cubs.