From RallyCat To October: Why The Cardinals May Prove Doubters Wrong
by 25 August 2017, 2:46 PM
The RallyCat phenomenon has excited the Cards’ fanbase, but it’s up to two young stars to push the team to October.
Earlier in the season, the Cardinals were struggling to maintain the level of success they’ve had over the past two decades. Few things went right for the Cardinals. For the majority of the season, they were a team categorized as one with inconsistent hitting and lousy defense. They were 33-40 in the month of June and two games under .500 at the All-Star Break, looking like a team that was poised to struggle for .500 let alone a playoff spot.
At the beginning of the season, I believed that the Cardinals would win the 2017 World Series. Even with departures of big-time free agents every season, Albert Pujols and Jason Heyward being two of the most notable, the Cardinals seemed to yield consistent results year after year no matter who was on the team.
And even though the Cardinals have hit many rough patches this year—including, but not limited to Grichuk and Diaz’s demotions, and multiple DL trips for star players—they are back in the National League Central race. As of August 24th, they are in a position to jockey for first place:
Although two games over .500 is nothing to celebrate, the overall mediocrity of the National League Central, which has become the division race to watch as we enter the last third of the season, has kept the Cardinals very much alive in the playoff hunt. The Cardinals are in a better position than they were a few weeks ago thanks to two under-the-radar stars that are showing their true potential and a Molina grand slam that captivated the baseball world due to the appearance of RallyCat:
Molina’s grand slam that followed was an exclamation point on the Cardinals’ current run, providing the Cardinals with momentum for the stretch run.
Even with Molina’s clutch home run, the Cardinals would not have reached their current level without Paul DeJong and Tommy Pham, two young stars entrenched as significant contributors in the Cardinals lineup.
Ever since DeJong made his debut against the Rockies, he has displayed raw power that few Cardinal hitters possess. In his very first game, he hit a home run.:
While the Cardinals observed DeJong’s power in the minor leagues, his ascension to third in the Cardinals lineup still came as a surprise, considering he was not a highly-regarded prospect amongst baseball experts. Baseball America ranked DeJong as the 14th best Cardinals prospect. DeJong has, however, made an impact this season, and among those with as many plate appearances as DeJong, only Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger have a higher wRC+.
At this point in time, DeJong’s BABIP (batted balls in play) stands at .376. His speed is only considered average so he’s not beating out a lot of ground balls. However, what is most unusual with DeJong’s performance is how his HR/FB% rate is disproportionately higher than the league average at 24.3%. For a player who relies on his power to contribute offensively, this is a good sign that the baseball has been leaving the ballpark. The question for DeJong is whether this is simply a matter of luck.
Besides Paul DeJong, Tommy Pham is quietly flying under-the-radar as the Cardinals’ best all-around player. I recommend reading this article by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and this one by Bob Nightengale of USA Today Sports. Pham’s story is quite remarkable, and not many were expecting that this year at age 29, he would take a huge step in terms of becoming an all-around star.
Pham’s improvement can be best seen through his increased contact rate. Over the past 15 years, Pham has had the highest contact improvement percentage of everyone in the major leagues.
Pham’s huge 13% increase in contact is no accident. A possible explanation for that lies in his swinging statistics.
As the chart shows below, Pham has seen improvement this year from swinging at less pitches out of the strike zone. His statistics also show that when he does swing at pitches outside the zone, he is making more contact with them. In 2016, Pham had a O-Contact% of 39.6%. In 2017, that number has skyrocketed to 65% similar to his 2015 number of 56.7%. His overall Contact% jumped from 66% to approximately 80% in one year which is remarkable considering that his keratoconus certainly makes seeing the baseball difficult.
As a result of Pham making contact on a higher percentage of pitches, his strikeout rate has decreased at a dramatic rate from 2016.
A 15% decrease is substantial. Although Pham’s walk rate is still in the slightly above average category, he is becoming a more dependable player than he showed the Cardinals in 2016, suggesting his 2015 performance was not an aberration.
Thanks to their two young stars and Cardinals legend Yadier Molina, they are primed to compete down the stretch against the likes of the Cubs, Brewers, and Pirates, making the race in the National League Central the most interesting in baseball.
(All data has been retrieved from ESPN.com, Baseball-Reference.com, and FanGraphs.com unless otherwise stated.)
Edited by Brian Kang.
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