Offseason Outlook: Payroll

It seems like every time there’s a question about the St. Louis Cardinals making a big signing or a big trade that inevitably it gets asked whether the club can afford to make it. Call it having a small market mindset. While the Cardinals are a small market, they get incredible fan support. And because of that fan support, the club is generally able to spend like a top level team according to Team President Bill DeWitt III.

So here we are talking about the potential acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton and his potential 10 year, $295 million commitment coming to town and someone always chimes in asking, “Can the Cardinals afford it?” If you want the tl/dr (too long/didn’t read) summary, yes. In fact, a whole-hearted, yes.

Assuming that the Cardinals were to make no changes to their roster and fill all their needs from within, the Cardinals can expect to have an Opening Day 25 roster plus other money of just a tick over $125 million. And that’s without a single change from the roster today.

How does this compare to previous seasons? Last year at the beginning of Spring Training, using the same methodology, the Cardinals had a projected Opening Day payroll of $143 million. Which was the same as it was before the 2016 season as well. So the Cardinals could add $18 million in payroll for next season without spending more than they did the past two seasons.

With three major needs to fill the question then becomes just how far are the Cardinals willing to push their payroll?

One of the places I look is that 2015-16 MLB offseason. The Cardinals were prepared to sign both David Price and Jason Heyward. Those deals combined would have cost roughly $50 million in average annual value. Figure that they would not have signed Mike Leake in that scenario ($16 million AAV), and you have a club that seemed prepared to handle a payroll around $175 million.

Beyond that, the club recently signed a new television rights deal with FOX Sports Midwest that is expected to pay them $50 million this season and up to $86 million a season over the next 20 years. From 2017 to 2018, the payout is expected be a roughly $20 million increase.

Now, you can make the case that perhaps the club was comfortable going beyond their limits for a year or two until that new television deal kicked in and they’d recoup that investment on the back end. But I think it’s fair to say that a payroll of about $185 million is not out of the realm of possibility.

That would suggest that the Cardinals could add $60 million of commitments to the payroll. That leaves plenty of space for Giancarlo Stanton’s $29.5 million AAV contract, bullpen help, and a starting pitcher.

Edit: I was asked on Twitter by @C70 about how the luxury tax might play a factor in how much the club is willing to spend. For 2018, the luxury tax threshold will be $197 million.

Now, I assume there will be differing methodologies between how I compute payroll and how MLB does for luxury tax considerations, but it is far enough away from where I believe the Cardinals can maintain their payroll that I don’t think it will play a factor.

However, they certainly will have no interest in going above the luxury tax threshold at all. Or putting themselves in a situation where they may want to exceed it going forward.

The Cardinals do have Adam Wainwright‘s $19.5 million coming off the books at the end of the year and then Yadier Molina‘s $20 million off the books after 2020 as Stanton’s contract begins to increase. So there is some flexibility with big contracts coming off the books to absorb payroll growth due to Stanton’s deal and arbitration.

More on Matt Holliday

As I mentioned on Twitter this morning, since writing about Matt Holliday’s start, he has hit .500 with 2 HR in 5 games. Maybe he’s starting to hit his stride and get warm, which would be a welcome sight for the Cardinals offense and their fans.

But discussion of that this morning, led me to wonder how Holliday’s extra base hit rate (xBH/PA) was stacking up compared to previous seasons with the Cardinals. So here are Holliday’s extra base hit rate for his time with the Cardinals:

Now looking at that, you can easily see why there are many people who feel that Holliday is in full on decline. At age 36, he is definitely declining and I wrote about that back in November. But with the rounded skillset that Holliday has always had, a rapid decline always felt unlikely to me. He should be a guy whose game generally ages well.

But believe it or not, the real difficulty for Holliday this season has been getting base hits. Here are his singles rate (1B/PA) during his time as with the Cardinals:

As you can see, his singles rate stays pretty steady around 15%, give or take, in previous seasons with the Cardinals, except this year where it has fallen just below 12%. You would think that that’s going to be the easiest thing to correct, far easier than a lack of power.

Seeing those numbers actually gives me more hope that Holliday can and will be a quality contributor to the lineup this year. If you give him a 2% bump in his singles rate (turns into 4 additional singles), he would still have his lowest singles rate during his time with the Cardinals. But he’d be hitting .280/.351/.514 which is still a little lower than usual, but not quite as panic inducing as we’ve seen early this year.

Matt Holliday’s slow start

Yesterday afternoon Matt Holliday hit his 7th home run of the season. Holliday has been a target of criticism for a slower than typical start, but Dan Buffa posted yesterday the dates that Holliday hit his 7th home run of the season, which I’ve expanded here a little bit for all his years with the Cardinals and with some more info.

2010: Hit on June 18th in game 67, hit 28 total
2011: Hit on June 16th in game 70*, hit 22 total
2012: Hit on May 15th in game 36, hit 27 total
2013: Hit on May 28th in game 51, hit 22 total
2014: Hit on July 18th in game 97, hit 20 total
2016: Hit on May 25th in game 47…

*- in his first game back after missing 14 games while on the disabled list

So we see that Holliday’s overall home run production is pretty equal to what he’s done in previous seasons where he hit 20 or more home runs.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s see where Holliday has stood after game 47 in each of his previous seasons.

2010: .279/.344/.442, 5 HR, 18 RBI
2011: .356/.447/.468, 6 HR, 30 RBI
2012: .261/.341/.473, 10 HR, 32 RBI
2013: .263/.347/.425, 6 HR, 28 RBI
2014: .267/.366/.369, 2 HR, 25 RBI
2015: .320/.433/.444, 3 HR, 24 RBI
2016: .233/.307/.453, 7 HR, 24 RBI

As we can see, Holliday’s power and slugging still seem to be present, but his batting average and OBP are well down from his normal start. We can also see that, pretty much outside of 2011, he is a slow starter as he has a .295 batting average during his time with the Cardinals. Holliday has pretty consistently been a player who really gets going in the summer time. For his career, June and July are his two best months at the plate.

But let’s take a look at how he finished each of those seasons out over the team’s final 115 games.

2010: .325/.407/.568, 23 HR, 85 RBI
2011: .267/.358/.503, 16 HR, 45 RBI
2012: .311/.396/.508, 17 HR, 70 RBI
2013: .317/.408/.521, 16 HR, 66 RBI
2014: .274/.374/.467, 18 HR, 67 RBI
2015: .197/.311/.342, 1 HR, 11 RBI

As a brief aside, it’s worth pointing out that the second half of 2011 is really what earned Holliday his “unclutch” reputation. After all, how did the #4 hitter on the league’s fifth best offense only rack up 45 RBI over 115 games? Lack of opportunity. For whatever reason, he didn’t get many chances. His 19% RBI rate in 2011 is one of the best of his career, but he got 10% fewer opportunities than he typically has as a Cardinal.

I also included 2015 even though it isn’t very indicative as he played just 30 games, and most of those while coming back from a long stint on the disabled list and likely struggling with his timing. But what we see from all the data is a guy who has typically hit near .300 and adding 16-18 home runs from Game 48 to the end of a season during his time with the Cardinals.

At his current pace, he should have 431 remaining plate appearances this season. Let’s say he hits .300 with 15 home runs the rest of the way. That would put him hitting an overall .273 with 22 home runs.

I think we all would be happy with that.

Strikeouts are (mostly) overrated

Over at Cards Conclave today Doug made a post about who plays and strikeout rates and that got me started. This was supposed to be a simple few paragraphs about why strikeout rate is an overvalued metric of player ability in most cases, but after running across some numbers it became more. The discussion was focused on three players and who should play between Matt Adams, Brandon Moss, and Jeremy Hazelbaker. But since 140 characters makes it difficult to have a discussion…

As of this morning, Adams and Moss have a 30.7% K rate and Hazelbaker’s is at 29.9%. So over 600 plate appearances (generally considered a “full season”), Hazelbaker will strike out 5 fewer times. That’s hardly moving the needle. The three of them have the three highest strikeout rates on the team, so it isn’t like we’re debating between that 30.7% K rate and Aledmys Diaz‘s team leading 8.9% K rate.

I’ve been fairly vocal of my opinion of strikeouts over the years. They get a bad rap. Getting one out by swinging through a ball is far better for the team than getting two outs with poor contact.

So ultimately, making good contact with the ball is far more important. I think most everyone would agree, but I do understand why some use K rate as an inverse measure of contact rate. The logic is sound that if you’re striking out a lot, you may be having trouble squaring up the ball.

But no longer do we have to rely on a rudimentary logic jump to determine just how well players are hitting the ball.

We can look at ground ball rate. Matt Adams has a 27.0% ground ball (GB) rate, Moss has a 29.4% GB rate, and Hazelbaker has a 58.4% GB rate. That’s astoundingly high. That means almost 60% of the time Hazelbaker hits the ball, it’s on the ground. League average runs about 45%.

We can also look at line drive rate, which is a great measure to see how well a player is squaring up the ball at the plate. Matt Adams has a 29.7% line drive (LD) rate, Moss has a 21.6% LD rate, and Hazelbaker has a 15.2% LD rate. League average runs about 21%.

Just by that metric alone, when Matt Adams makes contact, he hits the ball hard twice as often as Jeremy Hazelbaker does. That is a meaningful difference.

But how much of a difference?

Line drives, of all the batted ball types (ground ball and fly ball being the other two) have the greatest odds of ending up as a hit. I wasn’t able to find 2015 or 2016 numbers in a quick search, but in 2014, the league had a .685 batting average on line drives and just a .239 batting average on ground balls (and .207 on fly balls for reference).

Further, when you do some math you find that a line drive produces 1.26 runs per out while a ground ball produces just 0.05 runs per out.

And when you take all of that in, it becomes pretty clear that Hazelbaker’s odds of continuing to out produce either Adams or Moss are pretty slim. Some of Hazelbaker’s early success can be attributed to pitchers learning him, but now they are finding out where his weaknesses are and that strikeout rate is rising.

Over the season’s first 10 games, Hazelbaker hit .419 with 3 home runs and a 24% K rate. In the 19 games since, he’s hit .216 with 2 home runs and a 35% K rate.

But that realization is not nearly as much fun as claiming Matheny is incapable of understanding this and is just playing favorites, right?

Home Run Quick Hits

When Brandon Moss hit the Cardinals’ Major League leading 31st home run of the season in the 5th inning, the question crossed my Twitter feed. How many three run home runs have the Cardinals hit this year? The answer? Nine.

Here are some quick hits about home runs so far this season.

  • With this 5th home run in the 20th game of the season, Brandon Moss is currently on pace for 41 home runs. It’s nice to dream, isn’t it?
  • The Cardinals are on pace to hit 251 home runs this season. That would be the most since Toronto hit 257 in 2010.
  • The Cardinals hit their 31st home run on April 26th. Last year it took them until May 17th. In 2014, until June 3rd.

Why players play through injury

If we ever needed an example of why most players play through injuries rather than risk a disabled list trip to make sure they’re at 100%, we need to look no further than Ruben Tejada.

Following the injury to Jhonny Peralta, the Cardinals signed Ruben Tejada after he was cut by the Mets. The Cardinals optioned Aledmys Diaz to the minors after signing Tejada and Tejada was widely viewed as the team’s starting shortstop. When Tejada got hurt near the end of spring training, it was a good thing for him that Jeremy Hazelbaker got the roster spot instead.

The problem came in the season opener when Tommy Pham got hurt. That meant Diaz, who was in Memphis to start the season, got the call. And since he arrived, he’s done nothing but mashed baseballs to the tune of a .406/.441/.813 slash line. Eight of his 13 hits have been for extra bases.

Now that Tejada is healthy and back on the roster, Diaz has established himself in just a couple weeks of work as the “hot hand.” Over the last week he has started six of the team’s seven games. As long as he keeps hitting, he will likely keep getting the bulk of the playing time.

But don’t forget that Tejada hit .273 this spring and hit .333 on his short rehab stint. So he’s hitting the bat well. He also has over 2000 at bats that shows he is a league average shortstop at the plate while admittedly the jury is still out on his defense. But it is for Diaz too. And Diaz doesn’t even have 100 at bats above Double-A.

How will Mike Matheny divide playing time? Only time will tell. Diaz is starting tonight, but who starts tomorrow? I’d bet on Tejada. And then it’s up to him to prove he deserves to play.

Pinch Hit Home Runs

We’ve all heard about the other night when the Cardinals launched three pinch hit home runs, courtesy of Jeremy Hazelbaker, Aledmys Diaz, and Greg Garcia. Brandon Moss added one of his own in tonight’s game to give the Cardinals four pinch hit home runs on the season. There have only been seven hit in all of baseball this year (Detroit has 2, Colorado has 1).

But here’s a couple quick stats on pinch hit home runs:

  • The most pinch hit home runs by a team in a season is 14, set in 2001 by both San Francisco and Arizona.
  • The Cardinals’ franchise record for pinch hit home runs in a season is 10, set in 1998. I was surprised to learn that only one was supplied by Mark McGwire on his way to 70.
  • Four pinch hit home runs is the most by the Cardinals in a season since 2009, when they hit 8. The team also hit four pinch hit home runs in 2010 and 2015.
  • The Cardinals all time leader in pinch hit home runs is George Crowe, who played for the team from 1959 to 1961, with 8.
  • Matt Adams is the team’s current leader in pinch hit home runs with 4. Garcia and Randal Grichuk have two a piece and are the only other Cardinals with more than one.

Mozeliak’s trade history with the Indians

Today the Cleveland Indians designated former Cardinals first round pick James Ramsey for assignment. Ramsey, 26, was dealt to the Indians in exchange for starting pitcher Justin Masterson back in July 2014 in a trade that caused a minor uproar. At the time, Ramsey was playing for Double-A Springfield and hitting .300/.389/.527 with 13 homers in 67 games for the Cardinals. While Masterson had a 5.51 ERA over 19 starts for the Indians.

I got thinking about how the Cardinals and Indians have been pretty regular trade partners since John Mozeliak became the team’s General Manager. Which is also interesting because the Indians’ Chris Antonetti was one of the finalists for the Cardinals’ GM job at the time.

But let’s take a look at the trades they’ve made.

2009: Chris Perez and Jess Todd for Mark DeRosa

There was some hope for this trade. However, Mark DeRosa hurt his wrist shortly after showing up in St. Louis and was never the player the Cardinals thought they were getting. Meanwhile Chris Perez was a two-time All Star closer for the Indians, but those teams finished 15 and 20 games out. Jess Todd never amounted to much in the Majors, posting a 7.62 ERA in 25 Major League games.

2010: Ryan Ludwick (to San Diego) for Jake Westbrook and Nick Greenwood

Jake Westbrook played a major role in the rotation for the Cardinals for a few seasons, but never really found the groove the franchise was hoping for. Nick Greenwood had his moments but was never a regular contributor to the big league club. Meanwhile Ryan Ludwick would leave the Cardinals and, aside from one season with the Reds, never posted an above average season again.

Cleveland did manage to pull Corey Kluber from San Diego in this deal, so I think they win this one.

2013: Marc Rzepczynski for Juan Herrera

Juan Herrera, a minor league shortstop who hangs his hat on defense, has never really been able to hit regularly in the minors. He hit .265 last season with no home runs at High-A Peoria. Marc Rzepczynski had one good season with the Indians before being flipped to the Padres last year for center fielder Abraham Almonte who played pretty well in the second half.

2014: James Ramsey for Justin Masterson

As the trade that prompted this discussion, it looks to have failed all around. Masterson struggled in St. Louis, but it was his help that may have turned Shelby Miller into the pitcher everyone thought he could be. Ramsey hit .243/.327/.382 for the Indians’ Triple-A team last season and failed to get an opportunity in the big leagues for an organization that needed outfield help last year.

2015: Rob Kaminsky for Brandon Moss

The jury is still out on this trade, but most of the early discussion of it centers mostly around Rob Kaminsky‘s prospect status. He was probably the Cardinals’ #3 pitching prospect at the time of the trade and was dominating in Palm Beach. He had a little trouble in two starts for the Indians’ High-A team.

Brandon Moss meanwhile was brought back on a pricey deal to be a first base option for the Cardinals this season. The organization struggled to get any production out of first base and what Moss provided late last year was a big improvement, even if it was just a 104 OPS+.

The Cardinals and the Padres have made their fair share of trades over the years as well, but they’ve had quite a bit of turnover in the front offices. Cleveland’s front office is still led by Antonetti while St. Louis’ is still led by Mozeliak.

2016 PECOTA Projections

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections are out. They have the Cardinals finishing 82-80 in third place in the NL Central and 10 games back of the division winning Cubs.

It’s not a glowing endorsement from PECOTA, though last year they projected the Pirates to go 81-81 and they won 97 games last year. So there’s that.

Part of the problem is that projection systems will find it difficult to project the Cardinals because of the injuries that plagued them last season. They won’t reflect full seasons from guys like Adam Wainwright or Matt Holliday or even new additions like Stephen Piscotty or Randal Grichuk.

So it is safe to say that if the Cardinals can manage to stay healthy, they’ll outperform that projection easily.

Quick Hits: Can Michael Wacha win 20 games?

Michael Wacha has a 9-3 record through his first 14 starts this season. He also has a 2.85 ERA and 136 ERA+ that stacks him up as the 19th best starting pitcher in baseball this season (among starting pitchers with at least 10 games started). So the question is whether Wacha can continue this pace to become the third different Cardinals pitcher to win 20 games in the last 13 years?

Let’s take a quick glance at the history. In the last 10 years, there have been 23 times a pitcher has posted a season of 20 or more wins. Here is how many wins each had through 14 games.

11 wins (5) – Clayton Kershaw, 2014, R.A. Dickey, 2012; Brandon Webb, 2008; Josh Beckett, 2007; Dontrelle Willis, 2005

10 wins (2) – Max Scherzer, 2013; Cliff Lee, 2008

9 wins (7) – Adam Wainwright, 2014; Gio Gonzalez, 2012; David Price, 2012; Jered Weaver, 2012; Wainwright, 2010; Mike Mussina, 2008; Chris Carpenter, 2005

8 wins (3) – Roy Halladay, 2010; Halladay, 2008; Bartolo Colon, 2005

7 wins (4) – Justin Verlander, 2011; Ian Kennedy, 2011; CC Sabathia, 2010; Roy Oswalt, 2005

6 wins (2) – Johnny Cueto, 2014; Kershaw, 2011

On an unrelated note, it’s pretty impressive that Kershaw only had six wins over his first 14 starts of 2011, but won 15 of the next 19 to finish with 21 wins.

In a matter of Cardinals coincidences, each time a Cardinals’ pitcher has won 20 games in the last 13 seasons, they each had 9 wins through 14 starts.

The final numbers show that in 16 of the 23 seasons (70% where a pitcher won 20 games, they’d won 9 games or less through their first 14 starts of the season. He would seem to be positioned well for a run at it.

For Wacha though, this isn’t the whole story. Wacha will likely be on an innings limit overall for this season, so I would expect them to control how much and how often he pitches more closely down the stretch. While the Cardinals have said that they’re considering backing off the innings limit for Wacha (which I agree with), it will still make it difficult to log enough innings and enough starts to win 20 games. With his performance so far this year, that might be the biggest mountain for him to climb towards 20 games.

The fewest innings any pitcher in the history of baseball has thrown and still won 20 games is the 188 innings thrown by Jered Weaver in 2012. Weaver made 30 starts and won 20 of them. If Wacha continues to throw innings at the pace he has, he too will be at 188 innings through 30 starts, but in 30 starts he is only on pace to win 19 games. Two more starts and Wacha’s pushing the 200 innings plateau.

We know that Mike Matheny likes to give guys the chance at individual accomplishments if it’s possible, so it’s something to pay attention to as the season wears down and we know better whether Wacha might actually win 20 games.

If he does, it would be a heckuva start to a career by doing it in his first full season at the age of 23.