Forget the Bucks – Would Harper or Goldschmidt Give the Cards a Bigger Bang?

photo: Paul Goldschmidt and Bryce Harper (Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports)

If one is to believe the warmest of the lukewarm hot stove rumors affecting the St. Louis Cardinals, the club may be considering the major move of either trading for Paul Goldschmidt or signing Bryce Harper as a free agent. There are many considerations that make a direct comparison very complex, starting and ending with the financials, with much in between.

But when all of that is said and done, let’s assume one of the two could be a Cardinal in 2019. Which one would you rather have in the lineup each day – just taking their offense into account?

Would you prefer the left-handed hitter, or the better hitter overall?

On one hand, swinging from the left side of the plate, Harper clearly fits one stated need of the team. On the other, Goldschmidt has a higher career OPS overall, .930 to .900.

Bryce Harper and Paul Goldschmidt (Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY Sports)

That led me to dig into this a bit deeper. Looking at their career splits, Harper has a higher career OPS against right-handed pitching, as one would expect. Specifically, this advantage is 45 points higher than Goldschmidt.

Against left-handed pitching, however, Goldschmidt’s advantage is 226 points. Of course, hitters see far more right-handed pitchers, watering down that benefit.

With St. Louis, would the two see more or less right-handed pitching than with their prior clubs, and how might that difference by moving to St. Louis impact their OPS?

To project their respective OPS’s as a Cardinal, I looked up the split of plate appearances for the entire Cardinals team in 2018. It was just under a 75-25 mix in favor of right-handed pitching.

I multiplied both hitters’ career splits by the Cardinals’ team LHP-RHP split percentages and summed them to come up with a quick and dirty projected St. Louis OPS for each.

(This assumes several things, including that career player splits would remain constant and that the 2018 Cardinals RHP-LHP-faced mix would remain unchanged in 2019. It also ignores park factors.)

The math suggests Goldschmidt’s career .930 OPS would remain the same hitting against St. Louis’ 2018 mix of opposing pitching. Harper would experience a theoretical six-point improvement – from .900 to .906.

Career OPS vs.  RHP vs. LHP
Goldschmidt 0.899 1.022
Harper 0.944 0.796
Difference -0.045 0.226
vs.  RHP vs. LHP
Plate appearances by StL team 2018 4615 1585
PA by percent 74.4% 25.6%
overall overall
Goldschmidt StL OPS 0.930 0.930 Goldschmidt career OPS
Harper StL OPS 0.906 0.900 Harper career OPS

So, the better hitter elsewhere would also be expected to be the better hitter with St. Louis. Hardly a controversial or earth-shaking conclusion.

Not so fast!

There is another important consideration.

The two players in our analysis do not man the same position. Harper would likely take over in right field with Goldschmidt exclusively a first baseman. If acquired, the latter would return Matt Carpenter to third.

So to assess the impact to the Cardinals as a team, we need to look at Harper vs. the team’s right-fielders of 2018 (Dexter Fowler, Jose Martinez and Tyler O’Neill primarily) and Goldschmidt against the displaced third basemen (Jedd Gyorko, Yairo Muñoz and others).

overall overall overall
Goldschmidt StL OPS 2019 0.930 0.906 Harper StL OPS 2019 0.766 MLB avg RF 2018
StL 3B OPS 2018 0.820 0.697 StL RF OPS 2018 0.697 StL RF OPS 2018
Improvement 0.110 0.209 Improvement 0.069 Improvement

(An assumption here is that no other starting positions are weakened by the loss of players needed to acquire Goldschmidt in trade.)

Not surprisingly, right field was a black hole for St. Louis in 2018, with the group’s aggregate OPS of .697 second-worst among the team’s eight non-pitching positions. Only St. Louis catchers, at .675, were lower. Among National League right-fielders last season, the Cardinals ranked 13th of 15 in OPS.

On the other hand, last season’s third base OPS of .820 was St. Louis’ second-best, following only first base at .859. Across the NL, Cardinals third sackers were fifth-best in OPS.

As a result, Harper’s incremental benefit to the Cards would be much greater – about 100 OPS points more – than Goldschmidt.

As the far right data in the above table indicates, because the 2018 bar is so low, it would not be difficult for the Cardinals to improve right field output in 2019 without spending hundreds of millions on Harper. Just getting MLB-average results from right field would give them almost 70 points of OPS.

This raises the question of whether the team would keep playing Fowler as long in 2019 if he kept hitting as poorly as in 2018. It is hard to imagine that even with no personnel changes, right field would come in under .700 for the Cardinals again in 2019.

Considering all that, if you view 2018 as an anomaly and think 2017 may offer a better choice for comparison purposes, I made that substitution.

overall overall
Goldschmidt StL OPS 2019 0.930 0.906 Harper StL OPS 2019
StL 3B OPS 2017 0.768 0.764 StL RF OPS 2017
Improvement 0.162 0.142 Improvement

In 2017, the OPS of Cardinals third basemen and right fielders were very close to each other – .768 to .764 – and closer to NL averages. As a result, Goldschmidt would get the improvement edge here, though relatively narrowly.

In closing

This takes us right back to where we began. In our self-created, but admittedly unrealistic vacuum, do you want the better hitter against right-handed pitching or the better hitter overall? Do you want the better hitter or to make the greatest potential improvement to the lineup?

The answer changes with the question.

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