TCN St. Louis Cardinals 2019 Top Story #3: The Underperforming Core

photo: Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt (Jeff Curry/Imagn)

2019 offered great promise for the St. Louis Cardinals’ offense. There were many reasons for optimism, especially when looking at the team’s core hitters – Matt Carpenter and newly acquired slugger Paul Goldschmidt.

However, as the season evolved, both players fell considerably short of expectations – not against someone’s unrealistic projections – but against their own career levels. In fact, other than Kolten Wong, all of the team’s starters performed below average, but the gap between expectations and reality were highest for Carpenter and Goldschmidt.

Not surprisingly, the Cardinals offense performed accordingly.

As a unit, St. Louis’ 2019 offense was inconsistent and disappointing overall, with a 10th place finish in the National League in runs scored, a drop from fifth the year before. In the slash stats, the Cardinals were a bottom-third unit, also down in all four measures compared to 2018 – just 11th in average (.245), 10th in OBP (.322) and 12th in slugging (.415) and OPS (.737).

Meanwhile, stellar pitching and defense carried St. Louis to its 91-win division title.

Goldschmidt’s background

Last December, the Cardinals acquired Goldschmidt from Arizona and the 31-year old first baseman signed a five-year, $130 million contract extension before ever playing a home game at Busch Stadium.

Paul Goldschmidt

Goldschmidt was working on a string of six consecutive All-Star Game selections and had earned four Silver Slugger Awards and three Gold Gloves. He twice finished second and once in third in the National League Most Valuable Player voting.

Goldschmidt went on to lead the 2019 Cardinals in home runs (34) and RBI (97), but his overall offensive production fell below his prior career levels. More on that below.

Carpenter’s background

2018 was an odd season for Carpenter, as he was far from steady and consistent. When he was hot, he was really hot, and when he was cold, he struggled mightily. Still, when all was said and done, Carpenter returned to the top of the team’s leaderboard with a 5.0 fWAR season that was ninth-best in the National League. Ninth was also where he placed in the NL MVP voting.

Matt Carpenter

With the arrival of Goldschmidt, Carpenter would return to every-day play at his old home at third base. As part of a wave of long-term contract extensions that were being offered and signed in early 2019, Carpenter, then 33 years of age, agreed to a two-year extension plus a third-year vesting option, guaranteeing him $39 million.

The April 10 deal was struck a year earlier than necessary, and because of the third baseman’s struggles that followed in 2019, it looked bad almost from the very start. Carpenter put together his worst season as a major leaguer, was injured and reportedly fatigued, and eventually lost his starting job to rookie Tommy Edman.

How did the two measure up statistically?

In the table to evaluate the pair below, I used OPS, on-base plus slugging, and OPS+. The latter is based on a normalized scale in which 100 is league-average. My interpretation of the data follows.

Goldschmidt Carpenter
Age 31 33
2019 OPS 0.821 0.726
2019 OPS+ 113 91
2019 OPS+ vs. career -28 -36
vs. 2018 -29 -53
vs. best prior -55 -53
vs. worst prior -4 -21
Career OPS 0.916 0.837
OPS+ 141 127
2018 OPS 0.922 0.897
OPS+ 142 144
Best OPS 1.005 0.897
OPS+ 168 144
Year 2015 2018
Worst OPS 0.808 0.750
prior OPS+ 117 112
Year 2011 2014
Season Rookie

Goldschmidt’s OPS+

On one hand, a 113 OPS+ is not bad. In fact, it was second-highest on the team after rookie Tommy Edman. However, that is not the point. Let’s review how 113 OPS+ compares to Goldschmidt’s own track record.

His 2019 was 28 points below his career average of 142 and 29 points below his 2018 OPS+. It was 55 points under his best year ever, which was in 2015.

In perhaps the most telling measure, Goldschmidt’s 113 OPS+ last season was a new career low for him, four points below his prior career worst year of 117, set in his rookie year of 2011.

So was 2019 a bad year for Goldschmidt? Against his own career standards, yes, it certainly was.

Perhaps in his second year with his new team, he can rebound. However, we should also remember that 2020 will be his age 32 season, the first of his five-year contract extension received last spring.

Carpenter’s OPS+

Perhaps what makes Carpenter’s 2019 so perplexing is that it followed his best year overall. In the year-to-year comparison, his OPS+ went from 44 percent above league average to nine percent below, a huge slide of 53 points of OPS+.

Not surprisingly, 2019 was Carpenter’s worst career year, with his 91 OPS+ eclipsing his prior low OPS+ point of 112 in 2014.

The Cardinals have expressed a renewed confidence in Carpenter, prescribing an off-season program to build his endurance for 2020 and reaffirming the 34-year old as the team’s regular third baseman.

Had these two delivered even at their career norms, the 2019 season could have been even better for the Cardinals as a team. Looking ahead, a big question is how the two corner infielders will perform in 2020.

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