The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s been an unusual year for the St. Louis Cardinals, and not in a good way. The most successful team in NL history has made the playoffs 12 times since 2000, finishing below .500 just once during that time. They’ve enjoyed unprecedented managerial stability as well; only Tony La Russa and hand-picked successor Mike Matheny have helmed the franchise since 1996.
However, they currently sit 48-46 having jettisoned Matheny before the All-Star Break. It was their first midseason managerial change since firing Joe Torre in 1995. Yet in many ways, they’re still the same old Cardinals. They’re still a good run away from closing on a playoff spot (or a bad run away from falling out completely, depending on how you look at it). They’ve still got the self-proclaimed Best Fans in Baseball, which was backed up in The Athletic’s player survey.
Perhaps most importantly, they’re still brewing Cardinals Devil Magic: a supernatural ability to churn out rookies every year that greatly exceed expectations. Previous iterations include Paul DeJong (2017), Aledmys Diaz (2016), and Stephen Piscotty (2015).
You could argue the best example of 2018 Cardinals Devil Magic is Miles Mikolas, who moved from Japan to the top of the Cardinals rotation. He’s not a rookie though, so he doesn’t fit the same mold as DeJong and company. The best current versions of Cardinals Devil Magic are outfielder Harrison Bader and infielder Yairo Muñoz.
Despite playing 30 MLB games in 2017, Bader’s rookie status is still intact this season. The 24-year-old was selected in the third round of the 2015 draft and progressed quickly through the system. He showed an intriguing blend of power and speed in the minors, swatting 50 HR and collecting 45 SB in roughly two seasons worth of minor league ball.
This past winter, FanGraphs ranked him a 45 overall prospect on the 20-80 scale.
Essentially, they projected him to play decent defense and run the bases well. They didn’t think he’d hit too much (he did have 24.6 percent and 26.1 percent K-rates in AAA and MLB last year), but would run into an occasional homer. That’s the classic profile of a fourth outfielder.
Bader’s fourth outfielder role seemed to be his ceiling when the Cardinals entered the season with Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler, and Tommy Pham penciled as the starting outfield. The wRC+ for the trio in 2017 were 142, 121, and 148.
However, the heralded outfield has proved to be a weakness instead of a strength for the Cardinals. Those same players have limped to just 90, 56, and 104 wRC+ through the first half. This has opened the door for Bader to earn more playing time.
The rookie seized the opportunity. He’s slashing .272/.340/.413 with six home runs and nine stolen bases. His 106 wRC+ leads all St. Louis outfielders. His 28.4 percent K-rate is still a concern, and his .367 BABIP suggests second half regression, but he’s unquestionably played his way into the outfield rotation.
Bader’s average exit velocity of 88.4 miles per hour is kind of middling. Pham and Ozuna lead the Cardinals with 93.8 and 93.0. That’s still comfortably ahead of Fowler, though, who’s down to 87.4. One of the drags on his exit velo could be his ability to make contact with pitches outside the strike zone. His O-contact% is 60.9, which is a big improvement from last year’s 47.1. Still, he doesn’t need to hit the ball hard to make good things happen. His 30.0 ft/s sprint speed is sixth best in MLB!
Naturally, that elite speed carries over to outfield defense. He leads all MLB outfielders with 17 DRS (tied with JaCoby Jones), despite playing about 200 fewer innings than most starters. His 19.5 UZR/150 is second in MLB behind Giancarlo Stanton (huh?) among outfielders with at least 400 innings.
So far, Bader has certainly exceeded his 45 scouting grade by combining average offense with elite speed and defense. If Fowler continues to plummet toward irrelevance, Bader should pick up even more regular playing time.
Muñoz is a pretty recent addition to the Cardinals organization. The Dominican infielder came up through the Oakland A’s system, then was traded to St. Louis for Piscotty last December. He reached AAA for the first time last year, hitting .289/.316/.414 in 65 games. The 23-year-old made the Cardinals roster out of Spring Training, but played sparingly and was sent down to AAA on April 17. He improved his AAA batting line to .287/.330/.436 in 100 PA, then was called back up for good on May 17.
Upon his return to the majors, Muñoz took control of the starting shortstop job almost immediately. He’s acquitted himself well at the plate, slashing .285/.339/.417 with a 105 wRC+. His 7.3 percent BB-rate is the highest he’s had at any level since rookie ball.
Shortly before the December trade, Baseball Prospectus wrote him up as an Honorable Mention in their A’s Top Ten Prospects:
“Even by the A’s aforementioned generous views on necessary shortstop tools, Munoz is not likely to see much major league time at the six. He played a plurality of his games there in the upper minors, but stood a fair bit at third and center, and spent some time at second and corner outfield as well. The bat has progressed enough that a role 5 outcome somewhere isn’t impossible—he probably fits best at third—but the likely outcome here is a good super utility type who can get 300 PA a year filling gaps all over the field.”
If the A’s have “generous views on the necessary shortstop tools,” the Cardinals are downright philanthropic. Since 2015, they’ve used Aledmys Diaz (-13 DRS in 1499 innings), Jedd Gyorko (-3 DRS in 249 innings), Jhonny Peralta (-8 DRS in 1344 innings), and other sordid characters at the most important infield position.
In this sense, Muñoz fits right in. He’s sitting on -5 DRS at shortstop this year. Nevertheless, there’s reason to hope for improvement. He suffered through one particularly bad stretch of games from May 31-June 6, in which he made six errors. This includes a nasty three error game against Miami on June 6. Of course, errors are only one small part of defensive value, but they’re still bad and best avoided. Since his three error disaster, he’s only made two miscues, and he’s error-free since June 19.
Perhaps Muñoz and Bader will turn back into the utility players they’re supposed to be at some point. If the Cardinals get hot in July, they might even trade for a veteran to replace them in the everyday lineup. In the meantime, Cardinals Devil Magic has produced two more rookie starters exceeding expectations.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983