I was reading a David Schoenfield piece at ESPN this morning about the “number” that could define each of the NL teams this year. It’s one of those clever bits of early-January content where you have to create stuff out of whole cloth, but if you do it right, can produce interesting discussion fodder. Schoenfield definitely succeeded.
It’s not the Cubs part that caught my eye, though. Sure, the entry (“5”) produces a factoid you may not have known: the Cubs were one of just four teams in 2022 that had “5” starting pitchers go over 100 innings at an ERA under 4.0, together with the Astros, Yankees, and Mets. Kinda wild that the Cubs were in that company, though if you were paying attention at all, you’re not surprised. The Cubs got a lot of compelling starting pitching performances last year from non-obvious candidates, and that extreme quality depth is part of what can give you a little optimism heading into 2023.
But, like I said, it wasn’t the Cubs section that stood out to me. It was the Cardinals section.
The number: 180 OPS+
Paul Goldschmidt’s OPS+ of 180 was the fourth highest of the live-ball era (since 1920) in a hitter’s age-34 season.
Those ahead of Goldschmidt: Mark McGwire in 1998 (216), Babe Ruth in 1929 (193) and Willie Mays in 1965 (185). It was a remarkable season and Goldschmidt was rewarded with the MVP Award, but given that rate of production and his age, the Cardinals should expect some regression in his 2023 numbers. But how much?
I looked at the top 10 age-34 OPS+ seasons since 1920 other than Goldschmidt and compared to their age-35 seasons (not including Lou Gehrig, who may have been suffering the initial stages of ALS at 35 and suffered a big decline). Using runs created above average (which factors in playing time), the group declined an averaged of 15.4 runs — and that’s with Ruth improving by 29 runs.
My eyes POPPED when reading that section. Why? Because the implication is that, based on historical precedent, you would expect Goldschmidt to regress to the tune of 15-ish runs’ worth of production in 2023 … which amounts to 1.5(!) wins in the standings. From one guy. Suffering natural regression. Just with his bat.
Of course I would have said that you don’t expect a 35-year-old Goldschmidt to go .317.404/.578 with a 7.1 WAR again this season, but I suppose I didn’t think about the standings-related implications of projected regression. No, a win or two of Cardinals regression might not, alone, be the difference between the Cubs being able to overtake the Cardinals in 2023 – the Cubs are going to have to do most of that work on their own – but it all matters. Especially if your margins for competing in your division are as thin as the Cubs’ look to be.
Goldschmidt is not alone in terms of guys for whom the systems are going to be projecting offensive regression. There’s Nolan Arenado, who is not as old at Goldschmidt (he’ll be 32 next year), but whose 151 wRC+ in 2022 blew away his previous career highs (despite having a barrel rate only a bit above his career mark, and an average exit velocity below his career mark). There’s Albert Pujols, whose absurd 151 wRC+ has retired. There’s Brendan Donovan’s 129 wRC+, which appears to have had a great deal of luck baked in.
From those guys’ bats, alone, you could probably project – on paper – 6+ losses worth of regression. Now you’re starting to talk about a team slipping into the 80s in wins, and a division that looks a heckuva lot more competitive.
… however. Yeah, there’s a huge however coming.
Just as you could easily project regression for the named guys above, you could project progression for guys like Nolan Gorman, Lars Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, and Juan Yepez. You would also project that Willson Contreras’s bat is going to blow away anything Yadi Molina was doing at the end. You could also speculate that the Cardinals will get some offensive lift from outfield prospect Alec Burleson. And, of course, there’s Jordan Walker, who might be the best offensive prospect in baseball. He, alone, could come up and completely transform the Cardinals’ lineup, regardless of what’s happening with the older dudes.
Still, I guess I could conclude on a hopeful note. I’d mostly been thinking about that second group of guys – the younger guys with offensive upside to spare – when considering how huge the Cardinals’ offense could be in 2023, since you are adding them to a couple huge bats in Goldschmidt and Arenado.
Of course, I’d feel a lot better if the Cubs could do a little more to progress their own offense …