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J.B. Forbes Best of 2018

Cards Matt Carpenter prepares to get doused with water after hitting a first inning home run on Sunday, July 15, 2018, during the game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

One of the more impressive components about the 2019 Cardinals cannot be quantified. There is no mention of it on FanGraphs. You will not find it among the ingredients used to cook up Wins Above Replacement. Some will ignore it for these reasons.

But in an era in which Bill James, who is considered to be the godfather of baseball sabermetrics, wonders if we have become too dismissive of the baseball card stats his work went a long way to discredit, I wonder if we have become too dismissive of strengths not measured by Statcast.

Increasingly, we are told that a team’s momentum is a figment of the imagination. We are told that a player’s “clubhouse presence” is overrated. We are told to resist anything measured by the outdated “eye test.” And often, this is sound advice. Nothing pushes back against poorly formed opinions or inaccurate biases better than indisputable data.

But until baseball is decided by computer simulations and played by robots, stripping the human element from the equation should go down as an error. I bring it up because it’s that time of the year when we explore reasons a baseball team will or won’t succeed. One Cardinals weapon might be overlooked.

Cardinals optimists cite the Paul Goldschmidt Effect, the addition of Andrew Miller’s talents to a needy lefthanded side of the bullpen, a healthier (they hope) Marcell Ozuna, and a full season of manager Mike Shildt, who guided the club to a 41-28 record after last season’s promotion.

Pessimists point toward the uncertainty about Ozuna’s offseason recovery and rehabilitation from shoulder surgery, the human question mark that is Dexter Fowler, the lack of a proven closer and the presence of just one starter who pitched more than 151 major league innings in 2018.

What few on either side of the debate have acknowledged is an approach adopted by some of the team’s best talents, and we are not talking about swing tips from new hitting coach Jeff Albert. Key Cardinals are going out of their way to put the team first. In Shildt they trust. Easy to say. Much harder to do. But these guys are following through.

Matt Carpenter was the Cardinals’ closest thing to an MVP candidate last season, and he jumped at the chance to move back to third base when he found out six-time All-Star first baseman Goldschmidt would take his place.

“We got Paul Goldschmidt,” Carpenter said. “I’ll play wherever to accommodate that.”

Goldschmidt, by the way, has made it clear to the Cardinals that he is comfortable hitting anywhere in the lineup. This isn’t lip service. He has more than 150 career at-bats between No. 2 and No. 5. (Don’t expect him to hit fifth.)

Then there is Miller, who has spent his career refreshing the way baseball and its fans think about relief pitching. The role-buster will take any inning(s), any time, with enthusiasm.

“Hopefully we give him (Shildt) a ton of flexibility,” Miller said. “In an ideal world, there are seven guys out there that can pitch to lefties and to righties, and can pitch early in the game, or late in the game.”

Jose Martinez has been one of the Cardinals’ top three hitters since his debut, and he will once again be looking for playing time off the bench. He could be grumbling. Instead he’s celebrating the fact he was not traded while openly cheering for Fowler to bounce back.

When proven, performing veterans set a tone like this, how can it not affect others in a positive manner? When the best players deflate their egos, who gets away with having one?

“That is exactly what I’m talking about when I said why I’m so excited for the season,” Carpenter said. “I mean, talent can only take you so far. I’ve played on some talented teams, and I’ve unfortunately played on talented teams that haven’t achieved what they could have achieved — or what they set out to achieve. But the separator from good teams and great teams is having guys like that. Having guys that put the team’s priorities before their own. And we’ve got a lot of guys like that. I mean, a lot.”

Jordan Hicks wants to be the closer, of course, but he sees Miller’s example. Tyler O’Neill and Yairo Munoz want to play every day, but they see Martinez’s approach. And so on, down to the starting pitchers who won’t crack the rotation out of spring but will be one hiccup away from leaving Class AAA Memphis for St. Louis.

“You look at our bench, potentially, it is going to be guys like Jedd Gyorko, who is an everyday major league player for almost every team, Jose Martinez, who could hit in any lineup in baseball,” Carpenter said. “There is a laundry list of guys like that, and you come in here, and they all say the same thing. They want to do what’s best for this club. And not only do they say it, but they actually believe it. And you can feel it, and everybody in that clubhouse knows it. And then you combine that with Andrew Miller and Paul Goldschmidt, and guys we’re just meeting for the first time, and we know that’s the kind of mentality they have.”

How many wins will it add to the season? Who knows? But how can this vibe not be factored into any prediction of where this team might go?

“If you’re not excited about where this team is headed, then you need to kind of change the way you’re thinking,” Carpenter said.

The Cardinals are thinking the right way. This has not always been the case. That counts for something.


Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

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