The Yankees of the National League

Every year, it seems, the New York Yankees put together a monster offense. They get on base (#1 in MLB in OBP since 2008) and they hit for power (#1 in both SLG and HRs), so it’s no big surprise that they’ve scored a league best 4,234 runs over the last five years. Their 1,092 home runs during that span put them more than 100 dingers ahead of the Rangers, who have the second highest total among MLB clubs in the last five seasons. The Yankees more than have lived up to their Bronx Bombers nickname.

However, an interesting thing happens when you look at each team’s offensive performance during those last five years and exclude the at-bats that have been given to pitchers, leveling the playing field between AL and NL clubs to a large degree. When you just look at the results each team has gotten from their hitters, the St. Louis Cardinals emerge as the Yankees of the National League.

The totals that include their pitchers at-bats – a .270/.338/.419 slash line, a .331 wOBA, and 805 home runs — don’t stack up against New York’s numbers, but eliminating those at-bats from players who are not paid to hit makes a big difference. Just focusing on the results from their position players, the Cardinals team average jumps to .278 (#1 in MLB), their OBP jumps to .348 (#1 in MLB, edging out New York’s .347), and their slugging percentage jumps to .433 (#7 in MLB).

That slugging percentage doesn’t keep pace with the Yankees .449 mark, but then again, the Cardinals don’t play half their games in a park that was designed with home run derbies in mind. In fact, Busch Stadium annually grades out as one of the stingiest parks in all of baseball for home runs, depressing homers by about nine percent since it opened. Yankee Stadium and it’s short RF porch inflates home runs by 11 percent, for comparison.

Once you adjust for these park factors, the Cardinals hitters have actually performed almost identically to the Yankees hitters during this last five year stretch. The Yankees hitter’s 113 wRC+ — which adjusts overall offensive numbers relative to a team’s home park and the average offensive levels of the leagues each team plays in — is still #1 in baseball, but just barely ahead of St. Louis’ 112, and both teams stand well ahead of the rest of the pack during that stretch.

If we repet this measurement after the 2013 season, it’s quite possible that St. Louis will stand as the best overall offense of the last five years, because while the Yankees line-up looks like it’s going to take a step back due to aging and injuries, the Cardinals offense just continues to get better and better. In fact, there’s a case to be made that St. Louis’ 2013 line-up is one of their deepest and most impressive in recent memory.

The anchors of the team that posted a 107 wRC+– excluding pitchers, that number jumps to 114, tied with NYY for #1 in baseball — last year return, and while Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran are getting older, there’s still some significant areas where the Cardinals offense could be even better than they were a year ago. For starters, Allan Craig played in just 119 games last year, so a full season from Craig could add an additional 100 or so plate appearances from one of the league’s best hitters, many of which were given to an ineffective Matt Adams last year.

However, the biggest potential upgrade could come at second base. Last year, St. Louis’ second baseman hit just .240/.309/.363, with only San Francisco and Colorado getting a lower OPS from the keystone position among NL clubs. Most of the Cardinals at-bats at second base last year went to Skip Schumker, Daniel Descalso, and Tyler Greene, and Greene and Schumaker won’t be back with the Cardinals for 2013. Descalso is still penciled in for some regular work at second base, but in an ideal situation, he’ll spend most of his time as a defensive replacement and part-time player in 2013, because the Cardinals are working with Matt Carpenter — primarily a third baseman in his career to date — on making the shift to second base in order to get his bat in the line-up.

Carpenter has played a grand total of 18 innings at second base in his career, but the Cardinals had some success converting Schumaker to the position a few years ago, and they believe that Carpenter has the physical skills to become adequate at the position as well. If he makes the transition, having a second baseman with a career 120 wRC+ would be a huge boon to St. Louis’ already potent offense. Carpenter might not field the position well enough to be an everyday player at the start of the season, but if he hits and doesn’t embarrass himself, it will be hard to keep him out of the line-up, and St. Louis’ other hitters are so good that second base is the only job he has a chance to win.

Having too many good hitters is a nice problem to have, and allows you to do things like experiment with a third baseman at second base, but even with moving Carpenter around, the Cardinals still don’t have room for all of their offensive talents. Oscar Taveras — just rated by Keith Law as the #2 prospect in baseball — is a prodigious hitting prospect that draws comparisons to the likes of Vladimir Guerrero, and yet, there is nowhere for him to play barring an injury. With Beltran and Holliday in the corners and Jon Jay locking down center field, the Cardinals don’t have room for a hitter who destroyed Double-A as a 20-year-old last year, and projects as an above average Major League hitter right now according to Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections.

The Cardinals have some pitching questions, and Rafael Furcal’s continuing elbow problems highlight their lack of depth at shortstop, but St. Louis has the deepest group of offensive talent in the Major Leagues right now, and the best hitting prospect in baseball sitting in their farm system waiting for an opportunity. They might not have a cool nickname based on their offensive prowess, but 2013 may very well signal the year where the sport begins to recognize that St. Louis is where the best offense in baseball resides.




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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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