Cardinals: Why Justin Williams deserves to be the starting right fielder
By Matt Graves
Harrison Bader is out and has left a hole behind in the outfield. Justin Williams should be the St. Louis Cardinals’ right fielder on Opening Day.
The only real position battle for the St. Louis Cardinals this spring has been the outfield. Sure, there is a race going on with the final spots in the rotation, but that isn’t as fun as watching five outfielders duke it out for playing time.
The five outfielders I’m including in the “competition group” are Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Austin Dean, Justin Williams, and John Nogowski (sorry Matt Sczcur).
At the start of spring, Lane Thomas was hot while nobody else was. However, that was just the first week. Since then, Tyler O’Neill has done plenty to lock down left field for Opening Day and Lane Thomas has quietly sputtered at the plate.
While Austin Dean has a solid .281/.294/.438 slash line, he still feels like the odd man out. John Nogowski keeps up his bid to force the Cardinals’ hand with his .423/.571/.654 slash line, but now with Harrison Bader out for Opening Day, another starting spot is open. In my projected lineup update, I picked Justin Williams to replace Bader in the lineup and hit 8th and I wanted to write this to explain why.
First, let me say that while Bader is on the IL, I think the Cardinals should have both John Nogowski and Lane Thomas on the 26-man roster, just on the bench. Now, back to Williams.
To start, let’s look at it from a global view. The Cardinals’ lineup as a whole is very right-handed heavy. They’ve got the two switch-hitters, Tommy Edman at leadoff and Dylan Carlson somewhere in there, but that is it from the left side of the plate.
Because of this, Williams already has a step up against any right-handed pitcher as a left-handed hitter. Looking at his spring slash line, Williams is sitting at .286/.355/.429 with a homer and four RBI.
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This has easily been his best spring training with the Cardinals and it’s been mostly because of a change in his swing. No longer does Williams have the long and loopy swing that held him back when he arrived in St. Louis. This year, he’s looked a lot smoother and a lot quicker in the box.
The on-field results aren’t the only good sign from Williams, he has also been hitting the snot out of the ball.
Looking at the Cardinals’ spring stats on Baseball Savant, Williams has the highest average exit velocity of any hitter on the team at 92.9 mph. Of the top 15 hardest-hit balls this spring, Williams owns four of them, including the hardest-hit ball, a single at 110.8 mph.
John Nogowski is getting better results than Williams, but his peripherals aren’t as good and he is much less experienced and skilled in the outfield. Williams is just fine at either corner outfield spot and has a solid arm.
Every player’s sample is still small, even this late into the spring. However, Williams and Nogowski have about the same amount of at-bats and Williams offers more. Exit velocity isn’t everything when hitting, but it’s a strong foundational building block to a great hitter. Great results without a solid foundation usually don’t last. Solid results with a very strong foundation are much more believable.
I am also not arguing that Williams needs to start every game, or even forever at the position. Despite his slide offensively, many fans want to see Lane Thomas get a chance, and that is fine. Nogowski has more than earned playing time in the MLB this spring.
There are plenty of innings to go around, but Williams deserves the first crack at sticking in right field during Bader’s absence, especially on Opening Day against the Reds and Luis Castillo. Williams, Nogowski, Thomas, and Dean all offer different things as starters, but Williams’ total offering at the plate and in the field looks the best at this moment.