There have been a lot of reasons to be concerned about the St. Louis Cardinals this season. Most of those have to do with the club's pitching, and once you look past those, it's easy to get excited again about what this team has to offer.
The defense has been poor this year, but it's not hard to see how that improves internally next year. Masyn Winn will be the full-time shortstop and has already shown the crazy plays he can make there. Nolan Arenado was not himself defensively during the first half and has gotten back to playing like a Hall of Famer at the position. Nolan Gorman has improved a lot as a second baseman and is not a liability there anymore. And it's hard to imagine Jordan Walker not being better in 2024 after continuing to get a better feel in right field.
Offensively, the club's main struggles come with runners in scoring position this year, which is odd, considering they were one of the best in baseball last year. Sure, Albert Pujols had a lot to do with that, but overall, this lineup is a lot deeper and has a higher upside than they did last season. They should be one of the best offenses in baseball next season.
The area of concern that has seemed to divide the Cardinals fanbase the most is over the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, Paul Goldschmidt.
It doesn't take a stat head to see that Goldschmidt has regressed significantly from his MVP numbers last season. Almost no one expected him to repeat that performance again this year, but it was hard to imagine him falling off as much as he has so far.
Goldschmidt is very aware that things have not gone well for him over the summer, and he is working toward getting right again to be a major contributor again in 2024. His quote comes from a recent piece by Derrick Goold in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"I feel good. You can’t lie that in the last couple of months, I haven’t played very well. I’m just trying to find a way to play better. I feel like there have been pitches that I’m capable of hitting that I haven’t. I can take better at-bats, not chase as much out of the zone, be aggressive in the zone. So, I mean it’s not like I’ve done horribly. I think I’m capable of playing a lot better, and I haven’t done that."- Paul Goldschmidt
What Goldschmidt said at the end of that quote is very important. It's not like he has been a terrible hitter this summer. Concerns began to arise at the end of 2022 when his bat went cold for the last month and a half of the season. But Goldschmidt came out blazing hot in 2023, so this is not just a straight continuation of that season-ending slump.
Early in the season, Goldschmidt had somehow been even better in the underlying metrics than he had been in 2022. If you compare his Baseball Savant from his MVP campaign last year to this season, there has been some regression in different areas, but not a huge drop off like some would expect.
Avg. Exit Velocity
Max Exit Velocity
You see his struggles in the numbers, you can see signs of regression in the underlying metrics, and it's also hard to miss when you watch him each game. Oli Marmol had this to say when asked about Goldschmidt's struggles at the plate.
"He goes in and out of feeling good with his swing. And there are some times where it’s a lengthy period, and sometimes it’s a week. His ability to survive during that time was still (by) kind of taking the singles the other way — he’s just good at that. Some people end up slumping for the entirety of that stint. He’s still figured out a way to do a little bit and help."- Oli Marmol
One area you can see noticeable struggles from Goldschmidt this year is his SLG against fastballs, which is a career-low of .421 on the season. Goldschmidt has historically crushed fastballs, something you can see on the graphs I posted on my Twitter below. Goldschmidt's SLG against fastballs has dropped from .595 in 2022 down to .421 in 2023, a staggering 174-point regression.
Opposing teams have noticed Goldschmidt's struggles against heaters this year, and he's now seeing fastballs 62.6% of the time during the month of August. It's clear that until Goldschmidt can feel comfortable hitting fastballs once again, pitchers will continue to attack him with their high-velocity stuff, and then catch him chasing when they do give him a breaking ball or offspeed pitch.
The golden question facing both Goldschmidt and the Cardinals is whether or not this regression is coming due to age and a real performance decline, something with his mechanics or his approach, or if it really does come down to him just losing his feel at the plate.
I think some will begin to fear that we may see a decline from Goldschmidt like that of Matt Carpenter at the end of his Cardinal career, but I just don't see the same parallels right now. Carpenter saw a steep decline across the board from his last excellent season with St. Louis (2018) to his first year of real struggles (2019). Goldschmidt's regression has been small across the board
How concerned should Cardinals fans be about Goldschmidt's future at the plate? Well, he still has the rest of 2023 to get things back on track, and that will surely play a factor in how we all feel about him going into 2024. If I had to rate my concern level on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being not concerned at all and 10 being freaking out, I'd rate myself as a 3 or a 4 at the moment. Goldschmidt is the kind of hitter who is going to go into the lab over the offseason and really dive deep into what has been going on since May with his swing, and I have confidence he'll turn this around in 2024.
Unlike past years though, I don't believe Goldschmidt being one of their top two hitters in 2024 and beyond is as important as it has been the last few seasons. Lars Nootbaar, Nolan Gorman, Jordan Walker, and Brendan Donovan are all on the rise offensively, and Willson Contreras' bat has been a huge addition to the lineup.
Should we expect Goldschmidt to get back to being an MVP-caliber player once again? Probably not. But I still have a hard time believing he is beyond repair. Getting that power back in his game will be key to bouncing back next season. The Cardinals' offense would benefit greatly from that.