The minor leaguer may not be the DH answer some fans want, but he’s the one the Cardinals need
Just before the lockout, the St. Louis Cardinals moved to address their biggest need of the off-season. Specifically, they signed Steven Matz to fill a hole in the starting rotation. Before the ink even dried, the questions began about addressing other needs. Would they sign another starting pitcher? Would they dip into the shortstop market? How will they flesh out the bullpen? What of the designated hitter, surely coming to National League ballparks near you? Will they sign anyone to fill that role? It’s that last question I want to talk about today.
Just before the lockout, President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak sparked DH speculation by noting that they were “considering a different type of hitter” for the role. A loud contingent of fans are clamoring for Kyle Schwarber. Jeff Jones pointed out the availability of Colin Moran, designated for assignment by the Pirates, as well as Kyle Seager. Everyone seems to have their favorite choice to gobble up the fresh allotment of 650 plate appearances the Cardinals will have available. I’m here to tell you that they already have their solution, and his name is Juan Yepez.
Our own J.P. Hill highlighted Yepez last month and came to the same conclusion that I did. The Cardinals don’t need to monkey around spending money on a DH because they have a prime candidate sitting on the roster. First, let’s recap exactly what Yepez accomplished in the past season and who he is as a player.
Yepez is a corner bat who plays first and third base, plus left and right field. He can hold his own at all four positions (he’s not a total disaster), but his glove is unremarkable at all of them. The 25 pounds he added entering 2021 limited him as well. It’s irrelevant anyway because the Cardinals have Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Tyler O’Neill, and Dylan Carlson manning each of those spots. As thrilling as he is, Yepez isn’t supplanting those players other than an occasional day off or injury for the quartet.
Yepez demolished minor league pitching in 2021. His 154 wRC+ spread across AA and AAA was the 8th highest in the high minors among qualifiers. Two of the eight ahead of him were 27 and 28 year old non-prospects, and another (Jonathan Aranda) did all of his damage in AA. His .300 isolated slugging percentage was 9th best, and five of those ahead of him are in the 25-and-up non-prospect category. Any way you slice it, he mashed. And he did so without a platoon split- he crushed the dreams of both righties and lefties equally.
It’s not just the numbers, though. Geoff Pontes at Baseball America recently highlighted Yepez in an article about top hitting prospects with interesting characteristics. Pontes noted that his max exit velocity exceeded 110 mph, and his 90th percentile exit velocity was around 104. He earned those massive numbers by hitting the ball very hard, frequently. Most importantly, the article cites that his launch angles have low variance. As we’ve learned from Alex Chamberlain’s amazing research, this is a good stand-in for bat control and has a correlation to higher batting averages on balls in play (BABIP). Chamberlain also points out:
In theory, a tight launch angle and a high average exit velocity would indicate repeatably high-quality contact. (Indeed, Hammit’s finding suggests as much.)
“Hammit” is Brock Hammit, a former baseball researcher now employed by the Milwaukee Brewers. Put it all together- the monstrous production in AA and AAA, the high exit velocity, the tight launch angles- and you have one of the most exciting hitters in minor league baseball, and he just happens to be ready to face MLB pitching. Yepez put the cherry on the sundae by recently finishing as the Co-Hitter of the Year in the Arizona Fall League. The Baseball America article summarizes that Yepez makes the most of his tools by “manipulating the barrel for optimal contact and driving the ball with authority” and lauds him as an average contact hitter with above-average power and an above-average plate approach. He’s ready for prime time.
The Front Office Litmus Test
The Cardinals have taken a beating among fans and media in recent years because they’ve seen one player after another depart the organization with little time seen at the MLB level, only to flourish in their new destination. You don’t need me to rehash the list, but I’ll do it anyway. Randy Arozarena has established himself as one of the more exciting young players in baseball over the last two years. Luke Voit hiccupped in 2021 but was a highly productive hitter as a Yankee from 2018 through 2020. Adolis Garcia’s second half sapped the excitement over his season, but he still wound up as a 2.9 fWAR player. Like Garcia, his success is overstated, but Patrick Wisdom also thrilled fans with an out-of-nowhere 115 wRC+ and 2.3 fWAR in just 375 plate appearances this summer.
In all cases, if the Cardinals had found more playing time for these players in St. Louis, they might have avoided the ignominy of seeing these players blossom elsewhere, or at least recalibrated their value in trade. Some of the reasons for their lack of MLB playing time make sense, others not so much. Whatever the case, the franchise is likely to be gifted an additional 650 plate appearances at the MLB level with the DH (soon to be) in the NL moving forward. Those are 650 chances to avoid part of the nasty equation that led to them bleeding talent.
Yepez gives them a perfect litmus test to prove that they’ve learned from those situations. A bigger signing like Schwarber blocks Yepez even further. Even a minor move like Moran gobbles into the opportunity for Yepez (and for that matter, Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan). Folks can clamor for external options but the best solution is staring them right in the face. Write Juan Yepez down in the DH slot and let it eat.