BERNIE BITS

If the Cardinals want to make headway in the postseason by actually winning games, they must reevaluate their goals in curating a pitching philosophy.

The ground-ball obsession, backed by superlative infield defense, is a pragmatic and effective way to go through a 162-game regular season. But the postseason is a power game. Hitters smashing home runs and base hits. Pitchers coming in hot with nasty swing-and-miss stuff that amass scads of strikeouts.

The Cardinals do a swell job of keeping the ball in the yard by inducing so many grounders, but some situations require dominance. Timely strikeouts, flung in pressure situations, are extremely valuable in the postseason when every game is basically an emergency.

Strikeouts can fix most problems when a pitcher is under duress. Sure a pitcher can hope for a double-play grounder, but even if he gets it he’s turning the game over to his fielders. He must depend on them and also benefit from favorable batted-ball luck. Too many things can go wrong. For the pitcher and his team, strikeouts can’t go wrong. (With the exception of the rare wild pitch on strike three that allows the hitter to reach first base.)

As we saw with the Cardinals in the disastrous 9th inning of Game 1 vs. Philadelphia, even the finest of infield defense can come apart. When panic sets in, Gold Glove fielders can mishandle batted balls or make poor decisions with their throws.

The Cardinals have lost nine of their last 10 postseason games. Their sad trend of having a timid offense in the playoffs gets most of the attention and blame. And that’s OK, as long as the critics are paying attention to other areas of failure.

In their last four postseasons the Cards starting pitching has been decent, posting a 3.55 ERA that was more adequate than dominant. The problem was a low total of innings – an average barely 5 IP per start – that shifted too much of the responsibility to the bullpen. And that led to a lot of trouble – namely a 5.01 reliever ERA by St. Louis over the last four postseasons. A mediocre strikeout rate has been a common trait.

The Cardinals have been trending this way for a long time. Since the start of the 2019 regular season their starting pitchers rank 26th in the majors with a strikeout rate of 19.6 percent, and their relievers are 18th at 23.5%.

The issue reached a low point in 2022, with the Cardinals ranking 24th in starter strikeout rate (18.5%) and 27th in bullpen strikeout rate (21.2%.) This weakness has the Cardinals drifting near the back of the pack and behind the curve in how MLB games are being pitched in the postseason. You need to have a heavy strikeout punch, and the Cardinals lack strength.

It’s no surprise to know that the Houston Astros were No. 1 in overall strikeout rate in 2022. It’s no surprise to know that Astros pitchers are averaging 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings through their first five postseason games. In taking a 2-0 lead in the NLCS, the Astros struck out the Yankees 30 times in the two games. And if you look at the remaining four teams in the 2022 postseason, all have more strikeout capability than the Cardinals in both the starting pitching and bullpen. (The Yankees are surprisingly mediocre in the getting outs on whiffs, but the Bronx bombers are bombing, it doesn’t matter much.)

Small sample and all of that, but in the 2022 postseason the Cardinals average of 7.0 strikeouts per 9 innings was the worst by any of the 12 playoff teams.

And over the last four postseasons, the Cardinals have notched 9.4 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched, ranking seventh among the nine teams that have played at least 10 postseason games. On the other side of the power plant, St. Louis hitters have only nine homers in 15 postseason games since 2019 – the lowest total by any of the nine teams that have played in at least 10 playoff games since then.

It isn’t hard to figure out why the Cardinals have been getting slapped around in the postseason. Their hitters haven’t kept up – not even close – with the increasing importance and value of socking home runs. And their pitchers don’t bring much strikeout vitality into October and can’t wallop opponents with a high-volume number of strikeouts.

Postseason baseball is a power game.

And the Cardinals don’t have the power to contend with the big boys.

Moreover, the front office always overrates its own bullpen, and constantly brings a vulnerable set of relievers into the postseason where trouble will find them … and beat them. You can overcome many (if any) bullpen meltdowns at this time of the year, especially your relievers are low on strikeout voltage. The postseason futility won’t change until the front office changes its thinking on what their team needs to be at postseason time.

READING TIME, 7 MINUTES:

Let’s talk about this: The Cardinals have four players on the list of National League Gold Glove finalists for 2022. Third baseman Nolan Gorman is a lock to win his 10th Gold Glove and go 10-or-10 in his career. Tommy Edman is a finalist at two positions – second base and “utility.” But all I know is this: he finished second in the NL (all positions included) with 19 Outs Above Average. And he was 4th in the NL (all positions) with 18 Defensive Runs Saved. And it will be a disgrace if Edman isn’t chosen as the winner at second base or at the utility spot. Brendan Donovan would be a worthy winner at the utility position, having played between 56 and 264 innings at six different positions and finishing as a plus 10 in Defensive Runs Saved. That’s outstanding – and so valuable. Paul Goldschmidt is a finalist at first base and he won it last year to give him four Gold Gloves for his career. But Arizona’s Christian Walker has a huge lead over the other first basemen in Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average and absolutely deserves to win the gold.

Big stretch for Mizzou football: Vandy at home, South Carolina on the road, and Kentucky at home. The Tigers have the No. 27 defense in the nation according to the metrics at Football Outsiders and should be able to successfully patrol the next three opponents. Missouri hired head coach Eli Drinkwitz for his expertise on offense, and we’re still waiting to see it. In Year 3 of the Coach Drink regime, Missouri doesn’t have an identity or a quarterback on his side of the ball. That’s a huge problem. Time to get rolling.

This is not a problem for Bret Bielema. He’s having terrific success in his second season at Illinois, with his team going 6-1 as part of winning nine of its last 12 games going back to late last season. Bielema knows who he is and what he wants, recruits accordingly, and that makes it easier to implement a strong identity. The Illini will trample you with Chase Brown and the rushing attack hound you like a pack of hungry, angry dogs on defense. And unlike Drinkwitz at Mizzou, Bielema had no sweat in finding the quarterback to run the offense (Tommy DeVito) and do his part to deliver in an efficient passing game. DeVito can run the ball, too. Bielema has Illinois in position to win the Big Ten West, and he’s certainly in the running for conference coach of the year.

Tough times for the former Cardinal, Matt Carpenter, who is 0 for 7 with seven strikeouts for the Yankees this postseason. He returned from the IL (broken foot) just in time for the postseason but hasn’t found his swing that produced 15 homers in 128 at-bats for the Yankees during the regular season … As many of you know, former Cardinal Harrison Bader has four homers in seven postseason games for the Yankees. Manager Aaron Boone thinks so highly of Bader’s offense that he put the center fielder in the leadoff spot for Game 2 at Houston. Nonetheless, the Yankees lost 3-2 to fall beyond the Astros 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. Here’s Boone on Bader: “We talk about it all the time in the playoffs, the next play, the next pitch is the most important. And he’s done a good job of compartmentalizing and not letting something that just happened, good, bad, or indifferent affect the next thing. He’s had a really good focus on that point.”

NFL scoring drought update: NFL teams are averaging 21.7 points per game, lowest since 2009. And the weather isn’t even cold yet, a factor that historically reduces scoring. According to Football Outsiders, we’re seeing at least five-year lows in yards per play and yards per game. Tom Brady said he’s been watching “a lot of bad football” this season.

My preferred NFL investments this week: Packers minus 4.5 on road at Washington  … Giants +3 at Jacksonville … Cowboys minus 6.5 at home vs. the Lions … Patriots minus 7.5 at home vs. Bears … Broncos minus 1 at home vs. Jets … Ravens minus 6.5 at home vs. Browns … Falcons-Bengals, the over (45.5).

NICK SABAN LOSES A GAME!!! And based on calls to Paul Finebaum, it seems that the Alabama coach and G.O.A.T at coaching tackle is losing his headsets, slipping in his leadership, and putting a Bama team on the field that is barely recognizable. For sure, last week’s loss at Tennessee was embarrassing, and the Crimson Tide were sloppy and poorly coached on defense. Yet they still managed to lose a classic by only three points (52-49) on the road in a crazy, hostile environment after being down 28-10. Alabama made too many mistakes to hold a late lead. I laugh at the dirt-throwing at Saban. In 2019 LSU was the greatest offense ever or something like that and won the SEC East and the national title. In 2021 Georgia had the best defense ever or something like that but somehow managed to lose to the poor dying dynasty in Tuscaloosa when the two teams met in the SEC title bout. Georgia got the last triumph by beating Bama in the national championship game, and Saban was a year older (71) and couldn’t win the big one and the decline was underway. Welcome to the transition; when would Saban retire and who will nudge him to his lake house to spend the rest of his days fishing with his wife Miss Terry. And yet … over the last three-plus seasons Alabama’s regular-season record is 37-4. His record in the SEC is 26-4. Two of the four losses came in games when the starting quarterback was returning from injury and with Alabama struggling on defense. And the four losses? One was by five points and the three others by a field goal at the end. But the Tide is a near-constant presence in the four-team CFB playoff, still winning championships and Heisman trophies and securing top-three recruiting classes despite the frequent turnover of coordinators that leave Saban’s staff to become head coaches elsewhere, But yeah, OK, right, it’s all going to hell. If you say so, Bubba.

Trending: MLB managers are staying with their starting pitchers for more innings during the 2022 postseason. Through Thursday night, starting pitchers had worked 6+ innings 22 times in 58 postseason starts. That’s 37.9 percent. In 74 starts during the 2021 postseason starting pitchers pitched 6+ innings only 13 times (17.6%.) And in the LCS, starters went 6+ innings only three times in 24 starts. In the first four LCS games this postseason the eight starters had gone 6+ innings four times. So we’ve already seen more 6-inning starts in the LCS than we did during the entire LCS round last season. Said Padres manager Bob Melvin: “In general, we’ve let our starters go a little bit, and I think at this time of year when a lot of bullpens are maybe run down a little bit, I think maybe ours has been saved a little bit by the use of the starters.”

My preferred CFB investments this week: Cincinnati minus 3.5 at SMU … Toledo vs. Buffalo over 57 … Ole Miss vs. LSU under 65 and taking LSU in the pick ’em,  … Oklahoma State minus 6.5 at home vs. Texas … Clemson minus 14 at home vs. Syracuse … Mizzou over Vandy, laying the 14… Alabama minus 21 at home vs. Mississippi State … Texas A&M vs. South Carolina under 44.5 … UCLA vs. Oregon over 70.5 … Kansas State +3.5 at TCU.

Wishing the best for Bradley Beal: It’s hard to believe, but Beal is now in his 11th NBA season with the Washington Wizards. He arrived in D.C. as the No. 3 overall draft pick at age 19, and now he’s 29 and set for life after signing a five-year contract extension worth a stunning $251 million. Beal could have opted out and gone elsewhere, but for less money. But the Wizards were the only team that could offer him a contract as large as he signed for. But his decision wasn’t all about the money. Beal has invested more than a decade of his life in the franchise and the Washington community, and he’s a generous, active presence in D.C. life. Washington fans adore him. And he was determined to stay and win for them and his team. The Wizards should be better this season but aren’t ready to compete for a Eastern Conference title – let alone an NBA championship. But Beal will not give up.

“I just want to win,” Beal told The Athletic. It’s simple and vague. But win … I’ve been an All-Star, I’ve been an All-NBA guy, I’ve (averaged) 30-plus points in back-to-back years. What individual goals am I really after, right? Those would be great. Those come with winning. It doesn’t make sense to score 30 a game and get snubbed to be an All-Star because you’re not winning. So if we win games, those little accolades take care of themselves. But I just want to win. I want to be able to get my team to the playoffs, win a series, get to the next series, win a series, get to the conference finals, win that series, get to the finals and hopefully win that.”

The Wizards play the Chicago Bulls in D.C. tonight. It’s Beal’s 11th home-opener as a Wizard.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend.

–Bernie

 

 

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.