As the Cardinals begin a six-game stretch in the I-95 corridor, with stops in Philadelphia and Washington, I was thinking about something. No deep thoughts. Just a premise.
As the 2021 season slowly forms and takes shape, are the Cardinals establishing an identity? The Cards have 150 games to go in the regular season. We’ll learn a lot more in the coming days, weeks and months.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, I think it’s fair and accurate to say the Cardinals are still searching. With apologies to the makers of the Joshua Tree album, the Cardinals still haven’t found what they’re looking for.
1–The Cards need a starting rotation that can provide a stable, stronger foundation. That means more innings. More quality. More strikes. More ground balls. A rotation that will be less of a burden on the bullpen.
They must make this transformation as soon as possible. The Cardinals rank 27th in the majors with a 5.91 ERA, have only one quality start in 12 games, and have lasted fewer than six innings 11 times. Their innings count (53.1) is 27th. The slugging percentage against the starters (.460) is 21st.
As I wrote earlier this week, the Cards starter can help themselves by improving on their MLB-worst first-strike percentage. They can quit fooling around and nibbling and throw a higher percentage of strikes; right now they rank 29th in that category.
Cardinal starters aren’t a strikeout force; their 18.6% K rate is 29th. That’s why it’s important to raise their weak ground-ball rate (23rd) to cut down opponent home runs and doubles. Get Nolan Arenado busy at third base. He can make plays on grounders. The same applies to every infielder except shortstop Paul DeJong, who isn’t getting to as many grounders as he did in previous years.
2–The Cards need a more consistent offense. And what is their identity? It’s not a power-based team. It a pretty good onbase-percentage team, but not elite. It isn’t a high base-stealing team. Or a gap-shooting team that produces many doubles. They’re averaging 5.0 runs per game, a figure that looks dandy on a laptop screen. More discerning observers know better. Twenty five of the Cards’ 60-run total was generated in two games. In the other 10 games STL hitters gave us a more accurate indicator by averaging 3.5 runs, 10 strikeouts and batting .202.
3–How can the offense get rolling? Well, that’s a tough one. More than anything they need more hitters that are talented and above-average. The front office gambled on a young outfield this season, and the early returns are discouraging. Among Cardinals that have at least 20 plate appearances when used as outfielders only Dylan Carlson and Tommy Edman are above league average offensively in park adjusted runs created.
Among the full-time outfielders, only Carlson, at 31% above league average, is an impact performer offensively. And Carlson is the only full-time outfielder who is a plus hitter and a plus defender. But even with Carlson doing well, the overall outfield group is 20 percent below league average offensively in park adjusted runs created. And their outfielders have an unsightly 31.3% strikeout rate.
There are no easy fixes here. Not in the outfield. Not right now. And by playing Edman in right field, the Cardinals could end up with reduced offense and defense at second base. That, of course depends on the never-ending saga of Matt Carpenter.
4–That’s another aspect to the team’s blurred identity. The overall defense isn’t as sharp. With Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill on the IL, the outfield defense is vulnerable and less secure. DeJong is slumping at the plate, and in the field. (As I mentioned in my NL Central Tour, which you can read here on “Scoops,” DeJong ranks last (34th) among MLB shortstops in Outs Above Average and is next to last in Runs Prevented. That, according to Statcast.
5–Manager Mike Shildt can be smarter with his lineup choices. I’m sorry, and it’s nothing personal, but DeJong isn’t a cleanup hitter. And until and unless he can get something going, Pauly shouldn’t be batting fifth, either. In 43 plate appearances at No. 4 or No. 5 this season DeJong is batting .114 with a .286 slug, four RBI and a 32.6% strikeout rate.
As I suggested earlier in this column, the Cardinals are short on offensive talent …and they are also short on options. There aren’t any plug-in bats to make this offense more fearsome. But at the very least, Shildt has to put the lineup pieces in appropriate spots. Using DeJong at No. 4 or No. 5 only serves to make No. 2 catalyst Paul Goldschmidt and No. 3 man Nolan Arenado less relevant. If they get on base at a healthy rate, the Cardinals won’t be able to take advantage of that by having ineffectual bats slotted behind them.
Building a better lineup would also require using Carlson in a more impactful spot instead of treating him like he’s some overmatched, overwhelmed hitter that must be protected.
To find that winning identity, the Cardinals have a lot of work to do. But keep searching — and that includes the front office. It’s a long season. And there’s plenty of time to make changes and procure help. Let’s see how it goes.
Thanks for reading …
Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.