How should we define the Cardinals’ 2021 season?
Well, that depends on how we look at it.
— No matter how you do it, making it to the postseason is always a good thing. And after missing out from 2016 through 2019, the Cardinals have competed in the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. That warrants some extra credit.
— Then again, the Redbirds haven’t done much with the opportunity, going 4-9 in the last three postseasons. Defeating Atlanta in the 2019 NLDS was fun, but since that triumph the Cards are 1-7 in their last eight playoff games. Not good.
— The Cardinals won 90 games this season. That’s good. But during the Bill DeWitt Jr. Era, the previous 14 STL teams to qualify for the playoffs in a full season averaged 93.4 wins.
— The Cardinals, of course, entered the 2021 postseason with the No. 2 wild-card ticket in hand. That was also the case in 2012, the first season of a revised format that has two wild cards per league. The Cardinals have taken advantage of the expanded postseason twice in eight years. But really we should make that three times in eight years by including the unique, pandemic-shortened 2020 season that put seven teams from each league into the postseason. But the Cardinals played by the rules and guidelines. They got into the October tournament three times because they won enough regular-season games to qualify. I don’t malign them for that.
— That said, whatever happened to winning division titles? The Cards have won the NL Central only one time (2019) over the last six seasons. Before that, over first 20 seasons of the DeWitt Era, they won the division title 50 percent of the time. And from 2000 through 2015, the Cardinals won the division nine times in 16 seasons.
— The one-game wild-card shootout is hazardous and leaves no margin for error. You screw up — like going 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position in a narrow loss to the Dodgers — then it’s over. In the current setup it isn’t impossible to take the wild-card route to win it all; the 2014 Giants and 2019 Nationals managed to pull it off. But it’s hard. Unlike the ensuing rounds, there’s no chance to recover and work your way back. In the current division LDS rounds the Red Sox, White Sox, Braves and Dodgers each lost the first game of the best-of-five series. But all four have rallied and are still competing.
— Stating the obvious: the Cardinals should strive to build a team that’s more capable of winning the division. The organization used to do that on a fairly consistent basis, and that’s changed.
In my view the Cardinals had a good season. But it was a disappointing season — and yes, both things are possible.
As I said near the top of this column, it’s always good to make the playoffs. That’s the obligatory first step in winning the pennant and World Series. But if your team is fortunate to qualify for the postseason, then what will it do with the opportunity?
In their last four postseason appearances — 2015, 2019, 2020 and ‘21 — the Cardinals have won just five of 17 games and one series. After beating Atlanta in the ‘19 LDS the Cardinals were swept by the Nationals in the NLCS. This franchise hasn’t come close to maximizing recent postseason opportunities, and that’s disappointing.
And it was also disappointing to see the 2021 Cardinals chasing the second wild-card pass instead of the first-place Brewers in the NL Central. The Cardinals were walloped by injuries — but so were the Brewers. According to Baseball Prospectus the Cardinals had 1,475 days missed by injured players; the Brewers had 1,643. The Cardinals lost more value to the IL than Milwaukee did — 7.27 WAR, to 5.68. But the difference wouldn’t have closed the gap in the NL Central, which the Brewers won by five games.
And even that is misleading. Milwaukee was in firm control of the division, facing no threat, leading by 12 and ½ games on Sept. 18. And then they flattened out, losing 10 of their final 14. Until the final week of the regular season, the Cardinals trailed the Brewers by eight games or more since June 27, and were 15 games out as late as Sept. 12.
The Brewers attained more success with their opening-day 26-man payroll ($99.3 million) than the Cardinals could do with a $163.5 million opening payroll. That’s a bad look.
From a division standpoint, the St. Louis 17-game winning streak accomplished nothing. The Cards had strayed too far off course, getting lost in their futile pursuit of the Brewers to make the record winning streak matter; the Crew was out of range. And that’s sad. Win 17 in a row and go 21-4 during the final 25 games and draw no closer to the Brewers than five games? That too was disappointing.
By Aug. 3, the Cardinals had their reordered pitching staff in place: Jon Lester and J.A. Happ in the rotation, and Luis Garcia and T.J. McFarland in the bullpen. And those additions would pay off over a longer stretch of time.
Here’s the thing: in their first 32 games with the revised pitching staff intact, the Cardinals went 16-16. They made up for it by zipping off 17 straight wins after that. That dramatic and exhilarating charge led to the No. 2 wild card but had no impact in the NL Central race.
Granted, the injuries were a factor in one important area: the rotation. From the start of June through the end of the regular season, the Brewers had significantly more stability in their rotation and bullpen than the Cardinals. But the Brewers’ front office never stopped adding players to increase depth in virtually every section of the roster.
And that was true long before the July 30 trade deadline. In contrast the St. Louis front office did not address the rotation emergency until solid pickup Wade LeBlanc made his first start in late June. The signings of Garcia and McFarland were made in the first half of July. Lester and Happ were acquired on July 30 and made their debut starts during the first week of August.
Too much time passed between Jack Flaherty’s first injury — and the sequence of setbacks for Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim — before the front office reinforced the rotation. That shouldn’t be overlooked or forgotten. The late-season surge has provided cover for front-office inaction during the most vulnerable stage of the season.
From the time of Flaherty’s first injury (May 31) until the end of July, the Cardinals went 22-29. Their record in games started by someone other than Adam Wainwright was 15-26 over that time. The most glaring need was left unfilled.
The Cardinals had a half-game division lead when Flaherty went to the IL with an oblique tear. By the end of July, the Cards trailed the Brewers by 9 and ½. And that deficit would grow despite valuable contributions made by Lester, Happ and the two added relievers.
Why did the Cardinals slip, even after settling down their pitching staff? Answer: because they went 8-12 in the 20 games before their fly-me-to-the-moon winning streak. And their offense was held to four runs or fewer — under the league average — 14 times in the 20 games.
The Cardinals’ 2021 season was a frustrating puzzle. There were too many irregular pieces, lost pieces, and pieces that took a long time to find and set into place.
Yes, the rotation was more solid after Happ and Lester got rolling. Jake Woodford pitched well late in the season after receiving a belated opportunity.
Yes, the St. Louis offense erupted for a remarkable three weeks of high-powered production in September, following months of baffling inconsistency.
Yes, the Cardinals had a more complete and talented cast when they could slot Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson into the same outfield, same lineup. When that trio started a game intact, the Cardinals went 43-25 (.632 winning percentage) and averaged 4.88 runs per game. Problem: that starting outfield was intact for only 42 percent of the team’s 162 games.
This team put the puzzle together when:
— The O’Neill, Bader and Carlson starting outfield played and excelled. This outfield set was phenomenal in September, teaming for 25 homers, 22 doubles, 66 RBI, 64 runs, .619 slugging percentage and .981 OPS.
— The rotation firmed up and had MLB’s sixth-best ERA over the final six weeks.
— Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado got rolling at the same time — even if that claim has been exaggerated to some extent.
— The bullpen locked games down during the 21-4 finish with a 2.40 ERA that ranked second in the majors since Sept. 8.
All of this gave the Cardinals a chance to seize the wild card and salvage the season. And their closing stretch was filled with thrills and fun delights. The entertainment was abundant and astonishing.
But the final three weeks also served another purpose. It showed us that it’s possible to turn your season around.
It would be nice for the Cardinals to have a season that didn’t need to be turned around. And if you must turn the season around — then why not get started on that sooner than later?
Perhaps management will absorb and apply three primary lessons learned in 2021:
1) You can never have enough depth, so it makes sense to reinforce the roster before the start of the season. And quality depth players and pitchers can often be found for good-value rates, even if the season already is underway.
2) You can’t be surprised and taken aback by injuries. Have to prepare for injuries, because they’re inevitable. So be proactive instead of getting caught off guard.
3) Gotta be smarter with payroll planning. Can’t clog it up and reduce flexibility cy carrying moldy bats and wasted salaries.
We’d like to see the Cardinals give themselves a stronger chance of having a more consistent season, capped by a division title and a longer stay in the postseason.
We’d like to see a great season instead of a good season. Why settle for good when you’re not that far from being great? Why make a push for a wild-card instead of reaching for a division championship?
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated 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 by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
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.