The Cardinals didn’t have a buffo first half, and if you go by the percentage of probability for making the playoffs, they were broken by the All-Star break.
According to the FanGraphs projections as of Thursday morning, 10 National League teams have a better chance than St. Louis to reach the October stage and compete in the postseason tournament.
The 2019 Cardinals had a 21.2% shot at making the playoffs at the All-Star break but came through to win the NL Central by rolling to a 47-27 record in the second half.
At this year’s All-Star rest stop, the Cards’ current postseason probability is 2.1 percent — which is substantially less than the 21.2% percent faced by the 2019 team.
And while I am sorry to rain on the “the Cardinals are traditionally a very good second-half team” narrative, I feel compelled to point out something …
The 2019 Cardinals overcame the odds by pitching their way to the top of the division. Their second-half ERA (3.44) was No. 3 in the majors and easily the best among NL Central teams. The St. Louis rotation had a 3.15 second-half ERA, No. 2 in the majors and vastly superior to the starting pitching of other NL Central teams.
After the 2019 All-Star break the Cardinals had 69 of their 74 starts made by Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas.
Just a reminder:
* Flaherty: 15 starts, 0.91 ERA.
* Hudson: 15 starts, 3.15 ERA.
* Mikolas: 14 starts, 3.72 ERA.
* Wacha: 10 starts, 3.95 ERA.
* Wainwright: 15 starts, 4.07 ERA.
The finer rotations provide stability, consistency, and quality. The injuries are minimal. The performances are dependable. And dominant starts aren’t a fluke; they become part of a winning rhythm. The 2019 St. Louis rotation had all of those attributes working for them.
The 2021 Cardinals have a battered, incomplete rotation — one trying to survive on the good work from Wainwright and Kwang Hyun Kim and contributions from June 17 pickup Wade LeBlanc.
This rotation is not the 2019 rotation.
And that makes the 2019-to-2021 parallel as thin as Mike Shildt’s lineup.
The 2019 rotation had a healthy Flaherty, Mikolas and Hudson. The 2021 rotation has Flaherty, Mikolas and Hudson on the Injured List.
A rather large difference, yes?
This season the Cards have received 11 starts from Flaherty (oblique), one aborted start by Mikolas (forearm) and none from Hudson (elbow.) In 2019 the same three pitchers combined for 97 starts.
The Cardinals are enthusiastic about the injury-rehab progress of Flaherty and Mikolas. It’s a longshot but Hudson could resurface much later in the season.
All the team can do is hope for the best, hope for a chance, hope for luck. Crossing your fingers and making wishes isn’t the same as handing the baseball to confident starters that are present, healthy, thriving and highly capable of leading the way.
Starters who aren’t walking too many, hitting too many, or striking out too few. That was not the case in 2019. The Cardinals had a plug-in and pitch rotation all season — the No. 1 reason why they won 91 games, their first division title since 2015, and claimed their first postseason series victory since ‘14.
Another difference: The 2021 Cardinals have trailed in the division by as many as 10 games, and are 8.0 games out of first heading into the second half. It’s a little less daunting in the wild-card derby; the Cards are 7.5 games behind the Padres, who hold the No. 2 spot. Still that’s a tough climb.
The 2019 Cardinals never lapsed in the NL Central race by more than 5.5 games all season — and that gap relatively early, on June 2. The ’19 team was never more than 3.5 games out in July, and didn’t face a division deficit larger than 3 games after the All-Star break.
Want to contend?
It’s mostly about the pitching … starting pitching especially.
Same as it ever was.
“I’m a huge advocate of pitching,” said Tom Seaver, the late Hall of Famer pitcher, during his days as a Mets broadcaster. “You have to have good pitching as the solid core, the foundation. It keeps you in every game.”
As the Cardinals get ready to resume their season with a weekend series against the visiting Giants, they rank 8th in the NL in run prevention, allowing 4.42 runs per game. And the STL starting-pitching ERA (4.20) is 10th in the NL.
This is not ideal. This only reaffirms the trouble that the Cardinals are in.
If we want to talk about what the Cardinals must do to recover and reemerge as a postseason contender, here’s the first project: firming up their rotation depth. Next, it’s imperative to clean up the pitching by ending the embarrassing parade of opponent hitters that keep strolling to first after being walked or hit by a pitch.
This isn’t the only area that must improve — but it is absolutely the most important area.
Run Prevention Is Vital
Under manager Shildt, the Cardinals were fifth among National League teams at preventing runs in 2018, second in 2019, and second in 2020.
After trailing by as many as 8.5 games in July, the 2018 Cardinals got back into postseason contention after Shiildt replaced Mike Matheny as manager. The rally was made possible by consistent pitching and a more productive second-half offense. That team came up short; ultimately there was too much ground to make up.
And pitching, pitching, pitching carried a weak lineup into the playoffs in 2019 and again in 2020.
Pitching largely accounts for Shildt’s combined .612 winning percentage after the All-Star break in the 2018 and ‘19 campaigns. Pitching powered the success.
Last season the Cards played only 58 games in the pandemic-ravaged season, winning 30 times. Posting a terrific 3.21 ERA over the final 12 irregular-season games, the Cards went 8-4 and pushed their way into the postseason.
I’ve thrown some yesteryear quotes your way in this piece. I have another that fits the 2021 Cardinals.
“We need three kinds of pitching: left handed, right handed, and relief.”
That was from Whitey Herzog.
The ‘21 Cardinals may not need all of the components that Herzog humorously mentioned way back when.
That said, the Cards cannot contend without stabilizing and improving their rotation and backing it up with stronger middle-innings relief. The pitching can’t overcome a loitering St. Louis offense if the pitching is just as bad as the offense. As I wrote recently, the 2015 Cardinals didn’t do much offensively but the team won 100 games by suppressing opponents with killer run prevention.
And yes, the ’21 Cardinals need more offense over the final 72 games. But I’m saving that for my next column here on Scoops — a “Things To Do” list for the second half. I’ll try my best to have that ready for you later today.
As always, thanks for reading!
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.
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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.