NOTES ON MY SCORECARD
1) How many arrows does Albert Pujols have left in his quiver? Even the best hitters in the game can come up empty over a short series. That’s the randomness of postseason baseball. But Pujols defied that canon throughout his early–career postseasons with the Cardinals.
In 74 postseason games from his rookie season (2001) until his final season (2011) during his first term as the leader of the Cardinals, Pujols batted .330 with a .439 OBP, .607 slug and 1.046 OPS. He ripped 18 homers, 18 doubles and pierced opponents for 52 RBI. In short, Pujols is one of the greatest hitters in MLB postseason history.
We could dismiss or downgrade the postseason numbers of his youth because it’s 2022 and he’s 42 years old. But this is Albert Pujols. And among 208 MLB hitters that had at least 175 plate appearances since the All-Star break, Pujols ranked second to Aaron Judge in slugging percentage, OPS, home runs and wRC+. Pujols’ .323 batting average was ninth-best in the majors during the second half. No MLB player hit more home runs than Pujols since Aug. 14. His 16 homers over that time tied him with Aaron Judge and Mike Trout.
And since the start of July, Pujols leads the Cardinals in homers (20), batting average (.314), slugging (.681), OPS (1.057) and wRC+ (.193.) His 51 RBI are second to Nolan Arenado (54), and his OBP is No. 3 on the team.
During his career Pujols has batted .300 or better in 12 postseason series, slugged at least .500 in 11 series, and posted an OPS of at least 1.000 in six series.
This is Pujols’ last go-round in October baseball. He’s wired for it. He has thrived in the setting. He has often dominated the setting. Few hitters in big-league history have exceeded his postseason brilliance and brawn. And given his impeccable track record, I have to believe that this man will not walk away from baseball and into retirement without reminding everyone of his greatness. He is hungry for another pennant, another World Series championship. This won’t be easy, and his fellow Cardinal hitters can’t leave Pujols all alone and expect him to do it by himself.
2) Entering their match with the gentlemen from Philadelphia, the Cardinals are 2-4 in postseason games played at Busch Stadium since 2015.
3) Welcome to another session with “The Debunker.” That would be me, and here I go again. No question, the St. Louis batsmen face a potentially bothersome matchup against Philly right-handed starters Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola in the first two games. But I’ve been confused by some of the analysis out there – locally and nationally – that depict the 2022 Cardinals as pushovers against RH pitching.
It’s simply not true. Just because the Cardinals are stronger against left-handed pitching, it doesn’t mean they’re weaklings vs. RH pitching. This season STL finished ninth in the majors in batting average against RHP and were sixth in OBP, ninth in slugging, seventh in OPS, and fifth in wRC+.
OK, what’s wrong with that? Against right-handed pitching the St. Louis hitters were above the MLB average in all offensive categories. They were 10 points better than league average in OBP, 13 points above average in slugging and 23 points higher than average in OPS.
Since the All-Star break the Cardinals rank fourth in the majors in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+) against RH pitching at 15 percent above league average.
Could the Cardinals get shut down by Wheeler and Nola? Of course. They were dominated by Wheeler in two regular-season encounters, failing to score a run in 14 innings. But the Cardinals also got to Nola for five earned runs in his seven-inning start against them on July 11.
If the Cardinals are taken down by Wheeler and Nola, it won’t be because they stink against right-handed pitching. It’ll be because Wheeler and Nola are excellent pitchers when on point and can make ANY lineup look stupid.
4) October Surprises? I was asked this question on Thursday: if Paul Goldschmidt can’t plug back in and restore his power, and Nolan Arenado can’t reset after hitting only three homers in his final 113 regular-season at-bats – who is most capable of compensating? (Other than Pujols.)
I have three nominees:
— Lars Nootbaar: Over his final 77 regular-season games, Noot curated a .374 onbase percentage, charged up for a .507 slug, walked in 16 percent of his plate appearances, and biffed 12 homers and 14 doubles. Using wRC+, Nootbaar was 49 percent above league average offensively over the final three-plus months of the season. And though he bats from the left side, Lars actually had a higher OPS vs. lefties (.917) than righties (.871) since the start of July.
— Tommy Edman: With a 108 OPS+, Edman had his best regular season since his rookie campaign in 2019. He hit a career-high 13 homers, slashed more than 30 doubles for the second straight year, led the National League with 32 stolen bases (in 35 attempts) and had 18 defensive runs saved. He closed the regular season by hitting .315 with a .531 slug, 11 doubles and five homers in his last 35 games.
— Corey Dickerson: In his last 140 regular-season plate appearances against RH pitching, Dickerson batted .331 with a .350 OBP and .471 slug. And his wRC+ over that time was 34 percent above league average offensively. He hit .296 with a .456 slugging percentage against righty fastballs and smashed righty curves and sliders to the tune of a .328 average and .507 SLG. Dickerson’s strengths give him a chance to get something done against Wheeler and Nola. After recovering from injuries, Dickerson did exceptionally well against RH pitching over the final two-plus months of the regular season. Against right-handed pitchers over that time, he hit .340 with a .500 slug against their four-seam fastballs, .400 with a .450 slug against their sinkers, and .400 with a .733 slug against the sliders.
5) Except for a mini-slump here and there, Brendan Donovan has been terrific from start to finish in his rookie season. But Donovan takes on a more important role as the opportunity creator at the top of the lineup. Donovan took his smart and refined hitting approach to a higher level by finessing a .413 onbase percentage when batting leadoff during the final month. And since Aug. 1 he batted .290 with a .408 OBP and .812 OPS when slotted first or second in Oli Marmol’s lineup. Donovan performed 41 percent above league average offensively (wRC+) while occupying the No. 1 or No. 2 spot over the final two-plus months.
Moreover, when batting first or second against RH pitching since Aug. 1, Donovan hit .299 with a .423 OBP and .850 OPS. If he keeps this up in his matchups against Wheeler and Nola, that’s a boost for the Cardinals.
6) Nolan Arenado: is this his time? Arenado didn’t have the chance to compete in many postseason games during his years with Colorado. He was in the lineup for the 2017 NL wild-card loss at Arizona, and had another crack in the Rockies’ 2018 NLDS defeat to Milwaukee. In five games he batted .191 with a homer and three RBI and struck out on 30.4 percent of his plate appearances.
In his first and only postseason game for the Cardinals, Arenado went 0 for 4 against the Dodgers in the 2021 NL wild-card play-in game. Arenado goes into the Philadelphia playoff series with a .160 average and .428 OPS in six career postseason games.
7) Oli Marmol made the right call in his decision to start lefty Jose Quintana and right-hander Miles Mikolas in the first two games. “Q” had a 2.01 ERA in his 12 starts as a Cardinal – including a 1.86 ERA in five starts at Busch Stadium. And in the 12 starts he was dinged for one home run by the 247 batters he faced. At Busch Stadium, RH batters hit .156 with a .438 OPS against Quintana. That’s even better than how he did against LH batters at Busch: .186 average, .514 OPS.
As for Mikolas: In his final eight starts at Busch Stadium during the regular season, he pitched to a 1.73 ERA, allowed 0.9 home runs per 9 innings, and and clamped down on 85 LH batters faced by limiting them to a .063 batting average and .207 OPS. That’s ridiculous! No matter what happens in the first two games, Marmol had nothing but good reasons to start these two pitchers in the first two games. Just look at the numbers I provided here.
8) Adam Wainwright in Game 3 — if necessary? Marmol was swooning over Waino in the interview room Thursday, going with the triple-strength Shildty-level fawning. At one point Marmol said he’d trust Wainwright with his life … wow … so I assume that means he’d trust Waino to start Game 3 if there is one. And I’m guessing the Phillies trust their ability to hit Wainwright’s 87 mph fastball. In September opponents batted .309 with a .436 slug against Wainwright’s curveball.
According to Marmol, Waino had an “impressive” bullpen session earlier this week. If so, that’s an encouraging sign. If Wainwright gets the assignment in a potential Game 3, the drama will be irresistible. As long as Wainwright’s right arm is alive again, he can pitch effectively at Busch Stadium. If there’s a problem, Marmol wouldn’t let the game get out of control … he’d go to the bullpen early.
From the start of the 2019 season until the end of August this season, Wainwright had a 2.60 ERA in 55 home starts. I didn’t include his final month of the 2022 regular season because it wouldn’t be fair; his dead-arm phase that inflated his overall ERA to 7.22 in his last six starts. If Wainwright has, in fact, gotten past that, then it puts his situation in a different light.
9) Final note on Albert Pujols: If we include the postseason, Pujols has 721 homers and 2,270 RBI in his major-league career.
10) Prediction Time. Here are the simplistic scenarios: The Cardinals will win this series if Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado resume performing up to their talent level instead of being a drag on the offense. The Cardinals will lose if Goldschmidt and Arenado flop. They flattened out after the Cardinals grabbed total control of the NL Central, and it’s fair to give them the benefit of the doubt. But it’s time to crank it up.
Making the Pick: Cardinals in 3 … even though the idea of Wheeler-Nola exacta in the first two games is difficult to get past when choosing the winning team.
— Since July 15 the Cardinals are 26-8 at home and haven’t lost a series at Busch Stadium over that time, going 9-0-2. The Cards haven’t lost a home series since the Dodgers won two of three here in late June.
— Since July 15 the Cardinals have out-homered visiting teams at Busch by a stunning margin of 46-19. Since the All-Star break, both home and away, the Cardinals have bashed the most home runs in the majors (98) while allowing the fewest homers in the majors (53.)
— Teammates are driven to take the retiring Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina on a long postseason ride. I’m probably falling for a predictable narrative here … but I think the added emotion and motivation is real, and it will matter.
— The difference in the quality of the defense played by these teams is substantial. Of course anything can happen in a brief series, but going into this conflict Cardinals have an immense edge over the Phillies defensively. Given the high volume of ground balls generated by their pitchers, the Cardinals must be sharp in the field.
— Everyone is talking about how good Wheeler and Nola are, and it’s true. They’re very good, and they come in loaded with a heavy strikeout punch. But relatively few people bother to look at the superb pitching by Quintana and Mikolas at Busch Stadium.
— The St. Louis bullpen led the majors in Win Probability Added (WPA) this season. And the relievers held steady, posting the third-best WPA in the majors during the final month-plus. Philly’s bullpen has improved quite a bit with Jose Alvarado and Zach Eflin pitching great down the stretch. But statistically speaking the STL ‘pen is superior from top-to-bottom. If Ryan Helsley isn’t 100 percent after jamming the middle finger on his throwing hand on Tuesday, then all bets are off.
Enjoy the series!
By the way, this is something I wanted y’all to know. I’ll be teaming with my friend Will Leitch for a special postseason “Seeing Red” podcast. We’ll record it in the morning after each playoff game, including weekends. And we’ll keep it tight for the listeners – going 15 to 20 minutes in each pod. You can find it on 590theFan.com or wherever you prefer to subscribe to your podcasts.
And I’ll be writing a column on the morning after each game here on “Scoops.:
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his 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 show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 the Fan app.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
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.