By now we’re pretty familiar with the factors that have dumped the Cardinals into last place in the NL Central with a 33-47 record and a .413 winning percentage that ranks 27th in the majors.
A quick refresher: The offense lacks consistency but is doing fine, ranking 12th in the majors in average runs per game, and only the Braves and Dodgers have hit more home runs than the Cardinals. In success with runners in scoring position the Cards rank ninth overall and third in the NL for the season. And while STL’s home-run capability is strong – with homers generating 52.8% of their runs – the dependency on big flies is unhealthy.
Now, for the awful stuff: St. Louis is 26th in starting-pitching ERA and 25th in quality starts. The bullpen has blown 16 saves, tied for the most in the majors. The Redbirds have squandered 25 leads that turned into 25 losses. They’re last (30th) in defensive efficiency, 26th in defensive runs saved, 29th in productive-outs percentage, and 29th in the percentage of extra-bases-taken (38%.)
With so many horrendous performances in so many important areas, the Cardinals’ weaknesses are ruinous. And that’s why they’ve spent only two days in first place – and 56 days in last place – this season. And that’s why the Cardinals have coughed up the most leads and launched the fewest comeback victories among NL Central clubs.
But my curious mind can’t stop at that. As the old saying goes, the Cardinals’ worst enemy is the Cardinals. That said, the other NL Central teams deserve credit for rising above the Cardinals, staying ahead of the Cardinals, and leaving the DeWitt-Mozeliak-Marmol Cardinals behind.
So I’ll tell you why …
MILWAUKEE BREWERS, 43-38, tied for 1st in the NLC
Question: The Crew has one of worst offenses in the majors, ranking 27th in both average runs per game and OPS. So how are they overcoming such a serious flaw? Answer: Well, start with this: they have the best manager in the NL Central in Craig Counsell and his staff is excellent. This is a smart, resourceful and fundamentally crisp team.
1. Defense + baserunning: Milwaukee is 2nd in the majors in defensive efficiency and leads the NL in defensive runs saved at +41. And this is a very good team on the bases, having put up an outstanding +38 in net baserunning gain.
2. Despite being walloped by injury hits the Brewers rank 12th in the majors with a 4.10 starting-pitching ERA. The resourceful and alert Milwaukee front office found a lost gem in Julio Teheran, who hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2021. He has a 2.85 ERA in seven starts for Milwaukee. Remember when the St. Louis front office used to do that type of thing on a regular basis?
3. The Brewers bullpen leads the majors in Win Probability Added (WPA), ranks 4th in save percentage, and the team is 30-3 when taking a lead into the 7th inning. (The Cardinals have lost nine times after leading through six innings.) The Brewers have also blown the fewest leads (14) by a NL Central team. The stout bullpen is a substantial reason for Milwaukee’s 14-4 record in one-run games – the second-best in the majors.
CINCINNATI REDS, 43-38, tied for 1st in the NLC.
How in the world have the Reds managed to go five games above .500 despite a starting-pitching collection that ranks 28th in the majors with a horrid 5.91 ERA? Answer: lots of reasons, as I’ll explain. But I’ll say this at the beginning: the vibe with this team is phenomenal, and the Reds may have the most colorful, fun-time clubhouse in the majors.
1. The bullpen is tremendous. Reds relievers rank 2nd in majors in Win Probability Added, are 5th in save percentage (73%), and have lost only three times when toting a lead into the seventh inning. Second-year closer Alexis Diaz leads all MLB relievers in Win Probability Added and has a 40.4% strikeout rate that leads NL relievers and is second overall.
2. The exciting and entertaining parade of rookies. On the hitting side, we’re talking about the sensational Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, Will Benson and Stuard Fairchild. On the pitching side, there’s impressive starter Andrew Abbott and busy reliever Fernando Cruz. But the rookie hitters are stealing the show and have emerged as the best rookie contingent in the National League, ranking first in WAR (4.4), homers, RBI, onbase percentage, slugging percentage, stolen bases and runs scored.
3. The Reds convert their speed and small-ball skills into runs, which is why they score more runs per game than the Cardinals even though St. Louis has outhomered Cincinnati 109 to 82. The Redlegs rank 3rd in the majors in extra-bases-taken percentage and are among the MLB team leaders with a net baserunning gain of +38. As for the small-ball aspect, the Reds rank 7th in the majors and 3rd in the NL in productive-out percentage. The Reds have the best batting average and onbase percentage in the division. And the Reds do a better job of getting their runners home (33.3%) than any team in NL Central.
3a. The relentless, rambunctious Reds have 29 comeback victories this season, the most in the National League and 11 more than any team in the division. When your team has intense competitiveness, blazing speed, an intimidating bullpen and the ability to manufacture runs – well, you can win a lot of games without bombing home runs.
PITTSBURGH PIRATES, 38-42, third place in the NLC, 4.5 games out of first.
Question: Aren’t the Pirates supposed to be buried in the standings again? Through 79 games in 2002, the Bucs were 15 games under .500. At the same stage of the season this year, they’re only four games under. Answer: Hey, they have a long way to go, but the Pirates are definitely improving.
1. The starting pitching is better than many of us would have anticipated. Only six MLB teams have more quality starts (36) than Pittsburgh. And in the NL, the Pirates and Cubs are tied for second for most quality starts. Pirates starters are 11th in the majors in WAR, 6th in average innings per start, and 14th with a 4.20 ERA. All considered, pretty dang good. The effective starting pitching helps to offset a Pitt offense that ranks 22nd in runs per game and 24th in homers per game. Based on their fielding independent ERA, starters Mitch Keller, Johan Oviedo, Rich Hill and Roansy Contreras are having solid seasons.
2. The bullpen ranks 8th in save percentage (69%) and has lost only four times when taking a lead into the seventh inning. And largely because of shutdown closer David Bednar – 1.44 ERA, 30.3% strikeout rate – the Pirates are 36-0 when owning a lead at the start of the ninth inning.
3. Opportunistic baserunning. The Pirates are fifth in the majors in stolen bases (79), have a good net baserunning gain of +29, and rank 10th in the majors in extra-bases-taken percentage (44%).
Finally, how about a shout-out for Andrew McCutchen? At age 36 he’s returned to Pittsburgh to wind down his career and has provided a boost of offense with an OPS+ that ranks 28 percent above league average.
CHICAGO CUBS, 37-42, fourth place in the NLC, 5.0 games out of first.
Question: Will they be buyers or sellers? My guess is that we’ll see Jed Hoyer and the front office go shopping for upgrades to the bullpen and the back end of the rotation. This team may not be great in any one area, but it’s good or at least decent in many areas. I say that despite the Cubs’ recent slump.
1. Starting pitching: The Cubs are third in the NL and eighth overall with a rotation ERA of 3.95. The return of Kyle Hendricks to go with Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele and Drew Smyly is a big plus. The Chicago starters are tied for the NL lead in quality-start percentage (46%) and rank 9th overall in Win Probability Added. Only the Rays and Rangers have gotten more wins from a starting pitcher than the Cubs’ count of 31.
2. On the surface this doesn’t appear to be an imposing bullpen, but the Cubs have the fewest blown saves (10) in the majors.
3. The Cubs have improved on defense, ranking 7th in the majors in efficiency and 13th in defensive runs saved.
In summary: offensively the Cubs have good talent but lack power and will need more muscle from Ian Happ, Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger going forward. On top of that, the overall offense has a below-average OPS+, and this puts more pressure on the pitching and defense. Run prevention is what the Cubs do best, ranking 3rd in the NL in runs allowed per game (4.2). The run prevention must hold up.
Bottom-line: It’s easy to understand why the Cardinals are where they are in the NL Central competition.
* Except for the Reds, every team in the division has better starting pitching than St. Louis. And even then the Reds are well stocked with exciting, high-upside young pitching that could pay off in a big way.
* Every team in the division has a better bullpen than St. Louis.
* Every team except Cincinnati does a better job of preventing runs than St. Louis.
* Every team in the division plays better defensively than St. Louis.
* Every team in the division runs the bases better than St. Louis.
* Every team in the division has more comeback wins than St. Louis.
* Every team in the division has fewer blown leads than St. Louis.
* Every team in the division has a higher productive-out percentage than St. Louis
* Every team in the division has more stolen bases than St. Louis.
* Every team in the division has a better record in one-run games than St. Louis.
* Every team in the division has a better home record than St. Louis.
Though the Reds have outscored them, the Cardinals have a quality offense that ranks second in the NL Central in runs, and first in wRC+, homers, slugging, OPS+, and hitting with runners in scoring position. But that good supply of offense isn’t enough to cover for STL’s extensive list of weaknesses and the mistakes made by manager Oli Marmol.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a pleasant weekend.
Be careful with those fireworks!
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. 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 app.
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Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Sports Info Solutions, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus.
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.