Hello. This is the predictable column in which I look at the Phillies and Astros and wonder: what can the Cardinals learn from the two combatants that are set to clash in the 2022 World Series?
Look, it isn’t easy to win a World Series. The Dodgers haven’t done it in a full season since 1988. The Yankees haven’t played in a World Series or competed in the WS since 2009. Given the billions of dollars spent by each franchise through the years, the number of postseason failures are remarkable.
This may scramble your mind, if even just a little:
During the wild-card era, which began in 1995, only five of 36 teams that won 100 games during the regular season have gone on to win the World Series.
Over the same time frame, teams that bagged between 83 and 92 victories during the regular season have won the World Series 12 times.
Does that make sense? No. Of course not … until you remember that Postseason Baseball Is Overloaded With Randomness. And once you accept that, it’s much easier to understand.
As for what the Cardinals can glean from this year’s two pennant winners, I’ll take a crack at it.
1. Spend more money on talent. According to Cots Contracts, the Phillies ranked 5th this season in 26-man payroll and 5th in the 40-man competitive balance payroll. The Astros were 10th in both categories. And the Cardinals were 13th in the 26-man and 40-man rankings. Using the 40-man payroll (just to save time), the Cardinals spent $74 million less than the Phillies and $24 million less than the Astros this season.
As the Yankees have shown us, out-spending the other teams does not include a World Series parade. Not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Yankees have invested $2.3 billion in 40-man payroll since 2012. Add in $421 million in their 26-man payroll costs in 2010 and 2011 – before the payroll-tax system went into place – and now we’re up to nearly $2.8 billion. Throw in the prorated 2020 season, when the Yankees had a 40-man payroll of $83 million, and we’re getting close to $3 billion. That’s almost $3 billion for failing to make it to the World Series for 13 consecutive seasons.
I can say it a million times: nothing is guaranteed. But what if the Cardinals were more ambitious and stretched their payroll to strengthen weaker areas for the purpose of taking a more robust roster into the playoffs? Well, I’d like their chances of doing a helluva lot better than losing nine of their last 10 postseason games – which is part of a stretch of going 5-17 in their last 22 postseason games. They have the revenue and the resources to increase the commitment to payroll … and increase their commitment to winning.
2. Find more home-run hitters. This is important. The old-school baseball media and fans still have fits over the prominence of the home run during the postseason. These people pray for Wee Willie Keeler baseball to come back. You can win a game, maybe a few games, with bloop singles and good-luck ground balls. But these things don’t happen by design; “let me hit one off the end of the bat for a little dying-duck single” isn’t a strategy. It’s mostly an accident – or, to give some credit, making contact does increase your chances of reaching base.
That said, teams that have out-homered opponents in a game are 15-5 in the 2022 postseason. Last season, teams that cranked more home runs in a game went 25-2. Banging more homers than the other guys in a game has produced a 40-7 record over the last two postseasons.
This should surprise no one, but home runs were a big reason why Houston and Philadelphia soared to the World Series. As FanGraphs tells us, the AL and NL champs have the top two home-run percentages in the postseason — with the Astros homering in 4.2 percent of their plate appearances, and the Phillies a close second at 4.1 percent.
(In case you’re curious the Cardinals ranked 11th among 12 postseason teams with a sad little HR percentage of 1.4%)
The Cardinals had a chance to pay up and add free-agent Kyle Schwarber as a DH vs. right-handed pitchers but went cheap. And they could have used him in left field during those 500 times or so when Tyler O’Neill went out with an injury. Schwarber is an accomplished postseason power hitter, having driven 12 out of the yard in 46 games. He has three homers in 11 postseason games this year — including three in his last five to help carry the Phillies past the Padres in the NLCS. For his career, Schwarber has homered every 12 at-bats in the postseason. Hey, why would a team want that when Corey Dickerson is available?
The Cardinals aren’t a weak home-run hitting team; they finished tied for the ninth in the majors during the regular season. But they need more muscle. And a plan that includes this – “We’re confident that Tyler O’Neill will stay healthy in 2023” – is wacko. Nolan Gorman can boost this area by getting through his early-career swing-miss problems. And Juan Yepez has obvious potential to hit plenty of homers. But the Cardinals are losing the wholly unexpected 24 homers provided by Albert Pujols, and that’s a problem.
The front office shouldn’t be so wishy-washy about looking for power. Over the past two seasons the Cardinals were 96-21 when hitting at least two homers in a game – and 87-120 when hitting fewer than two homers in a game.
3. Power Pitching rules, so adapt accordingly: During the regular season Houston starters were third in the majors with a 24.8 percent strikeout rate. Philadelphia starters (23%) were 12th. St. Louis starters (18.5%) were 24th.
The disparity was more glaring in the three bullpens: Houston relievers had the best strikeout rate (28.3%) in the majors. Philadelphia was 9th at 25 percent. And the Cardinals bullpen was 27th with a strikeout rate of 21.2%.
The St. Louis front office has had years to build an extensive set of relievers that can dominate hitters with swings and misses and strikeouts. But the baseball bosses continue to fail to modernize their bullpen to fit today’s game. In the 2022 regular season, here’s where the three bullpens ranked in contact rate against them: Houston first (70.4%), Philadelphia fifth (73.1%) and St. Louis 26th (76.6%).
And this stat is another example of the shortage of bullpen firepower in St. Louis: this season the relievers were struck for a contact rate of 85.6 percent on pitches in the strike zone – the fourth-worst rate in the bigs. But let’s make sure to go get another Nick Witten or Drew VerHagen, OK?
The 2022 postseason largely reaffirms what we know about how to succeed in the playoffs from a pitching standpoint. FanGraphs notes that pitchers (all teams) have so far combined for a 26.7 percent strikeout that would be the highest in MLB postseason history. Impressive. But St. Louis pitchers had a puny strikeout rate of 19.4 percent in the two losses to Philadelphia. The Cardinals have fallen behind in the successful postseason trends — power ball, on offense and in pitching — so if anything their postseason failures are predictable.
4. Pardon my language, but the Cardinals need a badass. They have so many nice guys. Too many. This team needs some edgy players who are cocky and fearless and have a brash attitude that others can draw from. Cardinals players would be perfect as members in some “Polite Society” clubs, but I’d like to see someone who can embolden his teammates and give them more confidence.
A person like Bryce Harper. But it’s too late. That opportunity is long gone … and this team still doesn’t have a settled, consistently good outfield. The revolving door is a frequent embarrassment. I wasted many, many words in campaigning for the Cardinals to sign him as a free agent after the 2018 season. But of course, Harper was (A) really expensive and (B) really cocky … and we can’t have that here, because ownership wants to maintain a reasonable-cost payroll, and the audacious Harper might be too much to handle for all of the nice, polite, well-mannered guys that don’t go in for all of that flamboyant stuff.
So Philly signed him before the 2019 season to become the franchise centerpiece in a rebuild. And the plan has worked. Harper won the NL MVP award last season, and he’s owning the 2022 postseason, and his fearlessness and fierceness has lifted his team.
Harper doesn’t shrink when in a big spot in October; he craves such opportunities.
“He’s proved to me over and over and over again that there’s no moment that’s too big for him,” Phillies Manager Rob Thomson said. “He’s come through so many times. You just kind of expect it when he goes to the plate.”
The Phillies were trailing the Padres 3-2 when Harper came to the plate with one on in the bottom of the eighth. Before Harper walked to the plate to crush his epic NLCS-clinching two-run homer on Sunday, he turned to Philly hitting coach Kevin Long and said, “Let’s give them something to remember,’” as reported by ESPN.
Philadelphia owner John Middleton is pleased with his investment in Harper. Harper is everything that he envisioned. Harper has turned the famous Philly boos into unrestrained cheers. And the Harper vibe has turned into his team’s vibe.
“Three hundred and thirty million dollars later and mutual promises of being committed to winning and doing whatever it took to win,” Middleton told reporters when asked about the Harper signing.
In 135 career postseason plate appearances Harper has batted .286 with a .358 onbase percentage and .639 slug. Plus 10 home runs, 10 doubles and 21 RBI. This postseason he’s batting .419 with five homers, 11 RBI and a 1.351 OPS. But … but .. HE’S OBNOXIOUS. Yeah. Wonderfully so.
5. The Cardinals should be more aggressive in pursuing the more elite–level International talent. The Astros have been bold and successful in this area. And they are not reluctant to spend the necessary dollars. Their international signings include second baseman Jose Altuve, first baseman Yuri Gurriel and pitchers Framber Valdez, Christian Javier, Bryan Abreu, Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy. And when the Dodgers outbid Houston for fearsome power-hitting prospect Yordan Alvarez, the Astros stayed on it and traded for Alvarez in 2016. In his three full seasons with the Astros, Alvarez has averaged 32 homers, 93 RBI and slugged .590.
It seems that the Cardinals can learn a lot from the two teams that will compete for the World Series trophy starting Friday.
Thanks for reading …
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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.