THE REDBIRD REVIEW

The 2022 season is speeding by us. The Cardinals have only 24 games remaining on their schedule. Nine days from now, Summer officially will turn into Fall. On the second day of October, Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina will play their final regular-season game at Busch Stadium. And MLB’s postseason opens in 28 days.

Phew.

The clock is ticking.

Can we slow down a little?

The Cardinals have some business to take care of. And we have questions. Questions about the state of the team – including the trends, individual performances, and the pursuit of prominent achievements and milestones.

Let’s do this.

Let’s go a hard nine with these questions:

1. The Cardinals have a record of 81-56 as they begin a three-game series at Pittsburgh. How many games will they end up winning?

Depending on the projections I looked at, the forecasts have the Redbirds capping the regular season with 93 to 96 victories. Just by going 12-12 in their remaining 24 games, the Cardinals would stand at 93-69. But even if they wind up with 92 wins, that’s a terrific regular season based on recent franchise history. Over the last 17 seasons (including 2022) only two St. Louis teams had more than 92 wins in a season: the 2015 Cards (100) and the 2013 NL pennant winners (97.)

2. Can the Cardinals overtake the NL East champion and enter the postseason as the National League’s No. 2 seed behind the Dodgers?

Possible … but unlikely. First of all, you don’t yap about snatching the No. 2 seed and then go out and split a four–game home series against the worst team in baseball (Washington.) To pull this off, the Cardinals will have to display a lot more urgency.

With only 24 games left in their regular season, the Cardinals are looking at an imposing gap, trailing the Mets by 6 games, and the Braves by 5 and ½.

The Mets have the easiest remaining schedule in the majors, playing 18 of their final 24 games against losing teams. The Braves have a tougher road, playing 13 of their final 25 against winning teams. The Cardinals will clash with winning teams in 10 of their last 24.

The Cardinals, Mets and Braves have been strong at home this season. But unlike the Cardinals, the Mets and Braves have played well on the road. Here are the road winning percentages: Braves .600, Mets .594, Cardinals .507. And eight of STL’s 14 remaining road games will be competitions against the Padres, Dodgers and Brewers.

3. Can Albert Pujols hit five more homers to become only the fourth player in MLB history to reach 700 in a career?

As mentioned, the Cards have 24 games to go, but how many of those games will Pujols start? (To be determined.) Pujols has been a streaky home-run hitter this season:

– Pujols didn’t homer in 47 at-bats from April 19 through May 21.

– On May 22, Pujols hit two homers in a game at Pittsburgh, the second coming off a Pirates’ utility man (Josh VanMeter) who mopped up in a blowout loss.

– Next: No home runs in 61 at-bats from May 23 through July 9. At that point Pujols had only two home runs in his previous 111 at-bats.

– His bombastic run began on July 10, opening a stretch that featured 12 home runs in 116 at-bats through Thursday’s loss to the Nationals. That’s an average of one homer every 9.6 at-bats. This wingding included a cluster of six homers in 21 at-bats, and seven HR in 31 at-bats.

– However: during the most recent stage of his longball binge, Pujols has two home runs in his last 40 at-bats. So he’s going through a cool-down period.

The mission to 700 comes down to a couple of things: (A) Can Pujols go off on another shock-and-awe home-run blitz? (B) Will he face enough left-handed pitchers to increase his chances of getting to 700?

Pujols is averaging a homer every 15.1 at-bats this season. But while he’s hit a homer every 8.4 at-bats against lefties, he’s homered every 35.25 ABs vs. righties.

In the May 22 game at Pittsburgh, both of Albert’s two homers were struck against right-handed throwers. But since that day, he has only two home runs in his last 98 at-bats against righties … and none in his last 41 ABs vs. RHP.

The Cardinals will play their 24 games against five teams: Pirates (9), Reds (5), Brewers (4), Padres (3) and Dodgers (3). This season the Reds and Brewers rank third and fourth in the majors respectively in most home-runs allowed. The Padres’ pitchers are around the middle on the homers–against scale. The Pirates and the Dodgers are stingier than the other three teams. But I don’t think that matters much; we don’t know who will be pitching to Pujols.

Here’s the problem: among the total innings pitched this season by the Cards’ five upcoming opponents, only 31 percent of those IP have been handled by lefthanders.

Pujols can hammer his way to 700 by hitting a flurry of homers in a week to 10 days. That’s what he did in August. It’s a challenge. Pujols has a history of coming up big under pressure.

And as Rick Hummel points out, Pujols has six games left to play at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, a yard where he’s homered 34 times during his career.

4. Can Paul Goldschmidt become the first National League player since Joe Medwick in 1937 to win the Triple Crown?

It’s time to take another look at the three Triple Crown categories:

Batting Average: through Thursday, Goldschmidt had a four-point lead over LA’s Freddie Freeman, .328 to .324. It’s getting closer for a typical reason – Hot and Cold. Goldy is batting .222 in his last 13 games, and Freeman is hitting .344 in his last 15 games. If Goldschmidt heats up and Freeman eases up, Goldy will have an excellent chance to win the batting title. The Mets’ Jeff McNeil is batting .318 and we’ll keep an eye on his progress.

Home Runs: Kyle Schwarber’s 36 homers put him one ahead of Goldschmidt and Atlanta’s Austin Riley, and three HRs ahead of LA’s Mookie Betts. Schwarber hasn’t pumped many homers in a while – only three in his last 115 at-bats, and two in his last 104 at-bats. Riley has blasted four homers in 26 at-bats over his last seven games but averaged a much calmer pace of hitting a HR every 21.6 at-bats in August. Betts had a rush of five homers in 22 at-bats in late August … but has homered one time in 28 ABs this month.

I’d forgotten about Goldschmidt’s April. He hit only one home run that month, and it didn’t happen until April 29 in his19th game of the season. Since then Goldy has 34 homers and has cranked one every 12.1 at-bats. And he’s right in line with that pace in September with two homers in his first 24 at-bats.

Unless Schwarber can find the launching pad again, Goldschmidt’s steady, consistent home-run rhythm should give him an edge down the stretch. He doesn’t shoot for homers. He’s more disciplined than that. He focuses on approach more than numbers. That works well for him because he stays the course instead of getting all jumpy and frenzied at the plate.

Runs Batted In:  Goldschmidt leads the Mets’ Pete Alonso by three, 109 to 106. No one else in the NL is close. Goldschmidt is the best RBI man in the majors this season for another reason: his RBI percentage. Meaning that he cashes in on his opportunities more frequently than the other high-count RBI guys. According to Bill James Online, Goldschmidt has had 221 RBI opportunities this season and has delivered on those chances with an RBI percentage of 49.3 percent. That’s the highest percentage among the Top 10 RBI leaders in the majors. Aaron Judge is second with his RBI percentage of 48.7%. Goldy’s impressive percentage of converting opportunities into runs bodes well in his bid for most RBI in the National League.

5. Will the Cardinals’ starting pitching hold up?

I think so. But if you want to look for vulnerabilities, you can find a few. I’ll just focus on four starters …

– Adam Wainwright, age 41, has gotten knocked around in his last two starts, both at home. Which is unusual. Since the outset of the 2019 season Waino ranks fifth among MLB starters in total innings pitched. He’s fourth in the majors this season with 173 IP. He’s put in a lot of hard work, and that could lead to a gradual wearing down. We’ll see how it goes.

– Limited by an arm injury that required surgery, Miles Mikolas worked only 44.2 innings over 2020-2021. He’s third in the majors this season with 176.1 innings. That’s a big jump in workload. Mikolas is in great shape physically, but will he stay fresh? I think he’s fine.

– Jack Flaherty looked good in his first “real” start of the season, on Monday against the Nationals. But it’s only one start, and Jack must maintain quality and then take his performance higher.

– In his years as a Yankee, Jordan Montgomery had a 3.87 ERA over the first five months of the season, and a 4.62 ERA in September-October. Is that meaningful? Probably not because we’re here in September and he looks stronger than ever. But Montgomery already has established a personal high for innings pitched in a season (158) so we’ll see if the elevated innings total will get to him at some point. Montgomery has made six of his seven starts as a Cardinal at pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium. But his road start was a one-hit, no-walk shutout at Wrigley Field. And Montgomery’s 56% ground–ball rate and improved strikeout rate as a Cardinal should travel well. Monty’s GB rate as a Yankee this season was 10 percent lower at 46%.

Montgomery also made a substantial change in approach, throwing his four-seam fastball 32.3% of the time as a Cardinal compared to 7.7% of the time as a Yankee. Since Montgomery came to St. Louis, opponents are hitting .143 with a .163 slug against his four-seamer. He’s used it to strike out hitters 14 times in the 49 at-bats (28.5%) that ended on a four-seamer. Yankees opponents clobbered Montgomery’s four-seam fastball but the Cardinals believed in the pitch, the lefty embraced the recommendation, and he’s much better because of it.

6. What’s going on with the offense? Too many low-scoring games in recent times.

In their last nine games the Cardinals are batting .224 with a .710 OPS. They’ve averaged 4.4 runs per game during this stretch, winning six of nine. That’s too small of a sample to fret over. The season is loaded with fluctuations. However … there are potential problems with their outfielders.

Over the last nine games the STL outfielders are batting .175 with a .243 OBP and .289 slug for a .532 OPS. They’re 46 percent below league average offensively in wRC+ over this time. The stats are based on what the hitters did when being used as outfielders, and I’ve excluded their DH and pinch-hitting numbers since Aug. 30.

Corey Dickerson is 9 for 25 (.360) over the last nine games. The other outfielders are 8 for 72 (.111.) A slumping Lars Nootbaar and the enigmatic Tyler O’Neill are a combined 6 for 55 (.109) since Aug. 30 with a .194 OBP and .283 slug. And Dickerson has four of the eight total RBIs delivered by the outfield group. And then there’s the switch-hitting Dylan Carlson, now on the IL with a sprained left thumb. Since the All-Star break Carlson is hitting .164 with a .534 OPS vs. right-handed pitching.

The outfield delegation was rolling up big numbers for quite a while and played a major role in igniting the St. Louis offense. But the crew has gone quiet, and they’ll have to find the mojo again. Perhaps rookie call-up Alec Burleson can jounce it up. The Cards and their fans have to hope that Nootbaar is just going through a down phase … and that he’ll bounce back soon. The more pitchers see him, the more they can learn about how to go after him.

An ugly nine-game downturn isn’t a problem. This is baseball. A 162-game season and all of that. But if the outfielders (other than Dickerson) continue to misfire, it’s a problem.

7. What’s up with Yadier Molina? He’s really come alive in September. Can he keep it up?

Molina is whomping away in September, going 9 for 18 with three doubles, two homers, and seven RBI. This burst comes after he’d batted .200 with a .473 OPS and two homers through his first 210 plate appearances of the season.

Molina’s late-season timing fits a curious pattern. If you like convenient narratives and are fond of the predictable rising-to-the-occasion trope, then I’ll contribute to your cause by pointing this out:

From 2019 through 2002

Before September: .251 average, .286 OBP, .353 slug, .639 OPS, and 26 percent below league average offensively in wRC+.

In September: .267 average, .320 OBP, .422 slug, .742 OPS and two percent above league average in wRC+.

October should serve as an interesting test case for the Molina Money-Time-Clutch-Hero theory.

8. Any preliminary thoughts about the Cardinals in the postseason?

Just one for now. How will the St. Louis hitters cope when confronted by higher-level starting pitchers?

Against losing teams this season the Cardinals have batted .272 with a .462 slug and .805 OPS. And they’re 28 percent above league average offensively in wRC+.

Against winning teams this season the Cardinals have batted .234 with a .379 slug and .685 OPS and are four percent below league average offensively in wRC+

Here’s a rundown of each Cardinal hitter and how they’ve done against the highest-caliber starting pitchers … pitchers with a 3.50 ERA or better.

Batting average on the left, OPS to the right. And I’ll list them in order, from best OPS to the worst.

Paul DeJong, .275 … .858
Albert Pujols, .299 … .840
Nolan Arenado .269 … .776
Paul Goldschmidt, .258 … .741
Juan Yepez, .221 … 704
Brendan Donovan, .259 … .684
Lars Nootbaar, .194 … .680
Dylan Carlson, .224 … 602
Tommy Edman, .215 … .563
Andrew Knizner, .219 … .557
Nolan Gorman, .170 … .467
Tyler O’Neill, .158 … .431
Corey Dickerson, .156 … .401
Yadier Molina, .135 … .309

How about Paulie DeJong? He has only 40 at-bats against the top starting pitchers, which undoubtedly influences his numbers. Goldschmidt, Arenado, Edman, Carlson, Donovan and O’Neill each have more than 100 at-bats against the toughest pitchers. Others (Gorman, Yepez) have more than 90 ABs against them. Pujols has 77.

The team home-run leaders against the good-ERA starters are Arenado (7), Yepez (4), and Goldschmidt (4).

9. What about the bullpen? Ready to go? 

Not sure. I’m confident in closer Ryan Helsley. I’m not as confident in the bridge that leads to Helsley. Dudes like Jordan Hicks, Andre Pallante, JoJo Romero, Chris Stratton … and even Giovanny Gallegos. Will Steven Matz have a role? If so, how do we know if he’s wired for relief? Hicks is erratic. He can go from fantastic to frustrating in an instant. In 31.2 innings as a reliever this season Hicks has a 4.55 ERA and a 10 percent walk rate. Pallante, the rookie, has a 5.73 ERA over his last eight appearances (11 innings) and carries a 10% walk rate when working out of the bullpen. He doesn’t miss many bats, posting a low 15% strikeout rate when used in relief. Gallegos isn’t as reliable as he used to be. Romero looks nasty, but can he sustain the edge when the Cardinals move into more important games?

Here’s the thing to worry about. You gotta have strikeout power in the postseason. Helsley has it with a strikeout rate of 40% this season. All other St. Louis relievers have a combined strikeout rate of 19.2%. (Though several of the guys who were part of the low-strikeout problem are no longer with the team.)

Thanks for reading …

Enjoy your weekend!

–Bernie

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 show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.

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Please email your “Ask Bernie” questions to BernScoops@gmail.com

All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

 

 

 

 

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

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.