THE REDBIRD REVIEW
With Monday’s uninspiring 7-4 loss at Colorado, the Cardinals closed their first 10 games on the schedule with the worst record (3-7) in the National League.
In the Divisional Era, which began in 1969, only four other St. Louis teams were 3-7 after 10 games. OK, so what happened after the slow start?
- 1972: finished 75-81
- 1988: finished 76-86
- 1997: finished 73-89
- 2017: finished 83-79
None qualified for the postseason, and the four teams averaged 76.7 wins, and 83.7 losses.
It’s easier to make the playoffs now because MLB expanded the postseason field to six teams in each league beginning in 2022.
It was a different time and place and format, but the famous 1934 “Gashouse Gang” Cardinals started out 3-7, ended up with a 95-38 regular-season record, and defeated Detroit in seven games to win the World Series.
The 2023 Cardinals have some work to do.
WHAT’S GONE WRONG?
This isn’t an autopsy because the Cardinals have 152 games to go. Only 6.17 percent of their regular-season schedule is consumed, so we’re still into the small-sample stage of 2023. Yes, I know all about small samples and the rashness of reading too much into early games. But some of the early trends point directly to this team’s problems, things they must change or fix, and I think it’s fine to conduct a 10-game checkup.
Here are 10 primary problems over the first 10 games:
1. Starting pitching. The Cardinal rotation has a 5.96 ERA that ranks 14th among the 15 NL teams and 25th overall. Jordan Montgomery has a 2.25 ERA in two starts, but the team’s other four starters have collectively pitched to a 7.09 ERA. St. Louis starters have only one quality start and rank 26th in average Game Score. This is a debilitating weakness. I don’t see how the Cardinals can zoom into an extensive run of winning baseball when the starting pitchers put the team in early-game deficits. Cardinal starters have the worst ERA in the majors (9.00) in the first two innings – and the worst ERA (8.10) in the first three innings. I’m not into false optimism, but as I wrote last week Cards starters have been belted by horrendous luck on batted balls in play. That will level off — especially if the team’s defense improves (more on that later.) I think these guys will do better. Not dominant, but better.
2. The front office: The starting pitching should improve through time, and I’ll be happy to offer praise if warranted. But so far the front-office is losing the gamble to go into the 2023 season with a vulnerable rotation – declining to reinforce the starting pitching by acquiring external help. It’s a familiar pattern for the front office, but management lacks the urgency to take a proactive approach to avoid another rotation emergency. But it’s only been 10 games; let’s see what develops. Another missed opportunity was the failure to secure a better backup at the catcher position.
3. The failure to deliver big hits: The Cardinals rank among the top three teams in the majors for batting average (.284) and onbase percentage (.353). So the Redbirds are putting plenty of runners on base. But they aren’t driving enough of them in. Only 24 percent of their baserunners have scored, and that ranks 27th in the majors.
Through 10 games the Cardinals are 28 percent below league average in hitting performance with runners in scoring position, per park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+.) During their current 1-6 slide, the Cardinals are the worst team in the majors at 45% below average with runners in scoring position. Over the last seven games they’re batting .220 with a .259 OBP and .300 slug with RISP. The Cardinals have too much talent to be this ineffective in the task of driving in runs when set up to do so. These numbers will go up.
4. The power drop: The Cardinals rank 24th in the majors with only 24 extra-base hits. They’ve struck only 10 home runs, and only six MLB teams have fewer doubles. In their seven losses the Redbirds have just four home runs and a weak .343 slug. So when your team (A) isn’t hitting for power and (B) sputtering with runners in scoring position, it pretty much explains why the Cardinals rank 18th in runs per game (4.0) and are averaging only 2.6 runs during their 1-6 stretch. The list of conspicuously low slugging percentages include Willson Contreras (.258), Dylan Carlson (.350), Tyler O’Neill (.367) and Nolan Arenado (.415.)
5. A poor start offensively by St. Louis catchers: I’m confident that Willson Contreras will heat up. But through 10 games Contreras and backup Andrew Knizner are collectively batting .205 with a .225 OBP and .231 slug for a .456 OPS. And St. Louis catchers rank 24th in the majors with a 25 wRC+ – which means the position is 75 percent below league average offensively. Last season Cardinal catchers batted .206 with a .552 OPS and were 40 percent below league average offensively — which is why the front office gave the free-agent Contreras a five-year contract worth $87.5 million.
Overall Contreras is batting .226 with a puny .258 slugging percentage. He’s 60 percent below league average offensively per wRC+. And in 29 plate appearances at the No. 5 spot in the lineup, Contreras has hit .241 with a .276 slug and is 50% percent below league average offensively (wRC+).
The transition to a new team has been a struggle for Contreras, but that happens to a lot of MLB players and Contreras will get through it. But a hot start would have been nice.
6. Brendan Donovan’s low OBP: As rookie, Donovan had an excellent .394 onbase percentage. Manager Oli Marmol has made Donovan his primary leadoff hitter this season, and Donovan has a .250 OBP in 36 plate appearances at the top of the lineup. He’s batting .212 and has a poor leadoff walk rate of 5.5%. (Last season Donovan’s walk rate was 12.8%). He hasn’t created sufficient RBI opportunities for No. 2 hitter Alec Burleson, No. 3 hitter Paul Goldschmidt, or No. 4 hitter Nolan Arenado. So far Donovan has scored only four runs that were driven in by Burleson, Goldschmidt or Arenado.
7. What happened to the run game? This was an area of strength in 2022. So far in 2023, the Cardinals are lagging on the bases. And it’s really surprising to me.
Even though it’s become comically easy to steal bases under the new set of rules, the Cardinals have attempted only four steals through 10 games. And their three stolen bases rank 23rd.
On batted balls in play (non-forceouts) the Cards have taken an extra base only 41 percent of the time, which ranks 18th. Last season the Cardinals took the extra base 46% of the time, which was third-best in the majors.
Among MLB teams the Cardinals have the second-most runners lost on the bases (6) and the most runners thrown out at home (4.)
The Cardinals could use a remedial lesson on how to run the bases. They’ve lost the edge in an important part of the game that benefited them in 2022.
8. The defense isn’t as strong. This should change – but the sooner the better. While the Cardinals have been credited with +1 in Outs Above Average, other information isn’t as positive. They’re 15th in the majors in defensive runs saved (zero), 17th in the FanGraphs defensive metric (minus 0.10) and are ranked last in defensive efficiency. Defensive efficiency is a simple concept: on all batted balls in play, what percentage are converted into outs? The Cardinals have turned only 63.1% of batted balls into outs so far – the worst percentage in the majors. FYI, last season the Cardinals converted 70.2% of batted balls in play into outs.
The defense will sharpen, but it’s been a rough start. One stat jumped out at me: last season opponents hit .213 against the Cardinals on ground balls. Early on in ‘23, opponents are batting .260 on grounders? Is it the restrictions on shifts? Or bad batted-ball luck? We’ll get the answers as the season evolves.
9. Manager Oli Marmol: early on his team’s defense is slipping and the baserunning is a liability. Both things are new and unexpected. Only five games into the season, Marmol created an unnecessary controversy and distraction by being overly aggressive in calling Tyler O’Neill out publicly after a baserunning blunder – and then following up with another public round of O’Neill rippage the following morning.
Marmol has made some baffling in-game decisions. And for a guy who chewed out O’Neill for not hustling, Marmol didn’t meet the hustle standard on Monday night by failing to challenge a play at the plate on time. The Colorado runner would have been called out, but Marmol didn’t intervene on time. The mistake enabled the Rockies to extend their lead to 7-4.
I suppose the so-called “sophomore jinx” applies to managers as well. Marmol blew Game 1 of the wild-card round series against Philadelphia last fall by waiting too long to pull an out-of-control closer Ryan Helsley in the disastrous ninth inning. Hard to believe, but that glaring mistake seems to have carried over into 2023. Bad mojo, or something like that. But the dugout is quiet, there isn’t a lot of energy and Marmol’s leadership is important.
10. The Cardinals are getting clobbered by right-handed hitters. Through 10 games, RHB are hitting .314 with a .380 OBP and .460 slug against St. Louis pitching. Opposing RH batters are walloping Cards starters for a .345 average, .419 OBP and .518 slug. That’s preposterously bad – but a sign of the times for the Cardinals in their first 10-game block of 2023.
I believe the Cardinals will straighten themselves and give themselves a strong chance to win the NL Central. I predicted the Cards winning the division over Milwaukee by two games … and I’ll stick with that.
Thanks for reading …
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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All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Statcast and Bill James Online.
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.