The Cardinals did it. They made the playoffs. They are officially in, but unofficially on the bubble, because a one-game wildcard showdown will make the bubble — and one team — disappear into the offseason.
Cardinals at Los Angeles Dodgers.
Given the Cards’ longshot chances of making the playoffs, the season goes into the books as a surprise. I’m sure that Cardinals fans will agree: it sure would be fun to keep the surprises coming.
There were many surprises during the regular season, and I’ll focus on the positives. Because the unexpected positives are the reason why the Cardinals are flying to Los Angeles. And the unexpected positives were a big part of the most shocking surprise of all: the 17-game winning streak that turned an unhappy season into a deliriously joyful experience.
1) The Moves Worked, Part I: Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch were justifiably criticized for their failure to boost the team’s depth before the season. And more denunciations rightfully came down when the Cards’ injury-torn pitching staff grew weaker during a 11-22 stretch that began May 30.
The front office made two bullpen moves in early July, signing Yankees Triple A closer Luis Garcia, a righthander, when he opted out of his contract. They signed lefty ground-baller T.J. McFarland after his June 29 release by the Nationals. Both relievers have turned in strong performances, combining for a 2.90 ERA, a low walk rate, and a high ground-ball rate over 72 innings. Their presence stabilized a bullpen that evolved into a much more reliable asset in the final two-plus months of the regular season.
Before the All-Star break: Cardinals relievers combined for a historically horrible 13.6 percent walk rate, worst in the majors. Their 4.38 ERA was 19th in MLB.
After the All-Star break: the STL bullpen’s walk rate dropped to 9.5% — still on the high side, but a more respectable 16th in MLB. And the relievers’ ERA dropped to 3.47, tied for seventh-best in MLB.
The quality, consistency and stabilization provided by Garcia and McFarland were essential to the team’s September success. A detrimental bullpen became a dependable bullpen, turning in MLB’s fourth-best ERA (3.10) during the final month.
That the Cardinals could reach out and secure a little help from McFarland and Garcia wasn’t all that surprising. In 2021, MLB teams constantly brought in relievers, changed relievers, released relievers, and found more relievers.
But the effectiveness and impact supplied by McFarland and Garcia came as a substantial surprise that shouldn’t be understated.
2) The Moves Worked Part II: On the morning of the July 30 MLB trade deadline the Cardinals were 51-51 and lagging eight games behind the Padres in the scramble for the second wild card. In June the Cardinals picked up veteran free-agent lefty Wade LeBlanc, and he did his part to solidify a shaky rotation, crafting his way to 2.94 ERA in his first seven starts for St. Louis.
With LeBlanc doing unexpectedly well, the starting-pitching chaos had settled a bit. But no question about it, the rotation was still a problem, on trade-deadline day, ranking 14th in the majors in ERA (4.14) and 15th in innings pitched.
On the afternoon of July 30, Mozeliak and Girsch made moves to acquire Jon Lester from Washington and J.A. Happ from Minnesota. Both arrived in St. Louis with depressingly high earned-run averages, and the local and national reaction could best be described in one word: HUH?
You could say that Lester and Happ were worth the look and the trade exchange. Overall the Cardinals have won 14 of their 23 starts, and have a combined 4.18 ERA since joining the Redbirds.
But the importance of Lester and Happ became even more valuable after LeBlanc injured his elbow early in his Aug. 12 start at Pittsburgh. He was lost for the season. More chaos. More worries. Since LeBlanc’s injury Lester and Happ have a combined 3.90 ERA in 19 starts. And the Cardinals are 13-6 in their 19 starts since Aug. 14. Remarkable.
Since the beginning of August the Cardinal rotation had a 3.69 ERA that ranked sixth in the majors. And Cards starters were eighth in the majors in innings over the final two months of the regular season.
In what was easily the most profound surprise of the season, Lester and Happ became valuable pieces in a crystallized rotation. They have exceeded the expectations set by fans, the local and national media. They surprised opponents that pursued the Cardinals in vain. And they have done considerably better than Mozeliak and Girsch could have hoped for. In fact, when the Lester-Happ trades were finalized, Mozeliak told reporters that the Cardinals just needed to find more innings “to get through the season.”
They got through the season. The St. Louis longshot status changed quickly, and the Cards are preparing for Wednesday’s wild-card game at Los Angeles.
Without the procurement of the “Devil Magic” five — Lester, Happ, LeBlanc, Garcia and McFarland — the Cards’ season would have come to a close on Sunday in the rain at Busch Stadium.
3) Tyler O’Neill Became One Of The Best Outfielders In Baseball. Yes, he is one of the best outfielders in the game and I’ll explain why I say that in a couple of minutes. And yes, O’Neill’s emergence as a star is absolutely a surprise. Before the season, many were inclined to give up on O’Neill. And that’s understandable. Patience was dwindling. At best, the hope was that O’Neill would do enough to justify his place on the roster — and management’s faith in his talent.
Well, you know about his breakout season. The massive power, the gold-glove defense in left field, the speed on the bases, the homers and doubles and runs scored. You were thrilled by his performance over his final 34 games of the regular season: .333 average, seven doubles, two triples, 13 homers, 32 RBI, 31 runs — and a .333 batting average and 1.114 OPS.
But here’s the number that will surprise you: using the Baseball Reference version of WAR, O’Neill ranked eighth among MLB position players this season with 6.3 bWAR. Ahead of him in order are Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien, Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Jose Ramirez, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Trea Turner.
(O’Neill is slightly ahead of Bryce Harper because of his sizable advantage over Harper in the defense and baserunning metrics.)
If you peruse that list, only one MLB outfielder had more bWAR than O’Neill this season: Soto, with 7.0. But even if you prefer using the FanGraphs version of WAR, O’Neill ranked tied for fifth among MLB outfielders with 5.3 fWAR. Either way, Tyler O’Neill was a top-five MLB outfielder during the 2021 regular season.
Coming into 2021, O’Neill had averaged 0.8 bWAR over his first three MLB seasons. He did that over 171 games. This season he put up 6.3 bWAR in only 138 games.
That, my friends, is a tremendous surprise.
I was in the “Cautiously Optimistic” O’Neill camp before the season. And I never would have anticipated that he’d deliver such a monumental season.
4) The Offense Rises From A Deep Sleep: Even now, after filling the September sky with home runs, and using the outfield as a driving range for their doubles, and demoralizing opponents with a persistent attack of big hits with runners in scoring position — well, the Cardinals were a mediocre offense overall during the regular season, ranking 10th in the 15-team National League with an average of 4.36 runs per game.
A terribly underachieving offense could not compensate for the mess caused by rotation injuries and bullpen blowups. From the start of the season through the end of July, the Cardinals were 12th in the NL in runs, 11th in homers, 13th in batting average, 14th in onbase percentage, 12th in slugging and 12th in OPS.
The offense perked up in August, and kept improving from there. If we combine August with September-October, here’s how the Cardinals fared over the final two-plus months of the regular season based on NL rankings:
–1st in park-and-league adjusted runs created.
–1st in batting average, .262.
–1st in slugging, .456.
–1st in OPS, .785.
–1st in stolen bases, 36.
–2nd in runs.
–2nd in batting average (.280) with men in scoring position.
–5th in homers.
Of course, the enlivened bats reached a crescendo in September during the unforgettable 17-game winning streak. During the rampage the Cards averaged 6.8 runs, 2.0 homers and 2.2 doubles per game. They batted .292, had a .341 OBP and slugged .540. They hit a preposterous .354 with runners in scoring position. Everything fell into place — and then some.
Sure, the Cardinals adjusted a few things in their approach — or tried to, anyway. An important improvement came in their two-strike hitting. After having a .156 average on two-strike counts during the first four months, the Cardinals batted .187 with two strikes over the final two months. But if you hear or read them talking about how they’ve hit to the opposite field more frequently — I suggest tuning that out. The Cardinals had an opposite-field rate of 24.5% through July, and that went down to 21.9% during the final two months. And they’ve pulled the ball more often during the last two months.
The other item that improved was batting average on balls in play: .276 over the first four months; .306 over the last two months. It never hurts to have better luck on your side. And it helps to keep your best players on the field, without suffering injury harm that displaces them from the lineup. And it helps to have Edmundo Sosa take over for the struggling Paul DeJong at shortstop.
More than anything, the Cardinals’ surge on offense is an example of how an underachieving team gets its mojo going when the hitters fulfill their potential and hit as well (or better) as expected. The snoozing offense became an attacking offense. Just when we accepted the likely reality of this being a ho-hum team offensively, the Cardinals erupted and became a dangerous team instead. And that was an enormous — if overdue — surprise.
5) Adam Wainwright, Ageless Wonder … Again! C’mon. Not that anyone doubted Wainwright’s capability to have a fine season — a good season — a 40-year-old starting pitcher isn’t supposed to throw 206 innings, personally go 17-7, befuddle hitters with a 3.05 ERA, and do his part to give the team a 22-10 record in his 32 starts. Nope. And said pitcher isn’t supposed to go 14-3 with a 2.58 ERA over his final 22 starts of the regular season — with his team winning 18 of the 22 games.
This is not possible.
Unless he’s Adam Wainwright.
And he’s very much of a surprise because his performance destroys all age-related standards and expectations for a major-league starting pitcher who’s been doing this since in the bigs two years before the first iPhone came out in 2007.
6) Edmundo Sosa’s Star Turn: In his 75 starts the rookie middle infielder batted .294 with a .795 OPS. After the All-Star break, he had a .450 slug and .815 OPS and dazzled at shortstop. Sosa gave the team many shots of energy with his skill, speed, intensity, timely plays, a rocket arm and a maximum-capacity love for the game. I’ve always been in his corner and hoped he’d get his opportunity this season. But I didn’t expect him to thrive right away — and make a positive difference from the moment manager Mike Shildt put him in the starting lineup. I’m surprised. Delightfully so.
7) The Collapse Of The Other Contenders: At the All-Star break the Cardinals were floundering at 44-46. In the wild-card scramble to come, the Cards were 7 and ½ games behind the Padres, 5 games behind the Reds and Mets, and one game in back of the Phillies.
Here are the records since the All-Star break:
The trend — the Cards as an oncoming train — would become more glaring over the final month of the regular season, beginning Sept. 1:
It’s one thing for the Cardinals to suddenly turn lava-hot late in the season to take command of the race. But none of the other contenders even put up a fight. That’s the surprise. It was reasonable to expect at least one or two teams to kick in, make a spirited run and chase the Cardinals to the finish line.
The exact opposite happened. While the Cardinals were playing .718 baseball over the final month, the Padres, Reds, Phillies and Mets combined for a .400 winning percentage. The Cards did their part by winning 12 of 14 games from the Reds, Mets and Padres during the final weeks of the regular season.
The Cardinals got off their duff and won the prize. They may have captured it without enduring an intense challenge — but that doesn’t mean they didn’t deserve it. When you prove yourselves to be vastly superior to the teams competing with you for the same wild-card spot, then you’ve earned it.
8) Lars Nootbaar Has More Game Than Name: OK, can we stop with the candy-bar jokes? Thank you. Because this rookie outfielder can play. And he played a key role in the Aug-Sept-Oct run, batting .265 with a .337 OBP and .482 slug in 93 plate appearances. His lefthanded stroke produced power (five homers, three doubles, 12 RBIs. His speed, athleticism and instincts made him a plus defender and baserunner. Nothing seemed to rattle him; the kid batted .350 with runners in scoring position over the last two-plus months. This is yet another Devil Magic graduate from the Cardinals farm system. I’m surprised because I didn’t even think we’d see him in the majors this year. And I’m surprised because his acclimation to the bigs didn’t seem like an acclimation — Nootbaar looked like a five-year veteran, or something.
9) Tommy Edman’s All-Around Edmaness: Didn’t expect 42 doubles, tied for second in the majors. Didn’t expect 30 stolen bases, tied for sixth in the majors. Didn’t expect that he’d save runs at three positions. Didn’t expect him the switch-hitter to rebound after having a couple of brutal months against RH pitchers. He continues to be a surprise.
10) Oh, Before I Forget: Did I mention Yadier Molina? Nah, I didn’t forget. I was waiting until the end. He’s 39, everything hurts, he handled more than 30 pitchers this season, and he refurbish Lester and Happ upon their arrival in The Lou. Even with all of that going on, he slammed 11 homers, drove in 66 runs, and batted .327 with runners in scoring position.
Thanks for reading …
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
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.