THE REDBIRD REVIEW
THE RESET: The Cardinals are 7-8. They’ve played five series, losing four of them. They’ve gone 2-6 in their last eight games. The St. Louis offense swings from fireworks to futility. Statistically the starting rotation is the worst in the majors. The bullpen is a seawall, trying to hold up under the crashing of intensifying waves.
The Cardinals have won fewer series (one) than the Pittsburgh Pirates (two) and the teams have the identical number (7) of victories. The Great Outfield Experiment has led to a 26-man roster spot for Scott Hurst. Meanwhile, manager Mike Shildt continues to place .054 hitter Matt Carpenter in the fifth lineup spot. Dylan Carlson is 42 percent above average in adjusted OPS, and Shildt bats him 7th.
Despite the trends and the troubles, the Cardinals are only 2 games behind the first-place Cincinnati Reds in the benevolent NL Central. In that context, maybe the glass is half full. It’s cracked, yes, but half full.
THE OFFENSE: The Cardinals rank 7th in the majors with an average of 4.73 runs per game. That’s kind of cute — but also detached from a truer realism. Example: The Cardinals have scored 25 runs in their last five games, but look closer. All 25 runs came in six innings, meaning that the Cardinals went scoreless in the other 38 innings of at-bats. Splurge and Purge. The Cards have scored three runs or fewer in seven of their 15 games — and have no more than four runs in nine of 15. The inconsistency is extreme.
HOME-RUN DEPENDENCY: Why is the STL offense so inconsistent? The easy answer: the team relies on the home-run ball for runs. That’s great when the homers are flying. But when the home runs aren’t coming, the offense freezes.
- The Cardinals have scored 40 of their 71 runs via the homer. That’s a top-heavy 56.3 percent. Over the last 10 seasons coming into 2021, the Cardinals didn’t have a HR/runs percentage higher than the 48.1 percent in 2019. The 2011 World Series champions scored 38% of their runs on homers, and the 2013 NL pennant winner produced 29% of their runs via the long ball.
- So far this season the Cardinals are 0-4 when they don’t homer in a game, 3-3 when they hit one homer, 2-0 when they hit two homers, and 2-1 with 3+ homers.
CHASING THE GAME: One reason for the 7-8 start is the frequency of playing catch-up baseball. And that’s a reflection of both the problematic starting pitching and the irregular offense.
Here’s a breakdown of the Cardinals being ahead, behind or tied after the first seven innings of each game. I’ll list the numbers in that exact order: ahead, behind tied.
!st Inning: 3-6-6
2nd Inning: 4-7-4
3rd Inning: 4-8-3
4th Inning: 4-9-2
5th Inning: 4-9-2
6th Inning: 5-9-1
7th Inning: 6-8-1
There’s a reason for the disparity.
Cardinals hitters are batting .212 with a .654 OPS against the other team’s starting pitchers. Those starters have a 3.74 ERA against St. Louis.
Opposing hitters are batting .282 with a huge .833 OPS against St. Louis starters. And the Cards rotation has a 6.24 ERA against opponents.
The other side is winning the starter vs. hitters battle, and by a significant margin. That makes a runs deficit inevitable for the Cardinals.
IT’S EVEN WORSE AGAINST RH STARTERS: This season the Cards are batting .203 with a .651 OPS against right-handed starters in 443 plate appearances. The Cardinals are better (.286 average, .783 OPS) vs. lefty starters. But the Cards have only 118 PA against LH starters, which ain’t much of a sample size. Besides the Cardinals will take around 75 percent of their at-bats against RHP this season and they’ll have to do more than hit .203 with a .622 OPS. That’s what they’ve done so far.
STARTING PITCHING: Speaking of ERA … As the new week gets underway, the Cards rotation is back at the bottom (30th) in ERA at 6.24. To no one’s surprise they’re 26th in innings (66.1). They’ve walked 10.3 percent of batters faced (27th), a significant factor in hitters posting the highest onbase percentage (.374) in the majors against Cards starters. And with heavy traffic on the bases the staff’s overall ground-ball rate (37.8%, including relievers) really works against them. Here’s why: Cardinals pitchers have had 120 double-play opportunities this season, the fourth highest in the majors. But when you don’t coax many ground balls the double-play count will be low. And sure enough the Cards pitchers have gotten only eight double plays in the 120 opportunities. (That 7% rate is 27th.)
Cardinals starting pitchers have struck out only 19.3% of batters faced. Concentrating on just the STL starters, leaving the relievers out of it, this is a bad combination: this is a bad combination: high pitch counts, elevated walk total, low strikeout rate, an opponent.282 batting average and a shortage of grounders. That’s no way to provide extended service of innings or limit opponent runs.
THE SHORT STARTS CONTINUE: The STL rotation ranks 30th (last) in average innings per start. We all can agree that the 2020 season was skewed for obvious reasons, but even then Cards starters averaged 4.8 innings per start. From 2011 through 2019 the rotation never averaged lower than 5.5 IP per start and never ranked worse than 10th in average innings over the nine seasons. And from 2011 through 2015 the STL rotation averaged between 6.2 and 6.0 innings per start.
THE TOP OF THE LINEUP STRATEGY: Manager Mike Shildt is committed to having Tommy Edman leading off, Paul Goldschmidt hitting second, and Nolan Arenado at No. 3. It hasn’t clicked so far. Not consistently, anyway. The Cardinals’ onbase percentage from the first three lineup spots is .320; that ranks 23rd among the 30 top-three alignments in the majors. Edman has done a good job of getting on base, but Goldy’s OBP is way down, at .286, and Arenado’s .328 OBP is 20 points under his career rate.
It’s difficult to stir the offense when there’s a dry spell in onbase percentage near the front of the lineup. And the structure is limited, anyway, because it’s not like Shildt will have Edman, Goldy or Arenado trying to steal a bunch of bases. But what happened to the hit and run? Without high OBP and high slugging up top, there’s a lot of standing around.
Improvement for Goldschmidt and Arenado is inevitable, but here’s the second issue: when the top-three lineup hitters reach base, they aren’t scoring a ton of runs. The total of 27 runs isn’t horrible but ranks 13th. This is what happens when the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in Shildt’s lineup are hitting .189 with a 31% strikeout rate. The STL 4-5 spots have driven in only 15 runs.
Having a hot Yadier Molina batting cleanup is helping; after all he has 11 of the 21 hits recorded by the Cards’ No. 4 and 5 hitters. (But only five RBIs because of the downturn in OBP by hitters that precede him.) But when a pitcher can get by Molina, it becomes an easy ride. When batting fifth Matt Carpenter, Tyler O’Neill are a combined 5 for 42 (.119) with six RBI and a 31% strikeout rate.
Goldschmidt has been driven in 3 times by Arenado, twice by Molina and DeJong, and once by O’Neill. Arenado has driven himself in four times with his four homers. But this is staggering: when Arenado hasn’t scored via his own homer, he’s been driven in by other Cardinals only FOUR times: three by Molina, and one by Carpenter.
Yeah, but let’s just ignore Dylan Carlson’s .357 OBP and .517 slug and keep batting him 7th. Good grief.
NEXT UP: Three at Washington beginning Monday night. Jack Flaherty starts the first game. Go 7 innings at least, Jack. Eight is even better.
Thanks for reading …
Please check out Bernie’s 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 live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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.