Play ball. Coming out of the All-Star break the Nationals and Cardinals will reopen with a three-game weekend series at Busch Stadium.
As play resumes for the start of the second half, I’ll present a list of Cardinals who have the most to prove over the team’s final 72 games. I won’t factor in trade possibilities here; we can’t be certain about the St. Louis roster will look like when the trade market closes at 5 p.m. central time on Aug. 1.
Steven Matz + Matthew Liberatore: Assuming that both receive an opportunity to reenter the starting rotation, these two lefties must show that they can be competitive and give their team a chance to win. No one expects them to rank among the best lefty starters in franchise history – think Steve Carlton and John Tudor – but their performances as starting pitchers have been historically bad.
Here are the five worst starting-pitching earned-run averages by a St. Louis left-handed starter during the post-expansion era – minimum 15 career starts.
– Liberatore, 6.35
– Danny Jackson, 5.78
– Matz, 5.40
– Tim Conroy, 5.31
– Kent Mercker, 5.09
Over the last two seasons Matz and Liberatore have combined for 35 starts, and have been collectively combusted for a 5.60 ERA. And it’s not like president of baseball operations John Mozeliak picked up the two lefties on a dumpster-dive expedition. “Mo” gave up outfielder Randy Arozarena (sigh) to land Liberatore, and handed Matz a free-agent contract that pays a guaranteed $44 million through 2025.
Hell, I’d be happy if Libby and Matz pitched as effectively as yesteryear Cardinal lefty Pete Falcone.
Nolan Gorman: It’s been a two-part story for the lefty slugger so far in 2023. There’s been a humongous discrepancy in performance that we can identify by putting his offense in separate two-month blocks:
April-May: .272 average, .555 slug, 13 homers, 10, doubles, 41 RBI, and a 26% strikeout rate. Per wRC+, Gorman was 47 percent above league average offensively in his first two months.
June-July: .157 average, .294 slug, four homers, two doubles, 11 RBI and a 42% strikeout rate. Per wRC+, Gorman is 53 percent below average offensively since the beginning of June.
The Cardinals have a good offense, but Gorman has the strength to lift his team. Check this out:
— When Gorman hits at least one home run in a game this season the Cardinals are 12-3. When Gorman plays and doesn’t homer, the team’s record is 22-44.
— When Gorman drives in at least one run in a game this season, the Cardinals are 21-7. When Gorman plays and doesn’t knock in a run, the Redbirds are 13-40.
Gorman’s importance to this offense cannot be overstated. The Cardinals – need the big guy to have a large second half.
Lars Nootbaar: After a hype-intensive offseason, Noot hasn’t matched the expectations. He’s a good player that’s played well defensively, and his walk rate has kept his onbase percentage (.358) inflated, but overall he’s disappointing offensively.
Nootbaar’s slugging percentage, .382, is down 66 points from last season. Compared to 2022, Nootbaar has come up short on most analytic checkpoints including average exit velocity, launch angle, barrel rate, hard hit rate, and sweet-spot contact. He still punishes four-seam fastballs and sinkers, but pitchers are chewing him up with sliders and changeups.
Nootbaar has dialed down his aggressiveness, swinging at the first pitch only 15% of the time, a drop of 10 percent from last year. Another problem is Nootbaar’s 54% ground ball rate that’s reduced his airpower. In 2021 and 2022, Nootbaar homered on 4 percent of his plate appearances. This year, his home-run rate has dropped by half, to 1.9%. Injuries were a factor in the first half, and Nootbaar is unlikely to establish the desired consistency unless he’s healthy and stays in the lineup.
Dylan Carlson: He’s still young (24), but already has logged just over 1,400 plate appearances in the majors. Carlson performed like the hitter the Cardinals thought he would be in the second half of the 2021 season. Per wRC+, he was 27 percent above league average offensively, had 11 homers and 15 doubles, slugged .505 and put up above-average numbers against righty pitching. It didn’t last.
Since the start of the 2022 season, Carlson has been a league-average hitter with a disappointing onbase percentage (.323) and unimposing power, hitting only 13 home runs in 598 at-bats. And he’s been unable to do much against righty pitchers, hitting .210 and performing 16% below average offensively against them in 475 plate appearances over the last two seasons.
At this point, I’m not sure why the St. Louis front office would be confident in Carlson’s probability of becoming a consistently good impact bat. Except for Carlson’s impressive second half in 2021, it just hasn’t happened.
Tyler O’Neill: I know; citing O’Neill is terribly redundant and boring. But he should be back soon, and presumably the Cardinals will give Muscles another opportunity to see ball, hit ball far. I said I wouldn’t mention the trade factor – but I think I’m obligated to say that the Cardinals, if nothing else, would like to see O’Neill enhance whatever trade value he still has.
O’Neill had a massive 2021 season highlighted by a .286 average, 34 homers, a .560 slug and an overall offensive performance that was 44 percent above the league average per wRC+.
Other than that O’Neill has been a below-average hitter who powers down too often. The excruciating O’Neill experience (2018-2023) has included 10 stays on the Injured List for a total of 221 in-season days … and still counting.
Giovanny Gallegos + Ryan Helsley: The best way for me to break it down is to present their combined performance in 2022, and then do that again for 2023.
* 2022 season: a combined 2.11 ERA, 35 percent strikeout rate, and a save percentage of 77%.
* 2023 season: a combined 3.83 ERA, 27.5% strikeout rate, and a 65% save percentage.
The Cardinals had 21 blown saves in 90 first-half games, the most in the majors. Last season they squandered 17 saves in 162 games. Huge difference. Helsley and Gallegos aren’t the only vulnerable relievers in the STL bullpen, but the two right-handers aren’t nearly as dominant in 2023.
Tommy Edman: His goal is to improve his offensive performance. Per wRC+, last season he was 18 percent above league average offensively. This season he’s 10 percent below average offensively. Per wRC+, this switch-hitter is batting .219 against righties, and is 20 percent below average offensively when facing them. And his middle-infield defense has slipped. Based on defensive runs saved, his center-field defense is slightly above average.
Nolan Arenado: He was minus 4 in defensive runs in the first half. Given his historical excellence at third base – he’s one of the best to ever play the position – Arenado’s off-kilter fielding was stunning. Was this just a hard-luck aberration, or something more significant? I suppose we’ll find out in the second half.
Wilson Contreras: He heated up offensively over his final 16 games of the first half, batting .404 and is 11 percent above league average offensively overall. But his .754 OPS during the 2023 first half didn’t match his career norm (.819 OPS) before the All-Star break.
Andre Pallante: This righthander was a significant asset as a set-up reliever as a rookie in 2022, pitching to a 3.34 ERA. He was strong vs. lefty bats and vulnerable against RH bats. But Pallante had a 4.60 ERA in the first of 2023, and had the most blown saves (5) by a STL reliever. He had five save ops and lost the lead every time. And compared to last season, righty batters have improved their batting average against Pallante by 60 points, their onbase percentage by 95 points, and their slugging percentage by 33 points. I believe the proper word for this is “alarming.” Pallante was one of the team’s best relievers last season. But so far in 2023, he’s one of the worst.
Thanks for reading and I hope you have a swell weekend …
Bernie hosts a weekday sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
The “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and B. Miklasz is available at 590thefan.com, the 590 the fan app or your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus or 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.