THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals have won three in a row, which probably would draw a big SO WHAT? reaction from the elite baseball units in Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and the other 12 places in the majors where teams are playing better than .500 baseball.
Even with their three-game mini sprint, the Cardinals’ .351 winning percentage is still the worst in the National League and tied for 27th in the majors. If this was the old days – with no divisions and only one team from each league qualifying for the World Series – your Cardinals would be 12 and ½ games behind the Braves in the NL standings.
But as Springsteen says, you can’t light a fire without a spark. OK, so that means the Cardinals are still in the spark-generation stage, and that’s OK. You gotta start somewhere. And a three-game winning streak sure is preferable to their sorrowful stretch that included eight consecutive losses as part of a 3-15 crash.
The gracious but stumbling rivals in the NL Central have allowed the Cardinals to think of better days, a comeback and a division title. As long as the Pirates, Brewers, Cubs and Reds keep losing so many games, the Cardinals will have a chance to catch up. But to chase down those teams the Cardinals can’t go back to imitating the 1962 Mets, a blundering and comically inept expansion that lost 120 games.
The FanGraphs computer gives St. Louis a 16.5 percent chance to win the NL Central. So for the Redbirds, it’s all about speeding forward, prospecting for many wins, and letting the Pirates, Brewers, Cubs and Reds know the Cards are getting closer. That’s the plan, anyway. The reality may be quite different.
For the Cardinals, positive karma was discovered at Wrigley Field, with the visitors winning the series and going for the three-game sweep on Wednesday nights. Going back to last season the Cardinals have won 10 of their last 12 games against the Cubs. So, yeah, if there is to be a comeback Wrigley Field was a fine place to start.
I’m no hopeless optimist. But this Cardinals team has been so clownishly bad, a three-game winning streak can make a boy giddy. And with Andrew Knizner batting .353 with a .765 slugging percentage over his last five games, I’m feeling a twinge of Devil Magic vibes. I’ll guzzle some NyQuil and calm down.
THE ACCOUNTING DEPARTMENT: The Cardinals, 13-24, have sawed two games off first-place Pittsburgh’s lead in the NL Central. The Cards are eight behind Team Jolly Roger … in their last seven games the Cardinals have slugged .470 and slammed 13 homers … in defeating the Cubs 6-4 on Tuesday, the Cardinals received solo homers from Nolan Gorman, Lars Nootbaar and Paul DeJong … when the Cards are 9-5 when they blast two or more homers in a game this season – and are 4-19 when they hit fewer than two homers … the Cardinals gave up one run in their first win against the Cubs and allowed four runs in the second game. When St. Louis pitching allows four runs or fewer in a game this season the team’s record is 10-4. But that’s the problem; the Cardinals haven’t had enough well-pitched games … the series win in Chicago is STL’s first since taking two of three from the Rockies from April 10-12 … in the two-straight wins over the Cubs the St. Louis bullpen worked 8.2 inning and was nicked for one run for a 1.04 ERA. And the Cubs batted 1.07 against Cards relievers.
BURDENSOME SCHEDULE: If the Cardinals hope to make a run in the NL Central, they’ll have to play really good baseball over the next 26 games.
After tonight’s series-closing tilt at Wrigley Field, the Cardinals head east for a three-game series at Boston. Then it’s home for three games against the Brewers and four against the Dodgers.
After that – from May 22 through June 7 – the Cardinals will play 13 of 15 games on the road with visits to Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Texas.
We’ll know much, much more about the Cardinals by the time they depart Texas.
PAUL DEJONG DOES IT AGAIN: Pauly cranked a solo homer in the top of the ninth to give the Cards a 5-4 lead that later became 6-4. That home run was part of a two-hit, two-RBI night for DeJong.
As Derrick Goold (STLtoday) and John Denton (MLB.com) pointed out, DeJong has 14 career homers at Wrigley Field since he came to the majors in 2017.
Let’s add a few other things:
+ DeJong has homered every 12.4 at-bats at Wrigley.
+ DeJong has a .511 career slugging percentage at Wrigley which ranks fourth among visiting players that have at least 150 plate appearances there.
+ DeJong has six career ninth-inning home runs at Wrigley; no other visiting player has more than two homers in the ninth since the start of 2017.
+ Since 2017, here are the home-run leaders at Wrigley Field among visiting hitters: DeJong 14, Joey Votto 11, Paul Goldschmidt 11, Matt Carpenter 10, and Eugenio Suarez 10.
MORE ON PAULY D: Since returning from the IL on April 23, DeJong is hitting .350 with a 1.059 OPS. He’s banged three doubles, three homers and plated six RBI. He’s done all of that in only 44 plate appearances. His remodeled batting stance and approach is paying off. And the results go beyond the baseball-card numbers.
— DeJong’s 54.8 percent hard-hit rate is way up from last season’s 37.6% and the 35.3% in 2021.
— His average exit velocity is up to 90 mph, an increase from his 87% rate over the past two seasons.
— DeJong has been more selective, swinging at 47.1 at the pitches offered to him; that’s a drop from recent years. And by being more patient DeJong has an impressive 85 percent contact rate on pitches in the strike zone. Last season DeJong had a contact rate of only 73.4% on strike-zone pitches. Huge improvement there.
— DeJong’s whiff rate – the number of swings-and-misses divided by total swings – is 29.3 percent – down from last season’s 35.2%.
— DeJong had a 33.3 percent strikeout rate last season; so far this season his strikeout rate is only 20.5%.
DeJong’s resurgence is turning into a helluva story. He worked hard to develop a better form and swing, and the modifications are working.
If he keeps this up, I wonder if the Cardinals will pick up their $10.5 million option for 2024? Not too long ago I never would have even thought about typing that sentence. I’m getting ahead of things – but the question did cross my mind.
WILLSON CONTRERAS: Where’s the power? Contreras has two homers this season and he popped both of them against Arizona on April 18. Since then he has a solid batting average (.277) and a good .360 onbase percentage. But he’s slugged .369 over that time and has gone 65 at-bats since his last home run.
CONTRERAS: OFFENSE AS A CATCHER. In 99 plate appearances when manning the catching spot this season, Contreras hit .292 with a .354 onbase percentage and .449 slug, hitting eight doubles and two homers and knocking in 13 runs. He struck out only 16 percent of the time when serving as the catcher.
CONTRERAS: OFFENSE AT DH: It’s a small sample – only 38 plate appearances – but he’s batting .219 with a poor .281 slugging percentage. As a DH Contreras is still getting on base at a healthy rate (.342), but he’s struck out 29 percent of the time. He has two doubles and three RBI as a DH but hasn’t homered.
Per adjusted runs created (wRC+), Contreras is 23 percent above league average offensively as a catcher, and is 15 percent below average as a DH. But let’s be patient here. In 244 plate appearances at DH for the Cubs, Contreras was 28 percent above league average offensively per wRC+.
LARS NOOTBAAR: After helping Japan win the WBC tournament and then being disrupted and sidelined by a thumb injury in the opening game of the season, Nootbaar struggled to set his timing and get in sync. But he’s rolling now. Tuesday night at Wrigley, Nootbaar had a walk and a solo homer to give the Cards a 2-1 lead in the third. In his last 16 games Noot is hitting .317 with a .406 OBP and .450 slugging percentage. In addition he has a 13 percent walk rate, two doubles, two homers and seven RBI over this time.
THERE’S YOUR LEADOFF MAN: And the Cardinals have found their leadoff man. In 69 plate appearances batting first this season, Nootbaar has a .328 average, .435 OBP and .448 slug. That’s impressive. Among MLB leadoff hitters that have at least 69 plate appearances batting 1st this season, Nootbaar ranks second in batting average, third in onbase percentage, fourth in wRC+, fifth in OPS (.883) and ninth in slugging. When batting leadoff Noot is 52 percent above league average offensively per wRC+. Since the start of the 2022 season Nootbaar is 44 percent above league average offensively when batting leadoff, per wRC+.
DYLAN CARLSON: He’s having an interesting season. With a .281 onbase percentage Carlson isn’t getting on base as much as hoped for, and that’s disappointing. But the switch-hitter has made progress against RH pitching; here’s what Carlson has done against righties in his last six games: two homers, a triple, six RBI, a .650 slugging percentage and a .936 OPS. And Carlson has solidified the defense in center field. He currently ranks in the 91st percentile for his overall defense and is tied for sixth among MLB center fielders in Outs Above Average.
SOMEWHAT LAUGHABLE TWO-STRIKE UPDATE: When Cardinals president John Mozeliak and manager Oli Marmol scapegoated Contreras to cover for the starting pitchers that Mozeliak assembled, we heard a lot about their starting pitchers’ horrible performance on two-strike counts.
At the time Contreras was scapegoated and moved to DH, Cardinals’ starters allowed a .261 average and .423 slugging percentage on two-strike pitches.
It’s only been four games since the scapegoating, but in the four games Cardinal starting pitchers have allowed a .273 average and .432 slug on two-strike counts.
Will Mozeliak and Marmol move starting catcher Andrew Knizner to DH? (Just kidding.) And “Kiz” is doing a good job. But again, it’s been only four games since the scapegoating. I’ll continue to monitor this.
THIS IS NOT LAUGHABLE: Since topping out with a .913 OPS on April 14, Nolan Arenado has a .151 batting average, .189 OBP and .209 slugging percentage. His .398 OPS is the worst among regular MLB third basemen. And using adjusted runs created (wRC+) Arenado is an astonishing 90 percent below league average offensively since April 15.
JUMPY JACK FLAHERTY: He pitched five turbulent innings in Tuesday’s start at Wrigley allowing three earned runs, seven hits and five walks while striking out only three. Of the 23 Cub hitters that faced Flaherty, 52 percent reached base. But Jack quelled multiple uprisings by getting the Cubs to hit into four double plays.
It wasn’t a good start by Flaherty, but he gets bonus points for fighting through trouble. It could have been much worse. Flaherty was cranky after the game, and became increasingly grouchy because of questions about his fastball velocity.
Jack said he didn’t want to talk about his fastball velocity, period. He also tried to educate the gathered media on “the art of pitching.” Whatever. If I can’t talk about Flaherty’s velocity, I’ll talk about his 12.75 ERA in his last three starts … and his 6.18 ERA for the season.
Flaherty may have been crabby because he knew he couldn’t blame Willson Contreras this time. Tuesday night the Cubs went 4 for 10 against Flaherty on two-strike counts (.400) and the two-strike damage included a double and homer.
INSPECTING THE NL CENTRAL
The Cardinals’ four divisional rivals have lost their early-season momentum and momentum and are sliding. I’ll list each team’s record during their slump and cite the reasons for the downturn. These records and stats do not include Thursday’s games.
Pirates: 1-8 record since April 30. Why: they’re averaging 1.3 runs per game in their last nine, batting .179 with three homers and a .125 average with runners in scoring position. The team ERA in the last nine games is 5.38, with Pirate starters getting pounded for a 6.01 ERA.
Brewers: 5-10 since April 23: Why: Ace-caliber starting pitcher Brandon Woodruff is sidelined indefinitely with a shoulder problem. Lefty starter Eric Lauer is off form and giving up a lot of runs. During the skid the Brewers are hitting .217, slugging .361 and averaging 3.7 runs per game. And the Milwaukee bullpen has a ghastly 5.47 ERA over the last 15 games.
Cubs: 5-12 since April 22. Why: They’re averaging 3.5 runs over the last 17 games, and a big part of that is a .189 batting average with runners in scoring position. Overall the Cubs have a .237 average and .375 slugging percentage during their slide. And relievers Keegan Thompson and Brad Boxberger are struggling.
Reds: 8-11 since April 18. Why: the team ERA is 5.45 in the last 19 games. Their starters have a 7.07 ERA and have been walloped for a .315 average and .563 slugging percentage. They’ve scored 3.6 runs per game during this stretch, slugging only .353 and batting .216 with runners in scoring position.
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 my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
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.