THE REDBIRD REVIEW
In yesterday’s column, I explained why I believe the Cardinals will overtake Milwaukee and win the NL Central. I intentionally left out a relevant opinion because I wanted to save it for today’s follow-up analysis.
Here’s that opinion: The Cardinals underachieved in the first half, and should have been a first-place team at the All-Star break. If the Cardinals play up to their potential and maximize their strengths, they should prevail in the NL Central.
I’m sure the Cardinals would push back on the view that they were underachievers over their first 94 games of the season. We’d hear more of the usual excuses …
Injuries. Tough schedule. Weariness.
I wrote about this recently, so pardon my redundancy. But the Cardinal excuse-making machine conveniently missed a few things:
A) In terms of days missed on the IL, the Cards have endured less injury trauma than 23 teams.
B) The St. Louis schedule was the 11th-easiest in the first half based on the winning percentage of their opponents. And while it’s true that the Cardinals are one of five MLB teams tied for the most games played (94) that’s only two games more than the MLB average (92). Twenty-three MLB teams have played at least 92 games, only two fewer than St. Louis. Big bleeping deal.
C) As for being tired … well, let’s pipe down because the other 29 MLB teams were fatigued at the break.
I want to talk about management’s role in this. Sure, the Cardinals had some glaring bullpen weaknesses in the form of Nick Wittgren, Drew VerHagen, T.J. McFarland and Aaron Brooks – but that’s no excuse, either. They’ve been the result of self-inflicted mistakes caused by poor free-agent signings or neglect, and the same applies to the insufficient depth to protect a shaky rotation. It would be ridiculous to give the Cardinals’ front office a pass on this. The baseball bosses played a significant role in the underachieving first half.
I say the Cardinals underachieved because they should have a 54-40 record (.574) based on run differential and other underlying factors. Instead, the Cards went into the All-Star break with a 50-44 record (.532.)
Based on their run differential, the Brewers should be 49-44 and 4.5 games behind the Cardinals in the standings.
There are other models – most notably the respected Clay Davenport’s third-order winning percentage – that put the Cardinals where they should be in actual wins and losses. That’s duly noted.
That said, I feel compelled to include other considerations that reaffirm my position on this. And I sincerely believe that the Cardinals came up short in the first half and should have more victories in their pocket as they prepare to resume play Friday. That puts pressure on the Redbirds to make up for missed opportunities over the final 68 games.
Here are the reasons for the shortage of wins, and I’ve noted several of these areas during the run-up to the All-Star break.
Squandering The Edge In Key Categories: When Team STL outperforms the Team MIL in runs scored per game, runs allowed per game, and also on defense (not even close) and in running the bases (not even close), then Team STL should be in first place and leading Team MIL by at least a few games in the standings. Period.
Failing To Take Full Advantage Of Goldschmidt, Arenado & Edman: Using the Baseball Reference version of WAR, the Cardinals have the top three WAR leaders among National League position players in Nolan Arenado (5.0), Paul Goldschmidt (4.8) and Tommy Edman (4.4.) Milwaukee can’t match STL’s position-player strength. The Wins Above Average metric (Baseball Reference) ranks the Cardinal position players at No. 1 in the NL with 9.0 WAA, and the Brewers are No. 4 with 3.3 WAA.
Goldschmidt was the unofficial National League MVP in the first half. He leads the NL in batting average (.330), onbase percentage (.414), slugging (.590), OPS (1.004) and OPS + and is second in RBI (70) and total bases, plus No. 3 with 48 extra-base hits.
In addition to leading the NL in WAR, Arenado leads MLB third basemen with 15 defensive runs saved and has slashed and slammed his way to 21 doubles, 18 homers, 59 RBI and a .526 slugging percentage. His 152 OPS+ ranks 7th in the NL.
Edman? According to Fielding Bible he leads all major leaguers in defensive runs saved and is the highest-rated baserunner in the NL with 20 steals and a superb extra-bases taken rate of 68 percent.
Milwaukee has position-player talent … but not of the same caliber as St. Louis. In the first half did the Cardinals maximize their obvious advantage in position-player quality? Heck, no.
The Rookie Impact Should Have Produced More Wins: Brendan Donovan, Juan Yepez and Nolan Gorman combined for 587 at-bats in the first half; that’s the equivalent of a season’s worth of ABs for one starting player. So let’s go with a composite by putting the numbers of the three rookies together. Here’s what we come up with: 4.1 WAR, .262 average, .342 OBP, .429 slug, .771 OPS, 22 homers, 38 doubles, 79 RBI and 79 runs.
Now think about that for a moment … not only did the Cardinals receive excellent all-around play and production from Goldschmidt, Arenado and Edman in the first half – they also benefited from the substantial and largely unexpected contributions from three rookie hitters.
What about the pitching? Rookies Andre Pallante, Zack Thompson and Packy Naughton have done a nice job for a staff that needed help. And even though top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore has a 5.33 ERA, the team is 5-1 in his six starts – with three of the six starts qualifying as a quality outing according to the Bill James Game Score. Despite his inexperience and flaws, Liberatore didn’t hurt the team. Not much, anyway.
C’mon now. With such a potent rookie mix of hitting and pitching, there’s no way this team should be only six games over .500 and in second place in a weak division.
No Excuse For The Mediocre Road Record: The Cardinals are 21-24 when away from Busch Stadium this season. (And 29-20 at Busch.) We can take the easy way here by blaming it on the starting pitching, which has a terrible 4.78 road ERA that ranks 23rd overall and 11th in the NL.
What puzzles me is the lousy performance of the St. Louis offense when traveling, with the Cards averaging 4.4 runs per game and ranking 18th in the majors in road slugging (.386), road OPS (.703), and 16th in road park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+). I can understand the Cards’ higher starting-pitching ERA on the road, but it shouldn’t be this inflated.
I do not hesitate to criticize the STL front office for having a thin pitching staff, but there’s really no reason for their starting pitchers to get lit up so often in road games. The current 4.78 road ERA would be the worst by a STL rotation since the abysmal 5.61 road ERA showing in 2007.
Busch Stadium has consistently provided shelter for pitchers, and sure enough Cards starters have the sixth-best home ERA (3.22) at home this season. But I’m surprised to see the Cardinals hitting so well at home, ranking 4th in MLB in batting average and 9th in both slugging (.419) and OPS (.741.)
While I respect the Cards’ offensive improvement at Busch Stadium this season, it makes no sense to see them perform 16% higher (in wRC+) than the league average at home … while being two percent below the league average offensively on the road. This offense should be wired to do heavy damage on the road but comes up light too often. That’s just another example of why the Cardinals are such an enigma.
Bottom line: the Cardinals were below average on offense and in pitching on the road during the first half – and it shouldn’t have been this bad. If they had performed at a slightly above-average level in both areas, their road record wouldn’t be on the wrong side of .500.
Milwaukee Has Better Starting Pitching, But … The gap is relatively minor if we use standard ERA. Milwaukee’s starters rank 11th in the majors with a 3.85 earned-run average, with the St. Louis starters parked at 15th with a 3.93 ERA. The gap is larger in fielding independent ERA – big edge to the Brewers – but as long as the Cardinals continue to play outstanding defense the FIP won’t matter much.
If the front office lands a starting pitcher and a reliever to reinforce the staff, the Cardinals should finish atop of the division. Starting pitching is the primary need, but Gio Gallegos has labored and it would be wise to bring in a capable high-leverage reliever. The bullpen is in solid shape but could be better; the ongoing presence of John Mozeliak Scholarship relievers VerHagen and McFarland prevents this from happening. And this cannot continue; to win the division the Cardinals must rely on players – relievers included – who have earned their roster spots through the quality of their performance.
That was another problem during the underachieving first half: the Cardinals didn’t go with their best bullpen dudes as much as they should have, and that’s on the front office and its roster decisions. Mozeliak and his assistants have to make up for it by boosting the staff through trades and giving manager Oli Marmol more appealing options — for the rotation and in the ‘pen.
It would be a shame to see the front office continue to sit back and ignore weaknesses that reduce the value of the high-level performances from Goldy, Arenado, Edman and closer Ryan Helsley – as well as the good work by starting pitchers Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright. If lefty Steven Matz can make a solid return to the rotation, that would be a plus. But Matz is in his first year here, and we’re not sure what to expect. Jack Flaherty (another sore shoulder) is a late-season “maybe” and you can’t make roster decisions on what-if candidates who have a pattern of failing to get to the post.
I know I keep harping about the Cardinals having the easiest second-half schedule in the majors, here’s another way to look at it: St. Louis will play 38 of its final 68 games against the Reds (11), Cubs (11), Pirates (7) and Nationals (7.) The four teams were a combined 92 games under .500 at the break and have the four worst winning percentages in the National League.
The Brewers are finished playing the MLB-worst Nationals this season. And while the Cardinals still have 31 games to go against the Pirates, Cubs and Reds – the Brewers will face those three NL Central teams only 19 times.
If the Cardinals can’t get this done and leave the Brewers behind, it will raise more serious and intense questions about the people in charge. The people that make the decisions on roster construction and roster enhancement. But Marmol will face more scrutiny in the second half and certainly will feel the heat if the Cardinals fall down despite having several advantages over Milwaukee.
Under deposed manager Mike Shildt, the 2019 Cardinals were among the best teams in MLB after the All-Star break, peaking with a 47-27 record to end with 91 wins overall and finish first in the NL Central for the first time since 2015. The 2020 Cardinals – a team that had legitimate excuses for its struggles – rallied to go 8-4 in the final 12 games to clinch a wild-card playoff spot. And the 2021 Cardinals were a splendid and exciting 46-26 after the break to reach 90 victories and earn a wild-card ticket.
If the 2022 Cardinals collapse, they shouldn’t expect much sympathy.
A VIEW FROM THE OUTSIDE
In assessing all 30 teams at the break, our friend David Schoenfield of ESPN.com gave a B+ grade to the Brewers and a C+ mark to the Cardinals.
Schoenfield on St, Louis: “They’ve done a good job adjusting on the fly, such as giving playing time to Donovan and Yepez, shifting Edman over to shortstop to create an opening for Gorman at second, and utilizing Helsley at closer at times. Yet, there’s still the feeling they should be better than this, especially given Paul Goldschmidt was the first-half NL MVP. Granted, they’ve underperformed their Pythagorean record by a few wins, but they’ve also been shut out 11 times — heading into the final weekend before the break, that was second most in the majors behind Detroit’s 12. Note: Based on current winning percentages, the Cardinals also have the easiest schedule in the majors the rest of the way.”
Schoenfield on Milwaukee: “All things considered, I think the Brewers will take where they are — on pace for 90 wins and leading the NL Central coming out of the break. With just 21 combined starts out of Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, they’ve had to scramble a bit more in the rotation than they’ve liked, but they may also need more from the offense to hold off the Cardinals. Their regular lineup features eight players with an OPS over .700 but under .800 — meaning eight average or better hitters, but no big offensive stars. (It seems clear that Christian Yelich will never be “the man” again.) That may be good enough for the regular season, but can it work in October? Also: Do they need to worry about the suddenly struggling Josh Hader after his three-homer explosion on Friday?”
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were 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.