THE REDBIRD REVIEW
After starting pitcher Miles Mikolas brilliantly sheltered them from harm in a 2-1 victory over the Royals, the Cardinals have two days off and a lot to think about.
Regrouping and mobilizing after an atrocious 10-24 start, the Cardinals won 15 of their next 23 games for the best winning percentage (.652) in the National League since May 7.
Incapacitated by unfit starting pitching, the Cardinals fluttered to a 10-19 record in April, and recovered for a 15-13 ledger in May. There’s nothing special about going 15-13 during a month of baseball – but it was a helluva lot better than 10-19.
The month of May gave the Cardinals a chance to reset, and they did a pretty good job of it. But I’ll decline to join the media cheer squad; this team still has issues that threaten to destabilize their progress. And before we forget, the 25-32 Cardinals are 13th among the 15 NL teams (and 25th overall) with a .439 winning percentage.
Here’s what I’m thinking about the Cardinals at this quiet two-day break in the schedule.
1. Can we hush up about the 19 games in 19 days? This wasn’t the Battle of Chickamauga, OK? As Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt helpfully reminded the hand-holding media: an extra-busy stretch of schedule is common in baseball, all 30 teams must go through these grueling grinds, and there are no excuses. The boys flattened out near the end, going 4-5, but won 12 of the 19 games. So let’s hold off on those Congressional Medal of Honor. It’s baseball. And playing games while tired is a standard part of the gig.
2. The best thing going for the Cardinals is their good fortune of competing in the NL Central. Sounds familiar, eh? How can the Cardinals start the season by losing 24 of 34 games and be only 4 and ½ games out of first place? Easy answer: the division is malodorous. The first-place Brewers are the only team in the division with a winning record (28-26) and they’ve been ripped up by injuries. Since the Cardinals began their 15-8 stretch on May 7, the other NL Central teams had a combined winning percentage of .421 through Tuesday.
3. Believe it or not, the St. Louis starting pitching has improved. This surprised me, and I imagine it will surprise many of you as well. Since the Cardinals began to heat up on May 7, their starting-pitching ERA is 3.93 – which ranks second in the NL to Atlanta over that time and is eighth-best in the majors.
This upturn is mostly about the work of Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty. In their last nine starts collectively, the two right-handers have given up only 12 earned runs in 56 innings for a 1.92 ERA. But there are still too many concerns. Since May 7, the starting pitchers not named Mikolas or Flaherty have collectively pitched to a 7.76 ERA. But there is hope in the form of young lefty Matthew Liberatore. This rotation still has much to prove, and president of baseball ops John Mozeliak shouldn’t relax. It’s hard to imagine he’ll ignore the starting-pitching market as the trade deadline nears.
4. For the most part the offense has performed at a high level this season. The key word there is “season.” Sure, the last seven games have been flat-out awful for the Birds at Bat, with the lineup pieces averaging 2.1 runs, batting .177 and posting a feeble .557 OPS over that time. Worst of all, the Cardinals hit .095 with runners in scoring during the last seven games.
But the overall season provides a meaningful sample size. And in that context the Cardinals are a top 10 offense in MLB in runs per game, homers per game, slugging percentage, onbase percentage, OPS, OPS+, total bases, and stolen bases. And the Redbirds lead the majors in home runs and are second in slugging percentage and OPS when batting with runners in scoring position.
5. The outfield is in disarray. There have been injuries to Dylan Carlson, Lars Nootbaar and Tyler O’Neill. Mediocre offense. Poor defense. A myriad of dizzying combinations. Infielders playing outfield. A return to the minor leagues for top prospect Jordan Walker, who went back to his old swing in a rejection of what the Cardinals wanted him to do. Just non-stop chaos.
– According to Fielding Bible the Cardinals have the second-worst outfield in the majors with a minus 14 defensive runs saved.
– Offensively the collection of St. Louis outfielders are 24th in homers, 26th in OPS and 26th in slugging among the 30 outfield groups.
— The STL outfield ranks 27th in WAR (1.2), 28th in Wins Above Average, and 29th in baserunning.
— The Cardinals have used nine players in the outfield. And the nine guys have been moving around. The team has trotted out seven left fielders, five center fielders and six right fielders.
— Infield/utility tools Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman have combined for 21 starts in the outfield. Last season Donovan and Edman combined for 17 outfield starts during the 162-game schedule. And 16 were by Donovan.
To state the obvious, this is a glaring problem spot. Imagine how imposing the St. Louis offense would be if the front office could do a better job of evaluating talent.
5a. Jordan Walker looms as an option – presumably in the near future – but he’s 2 for 14 with six strikeouts in his last two games for Memphis. That said, we certainly can see (from left to right) a starting outfield of Walker, Carlson and Nootbaar when all three are ready to go.
6. The defense is failing to provide solid cover for a pitch-to-contact starting rotation. The Fielding Bible data isn’t updated for public consumption on a daily basis, so there’s a lag time in receiving the latest info. Which is fine; that means Fielding Bible is doing a thorough job. But in the most recent reveal, the Cardinals rank 24th among the MLB teams with a minus 11 defensive runs saved.
This is a substantial decline from their previous two seasons. In 2021 the Cardinals were second in the majors with +81 defensive runs saved. They followed that up by ranking fourth with +67 DRS in 2022. And in 2023, their defense is a liability.
It’s more than a minor concern. With a starting staff that ranks 26th in strikeout rate and has yielded the second-highest contact rate (81%) among MLB rotations, many batted balls will be in play and good defense is critical. The Cardinals have converted only 66.4 percent of batted balls in play into outs; defensive efficiency ranks an alarming 29th in the majors. Not including catcher, the Cardinals are playing “plus” defense at two positions, first base and pitcher.
7. The Cardinals are struggling to lock down wins. The Redbirds are tied for the most blown saves (12) in the majors and are 26th with a 52 percent save percentage. Their relievers have a 6.58 ERA in high-leverage situations. Ryan Helsley isn’t nearly as dominant as he was last season. In terms of ERA+, Giovanny Gallegos is 81 percent above league average after being 29% above average in 2021-2022. Left-handed relief tends to be shaky. The improving Jordan Hicks warrants more usage in high-leverage scenarios.
8. The STL remaining strength of schedule isn’t as arduous as it is for many MLB teams. According to the Tankathon site, the Cardinals remaining opponents collectively have a .492 winning percentage. With 105 games left for the Cardinals, they have MLB’s eighth-easiest schedule. That said, the trip to London for the Cards-Cubs series is followed by a six-game homestand that brings in the Yankees and Astros … which is followed by seven consecutive road games. That won’t be easy, so expect many locals to be yapping and scribing about how this is the baseball equivalent of the Battle of Gettysburg.
9. The Cardinals must take advantage of the favorable home-team setting at Busch Stadium. They’re 12-16 on their home turf this season, an important factor in their 25-32 overall record. The Cards’ .429 home winning percentage ranks 27th among the 30 teams. That’s embarrassing.
10. Postseason probability: The outlook has improved, but the Cardinals have a lot of winning to do. The FanGraphs simulations project the Brewers for a 83-win total, slightly better than St. Louis (81.) FanGraphs gives the Cardinals a 31.8% chance of winning the division and a 39.6% shot of reaching the postseason.
* What a superb start by Miles Mikolas last night in the 2-1 win over Kansas City: eight shutout innings, three hits, a walk and 10 strikeouts. This was Mikolas at his best. He had a Game Score of 91, which tied his career-best as a Cardinal. His other 91 game score came against the Royals on May 21, 2018.
* Mikolas had a 1.89 ERA in six May starts.
* In nine starts since April 16, Mikolas has the second-best ERA (2.11) among MLB starting pitchers that have worked at least 50 innings over that time. That’s second to Texas starter Nathan Eovaldi (1.38.)
* The Cardinals rank 8th in the majors with a .753 OPS. Problem is, their opponents have a .767 OPS against Cardinal pitchers, and that ranks 27th.
* According to the starting-pitching “gems” count at Bill James Online, the Cardinals have eight of them so far this season: three by Mikolas, three by Jordan Montgomery and one by Jack Flaherty.
* Speaking of Bill James, let’s take a look at his “Win Shares” leaderboard for the Cardinals: Nolan Gorman 8, Paul Goldschmidt 7, Lars Nootbaar 6 and Tommy Edman. And despite his extreme recent slump, Paul DeJong has as many Win Shares (4) for the season as Nolan Arenado and Willson Contreras.
* The first-place Brewers have 13 players on the injured list including starting pitchers Brandon Woodruff, Eric Lauer and Wade Miley; outfielders Garrett Mitchell, and Jesse Winker; third baseman Luis Urias; shortstop Willy Adames; relievers Matt Bush, Aaron Ashby, Jason Alexander and Justin Wilson; and infielder Keston Hiura. Adames and Urias are expected to return soon, but many of the injuries are long-term. The Brewers hope that Woodruff (shoulder) can return in late June. The Crew are down to two of their initial six-man rotation options – Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta. And by his standards Burnes is having a down season so far, pitching to a 3.68 ERA in his 11 starts. His strikeout rate is 22% which is down from 30.5% in 2022.
* St. Louis catching prospect Ivan Herrera, still only 22 years old, is having a big-time season for Triple A Memphis. He’s batting .299 with a .430 onbase percentage and .535 slug for a .965 OPS. His plate discipline is outstanding, and he’s been clubbing plenty of doubles. Herrera has been on top MLB prospects for several years, but the Cardinals gave him just a brief look in 2022. There’s no room at the inn; last season Willson Contreras signed a five-year contract for $87.5 million, and the Cardinals evidently believe that Andrew Knizner is the second coming of Buster Posey. Herrera should be an appealing presence on the trade market, and we can predict the outcome with reasonable confidence: he’ll likely become a big star for another major-league team.
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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Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
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.