THE REDBIRD REVIEW

I’ve been spending too much time thinking about the Cardinals recent troubles on offense. Their declining team batting average, their shrinking onbase percentage, their fading slugging power, and their strain to score runs.

The downturn isn’t abnormal, but that doesn’t mean we should wave it off and remain confident. It’s proper to be concerned … which is a helluva lot different than panicking.

In their first 39 games since the All-Star break, the Cardinals averaged 5.9 runs. In their last 15 games, they’ve averaged 3.5 runs.

In their first 39 games after the All-Star break the Cardinals led the majors in batting average, homers, onbase percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. A clean sweep. No. 1 across the board.

In their last 15 games, the Cardinals are 23rd in batting average (.218), 20th in OBP (.292), 26th in slugging (.364) and 27th in OPS (.656.) There are only 30 major-league teams, so …

In their first 39 games after the All-Star break, the Cardinals ranked tied for first in the majors in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+) at 28 percent above league average offensively.

In their last 15 games, they’re 11 percent below league average offensively in wRC+. That’s a swing of 39 percent – the wrong way – in offensive performance.

In their first 39 games following the break the Cardinals averaged 1.8 homers per game, tops in the majors. In the last 15 games? A weak 0.9 home runs per game.

This is an eye-opening “before” and “after” picture.

What does this all mean?

I’m staying away from making grand statements, jumping to extreme conclusions, or otherwise driving myself into a state of hot-take apoplexy.

Sep 17, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner (7) reacts after scoring the game winning run on a first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (not pictured) walk-off fielders choice against the Cincinnati Reds during the eleventh inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

 

Three somewhat minimalist thoughts:

1. The Cardinals weren’t as good as they seemed to be during their 39-game rampage on offense. Too many dudes were blue-flame hot at the plate. It wasn’t sustainable. They were due for an ice bath. A freeze was inevitable.

2. The Cardinals aren’t as discomfited and feckless as they’ve appeared to be during their current automaton phase. Granted, it isn’t easy to watch the epidemic of horrendous at-bats that have caused the Cardinals to score two runs or fewer in six of their last 15 games, and plate four runs or less in 11 of the 15.

The boys reached the deep undersurface over the weekend by scoring one run during a 25-inning coma. In the five-game series against a Reds pitching staff that’s been belted for an average of 5.05 runs per game this season, the Cardinals averaged 2.8 runs and batted .178 and slugged .257 in an abysmal five-game display of offense.

3. They’ll come out of this for the same reason why they lost altitude after soaring at such a high offensive level for six-plus weeks. If your hitting is extreme in a punishing and relentless way, the rockets’ red glare won’t last because no team can keep it up over a long period of time. And if you’re hitting quality has plummeted to extreme depths, then a rise to the surface is just a matter of time. The Cardinals will find their way back to being a more capable offense again. They have too much talent to wallow in a backslide.

The offense may be sludgy now, but don’t assume anything. This Cardinal slump doesn’t mean they’ll walk into the postseason as a helpless patsy, about to get booted into the offseason. The 2006 Cardinals nearly choked away first place and staggered into the postseason after being ranked 17th in runs, 26th in batting average and 20th in OPS during the final month of the regular season. That team proceeded to go on and win the World Series by averaging 5.13 runs per game in their postseason victories.

And should the Cardinals plug back in to recharge their offense for high run-scoring totals until the end of the regular season, it doesn’t mean they’ll stomp any team that dares to appear in their path once the postseason opens. The 2021 Cardinals averaged 5.3 runs and 1.8 homers per game – with a .800 OPS – last September. They were ready to rock and roll! Well, no. Unless that rock and roll was a baseball  “19th Nervous Breakdown.” (Rolling Stones, kids. Google it.) In a 3-1 NL wild-card loss to the Dodgers the Cardinals went 5 for 32 overall (.156) and 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position. Bye-bye, redbirds.

One of the best teams in franchise history – the 2004 Cardinals –won 105 regular-season games and two NL postseason rounds and then crashed in the World Series. Getting swept in four straight by the Red Sox, the Cardinals squeaked for three total runs and a .142 batting average over the final three games. That ‘04 lineup included Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Larry Walker, Edgar Renteria and Reggie Sanders.

My obvious point: the 2022 Cardinals will define themselves by how they perform in the postseason. In terms of what it means for a team’s potential postseason success, heat-wave streaks during the regular season don’t matter. Below-freezing streaks during the regular season don’t matter. How you fared against good teams during the regular season – doesn’t matter.

The postseason is a new season, and has little to do with all that happened as a team pushed through a 162-game schedule.

You’ll be hit with new media narratives: the road trip that begins Tuesday (at San Diego, at Los Angeles, at Milwaukee) will be a critical test of their postseason readiness and we’ll learn if the Cardinals belong in the same class as some of the big-boy teams.

No, it won’t be that.

There’s one big-boy team among the next three opponents.

The Dodgers, of course. And during the regular season, no team can equal the Dodgers.

As for the standings and playoff seedings and all of that … the Cardinals have nothing to play for right now. Realistically speaking, anyway. The clinching of the NL Central division is a 99.4 percent probability according to FanGraphs. The Cardinals are an extreme longshot to leap over the Mets and Braves to pull off a heist for the NL’s No. 2 postseason seed. With 14 games to go on the regular-season schedule, the Cardinals trail the NL East-leading Mets by six games. And the Mets are highly motivated to hold off the Braves in the NL East. Do the math.

But is this trip a chance for the Cardinals to sharpen up? Yes.

If this trip a chance to get a gauge of how multiple areas of the team are functioning? Yes.

So it means something.

That’s the only reason I’d call it a test.

The Cardinals will be testing themselves.

Just choose your narratives carefully. This is all about doing a better job of hitting a baseball. I’ve been writing this for at least two-plus weeks now, but let’s go through this aagain: your offense will drag when your best hitters are hitting like bad or mediocre hitters. Your offense will stall in a serious way when a pivotal area of the team – the offense generated by the outfielders – suddenly subsides.

That’s all you need to know, and it doesn’t take Keith Morrison of NBC’s “Dateline” to come in and explain the case of the missing St. Louis offense.

A few vital clues:

Over the last 15 games, Yadier Molina and Brendan Donovan have hit as many homers between them (five) as the five total home runs struck collectively in 192 at-bats by Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Tyler O’Neill, Lars Nootbaar and Nolan Gorman. What’s wrong with that picture? Molina and Donovan aren’t power hitters. The other guys are. Very much so. But not over the last 15 games.

Arenado and Goldschmidt have two home runs and nine RBIs, combined, in 99 at-bats over the team’s last 15 games. Arenado is batting .212, and Goldy .234, over that time.

Since his two-homer, five RBI game on Aug. 25, Goldschmidt is batting .227 with two homers and a .373 slugging percentage in 90 plate appearances. Arenado has one home run in 59 September at-bats. The Cardinals are overdue for the turnarounds of their two best hitters.

— Over the last 15 games St. Louis outfielders (when used as outfielders) are batting .195 with a .280 onbase percentage, .309 slug and a .588 OPS that ranks 27th among the MLB outfield groups. Ugh.

Tyler O’Neill – who was batting .194 with one homer in his last 11 games – is back on the IL with a strained hamstring. Dylan Carlson (thumb) is back on the active roster where he’ll attempt to revive a disappointing second full season. What is it with the Cardinals and outfielders? There’s no end to the chaos and inconsistency. It’s been going on for years.

Lars Nootbaar had put dynamite in this offense for weeks, but the grinder needs a refill. He’s hitting .117 with a .317 slug in his last 72 plate appearances.

Nolan Gorman’s promising rookie season continues to deteriorate. (Update: the Cardinals demoted him to Triple A Memphis on Monday evening and recalled Juan Yepez and his bat.) After being such a positive factor in the team’s offense for his first four months, Gorman has one homer a .156 average, .250 slug and an alarming strikeout rate of 39.4 percent since Aug 18.

Why would we expect the Cardinals to overwhelm teams with offense when so many crucial hitters have fallen off? You’ll be in a torpor without Goldschmidt and Arenado beating opponents down. But Goldschmidt and Arenado – and at least a couple others – will perk up, and at that point the lineup should be dangerous again..

But if these guys can’t reenergize and pick it up and go on a spree once the postseason begins, the Cardinals will be a quick out for the third year in a row.

The Cardinals are heading out for that three-city, eight-game trip that puts them in San Diego for three, Los Angeles for three, and in Milwaukee for two. Perhaps they’ll convalesce.

Or, if nothing else, they’ll shake freee from their boredom.

As shortstop Paul DeJong told John Denton of MLB.com: “Overall, I think we’ll be energized after this day off (Monday) and going out to the West Coast knowing these are teams that we’ve got to pick it up against. I think we’re the type of team that responds well to those types of challenges.”

(Sarcasm alert: yeah, imagine the tedium of having to play baseball at Busch Stadium in front of highly energized, full-house gatherings of excited Cardinal fans at a time when the atmosphere is absolutely electric as Albert Pujols hammers his way to 700 career home runs. I mean, how do these players manage to stay awake during home games?)

I’ll close with this:

Despite the run of dull ball and the stagnant offense over the last 15 games, the Cardinals went 9-6. The St. Louis starting pitchers came through to limit the team’s losses. That record could have been much worse.

And though the Cardinals have cooled down in September, their 11-6 record for the month is third-best in the National League, close behind to the Braves (11-4) and Dodgers (11-5).

On the surface this record doesn’t seem overly imposing, but the STL’s 15-7 mark (.682) since Aug. 27 is the best in the majors.

And while you’re waiting for the offense to awaken, consider this: the Cardinals have lost only one of their last 15 series (12-1-2) and haven’t dropped a series since losing two of three at Coors Field Aug. 9-11. Since the predictable absurdity in Denver, the Redbirds have gone 9-0-2 in their 11 ensuing series. They’ve lost only two series since the All-Star break.

Winning a five-game series from the Reds while half-heartedly trying to unclog a phlegmatic offense doesn’t leave people dancing on the sidewalks of Ballpark Village … unless they’ve had too much beer, of course.

Winning a series is still a nice thing, a welcome if modest achievement. A team that continues to win even during the quietest times for the offense?

That’s impressive … even if the offense isn’t.

NOTES ON MY SCORECARD

The Accounting Department: The Cardinals concluded their season series with a 12-7 record against the Reds this season and are 44-24 in NL Central play … the Cards have only eight more division games to go: two vs. Milwaukee and six against Pittsburgh … the Cardinals are 35-16 (.686) this season against the Cubs, Reds and Pirates … By taking three of five games from the Reds the Cardinals improved their record to 60-31 this season in games against opponents with losing records … The Cardinals have played the most games in the majors (91) this season against teams with losing records … Their 60 wins over losing opponents are second in MLB to the Dodgers (66) … The Cardinals .659 winning percentage against losing sides is tied for eighth best in MLB … STL’s next eight games will be played against winning teams (Padres, Dodgers and Brewers) … the Cardinals are 51-27 at home this season but have a 6-5 record at Busch Stadium since Sept. 5.

Another Tale Of Woe On Offense: A cluster of Cardinals – Nootbaar, Nolan Gorman, Alec Burleson, Paul DeJong and Andre Knizner – have combined for 13 hits in 172 at-bats over the team’s last 15 games. That adds up to a .115 batting average. That won’t work.

The Fellers Need Energy Bars And Double-Caffeine Coffees. In the five games against the Reds the Cardinals batted .161 with a .270 OBP and .230 slug in the first five innings of the contest. They scored only seven total runs in those first five innings, which of course means seven runs in 25 innings. Five of the seven runs came in the first three innings during the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader. In Sunday’s dreadful 3-0 loss, the Cardinals went 1 for 18 in the first six innings.

National League Projected Wins, From FanGraphs: This is based on the average records that come out of remaining-game simulations:

Dodgers, 111.6
Mets, 101.5
Braves, 100.6
Cardinals, 94.3
Padres, 89.3
Phillies, 88.6
Brewers 86.8

FanGraphs gives the NY Mets a healthy 66.9 percent chance of winning the NL East – compared to Atlanta’s 33.1% probability.

The second-place finisher in the NL East will take the first wild-card spot. That leaves three teams – Padres, Phillies and Brewers – wrestling for the final two wild cards. Who has the best shot? As of Monday morning FanGraphs listed San Diego’s wild-card probability at 87.5 percent, followed by Philadelphia (83%) and Milwaukee (86.8%.)

The Brewers trail the Phillies by two games for the No. 3 wild card, and are 2.5 behind the Padres for the No. 2 wild card. The gaps are actually larger because both the Padres and Phillies own the tie-breaker against Milwaukee. So the Brewers would have to finish ahead of those teams to grab the No. 2 or No. 3 wild-card pass.

The Crew has rebounded from a lengthy downturn to win seven of the last 10 games, including a 4-2 record against the Cardinals and Yankees in their two most recent series. Their next series is three games against the Mets in Milwaukee.

Cardinals Rotation, Still Going Strong: When evaluating the Cardinals’ direction heading into the final two weeks of the season, I think it’s important that we separate the starting pitching from the offense. While too many Cardinals hitters have been hibernating this month, the starting pitchers continue to keep the team on the winning side.

Over the last 15 games, with the hitters all but snoring at the plate, the Cardinals have a 9-6 record … mostly because of their starting pitching.

— In the 15 competitions since Sept. 4, the Cards’ starters rank 7th in the majors with a 3.08 earned-run average and are 6th with a 3.45 Fielding Independent ERA. Their starters are also tied with a major-league leading 87.2 innings since Sept. 4.

— Cardinal starters have contributed at least five innings in all 15 contests. They’ve lasted longer than five innings in seven of the 15 starts. They’ve gone six or more innings five times – including three eight-inning starts.

— In eight of the 15 games the Cardinal starter gave up no more than one earned run – and held opponents to three runs or fewer in 11 of the 15. At no point during the 15–game stretch did a St. Louis starting pitcher allow more than four earned runs during his assignment.

That’s how you go 9-6 — instead of, say, 6-9 — when your team isn’t hitting.

The St. Louis bullpen has a 5.03 ERA over the last 15 games, with much of the damage occurring in four games. Since Sept. 10 the Cardinal relievers have a 2.10 ERA in 30 innings. The rotation is an underlying factor in this. The St. Louis starting pitchers have turned in a higher volume of innings this month – they’re tied for the MLB lead of 98.2 – and that’s eased the strain on the bullpen.

Going back to Aug. 12 – a span of 37 games – the Cardinal starters are sixth in the majors with a 3.09 ERA and have a 26-11 over that time.

Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery Update: After their weekend starts, the Cardinals are 15-3 when “Q” or Monty start a game. Since they were acquired on the Aug. 2 trade deadline, the two lefties have collectively pitched to a 2.39 ERA in 101 and ⅔ innings. Since Quintana made his first start – on Sept. 4, followed by Montgomery two days later – the Cards rotation ranks an impressive fifth in the majors with 5.0 WAR. The STL rotation is also fifth in the majors with a 3.41 FIP since Aug. 4.

A Special Meeting With Albert Pujols: Young Reds shortstop Jose Barrero, 24, met with Albert Pujols before Sunday’s game at Busch Stadium.

“He gave me a lot of advice on the mentality of the game and hitting. I was excited to be with him and have that moment with him,” Barrero said through an interpreter.

After their chat, Pujols presented a signed bat to his young admirer. Barrero, a native of Cuba, was two years old when Pujols made his major-league debut in 2001.

“Just to have that advice from a legend like Albert Pujols and sharing those moments with him, I’m just fortunate to have that time with him and being able to talk whatever I can with him. It’s been great,” Barrero said.

Barrero took note of the crowd’s response to Pujols during the five-game series at Busch Stadium.

“Just to stare back and look at how all the Cardinals fans adore him in a sense, it’s an honor to see that,” Barrero said. “You know the Cardinals fans just love him so much and you see that with their reactions every time he comes up to the plate.”

The inspired Barrero had two hits and scored a run in Cincinnati’s 3-0 win over the Cardinals on Sunday.

(Thanks to the Cincinnati Enquirer and reporter Bobby Nightengale for providing the Barrero quotes.)

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated 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 by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.

“Seeing Red,” my weekly podcast on the Cardinals with Will Leitch, is available on multiple platforms including Apple and Spotify. Please subscribe.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

Please email your “Ask Bernie” questions to BernScoops@gmail.com

All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

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.