THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Earlier this week the Atlanta Braves extended their dominant run by winning their sixth consecutive NL East title. In a matter of days the inevitable Los Angeles Dodgers will clinch first place in the NL West for the seventh time in the last eight seasons. In terms of recent regular-season success, the Dodgers and Braves have set the standard among National League franchises.
That got me thinking about the St. Louis Cardinals.
When their 2023 schedule expires on Sunday, Oct. 1 the Cardinals will have only two NL Central titles to show for the last eight seasons in a stretch that began in 2016. The Redbirds won the division in 2019 and 2022. They qualified as a wild-card postseason contestant in two other seasons, 2020 and 2021.
Going back a while, the memorable 2011 Cardinals won the World Series after entering the postseason tournament with a wild-card ticket. But NL wild-card teams don’t pull that off as often as they used to.
In the 20 seasons from 1995 through 2014, eight NL wild-card teams made it to the World Series – and four won the World Series.
But from 2015 through 2022, a span of eight seasons, only two NL wild-card teams pushed their way into the World Series: the 2019 Nationals and the ‘22 Phillies. The Nationals won it all by beating Houston. The Phillies put up a fight but lost to Houston.
From 1995 through 2014, 40 percent of the NL wild-card holders won the NL pennant, and 20% seized the World Series trophy.
Over the past eight seasons 25% of the NL wild carders made it to the World Series, but only one came away with the sport’s biggest prize.
(I don’t want to bore you with a complete history of the wild card. The basics: from the advent of the wild-card system in 1995 through 2011, each league had one wild card and those teams would slug it out in an elimination game. In 2012, MLB added a second wild card slot in each league. And in 2022, the format was altered again, adding a third wild card to each league.)
In the new configuration, the play-in game was replaced by an opening three-game series in each league. One of the three-game series (each league) had two wild cards going at each other. The other three-game series (each league) pitted the division-winning team with the lowest winning percentage against a wild-card challenger. That’s how the 2022 NL Central champion Cardinals got kicked out of the postseason in two consecutive losses to wild-card Philadelphia.
Winning your division guarantees nothing except a spot in the playoff field. But there is added significance in winning your division. And that’s even better if you have one of the top two winning percentages among division winners in your league. It’s up to all division winners to take care of business, but at least the two with the best records reduce their exposure by receiving a bye in the opening round. They can proceed directly to the division round for a best-of-five series that gives you more of an opportunity to rebound after losing the first game. And even if you drop the second game, you’re still alive in the best-of-five format.
Making it to the playoffs is a positive thing that shouldn’t be taken for granted. But ideally you want to (A) win the division and (B) skip the opening round.
The Cardinals need to revise their thinking on this. They must aspire to a higher level of regular-season success instead of settling for a consolation wild-card prize. And among other considerations, this should be a matter of pride. Because under the leadership of Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. the Cardinals won 10 division titles from 1996 through 2015. Only the Yankees (13) and Braves (11) had more than St. Louis.
From 2000 through 2015, the Cardinals won the most division titles (9) by an NL team over the 16 seasons.
This coming offseason the Cardinals have to focus on having a team that’s more capable of stacking up division championships … just like the olden days. But in winning only two NL Central titles in the last eight seasons, the Cardinals have suffered in the postseason. Nothing is absolute – upsets happen and all of that – but I firmly believe there’s a correlation.
Back when they were winning all of those division championships from 2000 through 2015, the Cardinals competed in 137 postseason games and won 69 times. No other NL team came close to matching either number.
From 2016 through 2022 – with the Cardinals making two of their four playoff appearances as a wild-card hopeful – they crashed to a 4-11 postseason record over the seven seasons. (And that is actually eight seasons because of the Redbirds’ depressing 2023 campaign that booted them from playoff contention a long time ago. They haven’t been above .500 since April 3.)
From 2016 through 2022, here’s the list of teams that won more division titles than St. Louis: Dodgers (6), Braves (5), Astros (5), Guardians (4), Cubs (3), and Red Sox (3.) A couple of those numbers will change when we take 2023 into account. The Braves now have six division titles – and the Dodgers will have seven – since 2016. The Brewers, Astros, Twins, Rays and Orioles also have a chance to win the division, as do the Rangers, Mariners. And possibly the Cubs.
If the 2023 Brewers win the NL Central this season, they’d have three division titles over the last eight seasons to go ahead of the Cardinals (2). It’s the same deal with the Twins; by wrapping up the AL Central they’d also have a third division title since 2016. The same applies to the Rays, who are battling the Orioles for the AL East crown. If Tampa Bay prevails, that would be three AL East titles over the last eight seasons.
For a long period of time, 2000 through 2015, you could find the Cardinals at the top of their division in 56 percent of those seasons. Among the other 29 major-league franchises, only the Yankees (62.5%) did better than St. Louis. And because the Cardinals had so many teams that were talented and deep and highly capable of winning the division, they were also more equipped to go deep in the postseason.
In addition to their nine division titles from 2000 through 2015, the Cardinals had the No. 2 regular-season winning percentage in the majors (.583) over that time. They led the majors with 65 postseason victories. They won four NL pennants and two World Series and got as far as the NLCS in nine postseasons.
To me, this tells us all we need to know:
* In their 12 playoff appearances from 2000 through 2015, the Cardinals averaged 5.4 postseason victories per trip.
* From 2016 through 2022, the Cardinals had four postseason victories – TOTAL.
Whoa! We’re talking about a massive difference there. The “before” and “after” pictures for the Cardinals are stunning. They show the gradual weakening of their bottom-line baseball results.
I just hope Dewitt and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak are properly motivated to go hard in the pursuit of a division title for 2024. Again, I know there are exceptions. The 2006 Cardinals won it all despite a modest 83-win total that was sufficient for taking the NL Central. As mentioned, the 2011 Cardinals took their wild-card lotto ticket to the max and rode in a World Series parade. But generally speaking, the higher the Cardinals can go with their regular-season winning percentages, it would likely increase their shot of going deeper in the postseason.
DeWitt and Mozeliak should be well aware of this from their own prominent history with St. Louis Cardinals baseball. They’ll have the chance to make everything right before the 2024 campaign. They’ve engineered turnaround before, so we know they have what it takes to do it again. But there’s a lot of hard work to do.
1. Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley go well together. Helsley’s injury absence prevented the Cardinals from using their late-inning one-two punch this season. And I know that when both guys are available in the same game, it usually means the Cardinals are protecting a late lead. And having the lead late in the game is more of an advantage than being behind late in games.
I just find this interesting …
– When Helsley has pitched in a game this season, with no Gallegos, the Cardinals are 4-7 for a .363 winning percentage.
– When Gallegos appears in a game this season, with no Helsley, the Cardinals are 26-12 for a .684 winning percentage.
– When Gallegos and Helsley team up in the same game this season, the Cardinals are 13-4 for a .765 winning percentage.
That is all.
2. The Phillies are in town for three games. Impending free agent Aaron Nola starts for the Phils on Friday night, and he’s been up and down. Nola shut the Cardinals out for seven innings on Aug. 3, allowing only one hit and striking out nine. He looked great. But even with that fantastic start baked in, Nola has a 5.86 ERA in his last eight assignments. During this stretch opponents have batted .283 with a .520 slugging percentage against him. In his last two starts Nola has been struck for 11 runs and 15 hits in nine innings. In his his last start the Phillies staked him to a 5-0 lead over Miami, but Nola lasted only 4 and ⅓ innings and the Marlins won 7-5.
“It’s not mental,” Nola told reporters after the Miami start. “I felt fine all day, until the fifth. It just unraveled, man. I feel like it’s gone that way all year. One big inning does it in for me.”
3. Nola was asked about the free-agent factor. Has it been on his mind? “I haven’t really thought about it, honestly,” he told reporters. “I’m kind of worried about this year, and focused on trying to give the team a chance to win and turning that corner in my starts and get to the postseason.”
Nola, age 30, has a 4.64 ERA in 29 starts this season. That would be his highest ERA since 2016 – but he had a 4.63 ERA in 2021 before reducing his ERA to 3.25 last year. The Cardinals could pursue Nola as a free agent this coming winter but at this point it’s silly to make predictions.
4. The Phillies are 5-8 in September and just lost five of seven games on a homestand that brought Miami and Atlanta into Philadelphia. But after a slow, 25-32 start to the season the Phillies have the NL’s third-best record (54-35) since June 3. Over that time only the Braves and the Dodgers have been better than the Phillies among NL teams. That said, the Phillies are 36-36 on the road for the season. But at 79-67 they’re in good shape for a wild-card spot, holding the No. 1 seed by 1 and ½ games over the Cubs. The Giants, Reds and Diamondbacks are jostling for the No. 3 wild card.
5. Willson Contreras, September to Remember: This month – among Cardinal hitters with at least 30 plate appearances – Contreras leads the team in batting average (.379), onbase percentage (.438), slugging percentage (.793), OPS (1.231), home runs (4) and RBI (12). Is that good? Richie Palacios has a higher slugging percentage OPS than Contreras this month – but that’s with only 16 plate appearances. Contreras has made twice as many as that.
6. Jordan Walker Is A Hitter: In his last 14 games the rookie right fielder is batting .380 with three doubles, four homers and 11 RBI. Over that time he has a .431 OBP, .680 slug and a 1.111 OPS. Since Aug. 28, Jordan leads all MLB rookies in batting average, OBP, slugging and OPS. (Minimum 50 plate appearances.)
7. Walker’s .380 batting average is the third-highest among MLB hitters with at least 50 plate appearances since Aug. 28. The only dudes with higher batting averages since then are Phillies shortstop Trea Turner (.412) and Houston’s mountainous Yordan Alvarez (.407)
8. Pitching Matchups: In order, the Cardinals will start Zack Thompson, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson against the Phils this weekend. Philadelphia counters with Nola, Ranger Suarez and Taijuan Walker.
9. On June 4, Trea Turner was batting .232 with a .642 OPS, five homers, 21 extra-base hits and 14 RBI. Since June 5 he’s hitting .297 with a .901 OPS, 21 homers, 41 extra–base hits and 59 RBI. Before the season Turner signed a free-agent deal with the Phillies that pays him $300 million over 11 seasons.
10. With only 16 games to go, the Cardinals are 65-81 for a .445 winning percentage. Here are the franchise’s six-worst winning percentages through 146 games during the expansion era:
1978 Cardinals, .425
2023 Cardinals, .445
1980 Cardinals, .452
1976 Cardinals, .452
1999 Cardinals, .466
1997 Cardinals, .466
Thanks for reading …
Have a wonderful weekend…
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through 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, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus 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.