THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Oli Marmol has been a very good manager for the Cardinals this season. As we’ve written before, the first-year leader has modernized his team’s tactics by dramatically increasing the platoon-split advantages, and displaying creativity with his bullpen maneuvering.
On top of that, Marmol cultivated rookie Brendan Donovan to become a six-position defender to give the Cardinals valuable flexibility that can make a winning difference in games. Marmol was just about perfect in his distribution of at-bats for Albert Pujols. The defense and base running were sharp. Marmol did not hesitate to make frequent use of young players, entrusting them as much as veterans. That hadn’t been the case around here for a long time. Marmol is big on accountability, and doesn’t flinch in deciding to curtail the roles of underperforming Cardinals.
Marmol has brought a more enlightened managing approach to St. Louis. His style isn’t radical by today’s MLB standards, mind you. But it is a change for St. Louis, a bastion of old-school baseball. Marmol’s ways are working well for the team, and the fan base certainly seems to be fond of Oli. That didn’t take long.
Buckle up, because the postseason will be an adventure. There’s no telling what Marmol might do in terms of discarding the norms and going in a different direction. We may see starters having short outings. Starters working as relievers to provide numerous multi-inning appearances out of the bullpen. Marmol will be ultra aggressive in his pitching moves.
Marmol evidently is inclined to go with more position players (14) and fewer pitchers (12) on the first-round postseason roster to give the lineup more elastic and capable of platooning. An extra position player can give Marmol more freedom to continue making more aggressive use of the bench. It appears that the first-round playoff roster will include two late-inning defensive guardians in center fielder Ben DeLuzio and shortstop Paul DeJong. But we can hang on for a little while and see how the 26 roster spots are slotted. The Cardinals don’t have to make those decisions just yet.
Pardon my cliche, but I’m expecting the unexpected.
Marmol is fearless. I like that. But this is also true: his reputation will rise or fall based on the success or failure of his so-called unconventional decisions. But he doesn’t care about that. With this bold rookie manager, it’s all about making the choices that he believes will enhance the team’s chances of winning – even if it means taking a hit when things go wrong. He won’t manage scared. And the postseason isn’t a place for timid managers who use the traditional “book” on baseball strategy to cover their backsides.
NOTES ON MY SCORECARD
1) Albert Pujols is thunderous at the plate as he closes the final regular season of his 22-year career. Pujols gave the Cardinals a 3-1 lead Tuesday with a two-run single in the top of the third. He left the game after that and probably won’t play today. If that’s true, Pujols ended his regular-season career in a way that we would expect him to: delivering a hit that put his team in the lead.
In his last nine games, Pujols is 9 for 24 (.375) with six of his nine hits smacked for extra bases – five homers and a double. Albert has also knocked home 15 runs in 27 plate appearances over the nine games, eight of which were starts.
Since the All-Star break Pujols leads the National League in home runs (18), slugging percentage (.715), OPS (1.103) and wRC+ (206). And he’s third in RBI (48) and fifth in batting average (.323.)
Since September 1, only Kyle Schwarber (10) has more home runs than Pujols (9) among National League players and Pujols leads the NL with 27 RBI.
Since Aug. 1, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt have combined for 22 home runs – only five more than Pujols has all by himself. And since Sept. 1 Pujols has outhomered the Goldy-Nado tandem 9-4.
1a.) Hey, can we talk Pujols into returning for 2023? Probably not. But a feller can dream, right? With a 154 OPS+ this season, Pujols is 54 percent above league average offensively in his age-42 season. And that 154 OPS+ is his best in a season since his 173 OPS+ for the 2010 Cardinals. That was his age-30 season.
2) Philadelphia’s first two starters pose a potential problem for the Cardinals in the first round. Righthanders Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola are set to start the first two games at Busch Stadium, and the Cardinals must find a way to beat two of the NL’s best starting pitchers.
I’ll share a few quick points. But first, I wanted to explain that I’m using the FanGraphs version of Wins Above Replacement and going with the more relevant Fielding Independent Era, also known as FIP.
— Among National League starters with at least 140 innings of work this season, Nola ranks first with 6.3 WAR. Wheeler is 10th with 4.1 WAR.
— Nola is second in the NL with a 2.76 FIP. Wheeler is sixth with his 2.89 FIP. And lefty Ranger Suarez ranks 24th among NL starters with his 3.86 FIP that’s just above the 3.88 FIP posted by STL starter Miles Mikolas.
— Nola is fifth among NL starters in strikeout rate (29 percent) and Wheeler ranks eighth in the category at 26.9%.
— If you go with their 2022 stats, Wheeler and Nola can neutralize Marmol’s preference for platoons. As mentioned, both are RH pitchers. But this season both have been more effective against left-handed batters. RH batters have a .640 OPS vs. Wheeler, which is higher than LH batters (.611.) Same with Nola, who has allowed a .646 OPS to RH batters and a .557 OPS to LH batters. But Suarez, the lefty, has been tagged for a .757 OPS by RH batters this season – compared to a .538 OPS generated by LH batters.
3) In a short postseason series, you can never be sure about the defensive factor. In a best-of-three conflict, does the team with the superior defense have an edge? And if so, how much? But for whatever it may be worth in a series that will last two or three games, the Cardinals come in with plus 68 defensive runs saved, which ranks fourth in the majors and second in the NL. The Phillies are tied for 25th in the majors, and are 12th in the NL, with minus 31 runs saved.
The Philadelphia outfield has been particularly inept this season with minus 29 defensive runs saved. The St. Louis infield has saved 44 runs this season – the most in the majors. The Philly infield is minus 28 runs saved. That’s near the bottom of the MLB rankings.
4) Trouble? St. Louis outfielders have collectively slumped offensively during a stretch that began Aug. 30. In the 32 games played over that time before Wednesday’s regular-season finale at Pittsburgh, the St. Louis outfield batted .202 (28th), had a .285 onbase percentage (26th), slugged .352 (27th) and managed a .637 OPS (26th.) Through Tuesday’s win at PNC Park, the Cardinal outfielders had only 10 home runs in 341 at-bats since Aug. 30. Five of the 10 homers were swatted by Lars Nootbaar.
5) Is Paul Goldschmidt making you nervous? Yeah, me too. Since last homering on Sept. 7, Goldschmidt is batting .243 with a .313 onbase percentage and .324 slugging percentage. His extreme drop in slugging is alarming. In 135 plate appearances since Aug. 26 Goldy has two homers and a .348 slug. One would have to be a total homer or detached from reality to suggest that this is nothing more than a little slump.
6) Jack Flaherty has made obvious progress. That’s an encouraging, potentially exciting, development for the Cardinals. Flaherty had plenty of pop on his fastball last night in his one-inning gig against the Pirates. In his last four appearances since Sept. 16 – three of which were starts – Jack has a 26.6 percent strikeout rate over 18 innings. (That’s 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings.) His swinging-strike rate is a healthy 12.2% over that time. But he must reduce the walks. Flaherty has walked an average of 4.0 hitters per nine innings in his last four appearances.
7) Needless to say, home-run power and impact looms large in the Philadelphia vs. St. Louis matchup. Let’s take a quickie look at each team’s record this season based on home-run volume in games:
* When hitting fewer than two homers in a game: Phillies 49-59 (.454) Cardinals 44-59 (.427).
* When hitting two or more homers in a game: Phillies 38-15 (.717), Cardinals 49-9 (.845).
8) What about the STL and PHIL bullpens? As I’ve mentioned more than a few times this season, I strongly prefer to use Win Probability Added (WPA) to assess overall bullpen quality. This season the St. Louis relievers have the best WPA in the National League at +7.89 wins. Philadelphia relievers rank 10th in the NL with minus 1.18 wins.
That said, the Phillies have been boosted by the return of converted starter Zach Eflin and the pure late-season dominance of Jose Alvarado. Eflin, who missed significant time because of a knee injury, returned Sept. 14 and has a 1.17 ERA and a 32 percent strikeout rate in seven relief outings. Since Aug. 3, Alvarado has allowed one run in 21.1 innings (0.43 ERA) with a blistering strikeout rate of 48 percent. However … The Phils rank 28th in the majors since Sept. 1 with a bullpen ERA of 5.15.
8a) If closer Ryan Helsley’s “stiff” middle right finger is something more serious than that, the Cardinals will have a hard time defeating the Phillies. Unless, of course, the erratic St. Louis offense can inflict considerable damage on the Philly pitching staff. I don’t trust injury reports relayed by the Cardinals … so it’s wait-and-see time.
8b) I don’t know where lefty reliever Genesis Cabrera fits in, if at all. But if he has the swing-and-miss muscle working again, he could be an asset against a Phillies team that’s gotten 103 homers and a .432 slugging percentage from left-handed hitters this season. LH batters from Philadelphia and Atlanta are tied for the best slugging percentage in the NL. And the 103 homers from Philly’s LH bats ranks second in the NL. Suppressing Philly’s LH power will be essential for the Cardinals.
8c) But rookie LH reliever Zack Thompson has pitched well enough to earn a bullpen spot, so Cabrera (theoretically) is a possibility if Marmol wants to stock the pen with three lefties.
9) Kyle Schwarber is a dangerous fella. From Aug. 2 through Sept. 14, the Philadelphia slugger hit only four home runs in 134 at-bats. That’s one homer every 33.5 at-bats. But in his last 18 games, Schwarber has nine home runs in 64 at-bats; that’s a HR every 7.1 ABs. He’s clouted four homers in his last three games and leads the NL with 46 homers.
The left-swinging Schwarber is batting .195 with a .390 slugging percentage against lefty pitchers this season. Schwarber has a .566 slug and 36 homers against right-handed pitchers. He’s homered in 4.4 percent of his plate appearances vs. lefties this season. Against righties, Schwarber has homered in 8.18 percent of his plate appearances.
10) If you want your leadoff man to get on base, then Brendan Donovan is your guy. And getting on base is the top job responsibility for a No. 1 hitter. Through the end of August, Donovan had only 33 plate appearances as a No. 1 hitter in Marmol’s lineup and didn’t do much with the limited opportunity, scrounging for a poor .242 onbase percentage. But Marmol went back to Donovan again in a revised lineup. And in 80 plate appearances as the No. 1 hitter since Sept. 8, Donovan has given the Cardinals a terrific leadoff onbase percentage of .413. In the National League, only one leadoff hitter, the Mets’ Brandon Nimmo, has a better OBP at the top spot (.417) than Donovan.
11) Dylan Carlson continues to have a bizarre performance record against RH pitchers. In his last five games he’s walked five times (and was hit by a pitch) in 17 plate appearances vs. righties. That, plus a hit, gave him a .412 OBP against right-handers in his last five games. But at the same time, Carlson had one hit in 11 at-bats against them for a .091 batting average.
Since Sept. 1, Carlson has a fantastic 16.2 percent walk rate against RH pitchers. But if you look at the overall picture, Carlson has a weak .624 OPS vs. RHP since Sept. 1. And since the beginning of July he’s hitting .177 with a .282 OBP and .312 slug – all terrible numbers – in 163 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers. His .594 OPS against righties since the start of July ranks 180th among 199 MLB hitters that have at least 160 plate appearances over that time.
12) What, if anything are the Cardinals going to do with Tyler O’Neill at the end of the season? Do they plan to continue going down this crazy path with the enigmatic, unreliable, injury-prone outfielder? In his first three seasons O’Neill had a 91 OPS+ that was nine percent below the league average offensively. Last season he exploded for 34 homers and a 148 OPS+ that put him nearly 50 percent above league average offensively. And this season, in between several injuries, O’Neill was right around league average with a 101 OPS+. A sequence of injuries has caused O’Neill to miss 150 games during his time as a Cardinal.
13) Accounting Department: The Cardinals can get to 94 wins by defeating the Pirates in the final regular-season game. But even if they lose today, STL’s 93 victories are the most for the franchise since the 100-win season in 2015 … The Phillies won the season series from the Cardinals, going 4-3. But that’s irrelevant for many reasons, but mostly because of this: the Cards and Phils haven’t played each other since July 11. That’s before the Cardinals took off, starting to hit and pitch much better. Since July 27 the Cardinals are 42-21 and have the third-best winning percentage in the majors … through Tuesday the Phillies have played more games (74) against winning teams than the Cardinals (67.) The Cards went 30-35 vs. winning sides this season (.461) and the Phils are 33-41 (.446) against winners going into Wednesday’s game at Houston … with a win Wednesday, the Cardinals would finish with a winning road record of 41-40. Obviously a loss today would leave STL with a losing record (40-41) on the road … going into the final regular-season game the Cardinals have a record of 38-18 against the Pirates, Cubs and Reds this season. That means 41 percent of the Cards’ 93 wins have come against the three worst teams in the NL Central.
14) Just say no to the idea of Dakota Hudson being on the first-round postseason roster. He has a 5.67 ERA for the Cardinals in 81 innings since June 12. If the Cardinals go with 12 pitchers (not certain) and insist on Adam Wainwright being one of the 12, there can’t be room for Hudson. Not if you’re going all-out to win.
Thanks for reading …
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.
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.