WELCOME TO THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Arizona Diamondbacks are in town for a three-game matchup, and they come into Busch Stadium with a 9-7 record that leads the NL West. The Cardinals are off to a 7-9 start that has them in fourth place in the NL Central, four games behind the division-leading Brewers.
THE LEDE: CARDINALS ARE STILL SEARCHING. When the Cardinals won two straight games to take the series at Colorado, I thought it would boost their energy and confidence. When a team is feeling good about itself, you can see it. The players come to the ballpark expecting to win. After leaving Coors Field, the Cardinals had the chance to come home and enter a healthier state of mind.
That didn’t happen in the four-game series against the Pirates at Busch Stadium. The Redbirds were shutout in the series opener and scored only six total runs in the first three games, losing two of the three. Sunday, the home team rallied to win 5-4 in extra innings to salvage a four-game split.
That’s how it is for the 2023 Cardinals so far. Going 2-2 in four home games against the Pirates is a positive simply because it could have been worse. But it also could have been better. Even with the 2-2 split the Cardinals have won four of their last six games. That’s nice. But 5-2 record over the last seven would look nicer.
The Cardinals just can’t get rolling to play winning ball in a consistent way over time.
When the Redbirds hit with authority, the starting pitching crumbles. When the starting pitching settles down, the bats are subdued. The bullpen was strong – until it had to cover more innings and began to wobble a bit.
STL’s 7-9 record includes several negatives:
A 5-8 record vs. winning teams.
An offense that’s scored three runs or fewer in half of the team’s games. An offense that has left more runners on base (135) than any team in the majors. An offense that’s among the worst in MLB when hitting with runners in scoring position.
A rotation that has an ERA of 5.74 or higher in half of the team’s games. A rotation that has only two quality starts, tied for fourth-fewest in the majors.
A team that’s gone 4–6 at home and has lost five of its last seven games at Busch Stadium. A team that has won only one of its last five series, including the split.
I believe the Cardinals are better than they’ve shown. With more success hitting in timely situations, they’d probably have a winning record. With better starting pitching, they’d almost certainly be above .500.
If it’s any consolation, other notable teams are struggling early:
JORDAN HICKS GOES ‘BOOM’ AGAIN: After another destructive relief appearance on Saturday, Hicks has been unofficially relegated to the mop-up role. As manager Oli Marmol told reporters, “This isn’t a developmental league. You can’t script it in the way you would in a minor-league setting. But we’re also well aware of where we’re at with Jordan and an ability to do that. You got to figure out a way to get him right in a real setting, which is not the easiest thing to do. But it’s the task at hand.”
This is a sorry situation. Management isn’t willing to designate Hicks for assignment, a move that could draw trade offers for him. Hicks can’t be demoted to Triple A Memphis unless he grants permission. So Marmol will use him as a reliever in lost-cause games … or perhaps he’ll give the ball to Hicks when the Cardinals are up by six or seven runs. (Is that safe?)
With the bullpen stressed so frequently, Marmol won’t have as many assets to turn to in meaningful situations. That puts the Cardinals at a disadvantage. But management adores Hicks; remember when the front office fancied him as a starter? Ridiculous.
This is a pride thing; the front office won’t admit that they’re wrong about Hicks. And that is why he’s still here. Hicks has a 5.49 ERA in his last 62 games as a Cardinal. His presence on the major-league roster is completely unjustified, and he becomes a free agent after the season. There isn’t a long-term relationship here … so what’s the point? Marmol’s bullpen flexibility is weaker because of it. But hey, who cares about making a full commitment to winning?
I wrote about this on Friday – ahead of the curve – only to see Hicks brought into another high-leverage situation Saturday against the Pirates. (Top of the 10th, 3-3 game.) Hicks was ripped for a long leadoff homer by Andrew McCutchen, who deposited Hicks’ seventh consecutive slider into another neighborhood. Hicks retired only one of four batters faced and was pelted for three hits, the McCutcheon homer, and two earned runs.
The latest disaster jacked his ERA to 12.71 in 5.2 innings this season. Here’s an update on some of the horrendous Hicks stats I presented on Friday:
- Hicks has faced 35 batters and 21 have reached base.
- The 21 that have reached base have scored eight runs.
- Hicks has started an inning six times and five of the first six hitters have reached. And in those innings in which the first man up has gotten on base, the opponents have scored a total of nine runs.
- Opponents have batted .423 against Hicks with a .543 OBP and .846 slug. Six of the 11 hits against him have gone for extra bases.
- Only 35% of the pitches thrown by Hicks are strikes. He has a 23 percent walk rate.
- Hicks has pitched to six hitters in high-leverage situations, and they’ve blasted him for an .800 batting average and 1.400 OPS.
- Hicks has walked six of nine hitters in medium–leverage situations.
With the Cardinals down to two available relievers, Marmol wanted Hicks in Saturday’s game instead of lefty reliever Genesis Cabrera. Right-handed batters have a .472 average and 1.583 OPS vs. Hicks this season. And RH batters have hit .204 against Cabrera in his career. Granted, RH batters are 3 for 7 against Cabrera this season, but he’s struck them out four times with no walks. This isn’t saying much, but it’s saying something: Cabrera is better than Hicks against right-handed hitters. Marmol didn’t have to bring in Hicks; he chose to.
There are dudes at Memphis right now who could provide more valuable service than Hicks including righthanders James Naile, Gordon Graceffo, Kyle Leahy, Guillermo Zuniga and maybe Jake Walsh.
The front office is short on urgency, but that’s nothing new. I don’t know why I expect things to change.
HEY, IT’S A START: In the last five games, starting pitchers Jack Flaherty, Jake Woodford, Jordan Montgomery, Steven Matz and Miles Mikolas collectively pitched 28.1 innings and gave up seven earned runs for a 2.22 ERA. You’d like to see more innings from the starters but the stronger run prevention over the last five is welcome. The Cardinal starters are averaging 5.3 innings per assignment this season. And here’s the thing: in these modern times, that’s above average. The MLB average is 5.2 innings per start. The Cardinals average of 5.3 innings per start is tied for seventh-best in the majors.
LINGERING QUESTIONS: (1) Why did Hicks throw seven consecutive sliders to McCutcheon? Willson Contreras was catching; why didn’t he intervene, and direct Hicks to break the predictable pattern? And (2) with the Cardinals so drastically shorthanded in the bullpen for Saturday’s game, why didn’t the front office take action and summon a fresh arm? I know the Memphis Redbirds were playing a weekend series in Georgia (Gwinnett) but surely there was a way to get a reliever on an early flight from Atlanta to St. Louis with sufficient time before Saturday’s 1:10 pm game. No urgency. No win. Same old.
TROUBLE WITH RISP: Though the Cardinals did a good job with runners in scoring position on Sunday – 5 for 13 – they had 5 hits in 34 at-bats (.147) with runners in scoring position during the first three games of the series. And the Cards left a staggering number of men left on base (39) over the four-game set.
Through 16 games the Cardinals are eighth in the majors for most plate appearances (168) with runners in scoring position – but are 27th in runs scored with RISP. That explains so much. For the season the Cardinals are 25th in the majors with their .678 OPS with runners in scoring position, which is 14 percent below league average per wRC+.
The offense won’t accelerate until the Cardinals quit stalling out with men on base.
A GOOD MOMENT WITH THE BASES LOADED. FINALLY. Tommy Edman’s game-winning single on Sunday was only the team’s second hit of the season with the bases loaded. Until Edman got it done, the Cardinals had been 1 for their last 16 with six strikeouts with the bases loaded. For the season, when the bases are full, the Redbirds are 2 for 17 (.118) with a 31.7% strikeout rate.
NOLAN GORMAN: STILL GOING STRONG. Though he did strike out six times in four games against the Pirates, Gorman offset that by going 6 for 16 (.375) with a team-leading four RBI during the series. He had two multi-hit games and two doubles against the Pirates. Gorman has driven in runs in six of his last seven games. During the seven-game stretch he’s batted .346 with three doubles, two homers, eight RBI and a .692 slug.
Sixteen games into the season, Gorman leads Cardinal regulars in seven categories: Home runs (4), RBI (14), slugging (.667), OPS (1.088), OPS+ (197), extra-base hits (8) and total bases (32.) Moreover, Gorman is tied with Nolan Arenado for top batting average (.333) and his .421 OBP is second to Paul Goldschmidt.
JORDAN WALKER, COOLING: The rookie outfielder had a rough series against Pittsburgh, going 1 for 13 and striking out six times in 14 plate appearances. In his last eight games Walker is batting .172 with a strikeout rate of 36.6% Opponents are increasingly pounding Walker with sliders. He had some success against the pitch early, but over the last eight games he’s seen the slider 42 times and has struck out on the pitch seven times in 13 at-bats. For the season, Walker has had trouble with cutters and changeups; against the two pitches he’s 0 for 11 with six strikeouts.
The recent downturn has dropped Walker’s batting average to .267 with a .302 OBP and .400 slug for the season. The biggest problems? Walker is chasing way too many pitches out of the strike zone. For the season his “chase” rate is up to 41.1 percent. (That’s … not good.) And it’s no coincidence but his contact rate on all pitches is down to 69 percent. Since April 4, Walker has a contact rate of 50%. That can’t continue.
POWER OUTAGE: The Cardinals hit only one homer in 139 at-bats over the four games against the Pirates. The home run shortage is another reason why the Cardinals rank 21st overall and 10th in the National League with 4.19 runs per game. With their average of 1.06 home runs per game this season, the Cardinals rank 15th overall and ninth in the NL. Among NL Central teams, only the Reds have homered at a lower rate than the Cardinals.
The Cardinals rank 19th among the 30 MLB teams in Isolated Power. They were seventh in that category last season, and 14th in 2021.
WELCOME BACK, NOOT! After being activated from the IL on Saturday, outfielder Lars Nootbaar has reached base seven times in nine plate appearances over two games. He walked six times (twice intentionally) and hit a game-tying, two-run homer in Sunday’s sixth inning.
Cool stat: Nootbaar has walked in eight of his 15 plate appearances this season for a preposterous 53.3% walk rate. Though he’s played in only three games this season, Nootbaar is tied for second in walks among Cardinals.
WHAT ABOUT NOOT’S LINEUP SPOT? Manager Marmol slotted Nootbaar in the seventh lineup spot in the two games vs. Pittsburgh. With so many walks plus power, batting him Noot should be hitting higher in the order. Leadoff man Brendan Donovan is perking up offensively, having gone 7 for his last 18 (with a walk) against the Pirates. But Donovan’s walk rate this season is a low 7.6%. Nootbaar batted leadoff against the Phillies in last season’s wild-card round and went 2 for 6 with two walks and a double. In 87 plate appearances batting leadoff during the 2022 regular season, Nootbaar had a 16 percent walk rate, a .345 OBP and a .486 slug.
THE OTHER OUTFIELDERS: Nootbaar’s return was timely. Except for Nootbaar it wasn’t a good weekend for St. Louis outfielders. Jordan Walker, Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill and Alec Burleson collectively went 5 for 42 (.119) with 15 strikeouts and one RBI.
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.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
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. A new “Seeing Red” was recorded Monday, April 17. Go get it!
All stats used in my baseball columns were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Statcast, Bill James Online Baseball Prospectus, and Brooks Baseball Net.
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.