THE REDBIRD REVIEW

After the Cardinals took their bats and cracked the ice to break out for a 5-4 win over the Padres on Thursday, the best quote of the day came from manager Oli Marmol.

It wasn’t a bunch of palaver about how he never was concerned by the team’s extreme slump, or that he’s never lost confidence in their ability to hit.

No, this was about baseball.

Straight-up baseball, minus the fluffy narratives.

The first-year manager succinctly explained what the Cardinals must do to have a successful offense.

“We do well when we hit doubles and homers and take our walks,” Marmol told reporters in San Diego. “And today we did that.”

Thank you, Oli, for getting to the crux of the matter. St. Louis is a baseball-loving market that is reluctant to let go of how the game used to be played. That’s why you hear broadcasters obsessing over batting average while all but ignoring onbase percentage. That’s why you hear so much excitable babbling about small ball, and manufacturing, and doing the sweet little things when there’s the occasional bunt, or a grounder that moves a runner from second to third base. That stuff has value. And smart and good baseball is just that – smart and good baseball. That’s always a positive, whether it’s 1946 or 2022.

But if we should have learned anything from the hideous slump that ended (we hope?) on Thursday, it’s this: small ball and manufacturing and doing the little things may help a team pick up a run here and there, but it isn’t a formula for scoring enough to win a lot of games.

Not in 2022.

In order, here are the top 10 major-league teams with the highest average of home runs per game so far this season: Yankees, Braves, Brewers, Dodgers, Astros, Phillies, Rangers, Cardinals, Mariners, Blue Jays.

Nine of the 10 are in postseason contention. Eight of the 10 are in great shape for qualifying for the playoffs. I expected to see the Mets on this list, but they’re 16th in homers per game. Hey, there will always be an exception.

But it’s really difficult to score runs aplenty by stringing together singles, and working in a sacrifice bunt here and there. There are too many high-velocity pitchers racking up high strikeout totals.

Going into Friday, the MLB-wide batting average was .243 — the third-lowest of the 62-season expansion era, which began in 1961. This year’s strikeout rate – 22.3 percent – is the fourth-highest over the last 62 seasons. (And has been elevated to 20% or higher for nine consecutive seasons.)

On the offensive side of the competition, home runs win games. Doubles are very helpful. And it’s essential to get on base at a healthy race. You may not like this style of baseball – watching it, I’m more bored than I used to be – but this is where we are. This isn’t exactly new, but I’ll spare you of another tribute to Earl Weaver, the native St. Louisan and Hall of Fame manager who was decades ahead of his time.

The Cardinals – as is the case with many teams – turn uninspiring and are pretty easy to shut down when they aren’t pounding extra-base hits and getting a solid percentage of runners on base to pressure pitchers. We know that because this season they’ve been held to one run 14 times and shut out an NL-high 16 times. And that’s a problem.

Over their last 18 games the Cardinals have averaged 3.2 runs, batted .209, posted a .283 onbase percentage and slugged .344. They just ended an ugly streak of being shut out for three consecutive games … and not scoring an earned run for 43 straight innings. Their home-run pace slowed. They did a terrible job of creating traffic on the bases. It happens.

But through this 18-game stretch, when the Cardinals hit at least two homers in a game, they went 5-1. Otherwise? They were 5-7. It’s been that way all season. More on that in a few moments.

Thursday at Petco Park, the Cardinals were revved up by a solo homer swatted by Lars Nootbaar in the fifth inning. The blow cut the San Diego lead to 2-1 and ended the team’s ignominious 47-inning streak of failing to score an earned run. Trailing 3-1 in the seventh the Cardinals loaded the bases on a pinch-hit single by Dylan Carlson, and walks drawn by Nootbaar and Tommy Edman – to set up the winning grand-slam homer by rookie Brendan Donovan.

Another two-homer game by the Cardinals broke their three-game shutout streak, three-game losing streak, and a four-game snoozing streak by the offense.

The Cardinals had only one double (by Nolan Arenado) on Thursday. But the walks were there – four of them to be exact. And multiple home runs flew.

Let’s review:

* HOME RUNS: When the Cardinals hit two or more big homers in a game this season, they’re 48-9 for a platinum winning percentage of .842. When they don’t hit more than one homer in a game, their record is 40-54 for a .425 winning percentage.

* DOUBLES: When the Cardinals hit 3+ doubles in a game, they’re 31-9 (.775). Marmol’s team is 54-25 (.683) when stroking at least two doubles in a game this season.

* WALKS: The Redbirds have walked four times or more in 57 games. Their record: 41-16. The walks have pumped up the Cardinals’ onbase percentage to .326, and that ranks fourth in the majors this season.

That’s why Marmol’s quote about doubles, homers and walks was so on point. The Cardinals need to do those things to be a consistent, winning offense. And the stats back that up.

From the end of the All-Star break until the end of August, the Cardinals led the majors with 65 homers, had the fourth-highest number of walks, and ranked sixth in doubles. The result of that combination was 5.8 runs per game and a fantastic 26-11 record.

That’s Marmol Ball.

But it isn’t easy to sustain. The Cardinal home-run count for September is 17, which ranks 21st. They’ve been fine in drawing walks this month, and their doubles total ranks 10th overall. But the drop in homers has really pulled the Cardinals down, and that’s reflected by their average of 3.7 runs per game and a September record of 12-8.

By the way, the Cardinals do play “small ball.” But I prefer calling it by its proper term: aggressively intelligent base running.

Except for Bally Sports Midwest game-caller Dan McLaughlin, Our Town’s media pretty much continues to ignore this … and I don’t know why, because this asset makes a difference for the Cardinals.

Once again St. Louis rates among the best teams in the majors this season at pushing it on the base paths. And that creates some extra runs.

The Cards’ net baserunning gain (plus 68) is sixth overall and third in the National League. Their runners have advanced an extra base on batted balls in play 132 times, the ninth-highest total in the majors. And the Redbirds rank fourth in the majors with an extra-bases taken rate of 46%. As Danny Mac often points out, only three MLB teams have gone from first to third on a single more frequently than the Cardinals.

Just two teams in the majors rank among the top seven in total home runs, and in net baserunning gain: the Dodgers and the Cardinals.

The problem? You can’t take advantage of your outstanding baserunning if you don’t get enough men on base. And that’s why it’s imperative for the Cardinals to draw walks to occupy bases and get the action rolling. When the Cardinals struggle to get on base, their offense slows down. And when a low home-run total goes with a low onbase percentage, the St. Louis offense shuts down.

Despite the inconsistency and having to survive their recent big freeze offensively, the Cardinals still rank fourth in MLB for the season with an average of 4.75 runs per game. Only the Dodgers (5.35), Yankees (5.07) and Braves (4.87) have scored more runs per contest.

The Cardinals haven’t been ranked this high in the majors for runs per game in a season since finishing at No. 3 in 2013 with their average of 4.83 runs.

The Cardinals lead the NL and are tied with Toronto for tops in the majors with a 115 OPS+. That makes them 15 percent above league average offensively – a 16% improvement from their performance in 2021. Having a DH has boosted the offense, but the same can be said of the other 14 National League teams. And the Cardinals have the best OPS+ in the NL.

Three words for the Cardinals in advance of the postseason:

Homers

Doubles

Walks

That’s the formula for Marmol Ball. It works. It wins.

Accounting Department: With Thursday’s victory the Cardinals improved to 88-63 overall. They’re 37-36 on the road, but only 9-18 in road games against winning teams. And the series loss at San Diego left the Cardinals with a 0-5-3 series record this season when playing winning teams on the road …

The Cardinals have been in sole possession of the NL Central division since Aug. 6. Overall they’ve spent 73 days (83 including off days) in first place this season, and their largest lead was 9 and ½ games on Sept. 7.

On The Other Side Of The Winning Equation: The Cardinals are eighth in the majors for fewest runs allowed per game this season at 3.93 runs.

Jumping Jack: I don’t know how you saw it, but I think we watched Jack Flaherty’s best start of the season when he gave up two earned runs in six innings at San Diego.

I only hesitate for one reason; Flaherty issued four walks. That’s a walk rate of 15.3 percent … not only excessive, but also wearing because Flaherty used up too many pitches by putting those dudes on. But I recognize that his for-real comeback is the proverbial work in progress. He impressed by striking out nine Padres and holding the home team to one hit in nine at-bats with runners in scoring position.

After allowing a run that enabled the Padres to take a 2-1 lead early in the fifth inning, Flaherty closed them down with a strong sequence from that point through the end of the sixth inning: 0 for 6, one walk, four strikeouts. Flaherty’s Bill James Game Score (59) was his best of the season. (A game score of 50 is average.)

In A Related Note: The St. Louis starting rotation has a 3.44 ERA since the Aug. 2 trade deadline. That ranks 10th overall, and that’s good. But excluding the three-game series at Coors Field the Cardinals have a 3.14 rotation ERA since the deadline. Very good.

Positive Signs In Thursday’s Win: Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado combined to go 4 for 8 and Arenado had a double … In addition to his homer, Nootbaar walked twice. All of this could indicate a turnaround after Noot batted .075 in his previous 17 games.

Tracking Albert Pujols: The legend went 4 for 10 in the three games at San Diego, but the Padres kept him parked at 698 career homers. Mike Clevinger started the first game for the Padres and walked Pujols on a 3-2 slider in the first inning Tuesday.

You could hear some booing from the crowd. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Clevinger laughed and reported that he also heard chirping from his teammates. “Yeah, everyone gave me (expletive) about that,” he said.

Padres starting pitcher Joe Musgrove gave up a long single to Pujols – it hit the base of the wall in left. In the fifth inning Pujols nearly took reliever Adrian Morejon out of the park, but the deep fly faded just short of the wall in left and was caught for an out.

“I’ve watched him play since I was a little kid and to play against him — one of the first home runs I gave up was to Pujols,” Musgrove told reporters after Thursday’s game. “I learned real quick about beating him one time and trying to go back to the same spot and getting beat the next time. I’m excited for him. I’m happy for him. I’m glad he didn’t do it here. … that was a focus. We all talked about challenging him, giving him some fastballs. We’re not going to pitch around him. No one’s afraid of giving up those two big homers, but obviously we’re trying to win games. We attacked him pretty well. We used the fastball a lot against him, all of our pitchers. Glad to keep him in the park. I’m all about history but I don’t want to be part of it.”

The Quest For 700 Moves to Los Angeles: Next up, three games at Dodger Stadium. Pujols truly enjoyed playing for the Dodgers last season after requesting and receiving his release from the Angels. As a Dodger, Pujols had 92 at-bats at Dodger Stadium last summer and slugged .522 with eight homers. That’s a HR every 11.5 at-bats.

The Dodgers have listed three left-handed starters in this series. In order: Andrew Heaney, Clayton Kershaw and Tyler Anderson. On one hand, that’s highly favorable for Pujols who has a .741 slugging percentage against lefties this season and averages a homer every 9.0 at-bats against them. But the three LA lefties aren’t easy. Kershaw has allowed a HR every 42 at-bats to right-handed hitters. Anderson has given up a homer every 49.9 at-bats to RH batters. Perhaps Pujols will have his best shot Friday night; right-handed hitters have popped 11 homers against Heaney in 177 at-bats this season – an average of one homer per 16 ABs.

Pujols has one homer in 31 at-bats over his last 10 games. In September he has four four homers in 56 at-bats and is slugging .482. Hitting against lefties this month Pujols is 2 for 12 with one homer and a .417 slugging percentage.

The Cardinals and Pujols have only 11 games remaining on the regular-season schedule.

A Look At The Mighty Dodgers: It’s been a pretty remarkable season for Dodger Blue, which comes into the weekend series with baseball’s best record, 104-46.

Dodger-Dog Bites:

— The Dodgers have the best run differential in the majors at plus 326. And their lead is by huge margin, with the Yankees (+223) and Astros (+209) ranking second and third respectively. The Dodgers, Yankees and Astros are the only three teams that have a run differential higher than plus 200 this season. (The Cardinals are sixth in MLB at +124.)

Here are the top run differentials by a team in a season during the modern era, which began in 1900:

1939 Yankees, +411
1927 Yankees, +371
1936 Yankees, + 334
1902 Pirates, +334
2022 Dodgers, +326

— The Dodgers lead the majors in the two statistical categories that matter the most: average runs scored per game (5.35) and fewest runs allowed (3.17) per game.

— The 2022 Dodgers are 52-20 at home. Back in June, the Dodgers went 5-7 over two consecutive homestands, but that was an outlier. Since June 30 the Dodgers are 32-8 at Chavez Ravine and have won 11 of their last 12 home series. Hello, Cardinals! Welcome to Dodger Stadium!

— Here’s an oddity: earlier this season the Dodgers were swept by the Pirates in a three-game series at Dodger Stadium, and lost two of three to the Nationals in another home series. That’s 1-5 at home against two of the worst teams in ball.

— This note from The Athletic: Since winning the World Series to cap a tumultuous 2020 season, the Dodgers have a record of 210-102 since the start of the 2021 season – a preposterous winning percentage of .673. If that winning percentage holds up, it would be the best two-season record of any MLB team – after winning a World Series – since Stan Musial’s 1943-44 St. Louis Cardinals. And that .673 winning percentage would be the No. 1 two-season record in the aftermath of a World Series title during the division-play era (1969-2022).

— Since the All-Star break the Dodgers and Cardinals have the two best records in the majors: LA is 44-16, STL is 38-19. Since the Aug. 2 trade deadline the top three winning percentages in the majors belong to the Dodgers (35-13, .729), Cardinals (34-15, .694) and Astros (32-15, .681.)

Thanks for reading, and I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend …

–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.

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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.