REDBIRD REVIEW

Steven Matz and three relievers combined on a five-hit shutout Monday, and the Cardinals defeated the KC Royals by the slimmest of margins, winning 1-0 on a homer by Paul Goldschmidt.

Goldy’s decisive punch came on the Cardinals’ second at-bat of the game. From that point forward the Cardinals had three hits in 25 at-bats, with one walk.

The close-call win lifted the STL record to 13-9. But the Cardinals have averaged 3.3 runs and slugged .297 over their last 11 games, and the offense has scored two runs or fewer in 10 of its 22 games this season. Through Monday, only five MLB teams have scored two or less runs more often than the Cardinals.

This is a concern on two fronts: (1) even in a season of depressed offense in major-league baseball, the Cardinals must do better. And (2) if they can’t generate more offense, the Cards will waste a lot of terrific pitching.

Let’s explore …

IMPRESSIVE ALL-AROUND PITCHING: After Monday’s shutout the Cardinals rank 5th in the majors with their average of 3.18 runs allowed per game. Their team ERA (3.15) is 7th overall, and is even more impressive (2.82) over the last 17 games. The St. Louis rotation has improved to No. 8 in the majors with a 3.32 ERA, and the bullpen is No. 6 with a 2.94 ERA. To put this in sharper perspective, the Cardinals have given up fewer runs per game (3.18) than Milwaukee’s highly regarded pitching staff (3.25), and that’s a surprise.

The STL staff is strong in three areas.

First, the Cardinals do a very good job of limiting damage, ranking 8th in the majors with a yield of 0.8 home runs per nine innings. The slugging percentage against Cards pitchers (.335) is the ninth-lowest in MLB.

Second, St. Louis pitchers have served up the third-highest ground ball rate in the majors at 47.7 percent. As you know that’s important because their infield is superb and converting grounders into outs. The Cards have allowed a .212 batting average on ground balls this season; that ranks second in MLB to the Dodgers’ .209.

Third, the Cardinals rank 10th in the majors with a strikeout-walk ratio of 2.9. That’s especially notable for a reason: last season the Cardinals had the worst K-BB ratio (2.0) in MLB.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE OFFENSE? Let’s open with an overview. The new deadball era has made it more difficult for hitters to put up healthy numbers. According to research done by baseball analyst Joe Sheehan, the .231 MLB batting average in April was the seventh-lowest in ANY month of a season since 1907.

And because MLB has switched to a baseball that doesn’t travel as far, the impact has resulted in even less offense. Which, of course, is insane. From the start of 2019 through the first month of 2022, the MLB batting average has dropped 19 points, and the MLB slugging percentage is down 61 points. (Position players only.) And as Sheehan notes: three years ago, 13% of hitters’ contact went for extra bases. That figure is down to 10.5% this season — with homers, triples, and doubles all down. MLB is turning home runs into fly outs, and the boredom increases.

The industry-created depression on offense shouldn’t be minimized. But for as disappointing as they’ve been in the early weeks of 2022, the Cardinals are still slightly above the MLB average in runs per game.

Is that good enough?

Hell, no.

They clearly have multiple players who have the talent to deliver a lot more offense than what we’ve seen from them so far. And we can talk about the deadball and all of that, but it doesn’t justify the hideous starts by multiple lineup regulars. It’s also true that players should be held accountable. But it doesn’t work that way in Our Town. Can’t criticize our baseball heroes when it’s much easier to dump on the hitting coach.

I could write a book. But I’ll limit this to five things. And you’re familiar with most of this, so please view this as an update.

1) Too much soft contact. I discussed this last week, and nothing has changed. The Cardinals rank 30th in hard-hit rate, 28th in barrel percentage, and are tied for 27th in average exit velocity. This is a huge factor. Take a look at the MLB-wide difference in results this season based on the quality of contact:

Hard: .500 average, 1.114 slugging percentage.
Medium: .267 average, .319 slug.
Soft: .191 average, .200 slug.

Another little nugget on this: the average distance of the Cards’ 17 homers is 389 feet – second shortest in the majors.

If there are approach-and-mechanics issues with the hitting, then someone – hitting coach Jeff Albert, manager Oli Marmol – should explain the specifics.

2) Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill. I wrote about Carlson last week, and his soft-contact traits continue to be alarming. Carlson has put 70 balls in play; none have been barrelled. His hard–hit rate, 17.1 percent, is way down from his 31.1% in 2021, and his 42.1% rate in 2020. Carlson’s poor average exit velocity is in the 3rd percentile of MLB hitters.

As for O’Neill: his hard-hit rate was 52.2 percent in 2021; this year it’s dropped to 35%. His barrel rate is 7.5% down from last season, and his average exit velo has fallen by more than 5%. This largely explains why O’Neill and Carlson are slugging .250 and .253, respectively.

It’s difficult to envision how this offense can combust with these two key pieces sputtering. Since April 21, O’Neill is batting .098 with a .146 slug, and .299 OPS. And in his last 15 games O’Neill has a strikeout rate of 31.7%. Last year he finished 48 percent above league average in OPS+. So far this season he’s 49% below league average in OPS+. In his last 17 games Carlson is batting .145 with a .192 OBP and .203 slug. He was 15 percent above league average in OPS+ last season; this year he’s 54% below league average in OPS+.

3) Shortstops Paul DeJong and Edmundo Sosa: The Cardinals rank 29th in the majors at the position with a .145 average and are 28th in slugging (.224) and OPS (.459.) And with runners in scoring position Sosa and DeJong have combined to go 2 for 20 (.100) with a 37.5 percent strikeout rate.

4) The DH spot vs. right-handed pitching: 71 plate appearances, .156 average, .239 OBP, .188 slug, .427 OPS. No homers. Two doubles. Six RBI. And when a left-swinging Cardinal DH faces right-handed pitching, the average is a ghastly .132 with a .372 OPS.

5) The front-office stubbornness in its refusal to promote Nolan Gorman from Triple A Memphis. President of baseball ops John Mozeliak and manager Marmol continue to spin this as a playing-time matter. Yeah, as if this team is so loaded with good hitting, and has such a robust offense, it leaves no room for a power-hitting sensation that’s destroying Triple A pitching. This, of course, is preposterous.

The original plan was to have the left-swinging Gorman to DH against RH pitching. But that was scratched when Gorman began to struggle in spring training. Corey Dickerson was signed as a LH bat to DH and play corner outfield. In 47 plate appearances Dickerson is batting .186 and is 65 percent below league average offensively with his 35 OPS+.

The Cardinals are getting virtually nothing offensively from LH batters used at DH against righthanders … and 80 percent of this team’s plate appearances are taken against RH pitching. But yet Mozeliak and Marmol want us to believe that there’s no opening for regular at-bats for Gorman on the big club. When, in fact, Gorman could DH most of the time – with Dickerson serving as a backup corner outfielder and occasional DH.

The Cardinals have few options to improve this offense from within the organization:

Hope that Carlson and O’Neill come out of their swoons. That should happen … but when?

Hope to get more from DeJong … and by now that’s an extreme longshot. And he has a guaranteed contract through 2023, and that gives him front-office immunity.

Plug in Gorman as the DH against righthanders … but the bosses reject that idea, and Marmol signs off on it … even though Gorman has 31 homers, a .329 average, .703 slugging percentage and 1.075 OP5 in 412 at-bats vs. RHP since the start of 2021.

The Gorman option is obvious and easy. This is why you develop players, right?

To use them when you have a weakness that they can help you strengthen.

But hey, the front office spent money on Dickerson so he also has front-office immunity. Hey, they have to make sure there will be a big-league roster spot for either Brendan Donovan or Lars Nootbaar. (First it was Nootbaar, but he was sent to Memphis to give Donovan some time in the majors. Presumably Nootbaar will return to St. Louis after he sharpens up with minor-league at-bats.)

One way to look at it: given the way the Cardinals have set this up, Gorman isn’t as important to them right now as Dickerson, Nootbaar or Donovan.

That’s bananas.

By installing Gorman to work in a platoon with Albert Pujols as DH, the Cardinals wouldn’t have to mess with their middle-infield defense by moving Tommy Edman from second to shortstop and giving regular starts to Gorman at 2B. And why screw with that?

The Cardinals have a ground-ball staff. They’ve already been credited with 12 defensive runs saved (combined) by Fielding Bible at the second base and shortstop positions. They are playing the best middle-infield defense in the majors so far, and it isn’t even close.

There’s no use for even thinking about weakening your middle-infield defense  because there’s a ready-made fit for Gorman at DH. You’d think the front office would want to get a lot more done from the DH spot against RH pitching. (Shakes head, resumes typing.) 

It’s just strange to see the Cardinals draft and develop a power hitter of this caliber and then block Gorman to accommodate more limited hitters with less upside. In the words of the late Marvin Gaye: ain’t that peculiar?

Nothing new. The Cardinals did it in 2019 by blocking outfield prospect Randy Arozarena when he obviously warranted regular playing time.

Please don’t trade Gorman to Tampa Bay.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical 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 “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and 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 and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.

 

 

 

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.