It’s on to Cincinnati for the Cardinals, who played their worst game of the season in Thursday’s 5-0 loss in Miami.
The Cardinals had a chance to complete a three-game sweep of the Marlins but simply weren’t engaged mentally.
The defense was sloppy and negligent.
Second baseman Tommy Edman and shortstop Paul DeJong couldn’t connect on a forceout at second and the screwup gave Miami its first run.
Harrison Bader threw to the wrong base, having absolutely no chance to nail a runner at third from ; his daft decision allowed another runner to advance from first to second.
Later in the same inning Miami scored its second run on a passed ball by catcher Yadier Molina, who doesn’t look right behind the plate.
The home team’s 2-0 lead was more than enough on a night when STL hitters looked like a bunch that had never seen a changeup before. The fellers zoned out in seven innings of futility against Miami starter Pablo Lopez
In 10 at-bats that ended with Lopez hypnotizing STL hitters with the change, the Cards went 1 for 10 with five strikeouts and an awful whiff-swing rate of 47.8 percent. They had a weak average exit velocity (85 mph) on the five balls that they put in play.
Look, even the best teams will play more than a few horrendous games during the season – days or nights of fuzzy focus when they aren’t locked in to compete. The Cardinals dozed through such a game Thursday, and that was disappointing because (A) it’s so early in the season and this team already has had plenty of days off; and (B) the Cardinals muffed a chance to sweep the series.
On the other hand, Miami deserves credit for playing harder and with more energy than St. Louis in this one. And perhaps I’m being too hard on Cards hitters; as I warned before Thursday’s game Lopez came into the start with a career 2.89 ERA at home. Well, we can make that a 2.79 career at home after Lopez glided through one of the easiest starts that a pitcher could ever hope for.
The clunker left the Cardinals with a 7–4 record as they get ready for the three-game weekend series against the dreadful (2-11) Reds at Great American Small Ball Park.
TRENDING DOWN, THE OFFENSE: The Cardinals scored only two runs over the final 22 innings of the Miami series, and that came on a timely, ninth-inning swing by Nolan Arenado for a two-run homer in Wednesday’s 2-0 victory. Over the final 22 innings of the series the Cardinals went 10 for 74 (.135) with a 30.7 strikeout rate and grounded into three double plays. Arenado had the only extra-base hit. In the final two games of the series the Cards batted .159 with 21 strikeouts and two walks.
The downturn dropped St. Louis out of the top four and into ninth in the majors with an average of 4.55 runs per game, and they’re 12th in batting average (.235) and OPS (.707.)
TOO MANY QUIET BATS: The Cardinals have a few hitters above the league-average level in OPS+ – Nolan Arenado, Tommy Edman, Albert Pujols and Andrew Knizner. They’re all 77 percent above league average or higher. Edmundo Sosa is also above average, but he has only five plate appearances.
The list of below-average hitters is expanding. Here are their OPS+ figures, and keep in mind that 100 is league average:
Tyler O’Neill, 89
Harrison Bader, 67
Paul DeJong, 63
Paul Goldschmidt, 37
Dylan Carlson, 24
Corey Dickerson, 9
Yadier Molina, minus 7
Lars Nootbaar, minus 37
TRENDING UP, JORDAN HICKS: His first MLB start was a success. As he continued the process of building stamina, Hicks wasn’t expected to pitch deep into this game, and there was an unofficial three-inning limit. But the three innings were filled with velocity, and wicked sinking action, and change of speeds. It was quality stuff that caused a high level of discomfort for the Miami hitters.
Hicks was efficient, averaging 15.3 pitches per inning. He got six ground balls. He had seven strikes looking, five strikes swinging. He threw 14 pitches clocked at 100+ miles per hour, and another 11 that came in at 98.8 mph or higher. Did he tire? If so, not much … in his third and final inning, Hicks’ four sinkers averaged 99.85 mph, with his last two sizzling in at an average of 100.3 mph. Already looking forward to his next start? Me too.
TROUBLE AGAINST RH PITCHING: Through 11 games the Cardinals are showing early signs of a problem that frustrated them in 2021, when they ranked 21st in the majors in both slugging percentage and OPS against right-handed pitchers. In their first 304 plate appearances vs. RH in 2022 the Cardinals are batting .219 (21st) with a .295 onbase percentage (21st), .338 slug (20th) and .633 OPS (22nd.) So far only three Cardinal hitters have performed above average offensively against righthanders: Arenado, Edman and Andrew Knizner.
DESIGNATED HITTERS VS. RH PITCHING: Not good. Real bad. In 35 plate appearances against righthanders, Cardinal designated hitters Pujols, Dickerson and Nootbaar have combined for three hits (all singles) in 30 at-bats for a .100 average. They’ve struck out seven times and walked five times. Through 35 plate appearances the STL designated hitters rank 28th in the majors with a .329 OPS vs. RHP.
If there’s a plus side to this, the three DHs have combined for a 14.3 percent walk rate when facing RH pitchers.
Here’s what each DH has done against right-handed pitching so far …
⧫ Pujols: 1 for 12 with three strikeouts and two walks.
⧫ Dickerson: 2 for 15 with two strikeouts and two walks. It’s a good idea to start giving him regular at-bats to attempt a jump-start.
⧫ Nootbaar: 0 for 3 with two strikeouts and two walks. Overall he’s 0 for 10 with six strikeouts and two walks.
ANOTHER LOOK: PUJOLS VS. RH PITCHING. Manager Oli Marmol doesn’t seem to have concerns over using Pujols against right-handed pitching. This is surprising considering that (A) Pujols is fearsome against left-handed pitching; (B) he’s been below average against RHP since the start of the 2017 season; (C) the Dodgers showed the ideal way to use Pujols last season, so this should be a simple thing for Marmol to do.
But with all of the excitement surrounding Pujols’ return to St. Louis, I suppose it’s understandable, at least to a point, for Marmol to get caught up in this. I say that as a Marmol admirer and supporter. But he has to reject the temptation to use Pujols too often against RH pitching.
A big problem – as I just pointed out – is the early-season absence of effectiveness by any Cardinal DH against RH pitching. If Dickerson or Nootbaar were going off against RHP, Marmol would rethink his usage of Pujols. But the lax hitting by others against RHP gives Marmol an opening, and an excuse, to go with Pujols.
Pujols struck out in all three at-bats against the RH-throwing Lopez on Thursday night. And Pujols’ struggles vs. right-handers have gotten worse over the last three-plus seasons.
Since the start of 2019, Pujols has made 625 plate appearances vs. right-handed pitching. And here’s where he ranks over that time among 223 MLB hitters that have at least 600 plate appearances:
– .216 batting average, No. 214
– .280 onbase percentage, No. 217
– .353 slugging percentage, No. 212
– .633 OPS, No. 218
Marmol has said he’s comfortable using Pujols against lower-velocity right-handers. OK. But since the start of the 2019 season RH pitchers have held Pujols to a .143 average on changeups, a .122 average on sliders, and a .226 average on cutters. Pujols has, however, batted .313 on curves thrown by RHP.
Pujols has rated among the best hitters in the majors against LH pitching, and he’s statistically among the worst against RH pitching. These facts are hard and true and well established. Marmol must be judicious in deploying Pujols against right-handed pitching. I’m not objecting to Pujols getting assignments against some RH starters … but how many are we talking about? This certainly deserves scrutiny moving forward. At some point in 2022 Nolan Gorman and his booming left-handed bat will be a DH weapon for the Cardinals against right-handed pitching.
YADIER MOLINA: PUT ME IN COACH. Marmol planned to start Knizner in Thursday’s game, but Molina asked to be in the lineup for his final career game in Miami. Marmol respected the future Hall of Famer’s wishes. Ah, the tradition continues. Somewhere, Mike Shildt and Mike Matheny were smiling. We’ll know, soon enough, if this was just a special-occasion thing. If so, no big deal.
In 25 plate appearances Molina is batting .160 this season but did have a single in each of the last two games vs. the Marlins. Molina’s soft contact remains a noticeable issue. His hard-hit rate (16.7 percent) is in the third percentile (that’s bad) among MLB hitters. His low average exit velocity (83.3%) is in the sixth percentile. Molina hasn’t barrelled a ball this season.
This is where I’m supposed to type “hey, it’s early.” But since the start of the 2018 season Molina has a 84 OPS+ that’s 16% below league average offensively.
WEAK LINKS: AARON BROOKS, DREW VERHAGEN. Over the offseason the Cards front office signed the two hybrid-pitcher free agents out of Japan and South Korea, respectively. So far VerHagen and Brooks have combined for 10.1 innings – allowing seven earned runs – for a 6.09 ERA. They’ve combined to walk five, strike out eight, and give up six extra-base hits.
VerHagen was supposedly pitching with a sore hip and the Cardinals placed him on the IL Friday. They summoned lefty Packy Naughton from the minors to replace VerHagen.
The pitching staff must be reduced by two, down to 13, by May 2. That probably doesn’t bode well for Brooks.
Subtract the innings and earned runs that belong to VerHagen and Brooks, the other nine St. Louis relievers have a superb 1.01 ERA in 35.2 combined innings. Brooks and VerHagen have been charged with seven of the 11 total earned runs assessed to the Cards bullpen so far this season.
SCOUTING THE CINCINNATI REDS …
The Misery Index:
1) After opening the season by splitting a four-game series in Atlanta, the Reds have lost nine in a row and are smothered under MLB’s worst record (2-11.) The franchise hadn’t lost nine consecutive games since June 9-18 of 2017.
“Embarrassing,” first baseman Joey Votto said. “Very frustrating. It feels like it’s been like groundhog day over the last couple of weeks. It’s been one of the uglier stretches I remember experiencing in a Reds uniform.”
2) The Reds haven’t won a game since team president Phil Castellini caused an uproar by criticizing Reds fans for complaining about the state of the franchise and the significantly lower payroll for 2022. The Reds just completed a seven-game road trip in which they were outscored 42 -10 by the Dodgers and Padres.
“Yeah, it sucks,” shortstop Kyle Farmer said. “I know how the fans feel in Cincinnati. Obviously, we feel the same way.”
3) Cincinnati ranks tied for 27th in average runs per game, 2.85. Reds hitters have the MLB’s worst strikeout rate (28.4%), rank 29th in batting average (.177), 30th in onbase percentage (.247), 30th in slugging (.277) and 30th in OBP (.524.)
4) Oddly enough, the Reds rank third in the majors in batting average (.303) and OPS (.831) with runners in scoring position.
5) The Cincinnati pitching staff’s 6.00 ERA ranks 29th in the majors. Their starting pitchers have the worst ERA (7.55) in the majors. Reds pitchers’ 12.1 percent walk rate is the worst in MLB.
6) The Reds rank 24th in MLB with minus five defensive runs saved. They’re also 24th in FanGraphs’ base-running metric.
7) The Reds have been outscored 74-37 this season. That’s a minus 2.8 run differential per game, the worst in the majors. The Reds haven’t had the lead at the completion of an inning since their 6-3 win in Atlanta on April 10. That means they’ve trailed on the scoreboard in their last 81 innings of baseball. According to Bally Sports Ohio, that’s the Reds’ longest stretch of trailing in the score since a 90-inning streak in August of 1945.
8) The Reds and Orioles are the only two offenses in MLB that have more strikeouts than total bases.
9) Reliever Lucas Sims will likely come off the Injured List today and be in place to work against the Cardinals this weekend. But even then the Reds still have a MLB-highest 12 players on the IL. The injured include No. 1 starter Luis Castillo; No. 5 starter Mike Minor; second baseman Jonathan India, infielders Mike Moustakas, Donovan Solano and Jose Barrero; and utility man Max Schrock. And LH-hitting outfielder Tyler Naquin was on the Covid-19 list this week.
“Every team deals with stuff like this,” Votto said. “No excuses. A nine-game losing streak is a reflection of how we played. It’s not entirely a reflection of how many people are on the IL. I’ve been on teams that have dealt with stuff like this and we continued to win, and we clearly haven’t. It’s just not acceptable.”
10) The cold bats include Votto (.133 average), Tommy Pham (.158), Nick Senzel (.095), Aristedes Aquino (.056), and Colin Moran (.176.) The frequently injured Moustakas, 33, has played only 71 games for the Reds since the start of last season and is batting .196 over that time. Perhaps Cincinnati can take comfort in the slow starts by former Reds Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez; they’ve combined for three homers and 11 RBI in 106 plate appearances after being traded to Seattle. Winker is batting .143.
11) The rotation includes three rookies and one second-year starter to go with Tyler Mahle. But rookie phenom Hunter Greene has generated excitement and hope with his flaming fastballs and a 31 percent strikeout rate. In a start at Dodger Stadium last weekend Greene rocketed 39 fastballs clocked at 100 mph or faster. No pitcher had done that in the 14-season history of official pitch tracking. According to Jayson Stark of The Athletic, last season only 10 teams threw 39 pitches at 100 mph plus over the entire season.
12) The Reds are happy to come home after playing 11 of their first 13 games on the road. There’s pressure on the Cardinals to wake up offensively and win the series against a rival that should be hungry to turn the season around. And the Cardinals will get an up-close look at Greene who is scheduled to start Friday night.
The pitching matchups:
+ Friday, 5:40 pm STL time: Steven Matz vs. Hunter Greene (1-1, 4.35.)
+ Saturday, 3:10 STL time: Dakota Hudson vs. Tyler Mahle (1-1, 7.82)
+ Sunday, 12:40 p.m. STL time: Adam Wainwright vs. rookie LH Nick Lodolo (0-2, 8.00.)
Thanks for reading.
Have a great weekend.
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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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.
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.