The REDBIRD REVIEW
Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas may have been trying to do the right thing, at least in his mind, by sticking up for teammate Willson Contreras after the catcher was skulled on a backswing by Cubs hitter Ian Happ.
We can call Happ careless for failing to control his follow-through after taking a big swing-and-miss that opened a laceration on the side of the catcher’s head. The blow knocked the bloodied Contreras out in the first inning, only three batters into Thursday’s 10-3 rout by the Cubs.
To be clear, Happ had no intention to harm his friend and former teammate. Happ and Contreras played together for the Cubs from 2017 through 2022 and still have a strong relationship. Happ near home plate and watched Contreras being tended to by St. Louis trainer Adam Olsen. And as Contreras began to leave the field, he paused to hug Happ. More accurately, they hugged each other. And the gesture was sincere.
“We’re good friends and have a lot of love for him, so to see him go down and be bleeding from the head, it’s obviously a scary moment,” Happ told reporters after the game. “We texted a little bit after the game, and he’s doing all right. So it was just a scary moment.”
Accidents happen in baseball. And this was an accident. Contreras forgave Happ with the hug, and the unfortunate episode should have ended right there.
Mikolas thought otherwise.
When play resumed, Mikolas threw a pitch up-and-in and close to Happ’s head. Mikolas didn’t like what happened to Contreras, and made the undeniable point to Happ. In baseball this is traditionally known as a purpose pitch, and Happ understood. He didn’t react. But rather than move on, Mikolas plunked Happ on the outer rump on the next pitch.
Mikolas was ejected. And while I agree with critics who say the umpiring crew should have issued a warning after the first missive delivered by Mikolas, I don’t fault them for expelling Mikolas from the game.
I’m not sure why anyone thinks it’s OK for Mikolas to get two free shots at Happ. If Mikolas meant to hit Happ with the first zoom-in pitch – only to miss – that’s the pitcher’s fault. But even then, the symbolic admonishment was sufficient. There was no need to create and force more drama.
Happ accepted the message. Mikolas stood up for Contreras. Everyone on both sides understood the meaning behind the sequence
Mikolas didn’t have to go there again. But he did just that with the hip shot, doubling up on a point he’d already made to Happ. Moreover, it wasn’t smart to put Happ on base with a gratuitous hit-by-pitch.
If honor-code vengeance was the motive, then what exactly did this accomplish? Happ wasn’t rattled by the jaw-level first pitch. Happ wasn’t in any physical pain after Mikolas found Happ’s padded area on the second pitch. In their dugout, the Cubs laughed about it.
Mikolas didn’t help his team at all Thursday. He was ejected after throwing 14 pitches, forcing the Cardinals to lean on a raggedy bullpen for the final 25 outs. Happ was on first base, giving the Cubs a chance to get on the board. Dakota Hudson was rushed into the game, and wasn’t ready. The next four-batter sequence went like this: single, walk, bases-loaded walk, and two-run double.
The Cubs had a 3-0 lead. That cushion was more than enough for their starting pitcher Justin Steele, who owned the Cardinals (again) by giving up one run in six innings.
You also have to appreciate the irony of Mikolas saying “in any circumstance, I’ve got Willson’s back. He’s my catcher, and I consider him a really good friend now.”
Isn’t that special.
I suppose Mikolas thinks we’ve all forgotten how Cardinals pitchers back-stabbed Contreras early in the season, whining about his work behind the plate so much that manager Oli Marmol and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak bounced Contreras from the catcher spot after 26 games to make him DH. And they even planned to rotate Contreras into the mix at left field before realizing the stupidity of adding another player to the outfield logjam. But catching? Forget about catching.
“Contreras is not going to be catching for a foreseeable timetable,” Mozeliak said at the time.
It was a gutless, cheapjack move that subjected Contreras to unwarranted attention and humiliation.
The Cardinals spent $87.5 million free-agent dollars on Contreras — only to quickly turn on him after realizing Contreras wasn’t up to Yadier Molina’s level defensively.
How is it even possible to be this dopey?
The media backlash was so vociferous, the embarrassed Mozeliak and Marmol backed off and put Contreras back at catcher. That was hardly the end of the story. More recently, Mozeliak jabbed Contreras again when asked about the emergence of rookie catching prospect Ivan Herrera.
In addressing Contreras’ future status as the No. 1 catcher, Mozeliak said this: “I think we will table that until the offseason. Obviously, when we look back on it in the short term now, there are some things that need to change. Short-view, it’s kind of nice what we are seeing out of Herrera right now. But ultimately, when we start thinking about 2024, some of those things will have to be more addressed in the offseason.”
And then USA Today reported that Contreras was on the trade block.
Way to support the catcher that YOU signed to a five-year deal, Mr. Mozeliak. Instead of getting mad at Contreras, Mozeliak should be mad at himself for the team’s 46-58 record that he’s largely responsible for.
Mozeliak couldn’t be bothered to put together an average pitching staff for 2023, and the Cardinals collapsed. Sadly, chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. is no better. He evidently believes Mozeliak is the second coming of Branch Rickey.
Remember when Mikolas made a passive-aggressive move a few weeks ago by deciding he would call his own pitches instead of relying on Contreras? The big show lasted one inning, and a flustered Mikolas handed pitch-selection responsibility back to Contreras.
Hey, but at least Mikolas hit Ian Happ on the hip to show his blood-brother support for the catcher, so I guess that makes everything swell now. The Cardinals are a happy family … well, at least until someone in the family cheap shots Contreras again.
What Ian Happ unintentionally did to Contreras wasn’t nearly as bad as what the Cardinals intentionally have done to Contreras during the 2023 season.
CARDINALS VS. NL CENTRAL: Remember when the Cardinals used to beat up on their rivals in the NL Central? It was so easy, so simple to do, and their success created the complacency and arrogance that took St. Louis baseball down in 2023. As long as the Cardinals could bully division weaklings, and use the soft competition to get to 90 wins, there was no reason to strive to build a better and more complete baseball team.
Well, the party is over. Thursday’s loss to the Cubs gave St. Louis a 12-18 record in the NL Central this season. If that holds, this would be their first losing record against division opponents since the 2017 team went 34-42.
In making the playoffs four consecutive seasons (2019-2022) the Cardinals went 158-110 against NL Central opposition for a .590 winning percentage. When playing games outside the division, the Cardinals had a much lower win percentage of .528. The free-ride program was discontinued in 2023.
ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME? After the Mikolas ejection, the Cardinals added another inglorious moment to their cringeworthy season. From their dugout, the Cubs were laughing at Mikolas and Jack Flaherty when the two pitchers went into a tough-guy routine by hollering and gesturing across the field. The more that the STL pitchers barked, the more the Cubs laughed at them. The Cardinals have lost five of their last seven games against the Cubs this season. I don’t think they were intimidated by Mikolas and Flaherty.
NOTES ON THE CUBS: With Thursday’s beatdown victory at Busch Stadium, the Cubs climbed to the .500 mark (51-51) for the first time since May 12. The Cubs have won six consecutive games and are 8-1 in their last nine. They are only four games out of the last wild-card spot, and have moved closer to the leaders in the NL Central, trailing first-place Milwaukee by 5 and ½ games and second-place Cincinnati by 4.0 games.
Unless they fall apart in the final three games of their series in St. Louis, the Cubs will likely shift into the buyer mode in search of a bat and bullpen depth. First base is a problem; at the position the Cubs have a .223 batting average and a wRC+ that’s 22 percent below league average offensively.
The remaining schedule – easiest in the NL according to FanGraphs – should give the Cubs the opportunity for a strong finish. The Cubs have 14 total games left against the Brewers and Reds. Starting Aug. 15 the Cubs will play 21 of their next 37 games against the White Sox, Royals, Tigers, Pirates and Rockies. And there are no West Coast trips.
Will the Cubs hold on to impending free agents Marcus Stroman and Cody Bellinger? Stroman hasn’t pitched well as of late – with an 8.00 ERA in six starts – so the Cubs could make him available. But Bellinger is having a fantastic comeback season, posting a WRC+ that’s 42 percent above league average offensively. It’s his best offensive performance since his 2019 MVP year. Cubs fans would not be happy if president of baseball ops Jed Hoyer starts selling off pieces with the team in position to earn a playoff spot.
PROBLEMS FOR MIKOLAS: He had a very good May, pitching to a 1.89 ERA in six starts. But Mikolas has a 5.15 ERA in his last 11 starts, with the Cardinals going 2-9 in those games. In his 17 starts that have been made in March-April and June-July, Mikolas has a 5.44 ERA in 89 and ⅓ innings. And opponents have blistered him for a .303 average, .341 OBP and .464 slug in those 17 starts.
This season Mikolas has allowed a career-worst in hits per nine innings (11.1) and base runners per nine innings (11.7).
His 15.9 percent strikeout rate is his lowest in a season as a Cardinal. The fading strikeout rate has become a huge issue for Mikolas. In his last 11 starts he has a 11.7% strikeout rate that’s the worst among 49 MLB starters pitchers that have supplied at least 50 innings since June 4.
The Cardinals will pay Mikolas $32 million total in a two-year contract extension that takes effect in 2024. He’ll be pitching under the terms of the new contract at age 35 and 36.
CARDS CATCHERS HAVE POWERED UP: Andrew Knizner hit two home runs in Thursday’s loss, which gave him three homers and six RBI in his last two games. In 133 plate appearances Knizner is slugging a career-high .469 this season which ranks 10th among MLB catchers that have at least 100 PA. The Kiz slug is higher than that of J.T. Realmuto, Adley Rutschman and Salvador Perez. (Among others.)
Contreras and Knizner have dramatically improved the offensive performance at the catching spot this season. Including Ivan Herrera’s limited contributions, St. Louis catchers have combined for 17 homers and 54 RBI through 104 games this year after hitting only nine homers with 48 RBI over the full 162 games last season. Cardinal catchers slugged .291 last season; this year their slug is .447 – ranking fifth overall and second in the NL.
Per wRC+, STL catchers were 39 percent below league average offensively in 2022. But in 2023 Cards catchers are collectively 10 percent above league average which ranks fourth overall and second in the NL.
With Contreras and Knizner showing the way, here’s where St. Louis catchers rank in the National League in various offensive categories:
+ 2nd in slugging
+ 2nd in Isolated Power
+ 2nd in OPS
+ 2nd in wRC+
+ 3rd in home runs
+ 3rd in doubles
+ 3rd in batting average
+ 4th in onbase percentage (.318)
+ 4th in RBI
+ 4th in WAR
Last season Cardinal catchers were near the bottom of the National League in all of those categories. During 2021-2022 combined, St. Louis catchers were dead last in the majors with a below-replacement level WAR of minus 0.6. But in 2023, their catchers are tied for 8th overall with 2.1 WAR.
Knizner’s power has been a pleasant surprise in 2023. He’s made significant advances this season in barrel rate, hard-hit rate, sweet-spot contact and average exit velocity. The changes that Kiz has made with his swing are working, and he’s increased his OPS by 125 points this season, up to .726.
Contreras is doing what the Cardinals recruited him to do, and are paying him to do: pump up the terrible offense at the catcher position. And Contreras has come through, putting up a 120 wRC+ when used as a catcher that’s 20 percent above league average offensively. And his .455 slugging percentage when deployed as a catcher ranks sixth in the majors among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances.
GOOD JULY FOR THE STL OFFENSE: As the month winds down, here’s where the Cardinals rank in the National League offensively for July in games played through Thursday:
— 1st in wRC+, 129
— 1st in batting average, .282
— 1st in onbase percentage, .360
— 1st in doubles, 49
— 2nd in slugging, .468
— T-2nd in homers, 35
— 2nd in runs scored, 132
Thanks for reading…
Have a wonderful weekend …
Bernie hosts a weekday sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
The “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and B. Miklasz is available at 590thefan.com, the 590 the fan app or your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus or Bill James Online.
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.