THE REDBIRD REVIEW

Monday morning, I turned on the microphone to talk about Cardinals baseball with my friend Will Leitch in our weekly “Seeing Red” podcast. We’re both full of energy and opinions. It’s probably my favorite hour of the week.

Will asked a good question: are the Cardinals good?

We know they’ve been winning. We know they have the National League’s best record (33-18) since May 12. We know there are plenty of positives to chat about – the bullpen, solid starting pitching, Alec Burleson, Masyn Winn, Brendan Donovan, etc.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Cardinals are good. The words “mediocre” or “average” get tossed around a lot. I understand. No one is saying the Cardinals are up there with the Phillies and Dodgers, but they’ve moved closer to the Brewers and Braves. As of Wednesday morning the Cardinals were one of only six NL teams with a winning record. The Cards ranked fifth among 15 NL teams in winning percentage.

As we recorded the latest Seeing Red, the Cardinals were 47-42. They won Monday’s series finale at Washington to improve to 48-42. And that’s where the Cardinals stand as I type this. The Redbirds trail first-place Milwaukee in the NL Central, and are just three games behind the Braves, the league’s No. 1 wild-card team. We’ll see how much that shifts after the completion of Wednesday’s St. Louis vs. Kansas City doubleheader at Busch Stadium.

Are the Cardinals good? I answered Mr. Leitch by citing the team’s negative run differential. Through Monday the Cardinals had been outscored by 33 runs this season, and only seven major-league teams have done worse than that. The run-differential indicator is a concern. If your team continues to get outscored, the prospect of long-term success is tenuous.

I’ve been thinking a lot more about this over the last three days. The run-differential topic is suddenly a hot one in the St. Louis sports-media circle. The surface-level stuff is OK, but I prefer to dig in deeper. I wanted to discover more relevant information that adds knowledge and perspective to the discussion.

Let’s start with this: the Cardinals have a plus-19 run differential during their 51-game rally from a 15-24 start. In the first 39 games of the season the Birds had a record of 15-24 and a minus 52 run differential. But they’ve been reducing their run-differential deficit and are trending in a favorable direction.

Next, the Cardinals are a much better team now, and I see no reason to dismiss that as some kind of mirage. That 33-18 record (.647) since May 12 isn’t a fluke. They won’t continue playing .647 baseball the rest of the way, but they should be able to play well and win enough to cruise into the postseason.

That said, there are some underlying issues. And the Cardinals are dangerously dependent on a strongbox bullpen that gives them a major edge in close games. That’s the upside.

There is a potential downside. If the bullpen crashes, the Cardinals will likely start losing some of the games they’ve been winning. St. Louis is 39-2 when leading a game through seven innings this season – and a pristine 42-0 when leading through eight innings.

Is it fair to expect this to continue? Realistically, the Cardinals won’t sustain this. That doesn’t mean they’ll wake up one morning with an awful bullpen that can’t be trusted. But it’s unreasonable to expect these constant late-inning lockdowns to continue, uninterrupted. Their relievers are probably overdue to let more leads slip away.

How important is the bullpen to the Cardinals’ success? Very. To see that, let’s return to the run-differential inspection. Here’s a simple breakdown of the 90 games the Redbirds have played so far:

+ First six innings: the Cardinals have been outscored 296-244 for a rather unsightly minus 52 run differential.

+ From the seventh inning until the end of the game including extras: the Cardinals have outscored opponents 113-92 for a +22 run differential.

As we can see, the bullpen has given St. Louis a substantial advantage in late-inning, close-game showdowns. That’s outstanding. It’s also some risky business, because the bullpen can’t collapse. The way things have gone so far, the difference between winning tight games and losing close games is precariously thin for the Cardinals.

But this is also true: the Cardinals have raised their record and risen in the standings for other reasons. If we review some of the early-season performance trends assorted adversities and look at what the Cardinals had to overcome, a minus 52 run differential over the first 39 games makes sense. But it does not define who they are now, and I’m not sure why so many people still fail to miss that point. The Cardinals certainly have made advances since May 12

THE ST. LOUIS PITCHING

First 39 games, 4.33 team ERA, 23rd in MLB.
Last 51 games, 3.67 team ERA, 5th in MLB.

First 39 games, starting pitching: 4.49 ERA, 24th.
Last 51 games, starting pitching: 4.20 ERA, 16th.

First 39 games, quality starts: 13, which ranked 18th.
Last 51 games, quality starts: 21, which ranks 12th.

First 39 games, bullpen ERA: 4.09, 15th in MLB.
Last 51 games, bullpen ERA: 2.89, 4th in MLB.

First 39 games, ranked 25th in Win Probability Added, all pitching.

Last 51 games, ranked 1st in the majors in Win Probability Added, all pitching.

The scope of the improvement is impressive. For the Cardinals to have the best pitching WPA in the majors since May 12 is especially notable. And pitching matters. Really matters. Obviously. To break it down by role: over the last 51 games St. Louis starting pitchers rank 13th in WPA, and the bullpen ranks 1st.

THE ST. LOUIS OFFENSE

Once again, we’re seeing a pretty dramatic “before” and “after picture, and it tells us a lot. For preliminary comment, let me say this: since May 12 the Cardinals’ improvement on offense is more significant than I assumed.

First 39 games, runs per game: 3.38
Last 51 games, runs per game: 4.64

First 39 games, 29th in runs scored
Last 51 games, 14th in runs scored

First 39 games, .218 average, 28th
Last 51 games, .263 average, 4th

First 39 games, .295 onbase percentage, 27th
Last 51 games, .321 OBP, 13th

First 39 games,  .338 slugging pct., 29th
Last 51 games,  .412 slug, 12th

First 39 games,  .633 OPS, 28th
Last 51 games,  .733 OPS, 12th

First 39 games, 83 wRC+, 28th
Last 51 games, 110 wRC+, 9th

First 39 games, 30 homers, 28th
Last 51 games, 58 homers, 16th

In addition, the Cardinals had a .194 batting average with runners in scoring position (30th in MLB) through May 11. But in the last 51 games STL has been much more respectable with a .252 average RISP. That ranks 18th.

In the first 39 games Cardinal position players ranked 27th in Wins Above Replacement. But since May 12, they rank 12th in WAR. The collective WAR of the starting rotation and bullpen has gone up as well.

No, this is not a great offense, but it’s a helluva lot better now. Using the wRC+ metric, the Cardinals were 17 percent below league average offensively through their first 39 games. And over the last 51 games, they’re 10 percent above league average. That’s a large swing of 27 percent.

WHY HAVE THE CARDINALS IMPROVED OFFENSIVELY?

I have a few things to get into here.

1) Jordan Walker and Victor Scott. Both outfielders were demoted in the third week of April after receiving abundant playing time with the big club. Here’s what Walker and Scott did, combined, before being reassigned to Triple A Memphis.

132 plate appearances, 117 at-bats
19 hits, .119 batting average
.183 onbase percentage
.197 slugging percentage
.380 OPS
No home runs
25% strikeout rate
.125 average with runners in scoring position.

Now let’s add outfielder Dylan Carlson to the mix. After coming off the Injured List he had gone 0 for 15 through May 11. If we include Carlson with Walker and Scott, here’s what the trio provided in 148 plate appearances and 132 at-bats combined through May 11:

.106 batting average,
.176 onbase percentage,
.174 slug
.350 OPS
No home runs, eight RBIs
36 strikeouts, eight walks.

Mercy. The three outfielders were collectively minus 1.5 Wins Above Replacement. Which means they were BELOW the replacement level. Translation: the Cardinals could have used three scrubs from the minors and gotten the same results.

2) Paul Goldschnidt and Nolan Arenado. Through May 11, they combined for four home runs and 31 RBIs. But if you average that out, it’s two homers and just a tad over 15 RBIs per guy – scant production for 327 combined plate appearances. Their composite batting line through May 11 consisted of a .231 average, .305 OBP and .314 slugging percentage. Their combined WAR was 0.1 – which is as low as you can go and still be considered “above” the replacement level. I’m not trying to sell you on the idea that Goldy and Nado have turned their seasons around in a commanding manner. They haven’t. But Goldschmidt has done better, homering 10 times with a .447 slugging percentage since May 12. And though Arenado has powered down offensively, his batting average, OBP and slugging percentage have increased since May 17. Goldschmidt and Arenado have a combined 1.4 WAR over the team’s last 51 games. They were terrible through May 11. They’ve pushed to better results since May 12 – especially Goldy.

3) Burly wasn’t Burly. On May 11, Alec Burleson had a .255 average, .293 onbase percentage and a .383 slug. His OPS was a blah .676. He had three homers in 94 at-bats. There were some OK things in there, but Burly had a 0.0 WAR, and hadn’t come close to the hitter he is now. Since May 12, Burleson is hitting .296 with a .503 slug. Over that time he ranks 11th in the NL with 32 RBIs and is tied for 10th in homers with 10. Using wRC+ as a measure, Burleson was seven percent below league average offensively through May 11. But since then he’s 35 percent above league average as a hitter – an increase of 42 percent from where he was back on May 11. Is this a fluke? No, I don’t believe it is. The potential was always there; this is an example of a talented young hitter figuring things out.

4) Brendan Donovan’s surge. On May 11, Donny was batting .209, had a horrendous .286 OBP, and had a mediocre .356 slugging percentage. He’s been the team’s best hitter in his 48 games since May 12, with a menu that includes a .321 average, .387 OBP and .451 slug. He’a also blistered pitchers for a .346 average and 20 RBIs with runners in scoring position during his streak. Per wRC+, Donovan is 43 percent above league average offensively since May 12. Before that, he was 15 percent below average. So we’ve witnessed an improvement of 58 percent offensively from Donovan during the team’s 33-18 run.

5. Masyn Winn proved that he’s for real: Winn did fine in the team’s first 39 games of the season, generating a .275 batting average and a wRC+ that was two points below league average offensively. But there wasn’t much power, and he didn’t have many RBI opportunities. Since May 12, Wynn is 21 percent above league average offensively (via wRC+), and has 18 extra-base hits, a .439 slug, and 23 RBIs. Winn is still adjusting to batting leadoff and is gradually pulling his numbers up as a No. 1 hitter. That will take time. But with his offense and defense and speed since May 12, the rookie has been a catalyst in STL’s upturn.

6) Nolan Gorman makes a difference. He was brutal offensive in June. He still strikes out too much. I’m not ignoring any of that. But on May 11 Gorman had five home runs, 14 RBIs and a ho-hum .367 slugging percentage. But even with the gruesome June, Gorman has 12 homers, 31 RBIs and a .467 slug since May 12. Per wRC+, he was 17 percent below league average offensively through May 11 – and has been 12 percent above average since May 12.

HOW DID THE ST. LOUIS PITCHING FIRM UP?

Miles Mikolas was horrendous (6.43 ERA) in his first eight starts of the season. But since May 12, Mikolas has a 3.88 ERA in 11 starts and ranks fourth in the majors with eight quality starts. Andre Pallante’s emergence as a fifth starter – 3.34 ERA in seven starts – has provided a boost. Mikolas and Pallante have changed the look of a rotation that is better – if also vulnerable.

The big-three firemen – Ryan Helsley, Andrew Kittredge and JoJo Romero – require no introduction. They’ve been exceptional. But the St. Louis bullpen went from good or very good to great because other relievers joined in to enrich the depth.

Since May 12, these seven relievers have combined for a 2.39 ERA in 105 and ⅓ innings: Ryan Fernandez, John King, Chris Roycroft, Matthew Liberatore, Kyle Leahy, Gordon Graceffo and Adam Kloffenstein. The enhanced bullpen depth is an important development that shouldn’t be overlooked. Kudos to manager Oli Marmol for his fantastic work in cultivating newer relievers to expand the workforce.

And of course all pitching staffs appreciate the support of a very good defense, and the Cardinals have that in place. They’re 12th in the majors and fourth in the NL in defensive runs saved, are rated No. 1 in the metrics for double-play value, and No. 2 in fielding-range. Winn and center fielder Michael Siani are playing gold-glove caliber defense. The team’s defensive efficiency has improved by 22 percent from last season.

In the baserunning department the Cardinals are second in the majors in extra bases taken. The FanGraphs metrics have them rated at No. 10 in the majors for effective baserunning.

The Cardinals are a good small-ball team. They’re the best in the majors at moving a runner from second base to third with no outs. They’re 10th in productive outs, and fifth in sac flies. These attributes are helping them win close games.

IN CONCLUSION

When we talk about the Cardinals’ negative run differential on the season and how it serves as a warning light to proceed carefully with our expectations, But it isn’t so simple. There is a lot more to this.

The Cardinals had a minus 52 run differential through 39 games for a reason: they were bad in some key areas, and mediocre in others.

Much has changed; the Cardinals have become better in all areas. The early minus 52 run differential is largely irrelevant. It’s definitely an incorrect reference. It shouldn’t be attached to a team that’s evolved into a more impressive outfit.

The overall minus 33 run differential on the season would be more a lot more meaningful if the Cardinals were still starting Walker, Scott and Carlson in the outfield, waiting and hoping for Burleson, Donovan and Gorman to heat up, counting on the bad version of Mikolas, or operating with a more limited bullpen. But none of those factors are germane to the team’s current state. So what’s the point of being so hung up on run differential when so much is different now?

Guys that were pulling the lineup down in the first 39 games have greatly improved, or are housed in the minors. Mikolas turned his season around. The bullpen became a force in a way that none expected, and Marmol has a larger cast of relievers to work with. Wynn wasn’t a flash; his performance is even more exciting as the season rolls on.

We’ve seen decent improvement from Goldschmidt, minor improvement by Arenado, encouraging improvement from Gorman, and immense improvement from Burleson and Donovan. Injured players have rejoined the squad – Willson Contreras, and Lars Nootbaar with Tommy Edman next in line.

The +19 run differential since May 12 is a more accurate representation of what the Cardinals are. And if you think about it a little, it’s stupid to obsess over run differential.

Why?

A) Because there are 72 games to go and things can change for better or worse.

B) The activity before or at the July 30 trade deadline could alter and enhance the St. Louis roster. To what extent, I don’t know. And the rosters of other contending teams are likely to change.

C) The Cardinals have a tough schedule on the road ahead, with a thick file of games against playoff-bound or playoff-contending teams. That list includes the  Braves, Dodgers, Brewers, Guardians, Padres, Yankees, Mets, Twins, Mariners, Royals. And there will be plenty of head-to-head games in the division against the rival Brewers, Cubs, Pirates and Reds.

D) In terms of history, the only pertinent run differential applies in the current system that has three wild-card teams per league. The current format was installed in 2022. It’s easier to make the postseason now. Two of the three NL wild cards in 2023 — Arizona and Miami — had negative run differentials. But yes, it’s far more challenging to win a division title with a run-differential deficit. As I noted on Monday, since the division era began in 1969 only one team has won the division with a negative run diff: the 1987 Twins. That certainly was an outlier; they got it done with 85 victories.

To answer my buddy Will Leitch: yes, the Cardinals are a good team.

They’ve cleared away some early-season problems, pulled the plug (for now) on Walker and Scott, constructed a stronger bullpen, patched (for now) a spot in the rotation, and have been recharged by impactful hitters that needed time to get going. They’re also getting healthier.

But being a good team is not the same as being a great team. And it’s up to the Cardinals – and the front office – to show they’re capable of holding their ground and then reach a higher level. They have to find a way over that bridge that leads from good to great.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has provided informed opinions and perspective on St. Louis sports through his columns, radio shows and podcasts since 1985.

Please follow Bernie on X @b_miklasz and Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on Apple, Spotify, or where you get your podcasts. Follow @seeingredpod on X for a direct link.

Stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Brooks Baseball Net, and Sports Info Solutions and Cots Contracts unless otherwise noted.

 

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.