THE REDBIRD REVIEW
THURSDAY, APRIL 21, 2022
Nolan Arenado went club-hopping during Wednesday’s ninth inning in Miami. Cracking a scoreless jam, Arenado hit a two-run homer that deflected off the left fielder’s glove, glanced off the top off the wall, and landed in the mitts of a fan in a party-zone section. Arenado could have been dancing as he made his way around the bases.
Giovanny Gallegos would soon secure the 2-0 victory that gave the Cardinals a 4-2 record on their first road trip on the 2022 itinerary. In the first two nights of a three-day visit to the ballpark in Little Havana, Cardinals pitchers have held the Marlins to one run in 18 innings. The home team has a .197 average, .511 OPS and has struck out in just under 30 percent of their plate appearances against St. Louis arms.
Heading into Thursday’s series finale – good luck to Jordan Hicks – the 7-3 Cardinals possess the second-best winning percentage in the majors at .700. Only the Dodgers (9-3, .750) have galloped to a more sizzling early pace than STL.
And there’s a solid foundation under the fast start, with the Cardinals tied for fourth in the majors in runs scored per game, and sitting at fifth overall in run prevention. Their run differential – at +2.0 per game – is tied for second-best in MLB.
What does it mean? Well, it’s silly to dismiss this as meaningless early-season noise. We’ve watched some good work by the Cardinals that should hold up reasonably well. (More details on that later.)
That said, all you have to do is look back to the first three weeks of the 2021 season to remember how quickly things can change. After winning five of their first seven games, the Cardinals lost seven of 10. Their 5-2 start was ripped apart, and by April 21 the Cardinals had drifted to a record of 8-10 …
And then the fellers rebounded and got to eight games over .500 (30-22) by May 29. Less than a month later, June 27, the Cards were a season-worst four games under .500 at 37-41.
The season is a long ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl, with 30 cars spinning in different directions at variable speeds. The adventure could be even crazier this season after a short spring training, a growing list of injuries, and a limit on pitching staffs (13 max) that goes into place May 2.
All we can do for now is look at the early factors that have propelled the Cardinals to their 7-3 vault into April.
1. The Cardinals are winning the battle of the bullpens. In the two consecutive wins over the Marlins, St. Louis relievers have combined for 7.1 excellent innings of scoreless protection. Gallegos (two appearances), Andre Pallante, Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley and T.J. McFarland teamed to yield only four hits while striking out 10.
This was nothing new or unusual. Coming into Thursday the Cardinals have the best bullpen ERA in the majors at 1.76. In 41 innings the relievers have allowed a .186 batting average, only two homers, and a .545 OPS. When pitching with runners in scoring position, Cards relievers have ceded a .125 average and struck out 33.3 percent of batters faced. From the sixth inning this season Cardinals relievers have allowed only eight earned runs, the second-fewest in the majors to Seattle’s seven earned runs.
Meanwhile, opposing-team bullpens have a 3.95 standard ERA against the Cardinals … and a 4.90 fielding-independent ERA. In 41 innings the other side’s relievers have gotten jacked for six homers and eight doubles and a .377 slugging percentage. The slug pct. against the STL bullpen this season is .269.
2. The Cardinals are winning the home-run derby. Through 10 games the Cards have out-homered opponents 16-7. But that’s just part of the power ball game.
– The Cardinals are averaging 1.30 homers a game which ranks second in the majors to Toronto (1.33.) But St. Louis pitchers have allowed 0.70 home runs per game, the ninth-lowest rate in MLB.
– Cardinal hitters have homered every 25.38 at-bats, second in MLB to Toronto (25.13.) But St. Louis pitchers have given up a homer every 47.57 at-bats; that’s the ninth-best rate by a MLB pitching staff so far.
– St. Louis hitters lead the majors with an Isolated Power average of .179. Cardinal pitchers have limited opponents to a .108 ISO that’s the fifth-lowest against a staff in MLB. (In case you’re wondering: ISO measures raw power by taking only extra-base hits — and the type of extra-base hit — into account.)
– The Cardinals are slugging .421 this season, sixth best in the majors. STL pitchers have allowed the ninth-lowest slugging percentage (.342) so far.
3. The Cardinals have established an advantage in situational hitting. With runners in scoring position they’re batting .257 with a .785 OPS. The STL pitchers have been touched for a .203 average and .600 OPS when working with runners in scoring position.
4. The rotation is coming around. The starters have moved up to No. 16 in the majors and seventh in the National League with a 4.02 ERA. But as I mentioned earlier this week, that higher ERA is misleading. If we base this on fielding-independent ERA, the Cardinals rotation ranks third in the majors with a 3.14 FIP.
The STL starters have a 1.73 ERA in their last five starts. And if you exclude Dakota Hudson’s disappointing outing Sunday at Milwaukee, the Cardinals had a 0.77 starter ERA in the other four games. I’m referring to two starts from Miles Mikolas against Milwaukee and Miami; the Steven Matz start against Milwaukee; and Adam Wainwright’s start at Miami. The starting pitching has been much better … but is it sustainable?
5. Nolan Arenado’s booming start to a potential MVP campaign: It’s obviously too early to talk about the MVP race, but Arenado is disturbing the peace with a bat in his hands. He’s atop the MLB leaderboard with 1.2 WAR – a strong indication of his overall value. He’s first in the majors with a .895 slugging percentage and .526 ISO and is tied for first with 10 extra-base hits. He’s tied for second in the bigs with five homers; is tied for third with 14 RBI; ranks third in OPS (1.337), OPS+ (277) and total bases (34.)
6. The impressive leadership of Oli Marmol: the rookie manager is smart, resourceful, has a fantastic rapport with the players — especially the veterans. His managing is a huge influence on the performance of a St. Louis bullpen that has the best ERA in the majors. And Marmol does it his way. He doesn’t box himself in by relying on old-school bull spit that many MLB managers use to cover their backsides because they’re afraid to go against outdated models of conventional wisdom.
Let’s move on …
THE TOMMY EDMAN REPORT: Through his first 10 games Edman leads MLB second basemen (minimum 35 plate appearances) in OPS (1.135) and slugging (.714) and is second or tied for second in onbase percentage (.421), batting average (.355) and home runs (3.)
You can say that he’s been consistent. Edman has been utilized at three different spots in the lineup so far. He has a .1000 OPS at leadoff, a 1.083 OPS when batting sixth, and a 1.199 OPS when hitting ninth.
And how’s this for consistency? Edman is batting .300 with runners in scoring position, .400 with late and close situations, and .500 in high-leverage at-bats.
PRAISE FOR ALBERT PUJOLS: Ken Rosenthal (The Athletic) reached out to Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado to ask them about Pujols and his early impact on the Cardinals.
➜ Goldschmidt: “Just having his presence around has made us better. He’s one of the greatest hitters of all time and we are all learning from him. Watching him work and his focused mindset and competitiveness raises the level of everyone. He has also shared his knowledge and wisdom in the batting cage, meetings, and during the game. He’s a guy my whole career I’ve tried to imitate on and off the field and it’s great to get the opportunity to play with him this year. I really can’t say enough good things about him. I love him.”
➜ Arenado: “He has been leading our meetings, speaking up, checking us, making sure we are ready to go, reminding us of certain things before we step on the field. It’s been really great.”
(Sincere thanks to The Athletic for allowing me to share the quotes. Please consider subscribing to The Athletic, my favorite national sports writing site. It is worth every penny.)
A LOOK AT THE DH SPOT: Because of Pujols, the Cardinals rank 8th in the majors at designated hitter in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+.) They’re 39 percent above league average offensively at DH. They’re tied for 10th in batting average (.262) and are ninth in OPS (.802.) But the productivity would be more impressive if Corey Dickerson could get going against RH pitchers. The LH batter is 2 for 15 vs. righthanders so far (.133) with two walks and two strikeouts. This matters because Dickerson is the team’s primary DH against RH pitching. He didn’t have much time to get ready for the regular season and likely will sharpen up.
But if Dickerson continues to struggle, it could create an opening for prospect Nolan Gorman. The LH-swinging Gorman has seven homers and a .800 slugging percentage in 45 at-bats for Triple A Memphis – and that includes five homers and a .962 slug in his 26 at-bats vs. RH pitchers. Gorman is striking out too much, and he’ll have to fix that. I don’t believe the Cardinals would move on from Dickerson; he’s making $5 million this season on a one-year contract.
One scenario could have LH-swinging outfielder Lars Nootbaar being sent to Memphis to make room for Gorman. The Noot is hitless in seven at-bats for the Cardinals. Moving Tommy Edman to shortstop and playing Gorman at second base makes little sense; voluntarily weakening the infield defense is not an option. But in time there’s a path to a busy DH-platoon spot in St. Louis for Gorman. Much of this depends on Dickerson’s offense vs. RH pitchers. As it stands right now, Dickerson and Nootbar are a combined 2 for 22. The Redbirds will need more than that from their LH batters.
I CAN SEE FOR MILES AND MILES: In his last two starts Mikolas has been scratched for only seven hits and one earned run in 11.2 innings against the Brewers and Marlins. And he’s been sharp in his last two assignments, with one walk and one hit batter in contrast to 12 strikeouts. The Cardinals are 3-0 in games started by Mikolas this month, and his 1.76 ERA ranks sixth among 26 MLB starters that have thrown at least 15 innings so far.
ANDRES PALLANTE: Impressive stuff from the 23-year-old rookie righthander, who hasn’t yielded a run in two appearances covering four innings during the current road trip. He’s faced 15 batters in the two games, giving up only two singles and a walk while striking out four.
Perhaps Pallante in time will be joined by right-handed starting pitcher Michael McGreevy, his former high school teammate at San Clemente (Calif.) High School. The Cardinals’ first-round selection (18th overall) in the 2021 draft, McGreevy is thriving at High Class A Peoria, having pitched 11.2 scoreless innings over two starts. The 21 year-old has been nicked for only two hits and a walk, with nine strikeouts.
FOR STARTERS, JORDAN HICKS: I’m looking forward to watching Hicks begin his transformation into a starting pitcher. He’ll need to reduce his number of 20+ pitches in an inning; that’s happened twice in his four innings of work so far. But as he stretches out – depending on his efficiency Hicks may go as many as three innings against the Marlins today – Hicks can give the Cardinals an edge.
Here’s why I say that: more runs are scored in the first inning of an MLB game than in any other inning. That was true last season, and it is true again this season. As a reliever Hicks has been difficult on hitters during his first 50 pitches in an appearance, holding opponents to a .189 average and .406 OPS. And he actually got better as he moved past his first 25 pitches in appearance, holding hitters to an .071 average and .228 OPS from pitches 26 to 50.
RHP Pablo Lopez starts for Miami on Thursday. He’s had a 2.89 ERA in 35 career starts at home … much better than his 5.48 in 29 career starts away from Miami. LH batters have a .731 OPS against him during his career compared to a .675 OPS by RH bats.
Thanks for reading …
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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.