THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Here’s my final sleeve of report cards on the 2023 Cardinals. Today, I’ll cover the ownership-management and field-level areas.
The Cardinals and their loyal fan base suffered through a horrendous season. Not that you need it, but here’s a capsule recap:
1. The Cardinals’ wretched 71-91 record came out to a .438 winning percentage, the third-worst for the franchise since MLB’s expansion era began in 1961.
2. STL’s .438 winning percentage was the fifth-worst by a Cardinals team over a 100-year span of seasons that began in 1924.
3. From the first game of their season through their final game of 2023, the Cardinals’ 162-game schedule played out over 186 days. They occupied last place in the NL Central for 162 days – or 87 percent of the time. The team spent exactly one day above .500 during the entire season, and were never above .500 after sitting at 2-1 after beating Toronto on April 2.
4. The Cardinals flopped at home in 2023, winning only 35 of 81 games for a .432 winning percentage. In the 63 seasons of post-expansion baseball, only two Cardinals’ contingents were worse than that. The 1970 and 1990 Cardinals had a .420 winning percentage at home.
5. The Cardinals’ minus 58 run differential at home this season was the worst by the franchise since the 1912 Cardinals had a minus 60 run differential in 77 home games.
6. The Cardinals’ overall run differential this year (minus 110) was the worst by the franchise in a full season since the post-expansion era began in 1961.
7. The Cardinals allowed 829 runs this season, their second highest total during the expansion era. Only the 1999 Cardinals gave up more runs in a season (838.)
8. STL’s team ERA in 2023 (4.79) was their worst in a full season since the advent of the expansion era in 1961. Only five MLB teams allowed more overall runs per game (5.12) than the 2023 Cardinals.
9. The Cardinals coughed up 41 leads in their losses and made only 28 comebacks to win. They lost 12 times when leading after six innings. When St. Louis pitching got drilled early and put the Cardinals in a deficit after three innings in a game, the 2023 Cardinals had a .336 winning percentage that was near the bottom of the majors.
10. The 2023 Cardinals finished tied for 29th among MLB with a .670 rating in defensive efficiency. Simply put: that means they turned only 67 percent of batted balls in play into outs. How awful was that? Well, you have to go all the way back to 1930 to see the evidence of a poorer defense by a Cardinals team. The 1930 Cardinals converted only 66.5 percent of batted balls in play into outs.
11. At 23.9 percent, the Cardinals ranked 26th among MLB teams in productive-out rate this season. Boo! As recently as two seasons ago, the Cardinals were 2nd in the majors with a productive-out rate of 29.4%. In other words, the 2023 Cardinals did a poor job of moving runners over when making an out. It was a sign of their unimpressive situational hitting, and a reflection of their drop in baserunning proficiency. This season the Cardinals had fewer runners advance from first to third on a single and second to home on a single.
There were consequences for all of this. In 2023 only 28 percent of the Cardinals’ baserunners scored; that was the worst rate in the National League and only Oakland did a poorer job of plating runners (26%.) For the 2023 Cardinals, this runners-scored rate of 28% was the lowest in a season for the franchise since the 1992 Cards had a 28% “score” rate.
Based on OPS, the 2023 Cardinals were only so-so in offensive performance during high-leverage situations, ranking 18th overall and 20th after the All-Star break. Their .198 batting average with the bases loaded ranked 28th in the majors. Their .247 average with runners in scoring position ranked 22nd.
12. The failures mentioned above were part of an ominous 17-26 record in games determined by one run. Because of their largely uncompetitive pitching, lax defense and the inconsistency in pushing runs home with timely hitting and doing the so-called little things, the 2023 Cardinals had to hit a bunch of home runs to enhance their shot at winning a game.
13. This season the Redbirds had a terrible .382 winning percentage when hitting two or fewer homers in a game. When they hit at least three home runs in a game, the Cardinals boomed to a .730 winning percentage.
14. Their average of 4.47 runs per game in 2023 was 19th in the majors and 10th in the NL … but let’s localize that number. Since Bill DeWitt Jr. became franchise chairman in 1996, only three Cardinals teams averaged fewer runs per game in a full season: 1997, 2014 and 2015.
15. And the home-run dependency is part of this. The St. Louis teams that made the playoffs from 2019 through 2022 produced 46 percent of their total runs through homers. The 2023 Cardinals generated just under 50 percent of their total runs on homers.
This was your basic systemic failure.
The Cardinals’ model was – finally – exposed as badly outdated and in need of modernization. There were snarly issues with the roster and the pitching was left shaky and scrawny after a slothful offseason. The offense started fast but got tangled by a mediocre performance in situational hitting. The pitching was a liability at the front end – and back end – of games. The defense and baserunning atrophied. The breakdown of fundamentals was an affront to the franchise’s admired tradition.
There are no positive grades to hand out here. Chairman DeWitt knows it. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak knows it. Manager Oli Marmol and his coaches know it. This is a straight “F” grade evaluation across the board.
I have two touches of nuance to add here …
— First, Marmol did a disappointing overall job this season but was doomed from the start because of a severe shortfall of quality – or even solid – pitching. But that doesn’t excuse the collapse of the defense and baserunning – two crucial areas that didn’t receive enough attention from the manager and his coaches.
— Second, it’s easy to jump on DeWitt, but … look, I agree that he could set a more aggressive example in setting a higher goal for winning. And I concur with those who say he’ll have to alter the payroll philosophy by being more enthusiastic about paying premium prices (and then some) for the necessary upgrades in the free-agent pitching market. (This is obvious, right?) But the Cardinals actually reached the $200 million level for the first time this season in their 40-man competitive balance tax payroll. (It dropped slightly below $200 million after the trade-deadline offloading.) My point is, we can wag fingers and insist that DeWitt spend more money for the right cause. And I do not disagree because the Cardinals have only themselves to blame for the formidable predicament they’re in.
This is also true: DeWitt didn’t receive anything close to proper value for the franchise investment in team player payroll in 2023. And this wasn’t the first time for that. This front office has made a lot of mistakes in dishing out ownership’s money, but DeWitt hasn’t wavered. He’s staying with this group the way the Cardinals stayed with expensive free-agent Brett Cecil … or something like that.
I’ve often dished this remark: I don’t know why we demand that the Cardinals throw more money at payroll when they struggle to make wise investment choices. Spending has not been a strong suit for Mozeliak and his assistants. I could recite their most painful free agent flops – but what the heck is the point? We’ve memorized the goof-ups but I’m more interested in what’s to come.
If DeWitt plans on staying with Mozeliak and Marmol, then it’s his call and he can disregard the protests. If Bill wants to have more of his money wasted, then I suppose he’s entitled to watch it burn. But DeWitt will also absorb more heat as long as the Cardinals are hanging on the wrong side of the baseball-power divide. Only he can determine how much discomfort that causes him, but at the team’s current state this can’t be healthy for business.
Overall, DeWitt has been a fantastic owner of the St. Louis Cardinals over the last 28 years. Anyone who pushes back on that premise is just being petty and silly and willfully ignorant of the facts. But with the Cardinals declining and careening into a messy crash during an ignominious season, DeWitt has the power – and hopefully the desire – to take the lead.
More than anyone, Bill can ensure that this will never happen again to the franchise he rebuilt starting in 1996. After four National League pennants, two World Series championships, 15 postseasons and an NL-leading 75 postseason victories, the down-and-out Cardinals require his full attention again.
The 2024 season is the new 1996.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through 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, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus 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.