THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Should the Cardinals move forward with Oli Marmol as their manager in 2024? Well, considering that president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has already said that Marmol will be back next season, the question is irrelevant.
Now, if you’re asking if Marmol “should” return in 2024, that’s a different subject. That’s a public discussion, and everybody is entitled to an opinion, including me … even if the decision already has been made by St. Louis ownership-management.
If you care about my view, here it is: while I’m no fan of Marmol’s work in 2023, I don’t believe he should be sacked. I’ve written thousands of words about this team’s deterioration on defense, the passive and inadequate baserunning, and the mediocre performance in situational hitting.
These areas are important and should matter to everyone. A manager and his coaches are largely responsible for the fundamental lapses on their watch.
But I’m OK with Marmol getting another chance.
Why? Because he never had much of a chance in 2023. The team’s brutal starting pitching was severely damaging and put the Cardinals at a terrible disadvantage all season. Thin, substandard starting pitching can be excruciatingly difficult to overcome and take any team down.
Yes, the Reds have contended for a wild-card spot this season with a bad starting-pitching ERA. But the Reds brought other qualities to the competition. Their bullpen leads the majors in saves and is ninth in save percentage. The Reds are a Top 10 offense in runs scored per game, but they aren’t overly dependent on home runs. They lead the majors in stolen bases and generate plenty of runs with their speed and aggressiveness on the bases. They’ve received an immense boost from a large contingent of talented, hard-driving rookies – including starting pitchers Andrew Abbott and Brandon Williams, who have made 42 starts combined. Reds rookies have the highest rookie WAR in MLB. Unlike the Reds, the Cardinals did not have quality rookie starters to turn to for a life jacket. STL’s shortage of starting-pitching depth was a killer.
Cincinnati’s flaws eventually caused problems and cut into their consistency. They have a losing record since going off on a 15-2 run in June. They are tied for 11th in the NL in winning percentage since the trade deadline and have the same record (21-28) as the Cardinals over that time. The Reds have lost five of their last seven games, and via FanGraphs they have an 8% percent chance of making the playoffs.
The Cardinals ranked 25th in the majors in starting-pitching ERA before the All-Star break and are 27th since the All-Star break. Their season ERA of 5.05 and their Win Probability Added would be the worst by a set of Cardinals starting pitchers in the 28 seasons that Bill DeWitt Jr. has owned the franchise. The flimsy starter strikeout rate – 17.2% which ranks 29th – meant more strain for a slumping defense.
This 2023 rotation disaster also wiped out the Redbirds’ realistic chances of winning games when falling behind early. This season the Cards have a starting-pitching ERA of 5.23 over the first three innings of games, which is third-worst in the majors.
When the Cardinals trail after three innings they’ve gone 40-78 for a gruesome .339 winning percentage. When the Redbirds are at a scoreboard deficit through four innings, they’re 35-80 for a horrendous .304 winning percentage.
The Cardinals had only one dependable starter this season – Jordan Montgomery – and he was traded to Texas at the deadline. Monty had a 3.42 in 21 starts for the Cardinals this season; the team’s other starters have combined for a 5.33 ERA in the other 135 games.
Does this sound like a fair fight to you?
For the love of Kip Wells and Brett Tomko, how could we possibly expect the Cardinals to have a successful season with starting pitching this gross?
Perhaps a more astute manager and pitching coach could have gotten a little more out of this group – but c’mon, let’s be serious here. Don’t forget this part: when starting pitching explodes like a fuel truck it leaves the bullpen overworked, beaten down, and broken.
The pitching meltdown of 2023 isn’t about Marmol or pitching coach Dusty Blake.
It’s about the faulty and destructive roster construction done by Mozeliak and the front office. And Mozeliak doesn’t run from that. He knows. Mozeliak hired Marmol and is invested in him. But I think he’s sticking with Marmol for another reason: Mozeliak knows he didn’t give his manager a fair chance competitively in 2023.
The Cardinals crazily overrated the starting-pitching talent in the house and declined to make a single offseason move. This glaring oversight was made more unforgivable because the top end of the STL farm system was barren of major-league ready starting pitchers. The depth was hollow. An oozing mess.
Miles Mikolas (4.95 ERA) declined. Jack Flaherty (4.43 ERA) was up and down. Steven Matz was demoted to the bullpen and went down with another injury after rejoining the rotation. Matthew Liberatore (5.88 ERA) was a bust in his starting-pitching audition. Dakota Hudson was Dakota Hudson again. Zack Thompson has promise, but the Cardinal couldn’t decide if he should relieve or start.
The organization was 100 percent committed to Adam Wainwright’s farewell season, and he has a 7.20 ERA in 21 starts. But no serious consideration was given to pulling Wainwright from the rotation – in large part because of the lack of alternative options. Waino wasn’t blocking anyone who mattered. What does that tell us? Remember when the Cardinals were outstanding at drafting and developing young pitching? That assembly line keeps breaking down.
If we’re at least trying to be fair to Marmol, he didn’t have much to work with in trying to cobble an alarmingly defective rotation through a long season. Except for July, the Cardinals never ranked any better than 21st in starting-pitching ERA for a month, and were 27th or 28th in three months.
Let’s review a history lesson.
— From 2011 through 2015, the Cardinals had MLB’s best regular-winning percentage (.574) and averaged 93 wins per season.
— They were the only National League team to make the playoffs in all five seasons.
— They competed in more postseason games (61) than any other team in the majors. In fact, no other MLB team played in more than 38 postseason games over that time.
— The 2011-2015 Cardinals won more postseason games (32) than any team. The Giants were next with 23 wins.
— The Cardinals played in the NL championship series four times in five years. Their 24 games in the NLCS were twice as many as the next team (Giants) on the list. During the precious five-season run the Cardinals won three division titles, two NL pennants and a World Series.
Starting pitching was essential to the extended prosperity. If anything that’s probably an understatement.
From 2011 through 2015, the Cardinals crafted the second-best ERA in the majors (3.46). Only the Dodgers (3.28) did better.
Over the five seasons the Cardinals were third in the majors with 470 quality starts and fourth in average Game Score by their starters. The St. Louis starters ranked fourth in MLB for most innings pitched.
I’ll run a list of the starting pitchers that led the way over the five seasons. Not all of them were part of all five teams, but they played a significant role in one or more seasons.
I’ll list them in order of most starts made for the Cardinals from 2011 through 2015.
Just seeing this index will make you realize the scope of the quality and depth. As you read these names and peruse their earned-run averages, just think about the starting pitchers that the Cardinals put to work in 2023.
Lance Lynn: 128 starts, 3.37 ERA.
Adam Wainwright: 102 starters, 2.99 ERA
Jaime Garcia: 88 starts, 3.42 ERA
Jake Westbrook: 80 starts, 4.40 ERA
Kyle Lohse: 63 starts, 3.11 ERA
Shelby Miller: 63 starts, 3.33 ERA
Michael Wacha: 58 starts, 3.21 ERA
John Lackey: 43 starts, 3.10 ERA
Joe Kelly: 38 starts, 3.25 ERA
Chris Carpenter: 37 starts, 3.47 ERA
Carlos Martinez: 37 starts, 3.51 ERA
Tyler Lyons: 20 starts, 4.27 ERA
Kyle McClellan: 17 starts, 4.32 ERA
Edwin Jackson: 12 starts, 3.58 ERA
When Jake Westbrook has the worst ERA among this group of 19 starting pitchers, then you know the Cardinals had plenty of what they needed to win a lot of games.
That list includes more than a few talented and established young pitchers – something that the 2023 team never had. There were a bunch of highly respected veteran pitchers. There were warriors and workhorses. There were effective depth pieces. And underrated starters (Lohse and Garcia come to mind). Chris Carpenter is in the Cardinals Hall of Fame and Wainwright will join him as soon as he’s eligible.
Starting pitching is just so damn important, and you can’t run away from that. Of the 12 teams that had at least a 28 percent chance of making the playoffs as of Tuesday morning, 11 have an above-average starting-pitching ERA and seven are among the top 10. The only outlier is Arizona, which ranks 21st. But that’s somewhat misleading because the Diamondbacks rank 13th in starter ERA over the last two months.
Do you want a better manager?
Give him better starting pitching.
Provide Marmol with a quality rotation in 2024. This season he had to deal with the repercussions of a toxic spill attributable to front-office neglect.
And if Mozeliak and the front office can improve this rotation in a significantly meaningful way, then Marmol won’t have an excuse for failure in 2024. And he’ll have to go.
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.