REDBIRD REVIEW

In my little ol’ opinion, here are the best things about STL’s 2-1 series win over the visiting Atlanta Braves:

1. Two determined and exciting comeback wins on Saturday and Sunday. It was an emphatic response after the Cardinals got thumped 11-4 by the Braves on Friday. Until the final two games of the series, Atlanta had lost only 14 times this season after leading at any point in the game. And before the two late rallies by the Cardinals, the Braves had lost only two games when taking a lead into the 8th inning – and had absorbed only two defeats when carrying a lead into the 9th.

In Saturday’s 6-5 triumph the Cardinals had a 11 percent win expectancy with one out in the 9th. In Sunday’s 6-3 victory, the Cardinals had a win expectancy of 24% after Yadier Molina grounded into a double play to end the 7th. When holding a lead, the Braves don’t get overrun in the late innings very often … but the Cardinals did it two nights in a row to prevail in two games that ATL usually wins.

2. The Cardinals have won their last three series against winning opponents, taking seven of nine games from the Brewers, Yankees and Braves. The series win over the Braves was encouraging because the visitors were on a roll as they came into Busch Stadium. Friday’s win gave the Braves a 10-game winning streak on the road, a 37-24 road record overall, and added to the best record in the majors (56-21) since June 1.You wanted to see the Cardinals take down one of the better teams in baseball? Well, they’ve done it three times in the last three weeks.

3. Tyler O’Neill Is Going Full Bro Again: We’ll discuss O’Neill’s resurgence later in The Review, but his winning three-run cannon blast of a homer in Sunday’s 8th inning was the latest sign of a rising confidence level. After five disappointing months, is O’Neill back in form? There’s reason for legitimate hope – which I’ll explain later – but it’s still up to O’Neill to determine the answer. Bro’Neill led the Cardinals against Atlanta with two homers and six RBI.

4. The Cardinals won the series without the benefit of an RBI or an extra-base hit from Paul Goldschmidt. This isn’t a shot at Goldy, the leading candidate for the NL’s MVP award. I’m just making an obvious point: when you can knock off the piping-hot defending World Series champions with your best player having a relatively quiet series – and with your second best player, Nolan Arenado, missing Friday’s game while on paternity leave – then it says something about the depth of your offense. Three largely unexpected sources – Lars Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan and Albert Pujols – have been essential in expanding the capability of the St. Louis lineup.

4a. Big Daddy Arenado. He returned from paternity leave on Saturday and went 5 for 8 with a double and three RBI in the final two games. Major props go to Laura Arenado and the new baby, daughter Levi. Nolan Arenado rushed home on Thursday, getting back to St. Louis at 10:30 a.m, and Levi arrived at 3 p.m. or so. Perfect timing. And with the birth on schedule – thanks little Levi! – Arenado was back in the lineup for the Saturday-Sunday games. This worked out rather beautifully, yes?

5. The Cardinals defeated Atlanta with power. The Cardinals had to overcome some pitching lapses in this series. Not a shocker. The Braves have one of the most unstoppable offenses in the game, leading MLB in runs scored – while being 2nd in homers, slugging and OPS – since June 1. And that deep Atlanta lineup doesn’t shrink when confronted by quality pitchers. So to win this series, the Cardinals had to beat the Braves at their own game … and did just that.

In their two straight victories the Cardinals out-homered Atlanta 5-2, and out-slugged the Braves .508 to .417. Unlike the Braves, the Cardinals drew a bunch of walks in the two games to keep the pressure on. And with runners in scoring position St. Louis came through with a .333 batting average compared to a .235 mark by Atlanta in those situations. You have to like the way the Cardinals performed late in the Saturday-Sunday wins. On Saturday they remained patient at the plate and let ATL closer Kenley Jansen walk into trouble by walking the home team. And on Sunday it was power ball, with home runs from Lars Nootbaar, Tommy Edman and O’Neill. That’s winning baseball.

The Cardinals gave us other items to appreciate during the Atlanta series, and I’ll get to them.

Keep reading …

NOTES ON MY SCORECARD

Accounting Department: The Cardinals now have 29 comeback victories this season … By winning Sunday the Cardinals (74-54) reached a season-high 20 games over .500, highest since Game No. 160 last season … and before that, the  final regular-season game in 2019 … By downing the Braves, St. Louis has won five consecutive series, going 13-4 in the process … Since late July, the Redbirds are 8-1 in their last nine series, winning 22 of the 29 games played in the nine series … The Cardinals have won six consecutive series at Busch Stadium and have gotten it done by going 15-2 in their last 17 home games … the Cardinals are 42-22 at Busch Stadium this season and their .656 home winning percentage is fifth-best in the majors and No. 3 in the NL.

Despite their recent success against winning opponents, the Cardinals remain under .500 (26-29) for the season in games against teams with winning records … only three NL teams have a winning record this season in games against opponents with winning records: Dodgers (28-16), Mets (37-29) and Brewers (30-28.) Atlanta comes next (27-30) which is one game better than St. Louis vs. winners …

The Cardinals are 29-12 overall since July 10, and 21-6 since July 31, and 20-6 in August. In all three of the time frames the Cardinals rank 2nd to the Dodgers in MLB for best winning percentage.

Strengthening Their Hold On 1st Place: The Cardinals go into the new week with a 6-game lead over second-place Milwaukee in the NL Central standings. The Redbirds had a 2 and ½ game lead over the Brewers on June 14, but quickly caved by losing four of their next five games to fall back into second place.

This time around, the Cards are doing a much better job of protecting their lead. St. Louis moved ahead of Milwaukee on Aug. 6, and have stayed in first place since then. The Brewers came within a half-game of the Cardinals twice during this time, but the Cards forcefully pushed back.

Since leading by only a half-game on Aug. 13, the Cardinals have continued to grow their margin over the Brewers – all the way up to 6.0 games by Aug. 25. And the Cardinals are still up by six as they open a series at Cincinnati on Monday. The Brewers haven’t cut into the St. Louis lead, at all, since Aug. 13.

Updated Playoff Odds: As of Monday morning FanGraphs gave the Cardinals a 90.8 percent shot of winning the division, and a 97.6% chance of making the playoffs.

The other forecasts I looked at give the Cardinals at least a 90 percent division-tile probability: 97.7% by Baseball Reference, 96.2% by Clay Davenport, and 90 percent by Baseball Prospectus.

The Keys To Tyler O’Neill’s Turnaround: In 58 plate appearances since Aug. 14, O’Neill is batting .286 with a .379 onbase percentage and .551 slug. Those are good rate stats that reflect his numbers from his breakout season in 2021. There are two clear reasons for O’Neill’s improvement: plate discipline, and a higher contact rate.

Here’s a breakdown. On the left side, are his rates through Aug. 13. On the right side are his rates since Aug. 14. The “before” and “after” look is quite revealing.

Chase Rate: 32.2% … 19.5%
Swinging Rate: 48.4% … 43.4%
Contact Rate: 71.8% … 80.4%
Contact On Strikes: 81.0% … 92.8%
Swinging Strikes: 13.7% … 8.5%
Walk Rate: 8.4% … 10.3%
Strikeout Rate: 29.7% … 13.8%

It’s all there. All you need to know. O’Neill has been more selective. He is chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone, significantly so. He’s jumping on pitches in the strike zone, and making more contact. His swing-and-miss rate is way down. He’s walking more often, and his strikeout rate has dropped by 16 percent.

These aren’t minor things. They’re important indicators that show how much O’Neill has improved over the last two weeks. Now he has to carry the enhanced plate discipline and better contact skills into September – and keep going. If O’Neill’s positive trend lasts, this lineup goes to the next level in terms of danger. This is a very good offense as is, but if the 2021 version of O’Neill reappears, as he’s done for the last two weeks… watch out.

Marmol’s Effective Lineup Construction: A huge factor in a more dangerous and productive lineup. On Aug. 11, Marmol began using Lars Nootbaar and Brendan Donovan in the top two lineup spots when the Cardinals went against a RH starter. And though other hitters have gotten some turns in the No. and No. 2 spots – Dylan Carlson is frequently in there against LH pitching – Nootbaar and Donovan have been the ignition to setting up the offense.

Check out these numbers.

They’re amazing.

Against right-handed starting pitchers since Aug 11 the No. 1 and No. 2 lineup spots have turned in a .396 average, a preposterous .486 onbase percentage, and a .648 slug. That’s worthy of a WOW. Nootbaar and Donovan have taken around 83 percent of the plate appearances vs. RHP at the No. 1 and No. 2 since Aug. 11, but that percentage continues to increase.

Not only have Nootbaar and Donovan combined for a high walk rate and given the team that crazy-high OBP over that time … but what about that mighty .648 slug? Mixed into the 107 plate appearances from the 1-2 spots since Aug. 11 are eight doubles, five homers, 14 RBI and 22 runs scored. The 1-2 spots have combined for 13 walks and only eight strikeouts during that time.

When the Cardinals have a game against a left-handed starter, we see Dylan Carlson at leadoff, with Tyler O’Neill slotting in at the second spot. (Carlson has been great vs. LHP as the leadoff man, batting .350 with a .981 OPS since Aug. 11.) And while this setup can’t match the offensive excellence that’s being provided by the Nootbaar-Donovan combo in the first two slots, the Carlson-O’Neill numbers certainly are good: .263 average, .444 OBP, .456 slug and .800 OPS.

What about the No. 1 and No. 2 spots overall since Aug. 11, with or without a platoon-split advantage? It’s working. It is most definitely working. In 172 plate appearances since Aug. 11, the first two STL lineup spots have collectively turned in a .348 average, .433 onbase percentage, .574 slug, and 1.007 OPS. Among each team’s group of 1-2 hitters, STL leads the majors in all four categories since Marmol implemented the new look.

— With the first two lineup spots getting on base at such a high rate, Paul Goldschmidt leads MLB with 21 RBI since Aug. 11. Arenado, who hits behind Goldy in the lineup, has 14 RBI over that time. Arenado would have more RBI since Aug. 11 but Goldschmidt often takes care of the job, with Arenado watching from the on-deck circle.

Here’s the overall effect of Marmol’s astute lineup structure: since Aug. 11 the Cardinals as a team lead the majors in runs, batting average (.291), OBP (.365), slugging .510, OPS (.875). And they’re No. 1 in park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) at 48 percent above league average offensively. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the Cardinals are 13-4 since Aug. 11.

Andrew Knizner Deserves Your Praise: For the last three weeks or so in this space I’ve noted Knizner’s improved showing offensively, but his upturn has largely been ignored for whatever reason. But I’ve been paying attention to this, and Knizner is on a roll … even as the uninformed continue to disparage him as a hitter.

Knizner made another important contribution in Saturday’s 6-5 victory over the Braves, slamming a two-run homer in the fourth inning to cut Atlanta’s 4-0 lead in half. That was a big moment that largely got overlooked in the excitement of the Cards two-run comeback in the ninth for the win.

In his last five games Knizner is 7 for 16 (.438) with a 1.321 OPS.

In 72 plate appearances since July 12, Kiz is batting .344 with a .444 onbase percentage and .459 slug for a .903 OPS.

How good is that? Well, among MLB catchers that have a minimum of 70 plate appearances since July 12, Knizner is No. 1 in onbase percentage, 2nd in batting average, and 10th in slugging. Knizner’s .903 OPS over that time is 3rd among catchers behind Philadelphia’s J.T. Realmuto (1.067) and Oakland’s Sean Murphy (.917.)

This comes over a brief period of time, and with Knizner having fewer plate appearances than many big-league catchers. We can downgrade his recent performance because of that, skepticism is normal, and Knizner may be due for a freeze offensively … but all of that said, I’m still impressed by what he’s done because I’d written him off as a hitter. He’s played a low-key role in the Cardinals’ impressive showing on offense since right around the All-Star break.

Using adjusted runs created (wRC+), Knizner is 64 percent above league average offensively since July 12. And in part he’s done it by increasing his walk rate and lowering his strikeout rate.

Over a smaller menu of games … since July 27, among MLB catchers with at least 40 plate appearances, Knizner ranks 1st in OBP (.478), 2nd in batting average (.368), 3rd in OPS (1.005) and 4th in slugging (.526.)

Knizner + Yadier Molina, Part II: Kiz can’t match Molina defensively, but to state the obvious … Kiz is vastly better than Molina offensively these days. Molina has capsized, going 0 for his last 17. And he’s hitting .176 with a .389 OPS since the end of May. As I wrote last week, Molina is stuck near the bottom of the MLB rankings this season in batting average, OBP, slugging and OPS and the arrow has been pointing down for a long time. Molina’s malaise offensively is nothing new, nothing new at all. I’m not sure why some fans and media haven’t been paying attention to his gradual but obvious demise as a hitter; it’s just more extreme now.

For the season, Knizner has a 85 OPS+. That’s 15 percent below the league average, but he’s improving on that metric and is 25% above average since July 1. For the season Molina has a 39 OPS+ which means he’s 61 percent below average offensively.

The Cardinals are 35-28 when Knizner starts this season and have a superior record (32-20) when Molina starts. And Molina’s catcher ERA is 3.38 this season, lower than Knizner’s 4.29. But in fairness to Knizner, he handled his heaviest catching load from June 17 through Aug. 2 while Molina was on the IL with knee pain. During that time the rotation was in a state of chaos because of injuries including the aborted comeback of Jack Flaherty (shoulder.) And Dakota Hudson was going through a particularly bad phase.

Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas were the only reliable starters during this disjointed time. The Cardinals had to plug in Andre Pallante and Matthew Liberatore, and Jordan Hicks made a start. The turmoil made Knizner’s challenge more difficult. The situation has improved – substantially – since the front office acquired Jose Quinata and Jordan Montgomery at the Aug. 2 trade deadline, and Molina made his first post-IL start on Aug. 4.

Quintana and Montgomery have made a combined 10 starts for the Cardinals with Molina handling six of the 10 – including the best starts made, respectively, by each starter. (Though Knizner was behind the plate for one of Montgomery’s top starts, on Aug. 17 vs. Colorado.)

No question, Molina has helped the new starters get assimilated and his pitch selection is one of his primary strengths. That part of his game is unmatched. But if the choice of a catcher is based more on offense than defense, Knizner rates the starting call. Marmol has been reserved in his praise of Knizner, which is weird at a time when Knizner is lengthening the quality of the STL lineup when he plays.

Marmol is likely speaking in code: it’s still Molina’s team. It’s funny to me, the way managers are still so nervous about saying or doing something to offend Molina. I don’t know why praising Knizner for being one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball since July 17 would offend Molina … but here we are … again.

Adam Wainwright: He pitched well Sunday night, allowing only two earned funs in 6.2 innings. And both of those runs scored on Dansby Swanson’s three-run homer off reliever Ryan Helsley. Waino has a 2.15 ERA in 14 starts at Busch Stadium this season. That’s even better than last season’s 2.74 ERA at home.

Noot, There He (Still) Is: Another good series by the leadoff man, but this one was loaded with power, as Nootbaar homered and doubled slugged .539 vs. the Braves. So let’s update: among National League hitters that have at least 130 plate appearances since the All-Star break, Noot ranks 3rd in onbase percentage (.418), 4th in OPS (.961) and 7th in slugging (.543).

Feeding Time For The Cardinals: Beginning with the three-game series at Cincinnati which opens Monday night, the Cardinals will play 18 of their next 20 games against teams that have losing records. And the Cards have done very well against losing teams this season, going 48-25 for a .616 winning percentage. STL’s only two games vs. a winning team during this stretch (Milwaukee) will be played at Busch Stadium.

With 34 games remaining on STL’s regular-season schedule, the Cardinals will play only 10 against winning teams: four vs. Milwaukee, three against San Diego, and three against the Dodgers. Eight of those 10 games are road games — two at Milwaukee and the six in San Diego and LA.  According to Tankathon, the Cardinals have the easiest remaining schedule in the majors with an opponent winning percentage of .443.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.

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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

 

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

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.