I wish I had a clever, stylish way of saying the Cardinals are being let down by their starting pitching … but I don’t.
So I’ll go with this: it reeks.
The maddening cycle continues.
Media and fans express serious offseason concerns about the starting pitching and urge the front office to be proactive in adding a quality starter.
The front office expresses unwavering confidence in its starting pitching and is amused by media and fan anxiety.
The starting pitching quakes and cracks.
The front office hustles to add starting pitching before the trade deadline.
Starting-pitching injuries and ineffectiveness have forced the front office to go into the emergency mode after the All-Star break. And even when president of baseball ops John Mozeliak and GM Mike Girsch got aggressive and signed free-agent starter Steven Matz to a four-year, $44 million contract before the 2022 season … Well, you know the rest. Matz was neutralized by two injuries last season and worked only 48 innings.
Matz makes his first start of the season against the Braves on Tuesday night. It’s also a fresh start for the lefty, and the Cardinals could use his help. It’s early and all of that, but the St. Louis rotation needs a boost in quality and stability. The front office needs the Matz investment to start paying off.
Monday night, the Cardinals were pounded 8-4 by the Braves in the opener of a three-game series. Jake Woodford – filling in for the injured Adam Wainwright – was bombed for three home runs during an eight-batter sequence. The Cards trailed 6-1 before their hitters had a chance to take at-bats in the second inning.
In his 4.1 innings Woodford was socked for seven hits, three walks, the three big flies and six earned runs. The bullpen handled the rest, but any realistic opportunity of a St. Louis comeback was erased after yet another implosion by reliever Jordan Hicks. He gave up two runs in the seventh, opening Atlanta’s lead to five runs.
Through the first four games the St. Louis starting pitchers rank 24th in the majors with a 7.13 ERA. Their starters have logged only 17.2 innings, which ranks 26th. Their strikeout rate (18.4%) is 23rd. Their horrendous walk rate (12.6%) is 28th. They’ve yielded a .315 batting average, .414 onbase percentage and .507 slug. The flawed starting pitching is keeping the bullpen extra busy, and that’s never a good thing.
No firm conclusions can be made at this time. Not with 97.5 percent of the schedule remaining. But the early-season scenes with the starting pitchers look an awful lot like the misadventures we’ve seen in the recent past. The front office is defiant in its annual neglect to spruce up the starting pitching. This is nothing new, but it sure is baffling. Our collective distress is understandable.
Going into this season the Cardinals had:
— A 41-year old starter (Waino) who showed signs of slippage last season in his swing-and-miss and strikeout rate.
— A starter (Matz) coming back after an injury-disrupted 2022.
— An injury-troubled starter, Jack Flaherty, who averaged only 57 innings per season over the past two years. Near the end of the 2022 campaign, both Flaherty and Matz were confined to the bullpen.
Miles Mikolas and Jordan Montgomery were good to go for 2023, but the overall rotation was (and is) vulnerable. But hey! The front office would tell us there’s nothing to see here, so why are you freaking out?
The first week of competition has been rough for MLB starters. The overall MLB earned-run average for starting pitching is 4.88, and 14 teams have a rotation have an era of 5.04 or worse. So perhaps the Cardinals will see improved starting pitching during the next round of starts. If not, the anxiety will increase. This is simple: you either pitch well, or you don’t. It’s up to the Cardinals to change the early narrative.
1. Jordan Hicks, The Enigma: In his first three appearances he’s been whacked for six hits and five earned runs in 3.1 innings for a 13.50 ERA. He’s walked five while striking out only three. Opponents have pummeled Hicks for a .375 average, .524 OBP and .500 slug. In 74.2 innings since the start of the 2021 season Hicks has a 5.30 ERA and a walk rate (15.2%) that’s the third worst in the majors among pitchers that have worked a minimum 74 IP. Oh, and he’s out of options. So unless there’s an injury that requires a rehab assignment, the Cardinals can’t relegate Hicks to Triple A Memphis.
2. Paul Goldschmidt: He’s still Paul Goldschmidt. He’s opened the season with four consecutive two-hit games. He’s walked three times. He’s batting .500 and has a .579 onbase percentage. He hit his first home run of 2023 on Monday – a leadoff shot to open the bottom of the seventh. BTW: the franchise record for most multi-hit games at the start of a season is six, set by Curt Flood in 1962.
3. Accounting Department: The Cardinals had more hits (12) than the Braves (10) on Monday night but went 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position, and left 11 men on base including five stranded in scoring position. But they did score three runs in RISP situations, with Jordan Walker singling in a run and Nolan Arenado and Brendan Donovan each getting a run home on ground-ball outs. The Cardinals have six RBI on ground-outs this season.
4. More On RISP: The Cardinals are batting .233 with runners in scoring position. But STL leads the majors with an overall batting average of .356. And they rank first with a .384 average with the bases empty.
5. Wee Willie Keeler Ball: The Cardinals have the most singles (40) in MLB. The Cards have 53 hits overall, and 75.4 percent of their hits are singles. You may be asking: Who the hell is Wee Willlie Keeler? Answer: A diminutive (5 foot 4) turn of the 20th century outfielder who had 2,932 hits in his major-league career. But 2,513 of Wee Willie’s hits (85%) were singles. So the Cardinals are playing a little Wee Willie Keeler ball so far. Singles are making a comeback in major-league baseball this season, and I’m all for it.
6. Jordan Walker: At age 20, he’s hit safely in his first four MLB games. He’s driven in a run in three of the four games. He’s sporting a .313 batting average. Walker has one extra-base hit (double) and hasn’t walked. Walker has an impressive hard-hit rate of 46.7 percent, and the quality of contact gives him an expected batting average of .383 and an expected slugging percentage of .445. His actual slugging percentage is .375. Translation: The power will come as soon as Walker starts elevating pitches with a better launch angle. But he’s off to a positive start, and that’s all that matters right now.
7. Nolan Gorman’s Hot Start: He went 2 for 3 against the Braves last night, and is batting .500 through his first four games. Gorman drew another walk Monday, giving him five on the young season. He has more walks (5) than strikeouts (4) so far. That makes me smile. Gorman’s performance is among the most encouraging aspects of STL’s 2023 early season.
8. Gorman Part Two: So far he’s thriving as the team’s primary designated hitter. Here’s some fun with small-sample numbers: among big-league DHs that have at least 10 plate appearances so far, Gorman ranks first in batting average (.500), onbase percentage (.647), slugging (.1000), OPS (1.647) and walk rate (23.4%). And his two home runs are tied for first. Not bad!
9. Gorman Part Three: Early in his second season, Gorman has 330 plate appearances and 295 at-bats in his major-league career. He’s slugged .444, homered every 18 at-bats, and has an OPS+ (117) that’s 17 percent above league average offensively. If you prorate the numbers over a 162-game average, he’d have 28 homers, 23 doubles and 71 runs batted in. He turns 23 on May 10.
10. Zack and Pack: The two bullpen lefties are off to a fantastic start. Zack Thompson and Packy Naughton have each pitched 3.1 innings. In their combined 6.2 innings they’ve allowed two hits, one walk, and have struck out 42.8 percent of batters faced.
11. Jake Woodford: Until getting clobbered for three home runs on Monday, Woodford had allowed only one home run over 77 innings and 300 batters faced going back to the beginning of September 2021. I don’t know why Woody believed he could overmatch the Braves by throwing fastballs up in the zone.
Said manager Oli Marmol: “What gives him success is, and if you watched the entire spring, was a lot of being stubborn at the bottom of the zone. (Against the Braves) he left two fastballs, four-seamers, at the top of the zone that got clipped, and then a slider that didn’t a whole lot for another homer to their leadoff guy.”
12. Update On The Offense: The Cardinals lead the majors with a 159 OPS+, meaning that they’re 59 percent above league average offensively. They’re also sixth in the majors with an average of 6.50 runs per game. Problem: The Redbirds have allowed 5.75 runs per game which ranks 23rd in MLB.
13. Noot to the IL: The Cardinals made the right move by placing Lars Nootbaar (thumb) on the IL. In the connected move, Juan Yepez was promoted back to the big club, and has an opportunity to re-enter the crowded outfield competition. After four games the St. Louis outfielders (as a group) rank second in the majors in batting average (.347), sixth in onbase percentage (.396), seventh in slugging (.531) and are third in adjusted runs created (wRC+) at 62 percent above league average offensively. In all candor Yepez didn’t really earn this promotion; at Triple A Memphis he was 1 for 11 with four strikeouts.
15. Safety-first, Please: Why oh why do so many players slide head-first when trying to advance to the next base? Nootbaar’s highly-anticipated 2023 season was put on hold because of it. He jammed his thumb sliding head-first. And Jordan Walker strained a shoulder muscle on a head-first slide in spring training. He’s still doing it in the majors.
16. Willson Contreras, Golden Arm: After Monday’s menu of games, MLB runners have 84 steals in 100 attempts for a [preposterous 84 percent success rate. But Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras has nabbed two of the three runners (67%) that wanted to test his arm on a steal attempt. Only two MLB catchers – Contreras and Arizona rookie Gabe Moreno – have bagged two runners on caught stealings so far. As a hitter Contreras is 5 for 13 (.385) with an OPS+ that puts him 33% above league average offensively.
17. Walks and Escapes: St. Louis pitchers have the sixth-worst walk rate (11.4%) in the majors. But they’ve been fortunate; three of the 19 opponent hitters that reached base via walk came around to score a run. That’s odd because Cards pitchers are allowing a .293 batting average with men on base, and you’d think that more “walkers” would have scored. The repercussions could have been worse.
18. Down On The Farm: Shortstop prospect Masyn Winn is off to a slow start at Triple A Memphis, with one hit in 12 at-bats and six strikeouts. But at least he’s walked three times … in his first start at Memphis, Dakota Hudson went five innings, walked three, and gave up five hits and three runs … in his first start for Memphis, lefty Matthew Liberatore pitched five scoreless innings, striking out seven and walking two … Big man Luken Baker had two homers and a double in his first three games for Memphis.
19. Know Thy Enemy: The Milwaukee Brewers have won three in a row for a 3-1 start to the season. After winning two out of three from the Cubs at Wrigley Field, The Crew came home and blasted the Mets 10-0 in Monday’s home-opener. Through four games the Brewers rank sixth in the majors with a 2.67 ERA and their pitchers have limited opponents to a .187 average and .560 OPS. The Cardinals have allowed more than twice the number of runs (23) as the Brewers (10.) Rookie second baseman Brice Turang is 5 for 10 with a grand-slam homer. Offseason free-agent pickup Brian Anderson — who is being used at third base and in right field — is 5 for 11 with a homer. Former Cardinal Luke Voit is 0 for 4 with two strikeouts. The Cardinals and Brewers will meet for the first time in 2023 with a three-game series at Milwaukee this weekend.
20. Tuesday’s Game: The Braves will start lefty Dylan Dodd, who will be making his MLB debut. Dodd, 24, pitched collegiately at Southeast Missouri State. As mentioned earlier in this column, Steven Matz makes his first start of the season for the Cards.
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. 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.
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All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Bill James Online and Baseball Savant.
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.