THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The rival Brewers are in town for a two-game, quick-stop series against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Much has changed, including the NL Central standings, since Milwaukee’s last visit to St. Louis.
When the teams played a three-game series at Busch from Aug. 12-14 the Cardinals won two of three to open a lead of 1 and ½ games over the second-place Brewers.
The Cards and Crew went their separate ways, with St. Louis going 20-7 in the next 27 games for the best winning percentage (.741) in the majors over that time. The Brewers quickly fell off the pace, lurching to a 14-14 record since departing St. Louis a month ago.
As the two postseason contenders reconvene Tuesday night at Busch Stadium, here’s a look at where they stand.
NL Central: The Cardinals (83-58) lead the Brewers (75-66) by eight games. Each team has 21 games remaining on the remaining regular-season schedule.
Probability of winning the division: According to FanGraphs, the Cardinals have a 98.8 percent likelihood of finishing first. The Brewers’ first-place chances are down to 1.2%.
Reviewing the dramatic turnaround: A loss in Washington on July 30 dropped the Cardinals to a four-game deficit behind division-leading Milwaukee. At that point the FanGraphs model gave the Brewers a shot of 85.5 percent to win the NL Central over the Cardinals (15.5%.) But that’s when the Cardinals began making their bold power move, winning 30 of the next 40 games leading into Tuesday’s game against the Brewers. The Crew is 18-22 over that time, resulting in a stunning 12-game shift in the standings since July 30.
Can the Brewers make the postseason? Yes. FanGraphs rates Milwaukee as a 25 percent possibility to snatch the NL’s third wild-card ticket. The next eight games will be crucial to Milwaukee’s chances: two at St. Louis, three at home against the Yankees, and three at home vs. the Mets.
HOW THE CARDINALS TOOK CONTROL
In no particular order:
1. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. They’re having career seasons, ranking first and second, respectively, in fWAR among National League position players. Goldschmidt and Arenado have combined for 13.6 WAR, 74 doubles, 63 homers, 202 runs batted in, and 168 runs scored. Going by OPS+, Goldschmidt is 85 percent above league average offensively; Arenado is 57 percent above the league average. Milwaukee has some fine position players and gets contributions from many – but can’t match what the Cardinals have in Goldy and Arenado — consistent excellence offensively and defensively.
2. The tremendous second-half impact of Albert Pujols. The legend’s resurgence has given the Cardinals a formidable “Big Three” presence that few teams can match. Among NL hitters that have at least 110 plate appearances since the All-Star break, Pujols leads in slugging percentage (.748) and OPS (1.142) and is hitting .340 with a .395 OBP and 12 homers during the second half. The Cardinals are 14-1 when Pujols homers in a game this season – and are 12-0 since July 10 when he goes deep in a game.
3. The Milwaukee rotation has been rocked and destabilized by injuries. Freddy Peralta (78 days), Adrian Houser (56 days), Aaron Ashby (39 days), Brandon Woodruff (32 days) and now Eric Lauer (4) days have spent a lot of time parked on the IL while healing from physical setbacks. As the series begins in St. Louis the Brewers have three starters on the IL: Lauer, Peralta and Ashby. Their four healthy starters are reigning NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes, Woodruff, Houser and rookie Jason Alexander.
St. Louis starters have a slightly better rotation ERA than Milwaukee on the season, and the teams are virtually even in the Bill James quality-start metric. STL has a .728 winning percentage when given a quality start compared to Milwaukee’s .662 winning percentage in the same category.
The gap has been widening in FIP (fielding independent ERA.) Since the All-Star break the St. Louis rotation ranks third in the majors with a 3.39 FIP, well ahead of Milwaukee’s 4.15 rotation FIP (19th.)
The difference has widened since the trade deadline; more on that in the next section.
4. John Mozeliak and the St. Louis front office significantly upgraded the team’s rotation at the trade deadline. By contrast the Milwaukee front office made no real improvements and demoralized the clubhouse population by trading closer Josh Hader to the Padres. Hader pitched poorly in his final month (or) so as the Milwaukee closer, a fact that often gets neglected. But that said lefty Taylor Rogers — who came to Wisconsin in the Hader trade — has a 4.96 ERA in his first 17 appearances as a Brewer.
The changes made at the trade deadline became a huge turning point that dramatically altered the direction of each team in the NL Central race. Since president of baseball operations Mozeliak acquired starters Jose Quintana from the Pirates and Jordan Montgomery from the Yankees, the Cardinals are 14-1 when the two new lefties start a game. And Quintana and Montgomery have combined for a 2.16 ERA as Cardinals.
As a bonus, the Cardinals have Jack Flaherty back from a lengthy, tormented stay on the IL, and he pitched to a 3.60 ERA in his first two starts since returning.
Since the trade deadline the Cardinals rank 6th in the majors with a 3.33 rotation FIP. The Brewers are 21st with a 4.35 rotation FIP.
Before the season few would have predicted that the St. Louis rotation would be in much better shape than Milwaukee’s. That’s especially true considering that Flaherty and the $44 million free-agent signee Steven Matz have made a combined 15 starts this season because of injury troubles.
5. The Cardinals have separated themselves from the Brewers offensively since the All-Star break. Since play resumed July 23 the Cardinals have four of the NL’s top 10 hitters, minimum 110 plate appearances, based on OPS: Pujols (1st), Goldschmidt (2nd), Corey Dickerson (5th) and Arenado (10th.)
This was an important development. During the first half of the season the Cardinals and Brewers were similar on offense; there wasn’t much separation between them. But the Cardinals have pulled away from the Brewers in the major hitting categories. Since the All-Star break the St. Louis is averaging 5.53 runs per game and leads the majors in onbase percentage, slugging, OPS, homers and park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+.)
Home runs have been Milwaukee’s primary offensive strength this season. But the Cardinals have hit more bombs during the second half, and that’s removed the Brewers’ advantage in the longball contest.
Pitching is a part of this too. For the season, the Brewers have out-homered opponents by 28. The Cardinals are +48 in home-run differential.
St. Louis is 46-9 this season when hitting two or more homers in a game – a plus 37 win differential. Milwaukee has a plus 24 win differential when homering two or more times in a contest.
6. The St. Louis player-development system has given the Cardinals a sizable advantage over Milwaukee in 2022. Really, this is a no-contest. The Cardinals have greatly benefited from the work of rookie players this season. The Brewers? Not so much.
There’s been a massive difference in total impact thanks to the performances of Cardinal rookies Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman, Juan Yepez and pitcher Andre Pallante.
Milwaukee’s rookie position players: 54 plate appearances, seven hits, six walks, three extra-base hits, 14 total bases, one double, two homers, 10 RBI and eight runs scored. Total bWAR: 0.0.
St. Louis rookie position players: 981 plate appearances, 219 hits, 72 extra-base hits, 352 total bases, 41 doubles, 30 homers, 105 RBI, 121 runs scored. Total bWAR: 4.2.
Milwaukee’s rookie pitchers: 126 innings, 59 total games, 10 starts, five wins, no saves. Total bWAR: minus 1.0.
St. Louis rookie pitchers: 201 innings, 97 total games, 20 starts, 10 wins, two saves. Total bWAR: 1.4.
Bottom line: minus 1.0 WAR for Milwaukee rookies and +5.6 WAR for St. Louis rookies.
Footnote: I think it’s important to mention outfielder Lars Nootbaar. He isn’t a rookie this season but had played only 58 big-league games before 2022. Though stuck in a slump over the last nine games (.042 batting average) Noot given the Cardinals a high onbase skill and surprising power at a time when holes formed in the outfield. Nootbaar is 21 percent above league average this season in OPS+.
7. The Cardinals have done a more dependable job of protecting leads. Ryan Helsley has been one of the best closers in the majors this season, and it’s a positive to have him on duty as the last man standing. But the St. Louis bullpen has also plugged in some new pieces — rookies Zack Thompson and Andre Pallante, plus trade acquisitions Chris Stratton and JoJo Romero — and the enhanced depth matters.
Let’s take a quick look:
– Games lost after having the lead: Brewers 35, Cardinals 22.
– Record when taking a lead into the 8th inning: Brewers 9-9, Cardinals 14-4.
– Record when taking a lead into the 9th inning: Brewers 10-9, Cardinals 12-4.
– Walk-off losses: Brewers eight, Cardinals two.
8. The Cardinals have better balance offensively. The Redbirds have displayed strength against both left-handed pitchers and right–handed pitchers. The Brewers, on the other hand, are slightly better than the Cardinals against RH pitching … but the Crew is awfully weak against LH pitching.
OPS vs. RH pitching: Brewers .752, fourth in MLB. Cardinals .739, seventh in MLB.
OPS vs. LH pitching: Brewers .658, 25th in MLB. Cardinals .825, No. 1 in MLB.
I like to use wRC+ because it neutralizes stats based, in part, on ballpark effects. Using wRC+, the Brewers are only two percent better than the Cardinals against RH pitching. But when facing LH pitching the Cardinals are 47 percent better than the Brewers.
9. The Cardinals have been more dominant and upset-proof in division games. For the season the Cardinals are 40-21 (.655) when going against NL Central brethren, and that includes a 32-14 mark against the lesser teams (Cubs, Reds, Pirates.) The Brewers are 37-31 (.638) in all division games but are only 10-14 against the Cubs, Reds and Pirates since July 4.
10. The Cardinals have improved on the road. The Brewers have gotten worse on the road. Milwaukee is 36-39 in road games this season. The Crew did well away from the home base earlier this season, but have lost 19 of their last 28 road games. The Cardinals – 36-34 overall on the road – have gone 14-7 in their last 21 games away from Busch Stadium. The teams’ reversal of fortunes on the road have coincided with the Cardinals’ rush to first place in the NL Central takeover.
11. Defense and Baserunning: The Cardinals have 55 defensive runs saved this season (fifth overall in MLB) to Milwaukee’s 43 DRS. The big difference is the infield: St/ Louis 48 DRS, Milwaukee 8 DRS. As for baserunning, the Cardinals have taken 129 extra bases on batted balls in play (6th in MLB); for Milwaukee that number is 91 (29th.) The Cardinals’ extra-bases taken percentage is eight points higher than Milwaukees – 48% to 40%.
12. Tommy Edman is better than Kolten Wong. Mozeliak caught a lot of static (myself included) when the Cardinals made the decision to move on from Wing before the 2021 season and install Edman at second base. Edman won the Gold Glove as the NL’s top second basemen last season. And this year Tommy E. has been even more valuable because of his ability to play an above-average brand of shortstop.
Since the start of the 2021 season Wong has two defensive runs saved at second base compared to Edman’s plus 20 DRS at second. Over the last two seasons Edman has been credited with plus 26 total defensive runs saved at all positions he’s manned — 24 more than Wong.
And here’s their total fWAR since the start of 2021: Edman 8.0, Wong 4.1
If you’ve gotten this far, I hope you enjoyed the comprehensive breakdown of why the Cardinals were able to wrestle control of the division away from the Brewers. It’s my privilege to work for you.
13. Oli Marmol vs. Craig Counsell: The Brewers have a terrific manager. I’m an admirer. Counsell has had to deal with some serious problems this season, and hasn’t gotten much help from the baseball ops department. And I’m not suggesting that Marmol should be rated ahead of Counsell. But for the first time since Counsell became the Milwaukee manager in May of 2015, the Cardinals have a manager that can handle the matchup without getting embarrassed. The Cardinals aren’t at a disadvantage when Marmol and Counsell take their teams into competition against each other.
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, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
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.