THE REDBIRD REVIEW

The Cardinals made it official Tuesday night, claiming the NL Central title with a methodical 6-2 victory over the Brewers in Milwaukee. The post-game jamboree featured all the champagne and beer that you could pour, plus tributes galore. The boys were happy. They were proud. They were Cardinals.

As closer Ryan Helsley said to reporters including our friend John Denton of MLB.com: “When you get drafted by the Cardinals, you expect greatness.”

The Cardinals have qualified for the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. They have 90 wins and can add to the total over the final seven regular-season games. Their first-round postseason opponent most likely will be Philadelphia, the presumptive No. 3 wild card, with the Brewers having an outside chance to catch the Phillies.

Before looking too far ahead, let’s review how and why the Cardinals won the NL Central for the first time since 2019 … and only the second time since 2015.

First, I’d like to get this out of the way: 60 of the Cardinals’ 90 victories were put on the board with wins over opponents that have a losing record. And 35 of those 60 wins were scooped up in games against the Pirates, Reds and Cubs. But the Cardinals don’t set the schedule. They had nothing to do with the three worst teams in the NL Central making the decision to opt out of competing for a playoff spot to rebuild.

I know all about how the division stinks. And how easy it was, relatively speaking, to capture the NL Central. I’ve written about that a lot this season — and this week, for that matter.  That said, all the Cardinals could do was play the games assigned to them and take advantage of the soft schedule by beating inferior teams. And the Redbirds did a good job with that by compiling a .659 winning percentage against losing ballclubs. The Brewers played a cushy schedule but didn’t exploit it as much as they should have, posting a .560 winning percentage vs. losing-record teams.

The Cardinals are under .500 this season (30-34) in competition against winners  but will have the opportunity to reverse the trend by making a successful postseason run.

OK. Now.

How did the Cardinals get to that post-game party in Milwaukee?

1. The Culture. The Tradition. The Standards Established By Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. Success starts at the top. The Cardinals will be competing in the playoffs for the 17th time during the 27-season term of DeWitt’s ownership of the team. Since DeWitt and partners took over before the 1996 season, only the Yankees and Braves have made it to more postseasons than the Cardinals. Only the Yankees have played in more postseason games than the Cardinals (148), and won more postseason games than the Cards (75.)

Since 2000 the only the Yankees have made it to more postseasons (19) than St. Louis (16.) And only the Yankees have played in more postseason games, and won more postseason games, than DeWitt’s team. DeWitt’s success as chairman includes 13 division titles (12 outright, one tie), four NL pennants, and two World Series championships.

It isn’t as easy to qualify for the playoffs as the cynics think it is. Since 2000, only seven of 30 teams got to the postseason 10 or more times. And only two teams, the Yankees (19) and Cardinals (16), have advanced to the postseason more than 15 times. On the other side of the tracks, exactly half of MLB’s 30 teams have made it to the postseason five times or fewer since the beginning of 2000.

A fact-based opinion: The Cardinals have one of the best team owners in all of professional sports – be it baseball, the NFL, the NHL or the NBA.

2. John Mozeliak Hits For the Cycle: The president of baseball operations rebounded – and then some – from his free-agent failures in pursuing bullpen help in the offseason market. Now, you can continue to whine about that. Or you can be rational and recognize several more important developments made possible by Mozeliak and staff.

* Mozeliak hired Oli Marmol to manage the Cardinals. Marmol has done a fantastic job and became the youngest manager (at age 36) to win a division title since MLB converted to a division format in 1969. Among the other young managers that Marmol edged out for this accomplishment was Tony La Russa, who was 39 when he guided the White Sox to a division title in 1983.

* Mozeliak initiated the conversation with Albert Pujols and had a warm and amiable discussion that resulted in Pujols returning to the Cardinals for 2022. Pujols came home for his final season in the majors, a return to the place that will always live in his heart. The St. Louis comeback made everyone happy; it’s such a great story. But Pujols made it an even greater story by delivering a show of force offensively. And No. 5’s high-impact offense was critical to the team’s success. The special, once-in-a-lifetime thrill of watching Pujols hit his 700th home run in a Cardinal uniform doesn’t occur without Mozeliak’s detente with the future Hall of Famer.

* Mozeliak stabilized his team’s rotation and gave the Cardinals a substantial advantage over the Brewers by acquiring lefties Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery at the Aug. 2 trade deadline. Since “Q” and Monty joined the band, the Cardinals have MLB’s third-best record (36-17) and rank sixth in the majors with 5.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) value from their starting pitchers. The Cardinals gave up little in the trades for the two veteran starters, and no team improved more than the Cardinals did at the trade deadline.

* The Cardinals’ player-development system produced quality depth, with rookies filling needs and taking on important roles. And that made a positive difference. The rookies were led by Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman, Juan Yepez and pitchers Andre Pallante and Zack Thompson. And though outfielder Lars Nootbaar isn’t technically a rookie, he had only 109 MLB at-bats coming into the 2022 season.

If we make Nootbaar an honorary rookie, this is what we come up with: In 2022, Cardinal rookies (and their almost rookie) have combined for 45 homers, 57 doubles, 148 RBI, and 178 runs scored. Pallante has been a valuable swing man for the pitching staff, taking over a job that has more value in Marmol’s evolved style of managing.

The Corey Dickerson free-agent signing looked like a poor decision early on. But that changed, and Dickerson contributed a load of offense during the time that the Cardinals were seizing control of the division.

And we cannot forget that Mozeliak traded for a couple guys named Goldschmidt (2019) and Arenado (2021.) They chipped in a little bit this season, right? Speaking of which …

3. Paul Goldschmidt & Nolan Arenado. Even after struggling offensively this month, the corner infielders entered Wednesday in a tie for the lead in WAR among National League players. They each have 7.1 WAR for a combined 14.2 wins above the replacement level. The Cardinals haven’t had two position players combine for at least 14.2 WAR in a season since Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter collectively accumulated 15.0 WAR in 2013.

Goldschmidt and Arenado have combined for 65 homers, 214 RBI, 79 doubles and 174 runs. In park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+), Goldschmidt is 79 percent above the league average offensively to top the NL. And Arenado is third in the NL at 52 percent above league average as a hitter.

The two pals are a big part of the best defensive infield in the majors this season, and they’ve teamed up for a .300 average with runners in scoring position, mashing 13 homers and driving home 127 runs with RISP.

How fortunate are the Cardinals to have these two peak-form players doing all that they do? Their influence on the Cardinals is powerful and profound.

4. Albert Pujols and the Best-Ever Homecoming: Since July 10 the Mang among men leads the National League in slugging, OPS, adjusted OPS, adjusted runs created and is tied for most home runs (17) hit over that time. The Cardinals are 16-1 this season when he homers in a game. And they are 23-7 when he drives in a run this season. (And he’s knocked in 40 since July 10.)

Since Pujols, 42, began hitting like he did at age 22, the Cardinals are 45-23 since July 10, the third-best record in the NL. And over that time they lead the majors in homers, rank second in slugging and OPS,and are third in onbase percentage and runs.

5. Montgomery, Quintana and the Rotation Renovation: Since their arrival the Cardinals are 16-4 when Montgomery or Quintana start a game. Though Montgomery has endured recent turbulence, the lefthanders have collectively pitched to a 2.64 ERA in their 20 starts. Before the Cardinals made these trades, they ranked 14th in rotation ERA, 15th in rotation FIP, and 23rd in rotation WAR. Since the trades the ST: rotation ranks 9th in ERA, 7th in FIP and 6th in WAR.

6. Tommy Edman, Baseball Action Figure. He’s among the very best defenders in the majors this season with a total of 17 defensive runs saved. As an added value he’s saved 12 runs at second base and five at shortstop – giving the Cards outstanding defense at two positions. After being 10 percent below league average offensively (based on OPS+) over his past two seasons, he’s seven percent above league average this year. And for the second consecutive season Edman has amassed at least 30 doubles and 30 stolen bases.

Edman has 5.4 WAR – tied for 10th among NL players – and it reflects his “plus” performance on offense, defense and on the bases.

According to Bill James Online, Edman is the best baserunner in the majors this season with a net gain of +51 bases. He’s also a prime factor in the team defense that ranks fifth in the majors with 63 defensive runs saved. And he’s helped make the Cardinals the sixth-best baserunning team in the majors with a net gain of +71 bases.

7. Old Reliables, Miles Mikolas & Adam Wainwright: We can’t overlook the two mainstays who held this rotation together until the front office acquired Montgomery and Quintana.

Mikolas and Wainwright have combined to make 63 starts and pitch 386.1 innings this season, handling much of the workload – and pressure – during a fragile time for the rotation.

Waino had a 3.09 ERA over his first 26 starts of the season until struggling through a “dead arm” phase this month. The Mikolas profile was distorted by one disastrous (if typical) start at the Coors Field hitter hothouse on Aug. 9; he was clobbered for 10 earned runs in 2.2 innings. But before that rough day in Denver, Mikolas had a 2.92 ERA in 22 starts. And after absorbing the damage at Coors, Mikolas has a 2.79 ERA in nine starts.

These two righthanders proudly stood guard until help showed up. And speaking of old reliables, catcher Yadier Molia has made a difference behind the plate when he’s been able to play. His 3.50 catcher ERA is among the best in the majors among catchers that have been there for at least 2,500 opponent plate appearances.

8. Ryan Helsley and the Better Bullpen: Helsley ranks third among MLB relievers with a 1.28 ERA, is third with his 39.7 percent strikeout rate, and ranks fifth in WAR (2.0) and Win Probability Added. With Helsley in place as the dominant presence late in games, the St. Louis bullpen ranks third in the majors (and first in the NL) in Win Probability Added. And their number of bullpen “meltdowns” – as defined by FanGraphs – is the fifth fewest in MLB.

9. Brendan Donovan, Surprise. But a Legit Asset. I knew the Cardinals front office really liked him. But … wow. It’s impossible to understate the magnitude of Donovan’s versatility and value. He’s played six different positions and has saved nine runs defensively. He works counts and pushes pitchers and makes them sweat, setting himself up for a low strikeout rate and a high walk rate for a .390 onbase percentage that’s the best by an NL rookie. Among Cardinals, only Goldschmidt has a better two-strike batting average than Donovan. And this dude is fearless, leading the Cardinals with a .357 batting average with runners in scoring position. And among the Cardinals only Pujols has a higher OPS with runners in scoring position.

10. Oli Marmol’s Significant Impact: He’s modernized the Cardinals’ tactical approach, put an emphasis on platoon-split advantages, And eliminated most of the stupid and outdated old-school nonsense. He’s made tough but necessary playing-time decisions based on performance accountability, and earned the respect of the clubhouse with his honest, straightforward ways. He’s The Hawk at the dugout railing, barely his head – except for his eyes, which seemingly see everything.

Here are a few other things about Marmol that you might want to know:

Among the 30 MLB managers, only Buck Showalter and Terry Francona have a better percentage than Marmol in getting calls overturned on replay.

Marmol is aggressive about using his bench. He uses pinch-hitters at a rate that’s 14 percent above the MLB average. He uses pinch runners at a rate that’s 28 percent above the average.

With his lineup construction and pinch-hitting selections, Marmol has given the Cardinals a platoon-split advantage in 52.3 percent of their plate appearances. That’s tied for the 14th highest percentage in the majors. So what’s the big deal? Last season the Cardinals ranked 29th with a platoon-split advantage of 44.7%.

This one really fascinates me. And it opened my eyes in a way that gives me a better understanding of what he’s doing with his bullpen management. There’s a reason why Marmol has increased the number of times he’s used relievers for more than an inning during an appearance. He’ll go with that extra inning even though it probably means the reliever won’t be able to pitch the next day. But by getting one-plus innings from that reliever in a game, it often means Marmol is actually using fewer relievers in that game. And it often means that Marmol will have more relievers available to him for the next day.

How did I come to this conclusion? Because Marmol uses 3.8 pitchers per game (including the starter), and that average is the lowest among the 30 managers. Marmol’s number of pitchers used per game is 10 percent below the MLB average.

Marmol has used a reliever to pitch more than one inning 180 times this season – tied for third most in the majors. But here’s the beauty in that: Marmol has used relievers without a day of rest only 58 times this season – the fourth-lowest amount in the bigs.

Thankfully, Marmol is not a fan of the sacrifice bunt. And gosh is that smart. Why waste an out? You only get 27 of those precious babies to work with in a nine-inning game. So it makes a lot of sense to protect them. Marmol has called for only nine sac-bunt attempts this season, third fewest in the majors. He’s 57 percent below the overall MLB average for sac-bunt attempts by managers. Yes! I may weep.

Congratulations to the Cardinals.

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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Please email your “Ask Bernie” questions to BernScoops@gmail.com

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.