Welcome to The Redbird Review

The Cardinals had the privilege of being the latest team to stomp the Pittsburgh Pirates, turning a slam-dunk probability into a 4-1 victory at PNC Park. 

Before we praise the work of Cards starter J.A. Happ, let’s pause to gasp at the recent cruelty endured by the hapless Pirates. 

The Pirates (41-72) have lost six in a row. This season they have five losing streaks this season that have stretched to six or more games. 

The Bucs are 5-16 in their last 21. They’ve won only 18 of their last 56 games, a winning percentage of .321, with a run differential of minus 105. 

They’re 12-25 since coming to St. Louis and springing a sneak attack, winning three of four games at Busch Stadium in late June. 

The Pirates have the worst offense in the majors, averaging only 3.59 runs per game. They are last in the majors in homers and slugging percentage and OPS+. Only one NL pitching staff, Arizona, is yielding more runs per game (5.14) than Pittsburgh. The Bucs’ starting-pitching ERA is 5.42. 

The Pirates have been swept 12 times this season, tied for the most in MLB, and are on pace to lose around 104 games. 

The Pirates have a record of 5-21 in games against Milwaukee and Cincinnati, the top two teams in the NL Central. Combined, the Brewers and Reds have outscored the Pirates by 110 runs in 26 games.

The Pirates went to Arizona and lost three straight. How does that happen? On the other hand, the Bucs won two series against San Francisco, taking four of six games. (Well, now that sure reduces the radiance of the Cardinals’ nice 4-2 record vs. the Giants this season.) 

In conclusion: if the Cardinals don’t sweep this three-game series in Pittsburgh, their visit to Western PA is a failure. 

With 50 games remaining on their schedule, the Cardinals are 11 games out of first place in the NL Central, and 8.5 games behind the Padres for the second wild card — with the Mets, Braves and Reds ahead of them. 

So yeah, you have to own the Pirates. The Cardinals play them 10 times this month. After Tuesday’s win, there are nine games to go. 

So here’s your opportunity, Redbirds. Here’s your chance to turn the optimistic chatter into something that’s much more important than words. 

Win them all. 

Go 10-0 against the Pirates this month. 

I remember the good old days, when it used to be about winning the World Series and NL pennants. Then it became, hey, just make the playoffs. Then it became “hey, we’re competitive every year.” In recent years, we hear more Cardinals-management bragging about their run of consecutive winning seasons — even if the team fails to make the playoffs. 

And now it’s about kicking the Pirates around. 

Sad. 

LET’S HAVE SOME J.A. HAPPY TALK: First of all, Happ was terrific in Tuesday’s win, pitching six sharp innings, allowing six hits and one run on a solo homer. J.A. walked two and struck out five. But should we deduct points because Happ produced this fine demonstration of pitching against the down-and-out Pirates? I’ll make my ruling in a couple of minutes. 

This, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “It’s a bit baffling that, of all pitchers to dominate the Pirates, Happ has done so. Against every team other than the Pirates, he has a 7.13 ERA in 96 innings this season. Against the Pirates, he has a 0.68 ERA in 13⅓ innings.” 

Happ had a strong start for the Twins against the Pirates earlier this season. Happ went 7.1 shutout innings on April 3, and the Pirates pecked at him for only one hit. 

“I think both times we’ve faced [Happ], he’s executed balls on both sides of the plate,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said during the postgame Zoom conference. “He’s given us trouble. To say in his other starts, I don’t know. But both of his starts against us, he’s really executed balls to both sides — especially the fastball to both sides of the plate.”

OK, here’s Judge Bernie’s ruling: 

A good start is a good start. There is no reason to deduct points. The Cardinals needed help. They needed average reliability — and five-inning starts are now the norm in MLB. And the Cardinals needed a starter to pitch effectively, limit runs and not walk everybody in the ballpark except for the popcorn vendor. 

Happ will face more difficult challenges, sure. But in each of his first two starts for the Cardinals — vs. the Braves and Pirates — Happ did a dandy job: 11 innings, six hits, three walks, nine strikeouts, and a 2.45 ERA. Happ’s fielding-independent ERA (4.72) isn’t as glossy, but I’m not of the mind to nitpick. I’m fine with a dude that limits the number of walks and hit batters and keeps one of MLB’s best defenses busy. Put the ball in play, with the fielders collecting the batted balls and converting them into outs. Nothing wrong with that. 

I don’t know why Happ was statistically the worst starting pitcher in the majors this season before joining the Cardinals in the July 30 trade that sent John Gant to Minnesota. Happ had a 6.77 ERA for the Twins, the highest among MLB starters that had made at least 16 starts. And that ERA was even more hideous (8.74) over his last 14 starts for Minnesota. 

Happ may not be able to sustain what he’s done for the Cardinals so far, and obviously it’s wise to keep that in mind. But Happ has made a change in his pitching approach since the transfer to St. Louis, and I think that’s worth talking about. Read on … 

HAPP’S FOUR-SEAM FASTBALL: The veteran lefty has thrown the pitch with greater frequency in two starts as a Cardinal. And went on a fact-finding mission at Brooks Baseball, I smiled when I saw Happ’s heavy volume of four-seamers in virtually every situation. Doesn’t matter if he’s facing a LH batter or a RH batter. Doesn’t matter if he’s ahead in the count or behind in the count. Doesn’t matter if it’s a two-strike count. Happ is likely to come with a 91 mph four-seam fastball. 

As a Twin, Happ threw the pitch 55 percent of the time. As a Cardinal, the four-seamer has been Happ’s choice on 62.5% of his pitches. And he’s used it even more (65%) against RH batters. 

Here’s a breakdown of Happ’s usage of the four-seamer in his two starts for STL. And I focused on his encounters with RH batters; 29 of the 41 batters he’s faced so far have swung from the right side. 

As a Twin, Happ had brutal numbers against RH batters: .307 average, .361 onbase percentage, .582 slug, 20 homers. 

As a Cardinal, his work vs. RH batters has improved. (Obligatory small-sample warning, of course.) In his two starts for the Cardinals, opponent RH batters are 3 for 14 (.214) with five strikeouts, a homer and three walks in 14 at-bats that ended with the four seam. 

Here’s how he’s used the four-seam against RHB, and I’ll note any significant changes from his approach as a Twin: 

  • All counts: 65% — up from 58% in Minnesota.
  • First pitch, 72%
  • Behind in count: 61%
  • Even count: 68% — up from 63%
  • Ahead in the count: 68% — up from 48%
  • Two-strike counts: 78% — up from 60%

Finally: when going against RH batters in his first two starts for the Cardinals, Happ has made another noticeable change in approach. He’s all but junked his sinker and slider, and making more extensive use of his changeup as his secondary pitch. The four-seam, changeup combination is working so far. We’ll see how it goes from here. 

FINAL THOUGHT ABOUT HAPP: Despite what you hear when the manager and media go into the cheerleading routine, Jon Lester hasn’t pitched well in his first two starts as a Cardinal — unless, of course, you think a 9.58 ERA and an opponent .357 batting average and .941 OPS is your standard for quality pitching. 

But Wade LeBlanc has done an admirable job for the Cardinals, crafting a 2.94 ERA in seven starts. And Happ’s first two starts were encouraging. 

Two things about LeBlanc and Happ and the Cardinals: 

1–President of baseball ops John Mozeliak and the front office did good work in identifying LeBlanc and Happ as potential turnaround targets. Lester, not so much, at least so far. 

2–But the surprisingly positive performances by LeBlanc and Happ also underline the failure of the St. Louis front office to go outside of the organization to scramble for rotation solutions in a timely way. 

Had the front office been more proactive and aggressive, the Cardinals could have lessened the damaging impact of Jack Flaherty’s oblique injury. The STL rotation had a 5.75 ERA in June. Which led to a dreadful 10-17 team record that month. Pitchers are always out there — guys who can be revitalized and exceed expectations. You may swing and miss when you try to find rotation help, but you just have to look for starters and get something done. 

THE EDMUNDO SOSA FILE: In Tuesday’s win he went 2 for 4, including a triple, and played his usual brand of outstanding defense. In 44 starts this season Sosa is batting .290 with a .360 OBP and .407 slug for a .767 OPS. And in his 145 at-bats as a middle-infield starter Sosa has four doubles, two triples, three homers, 10 RBI and has scored 20 runs. 

Let’s take a look at the defensive performances this season at second base and shortstop: 

At second base, Tommy Edman has been credited with three defensive runs saved in 628 innings. Sosa has two defensive runs saved in 119 innings. Doing the math, Edman has saved only one more run than Sosa despite playing 509 more innings than Sosa. Hmmm. 

At shortstop: Paul DeJong has four defensive runs saved in 662 innings. Sosa also has four defensive runs saved, but in 285 innings — which is 377 fewer innings than DeJong at shortstop. 

What about the offense at shortstop? In park-and-league adjusted runs created, Sosa is four percent above the league average offensively this season when taking at-bats as a shortstop. Applying the same metric, DeJong is 16 percent below league average offensively when taking at-bats as a shortstop. 

OVERLOOKED: That would be Harrison Bader’s substantial improvement when facing right-handed pitchers this season. Bader’s career MLB numbers vs. RHP were lousy from 2017 through 2020. 

How bad? This: 758 plate appearances against righties, .223 average, .669 OPS, 31 percent strikeout rate. Harry was 17 percent below league average offensively in park-and-league adjusted runs created. 

This year: 177 plate appearances vs. RH, .291 average, .837 OPS, and a strikeout rate of only 18 percent. Overall, he’s 21 percent above league average offensively in park-and-league adjusted runs created. The profile against RH pitchers includes plenty of power: nine doubles, seven homers, .481 slug and 25 RBI. 

After homering every 36 at-bats against RHP in his first three-plus seasons, Bader has homered every 22 at-bats vs. RH in 2021. 

This is a pretty dramatic turnaround, and I don’t believe it’s received enough attention. But Bader must keep it up. That’s always the defining test in baseball. 

HOW ABOUT SOME BIRD BYTES?

1) In 42 plate appearances since July 4, Matt Carpenter is batting .314 with a .429 and a .457 slugging percentage. That’s a .886 OPS. And he hasn’t gotten many starts over this time; Carpenter has done a very good job as a role player. And the Carpenter haters continue to rage? Crazy. 

2) Tyler O’Neill is batting only .197 with runners in scoring position. And the average is .200 with RISP and two outs. 

3) Rookie Dylan Carlson is slightly above the league average offensively against RH pitching this season. To be precise, he’s two percent above average vs. righthanders in park-and-league adjusted runs created. But Carlson is really mashing against lefty pitchers this season: 33 for 97 (.340 average), with a .383 OBP and .474 slug. That puts him 33 percent above the league average vs. the lefts in adjusted runs created. 

4) It’s the same deal with Tommy Edman in park-adjusted runs created — only more extreme: 27 percent below league average offensively vs. RHP, and 32% above the league average vs. LHP. 

5) Here’s my friend and “Seeing Red” podcast partner Will Leitch from MLB.com, discussing the Cardinals in his “Postseason Urgency” analysis: 

“The Cardinals are basically the opposite of urgent right now, with no offseason acquisitions other than having Nolan Arenado fall in their laps and deadline acquisitions of two starting pitchers who are old enough to be Wander Franco’s dad. This is a listless season for a franchise that appears to have lost its way. Will it have more urgency in 2022? Does it remember what urgency is at this point?” 

6) After a slow start following his promotion from Double A Springfield to Triple A Memphis in late June, No. 1 prospect Nolan Gorman seems to have made a successful transition to the next level. In his last 25 games for Memphis, Gorman is batting .301 with a .524 slugging percentage. He has five doubles, six homers and 22 RBI in 110 plate appearances over that time. He recently turned 21 years old. 

7) Another elite hitting prospect, Jordan Walker, has gotten comfortable after his promotion from Low A Palm Beach to High A Peoria. In his last 18 games for Peoria, Walker is hitting .329 with a .386 OBP and .487 slug. That’s a .873 OPS. He’s only 19 years old. 

I’ll stop typing now! 

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie 

Check out Bernie’s 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 live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com  … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.

The weekly “Seeing Red” podcast with Bernie and Will Leitch is available at 590thefan.com …

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.

 

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.