THE REDBIRD REVIEW

Last night in Chicago, Cardinals manager Oli Marmol and pitching coach Mike Maddux finally got around to giving Jake Woodford an opportunity to start a ballgame. I guess you could say this was another step forward for Woodford. His first sign of progress? Well, at some point this season the manager and pitching coach remembered his name and became aware of his existence.

Earlier this season, with the Cardinal rotation torn down by injuries and ineffectiveness and in desperate need of stability, the organization basically dismissed Woodford as an option. Marmol is a helluva manager, but he flunked on Woodford. The same is true of the pitching coach and front office.

The Cardinals have all but wasted Woodford’s season, and it’s a damn shame. They never viewed him as a solution to the severe rotation problems or as a beneficial salve to a bullpen that was set ablaze by the horrendous front-office signings of free-agent relievers Nick Wittgren, Drew VerHagen, T.J. McFarland and Aaron Brooks. The four failures combined to allow 70 earned runs in 92 and ⅔ innings for a 6.79 ERA before the bosses regained sanity and pulled the plug.

And even though Marmol has publicly called out starting pitcher Dakota Hudson several times this season for his dawdling on the mound and fuzzy-minded walk-a-thon pitching, the rookie skipper wasn’t sufficiently perturbed to go with Woodford instead of Dak.

Aug 23, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jake Woodford (40) delivers against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning of the second game of the doubleheader at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Marmol and Maddux are smart men who want more strikeouts from their arms. I understand. Woodford isn’t a strikeout pitcher. He is the opposite of that. He’s just a good and wily pitcher who gets an abundance of outs while keeping the baseball in the yard. How old fashioned.

Marmol, Maddux and the front office continue to be infatuated with Jordan Hicks and his 100+ mph fastball and don’t seem to mind the one blatant flaw in his game: Hicks is a thrower, not a pitcher. Doesn’t matter. The men in charge put Hicks into the rotation at the start of the season despite the righthander’s limited work and preparation time in a shortened spring training.

Hicks clearly wasn’t ready to be a starter, but the obsession with his velocity prevailed over common sense. Hicks was a terrible starter, averaging fewer than four innings per outing, walking a glaringly high 17.5 percent of batters faced, and pitching to a 5.47 ERA.

And after being relegated to the bullpen, the 100 mph man has a 5.64 ERA and 13% walk rate in 22.1 innings. In his last 11 appearances, covering 12 innings, Hicks has a 10.50 ERA and a 16% walk rate. But … but … but … HE THROWS HARD!

Woodford doesn’t throw hard, but he can amp up his fastball to 95 mph when he needs extra pop. More than anything, Woodford has good movement and sink and can move his pitches up or down in the zone, or side to side in the zone. Add while it’s true that Woodford doesn’t miss many bats – this is the vulnerability that stresses Marmol and Maddux – he doesn’t walk many hitters, has a fine ground-ball rate, limits hard contact, and gets batters to chase out of the zone.

Again: Woodford may average only 4.34 strikeouts per nine innings (not good) but he knows how to pitch, a skill that somehow has been downgraded as an attribute in this era of mad advanced-metrics love. Look, I’m a strong proponent of using advanced metrics to evaluate personnel and select tactics, but I also think it’s kinda important to give the ball to pitchers who can retire opposing hitters with relatively little drama. Woodford is that guy. His strikeout rate over the last two seasons is a modest 16.2 percent, which is low. But that’s also about three percent less than the K rates turned in by Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas this season. They’ve earned trust because they’ve proven themselves time and time again. They’re also proof that exquisite pitch-makers can lead a rotation.

Woodford hasn’t received a fair opportunity to build trust. Too much focus has been on what he doesn’t do well. The swing-miss stuff, the punchouts, etc. OK, but Woodford’s strikeout rate as a Cardinal is higher than the strikeout rates posted by Jeff Suppan (13%) and Kyle Lohse (14.7%) when they served as winning rotation mainstays under Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan. For sure, strikeouts can help … a lot. But there are other ways to win battles against hitters, and pitchers can succeed by making pitches that batters can’t square up … and they can get the hitters to pound the ball on the ground.

Woodford passed the test in Chicago on Tuesday night, allowing one run, four hits and a walk over his 5 and ⅓ innings in the second game of the doubleheader against the Cubs. Woodford was pulled after only 76 pitches, and that’s OK. The bullpen was fresh, and Woodford gave up a hard double and a walk in the sixth. He gave the Cardinals the start that they needed, and left with a 7-1 lead. The Cardinals rebounded from a 2-0 loss in the opener to bully the Cubs 16-3 in game two.

The curious Woodford saga continues.

The Cardinals sent Woodford to Triple A Memphis last summer to sharpen his slider, and he improved the pitch as requested. This year Marmol went public and showed the media some data on Woodford’s slider to justify his non-role on the big-league staff. Woodford has spent the season bouncing back and forth between St. Louis and Memphis as the manager, pitching coach and front office choosing to stay with pitchers who have bazooka arms but little pitching acumen.

Hudson has been given chance after chance after chance to get his head together and throw strikes … but the dude can’t untangle his headwires. In his 11 starts Hudson has a 5.98 ERA and a walk rate of 11.3 percent. Opponents have batted .306 with a .402 onbase percentage and .427 slug against him over this time. And the Cardinals are 4-7 in his last 11 starts – while going 33-19 in games started by other pitchers since June 12.

Woodford? He may not have the wicked velocity that Marmol wants, or the slider that will fill Maddux with joy, or the four-seam fastball sizzle that will arouse the velocity addicts. But here’s what Woodford has: a 2.48 ERA in 29 scattered innings for the Cardinals this season. And a pitching line that shows opponents batting .233 against him with a .287 OBP and .320 slug. That’s outstanding work.

After his minor-league tuneup last summer, Woodford returned for a busy September and helped the Cardinals in their late run to 90 wins and a wild-card spot. Since last September Woodford has pitched 57.2 innings for the big club, crafting a 2.50 ERA and allowing only one home run to his 227 batters faced. Opponents have batted .229 with a .286 OBP and .298 slug over that time. Other than record more strikeouts, how could Woodford realistically do better than that?

Since last September Woodford has a 2.83 ERA over 28.2 innings in six big-league starts, and a 2.17 ERA in 29 innings of relief. This is the epitome of a “swingman” pitcher that managers covet so much. But this fellow Woodford hasn’t been deemed worthy of regular duty with the Cardinals … a team that almost always is scrambling for solid pitching. Instead the Cardinals have opted to go with dudes like Hudson, Hicks, VerHagen, McFarland, Wittgren and Brooks instead.

Will Woodford have a more prominent role with the Cardinals for the remainder of 2022 and into next year? Don’t count on it. In his start against the Cubs, Woodford had a ground-ball rate of 47.4 percent, got the Cubs to hit harmless pop-ups 20% of the time, and kept the hard-hit rate down. But the Cubs had a 94.3% contact rate against Woodford, and he had a puny swing-miss rate of 2.6%. That’s what the bosses will likely focus on when it’s time to make decisions on who gets to pitch. Unfortunately for Woodford, the bottom-line results aren’t as important now.

NOTES ON MY SCORECARD:

Accounting Department: With the doubleheader split, the Cardinals (71-62) increased their division lead to 5 and ½ games over Milwaukee, which got clobbered 10-1 by the Dodgers on Tuesday. Los Angeles blasted reigning NL Cy Young award winner Corbin Burnes for seven earned runs in 3.2 innings … the Cardinals are 10-2 in their last 12 games … 17-4 in August … 20-5 since July 27 … 23-8 since July 15 … After the first 123 games this season the Cardinals are 19 games over .500 and have a .577 winning percentage. Last season through 123 games the Cardinals were three games over .500 for a .512 winning percentage.

Top Five Records In The NL Since The All-Star break:

Dodgers: 25-7, .781.
Cardinals: 21-8, .724
Braves: 21-10, .667
Mets: 21-11, .656
Phillies: 19-12, .613

Run Prevention, Getting Stronger: The Cardinals gave up 29 runs in three games at Colorado’s Coors Field during the series played Aug. 9-11.But that was an outlier that should be taken seriously.

— In the 10 games before the predictable mess at Coors, the Cardinals allowed an average of 2.7 runs and went 9-1. And in their 12 games since spending three days at the Coors circus, the Cardinals have yielded an average of 2.4 runs and are 10-2.

— In their last 12 games the Cardinals have the best overall ERA in the majors (2.17), the No. 1 starting-pitching ERA (1.89) and rank 11th in MLB with a 2.81 bullpen ERA.

—- In their last 13 games Cardinal starting pitchers have a 2.00 ERA, and have been nicked for two earned runs or fewer in 12 of the 13. And the starters have allowed one or fewer runs in seven of the 13 contests.

— In the 22 games played by the Cardinals in venues other than Coors Field since July 26, the Cards have a staff ERA of 2.42. And that includes a starting-pitching ERA of 2.40 in the 23 games that weren’t played in Denver.

— The Cardinals are 8th in the majors in preventing runs, allowing only 3.89 per game. The debacle in Denver increased the Cards’ runs-allowed average on the season to 4.1 runs per game, but they’ve done a good job of grinding it down over their last 12 contests.

— The run prevention is reinforced by a St. Louis defense that ranks fourth overall and second in the NL with 53 defensive runs saved. And the Cardinals are No. 1 defensively in the majors in Outs Above Average. STL’s second base (12), shortstop (12) and third base (22) positions have been credited with 46 defensive runs saved this season by Fielding Bible.

The State Of The Offense: Recovering from scoring only one run, total, in the first two games of the five-game series at Wrigley, the Cardinals erupted for 13 runs in the back end of the doubleheader at Wrigley last night. As a result, the Redbirds stand alone in third place in the majors for most runs scored per game this season (4.88.) Only the Dodgers (5.34) and Yankees (5.01) have averaged more runs than St. Louis this season. And the Cardinals continue to lead MLB with a 117 OPS+.

Trending … Trending … Trending: Since the All-Star break the Cardinals are 2nd in the majors – just a tad behind the Dodgers – with an average of 5.82 runs per game and lead MLB in batting average (.280), homers (49), onbase percentage (.361), slugging (.498) and OPS (.859.) Since the break the Cardinals have the best OPS in the majors against left-handed pitching (.890) and are No. 2 in OPS vs. right-handed pitching (.846.) The Birds also have the third-lowest strikeout rate in MLB since the break, and are No. 2 with a .894 OPS with runners in scoring position.

Paulie DeJong, Not Again! DeJong’s grand-slam home run on Saturday in Phoenix put the game out of reach and the Cardinals rolled to a 16-7 victory. But other than that it’s been a rather gloomy 10-game stretch by the Cards shortstop. DeJong is 2 for 30 with 16 strikeouts since Aug. 14.

Head-Scratcher Stat On DeJong: Like most hitters, DeJong has fared well this season against pitchers that have an ERA over 5.25. But he’s 6 for 46 (.130) against pitchers that have an ERA between 4.26 and 5.25. And DeJong is 1 for 36 (.028) against pitchers with an ERA between 3.51 and 4.25. Here’s the odd part: DeJong’s best hitting performance this season has come against the top category of pitchers – those who have an ERA of 3.50 or less. Against the top-quality pitchers DeJong is 12 for 42 (.286) with an .856 OPS. Go figure

I Betcha Didn’t Know This About Corey Dickerson: (And I didn’t know it, either.) When Dickerson has been in the starting lineup this season, the Cardinals are 31-11. At least part of this makes sense; since returning from the IL on July 9, Dickerson has hit .339 with a .364 OBP, .548 slug and a .912 OPS. Moreover he has seven doubles, two homers, 10 RBI and nine runs scored in 66 plate appearances over that time. Dickerson is hitting .370 with a .519 slug in offense. After a very slow start, Dickerson has emerged as one of the most pleasant surprises of the season for the Cardinals.

AS OTHERS SEE US

Jay Jaffe On The Renaissance Of Albert Pujols: Jaffe, the respected FanGraphs analyst, wrote this, in part, about No. 5:

“When the Cardinals re-signed Albert Pujols in late March, few imagined that the transaction would amount to much more than a victory lap and a nice bit of closure for a 42-year-old all-time great. Though he hit well in limited duty in April, Pujols struggled to such a great extent for the next two months that a midseason retirement wouldn’t have been a surprise. Over the past six weeks, however, he’s been one of the hottest hitters in baseball … After the disappointment of Pujols’ tenure with the Angels, who are themselves even more of a vortex of disappointment lately than usual, his rebound in St. Louis is allowing him to go out on a higher note. Even if he can’t maintain this clip, he’s already collected enough highlights to make his final season a fitting testament to a legendary career.”

Ben Clemens (FanGraphs) on Jordan Montgomery: “Montgomery wasn’t the biggest name traded at the trading deadline, not by a long shot. Juan Soto got traded this deadline! So did Luis Castillo and Frankie Montas. The latter was even traded to Montgomery’s team, setting in motion the trade that sent him to St. Louis. But since the deadline, no player has done more for their new team than New York’s former lefty.”

Montgomery is 4-0 with a 0.35 ERA as a Cardinal. And Clemens points out that the Cardinals have scored only 10 runs in his four starts – so Monty has clearly earned his 4-0 mark. “Turns out, that’s all he’s needed.”

Among all of the players acquired before the Aug. 2 trade deadline, Montgomery has accumulated the most WAR (1.1) and that isn’t easy to do in just four starts.

“Every facet of his game has improved since joining St. Louis,” Clemens wrote. “Strikeouts? He’s punched out 26.4% of opponents in these four starts. He’s walked only 3.3%, an elite mark. He hasn’t given up a home run, which is a sure sign of good fortune, but he also hasn’t given up much hard contact.”

Here is Clemens’ conclusion:

“I’ll level with you: I thought the Montgomery trade showed hubris on the part of the Cardinals’ front office when they made it. Trading away (Harrison Bader) from the major league team, even if it was just an injured outfielder, didn’t make much sense to me given St. Louis’ precarious position in the division race. I would have preferred to trade from minor league depth and keep as much talent on this year’s major league roster as possible.

“That might still be true in the abstract. If the Yankees would have accepted a minor leaguer in exchange for Montgomery, I’d prefer that trade. But the Yankees wanted Bader, and let’s put it this way: you could ask every Cardinals fan in the world if they’d make this trade, and 100% would do it again. Jordan Montgomery has arrived in St. Louis, and for now, it looks like he’s bringing the playoffs with him.”

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.