THE REDBIRD REVIEW
After Thursday’s matinee loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cardinals have only nine games remaining in a season gone wrong.
What have we learned – or reaffirmed – about the Cardinals in September?
I submit these nine things for your consideration.
1. Run prevention is still the most important attribute a team can have. Through Wednesday, 15 major-league teams were in contention for a postseason spot. Many of the clubs have – or soon will – make it official. Among the 15 contenders, 13 are above the MLB average for fewest runs allowed per game this year. The only exceptions are NL wild-card bidders Arizona and Cincinnati.
When we use the phrase “run prevention” it’s more than an exclusive reflection on effective pitching. It’s also about having a reliable, run-saving, pitcher-protecting defense. I’m fascinated by those who obsess over pitching and pitching only – while ignoring the vital correlation between pitching and defense … glossing over the way a blundering defense played such a prominent role in the disturbing decline in STL’s run prevention.
* Through Wednesday the 2023 Cardinals ranked 24th among the 30 teams in run prevention, yielding 5.07 runs per game.
* The Cards ranked 25th in team ERA (4.76), are were even worse (26th) in adjusted ERA.
* And the Redbirds were tied with the Rockies for the worst defensive efficiency rating in the majors, converting 67.1 percent of balls in play into outs. The 2021 Cardinals were second in the majors for defensive efficiency; the 2022 Cardinals were fifth.
* In related news, the Cardinals are 26th among the 30 teams in winning percentage. Must be a coincidence.
While it’s true that the St. Louis defense has improved over the last couple of months, the clean-up came too late to matter.
2. The starting-pitching auditions have reinforced the obvious: John Mozeliak will be very busy, and under intense pressure, to secure two or three upgrades for the 2024 rotation. They key word there is “upgrades.” True upgrades. And one upgrade won’t do. I don’t think Mozeliak can get it done with two upgrades, either.
The St. Louis 2024 rotation should not include Zack Thompson, Drew Rom or Dakota Hudson. Thompson is the best of the group, and we should like a lot of what we’ve seen from him. He’ll be helpful as a depth starter in ‘24. But Thompson has a 5.54 ERA in his last five starts, with opponents slugging .474 and posting an .804 OPS against him in his last three outings. Hudson has been struck for a 7.00 ERA in his last five starts. Rom has been popped for a 6.92 ERA in his first six MLB starts. The Cardinals had virtually no major-league ready starters in the minors this season, so at least they’re finally trying to develop some. From an overview standpoint, that’s a positive.
3. The Cardinals miss Brendan Donovan’s presence in the daily lineup. His value was more significant than we may have realized. Donovan, who needed elbow surgery, was shut down after the game on July 29. Here’s a before and after look at where the St. Louis offense ranked in the majors with Donovan … and without Donovan.
– Runs: 12th with Donovan, 25th without him.
– Batting average: 8th with Donovan, 23rd without.
– Onbase percentage: 7th with Donovan, 18th without.
– Slugging: 7th with Donovan, 20th without.
– OPS: 7th with Donovan, 20th without.
– Home runs: 5th with Donovan, 16th without.
– wRC+: 6th with Donovan, 16th without.
There are other factors in play here. Lars Nootbaar has hit poorly since returning from injury on Sept. 1. When you combine that with Donovan’s shutdown and absence, the Cardinals rank 24th in the majors with a leadoff onbase percentage (.314) since August 1. Donovan, used extensively at leadoff, had a .350 OBP when hitting first. Nolan Arenado has been clogged in a deep slump for the last six weeks or so. Tommy Edman has performed below-average offensively since Donovan went out. Paul Goldschmidt went into Thursday’s game with a .200 batting average and .369 slug in September.
But Donovan was extremely valuable to this team in 2023. Working counts, drawing walks, getting onbase at a high rate, strongly limiting his strikeouts, and providing a major increase in power. Donny can hit anywhere in the lineup or play defense at multiple positions – in the outfield, and in the infield.
And Donovan was exceptional with runners in scoring position, batting .310 with a 1.005 OPS. With Donovan missing, the Cardinals have struggled in RISP scenarios, batting .211.
At the time of his injury departure, Donovan was third among Cardinals with 2.1 WAR. And he still leads the team by a wide measure in Win Probability Added.
4. The Cardinals still don’t know what they have in Matthew Liberatore. But they’ve discovered something: Liberatore is nasty as a reliever. (Before I type on, this is your obligatory small-sample warning.) Liberatore has been used exclusively in relief this month and the results have been glaringly good: five appearances, seven innings, 25 batters faced, no runs allowed, a 32 percent strikeout rate and an .091 opponent batting average. He’s even held RH batters to a .167 average and struck them out at a rate of 33.3 percent. (He contributed another scoreless inning of relief in Thursday’s game against Milwaukee.)
Liberatore turns 24 in November. He has 18 big-league starts. He has a 5.72 ERA in those starts. And when used as a starting pitcher, the lefty Liberatore has been beaten up by right-handed batters for a .314 average, .387 onbase percentage and a .525 slug.
Will Libby repurposed into a relief role?
The Cardinals should consult the retired left-handed reliever Andrew Miller on this. A heralded pitching prospect after being chosen 6th overall in the 2006 draft, Miller flopped with a 5.70 ERA in 66 big-league starts. Moved to the bullpen, Miller became one of the top lefty relievers of the era. Over his five peak seasons (2013-2017) Miller had a 1.82 ERA, 41 percent strikeout rate and opponents hit only .160 against him. I’m not saying Liberatore can become the next Andrew Miller – but I am pointing out that it’s possible to take a very disappointing young starter, convert him to relief, and watch him develop an entirely new persona while aggressively attacking hitters.
5. We’ve learned to pay closer attention to the aging curve. It cannot be ignored. I’m referring to Goldschmidt and Arenado. After finishing 1st and 3rd, respectively, in National League MVP voting last season both have tailed off late in 2023.
– Goldschmidt, 36, had a .475 slugging percentage and an .844 OPS before the All-Star break. After the All-Star break, through Wednesday, he had a .411 slug with a .765 OPS. Going into Thursday’s game, Goldy had a .369 slug and .698 OPS in September.
– Arenado, 33, had a .518 slugging percentage and .850 OPS before the All-Star break. But since the break, he’s slugging .378 with a .672 OPS. Arenado has collapsed so far in September, slugging .250 with a .532 OPS.
– If we use wRC+ – 100 is league average – Goldschmidt was 32 percent above average in the first half and is 12% above average in the second half. That’s a drop of 20 percentage points. Arenado was 26 percent above average in the first half and is 19 percent below average in the second half. That’s a decline of 45 percentage points.
– Goldschmidt and Arenado had a combined 4.9 WAR before the All-Star break. But since the All-Star break their combined WAR is only 1.4. That’s kind of scary.
6. Masyn Winn brings dazzling skills to the shortstop position. The rookie has played 230 innings at short since his promotion to the majors. And while Winn is rated just a smidge below average in the Outs Above Average and defensive runs saved metrics, that’s meaningless in the earliest stage of his career. The Cardinals’ dugout staff is still learning about him, and he’s still learning about competing in the big leagues. Over time, Winn will be properly positioned in his setup to get to more balls. (So far he’s been much better on balls hit to his right compared to balls hit to his left, and positioning matters.) Winn is already in the 95th percentile among MLB players in arm strength – and in the 92nd percentile in speed. Winn’s defense was a factor in Adam Wainwright’s 200th career victory.
Winn, 21, was batting only .176 through Wednesday .176 but his offense will come. When Winn opened the 2023 season at Memphis – facing Triple A pitching for the first time – he batted .224 with little power and a bunch of strikeouts in his first 27 games. And then he started rolling.
7. Richie Palacios was a value addition made by the Cardinals’ front office. Remember the “Devil Magic” days, when the St. Louis baseball operation had uncanny success in identifying potential diamonds overlooked by many other teams? That hasn’t happened much in recent years, but Palacios is a find.
After the Guardians designated the outfielder for assignment on June 11, the Cardinals acquired him for an undisclosed cash payment on June 16. Palacios is showcasing an appealing blend of all-around talent, superb contact skills, speed, power and defensive versatility. In his last 17 games through Wednesday, Palacios had a .580 slugging percentage, .895 OPS and five homers in 50 at-bats. His overall contact rate is 86.4 percent, and that includes a 90% rate on pitches in the strike zone. His 10.8 percent strikeout rate is the ninth-lowest among MLB hitters that have at least 65 plate appearances this season. The Cardinals are 9-7 in the 16 games started by Palacios. He’s earned a right to compete for a big-league roster spot in 2024.
8. Jordan Walker, 21, hit the proverbial rookie wall – and then knocked the dang thing down. Walker batted .209 with a .609 OPS in July. For the month he was 34 percent below league average offensively in wRC+. But since the start of August (through Wednesday), Walker was batting .281 with an .831 OPS and was 27 percent above league average offensively per wRC+. And though there is still a lot of work to be done, Walker has displayed better form in his right-field defense.
9. Miles Mikolas isn’t a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. He may not be a No. 3 or No. 4 starter, either. Sorry. I’m not trying to be rude here … just realistic. After getting walloped by the Brewers on Thursday – two homers and five earned runs in five innings – Mikolas now has a 5.75 ERA in his last 20 starts ranging back to June 10. In his last 10 starts, Mikolas has been ripped for 13 homers and 41 earned runs in 60 innings for a 6.15 ERA. This month (including Thursday) Mikolas has struck out only 10 of 103 batters faced. That’s a strikeout rate of 9.7 percent. All of these things are warning signs for a pitcher that turned 35 late last month. He’s under contract for two more seasons beyond 2023.
1. The Cardinals went down 6-0 on Thursday. Just another deflating day on a sunny day at Busch Stadium. After losing three our of four to the Brewers, the the Cardinals have only 67 victories in 153 games for a .438 winning percentage. In losing three straight to the Brewers the Cardinals scored five runs total. They’ve been shut out 12 times this season
2. Thursday’s listless defeat dropped the Cardinals to 33-45 at Busch Stadium this season for a disgraceful winning percentage of .423. After a successful stretch in which they won series at Atlanta, Cincinnati and Baltimore, the Cardinals came home and lost five of seven games to the Philadelphia and Milwaukee. And so it goes. With two road series remaining, the 2023 Cardinals actually have a higher winning percentage away from Busch Stadium (.451) than at Busch Stadium. How sad is that?
3. Excluding the labor-battle stoppage that shortened the 1994 season, the only Cardinal teams with a worse home winning percentage during the expansion era (1961-present) were the 1990 and 1970 Redbirds. Both finished with a .420 winning percentage. The Cardinals three more games to play at Busch — three against the Reds in the Waino Weekend that will conclude their ’23 season.
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.
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.