THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Four-plus months into their disastrous 2023 season, the Cardinals are still playing the WBC card in a pathetic attempt to justify the second-worst winning percentage (.434) among National League teams.
Prompted by WBC-related questions from Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Hochman, Cards manager Oli Marmol raced with it like Secretariat at the 1973 Belmont.
The headline over Hochman’s piece: “Would Cardinals’ 2023 have been different without World Baseball Classic?”
Is anybody else tired of this?
I suppose it’s valuable in a way because the excuse-making merely reaffirms our view that the franchise standards have been lowered to unforeseen depths. The lack of accountability is glaring.
The Cardinals aren’t 15 games under .500 because they had a large contingent of players participate in the WBC. In fact, most of the WBC players returned to the Cardinals and got off to a good individual start to the season.
* If you look at their first-month stats, Paul Goldschmidt, Lars Nootbaar, Tommy Edman were comfortably above average offensively based on wRC+. In fact, the Cardinals ranked eighth in the majors in wRC+ for the opening month, and were 10th overall in May. The STL offense has never dropped below the No. 11 overall MLB ranking in any month of the season.
* Nolan Arenado had a disjointed first month, putting up a .600 OPS. But was that because of the WBC? If so, why didn’t the WBC damage Goldy, Nootbaar and Edman early in the season? Arenado had a bad early month in 2022, posting a .642 in May. Was that a WBC thing? Of course not. There was no WBC in 2022. Slumps happen and can strike at any time.
* Tyler O’Neill was Canada’s team MVP in the WBC because of a strong showing at the plate, but he was 16 percent below average offensively for the Cardinals in the season’s opening month (per wRC+). In his first 99 plate appearances of the season, O’Neill batted .228 with two homers and a faint .337 slugging percentage. But was this really about the WBC? Team Canada was eliminated early and played only four games. O’Neill was away from the Cardinals from March 6 through 17 – only 11 days.
* Oh, and there’s this: O’Neill’s MLB career has spanned 30 months over six seasons. And his wRC+ has been below league average offensively in 14 of the 30 months. Historically April is O’Neill’s coldest month of the season; he has a career .374 slug in the first month. So why in the world would we blame his early struggles on the 2023 WBC? O’Neill excelled in 2021; other than that he’s been average at best. And his frequent injuries have disrupted his continuity.
* According to Hochman, “Marmol was honest Sunday to point out that O’Neill probably doesn’t start the year in center field if O’Neill is in camp. Because O’Neill (and Lars Nootbaar from Team Japan) were away, Marmol didn’t get to see the guys in center to get a proper feel.”
* Oh, please. O’Neill’s best position has always been left field. He’s won two Gold Gloves and saved 24 runs defensively at the position. He’s been average (at best) in center and looks kind of uncomfortable out there. Marmol shouldn’t have needed a few extra spring training games to understand that. Marmol and the front office wanted O’Neill in center field because they wanted to optimize offensive capability from their starting outfield. That’s all. And let’s remember that Marmol ripped and benched O’Neill in the second series of the season for a perceived failure to hustle.
* And then there’s Miles Mikolas, who had an ugly 5.97 ERA in the first month of the regular season after returning from the WBC. “And Miles was nowhere close to ready, compared to what he would normally be to start the season,” Marmol told Hochman. “We saw what it looks like when he is ready — there’s a big difference there.”
Really? I need something explained to me. Mikolas followed his lousy April by crafting a 1.89 ERA in May. OK, so I guess he was sharper and ready in May. According to this excuse-making theory, Mikolas had put his post-WBC disarray behind him. OK, so what happened after that? Mikolas has a 4.87 ERA since the start of June. Why has Mikolas regressed over the last two-plus months? Was this a delayed reaction to the WBC? Good grief.
* Steven Matz and Jack Flaherty did not bolt from camp to compete in the WBC. They both had normal routines and uninterrupted time to prepare. Matz had a 5.72 in his first 10 starts before his demotion to the bullpen. Flaherty had a 6.18 ERA over his first eight starts. In their 18 combined early-season starts, Flaherty and Martz had one quality start – by Flaherty on April 23.
* Adam Wainwright not only left camp to join Mikolas on Team USA, but his WBC experience was marred by a groin strain during a workout that delayed the start of his regular season. But anyone who wants to cite that as a reason for Wainwright’s horrendous pitching is living in Candyland. In his last 20 starts in the majors going back to last September, Wainwright has a 7.63 ERA that’s the worst among MLB starters over that time. The aging curve – not the WBC – was the root cause of Wainwright’s demise.
* Here’s how it goes: you pitch well or you don’t. Competing in the WBC isn’t an excuse for failure. And it doesn’t mean you’ll pitch better if you stayed home and kept busy in Cardinals camp. The Cardinals had one good starting pitcher at the WBC. Mikolas. Wainwright no longer can be considered a good starting pitcher, so Mikolas was the only guy missing from the rotation who could have made a positive difference. He has not. And the WBC wasn’t as much of factor as Marmol and others would have us believe.
* We all know why the Cardinals’ starting pitching has been so awful this season: president of baseball operations John Mozeliak failed at his job last offseason and happily went into the regular season with a mediocre, vulnerable starting rotation. The Cardinals’ rotation has had one good month this season, twirling a 3.79 ERA in July. In all other months (combined) the Cardinals have a 4.98 rotation ERA that ranks 25th among the 30 teams. Mozeliak is the last person on earth who should whine about the impact of the WBC, but he’s done that repeatedly in 2023.
* With one exception, the St. Louis relievers that competed in the WBC had positive starts to the season. Giovanny Gallegos had a 1.00 ERA in April and a 2.38 ERA through the end of May. Genesis Cabrera had a 2.31 ERA in April. JoJo Romero had a 1.50 ERA in April. Andre Pallante had a 7.56 ERA in the first month, rebounded in May, and has been up and down since then. Pallante’s problem has nothing to do with the WBC; in his first two big-league seasons the right-handed Pallante has been slapped for a .303 average and .813 OPS by right-handed hitters.
* No WBC for Jordan Hicks, but he had a 6.35 ERA during the first month. No WBC for Ryan Helsley, but he was pounded for a 4.82 ERA in his first eight appearances of the season.
* Marmol to Hochman: “And a new catcher is equivalent of, like, a new quarterback.” Yep. Another reference to the new guy, Willson Contreras. Well, this new quarterback was rag-dolled by the pitchers and Marmol early in the season, getting blamed for his unfamiliarity with the STL staff. It was absurd. Here’s why Contreras had problems behind the plate: (1) it’s easy to blame him instead of holding the pitchers, the pitching coach, the manager and the front office accountable for the horrible pitching. Hey, let’s dump this on the new guy! (2) the Cardinals didn’t do their due diligence to get a complete read on Contreras’ weaknesses. That’s their fault. Not his fault. The framing-blocking data was available to anybody who wanted to look at it, and the Cardinals played a ton of games against Contreras and the Cubs. They had to know what they were getting. They have no right to act surprised and overreact accordingly. (3) Mozeliak and Marmol were stunned to realize that Contreras wasn’t Yadier Molina; how this could even be possible is a mind-bender.
* The Cardinals got off to a 10-24 start that was marked by a 1-7 record in one-run games. And part of the problem with the narrow losses was the deterioration of a team defense that had saved 257 runs defensively from 2019 through 2022, never finishing less than fourth in the majors in each of the four seasons. To this point of 2023 the Cardinals rank 24th in MLB with minus 14 defensive runs saved. (Data from Fielding Bible.) The WBC can’t be blamed for that. This was a simple matter of neglect and a willingness to sacrifice defense in an effort to boost the offense. The Cardinals dumped rookie Jordan Walker, a converted third baseman, into an outfield corner spot without taking the time to prepare him. And Walker is tied with Kyle Schwarber for the worst defensive runs saved mark – minus 17 – among MLB outfielders.
* More from Marmol in the Hochman piece: “And then there are certain adjustments from just a team standpoint … of having all your guys together for a period of time before breaking camp that, really, you don’t get back. So you eliminate April, it’s different. A guy in our clubhouse who participated in (the WBC) was like: ‘I was preparing to play in the World Baseball Classic. I wasn’t preparing for the season.’ There’s a big difference there for a lot of reasons. So it really did take a minute to get everybody back collectively as a group.”
* First of all, the guy who said he was preparing for the WBC instead of the Cardinal season has misplaced priorities, has relinquished any consideration for empathy and should apologize to his teammates. Second, the Cardinals weren’t the only MLB team to have a delegation in the WBC, and you don’t hear any of those teams whimpering about team cohesion. Third, this is just nothing more than a cop-out … another cover-your-backside excuse. Ideally, yes, it’s good to have the entire group working together for the duration of spring training. But no one should expect that in a WBC year. And the leadership should have worked harder to prepare for the team for the WBC absences instead of mewling about it after the fact when they needed a narrative to provide false cover for substandard baseball.
* In the Hochman column Mikolas also brought up the cohesion factor in the Cardinals’ down season. He said it wasn’t an excuse but added:
“Our roster is as talented as just about any team in the league. There are not a lot of reasons that you could look, ‘Well, what’s the reason we’ve underperformed?’ But if you want to go into the fact that we had some new players coming in and a lot of our core guys kind of said, ‘Hey, welcome to the team — we’ll see you a month,’ maybe that does have an effect? I wouldn’t put it on maybe affecting players individually, but from some type of team cohesiveness thing, maybe it did have some kind of effect.”
* Hold on. How many new players are we talking about here? Contreras was new. Walker was new. The infield: the same. The rotation: the same. The outfield: the same except for Walker. The bullpen: the same. In terms of roster numbers, little had changed from the 2022 team. So why would the 2023 Cardinals have so much difficulty with cohesion? Molina and Albert Pujols retired, but is that why the 2023 Cardinals fell apart? That’s a reach and it’s spineless to give them that excuse.
* The Cardinals allowed just under five runs per game during their 10-24 start – easily the No. 1 factor in their instant crash. Again, this gets back to Mozeliak’s refusal to upgrade the pitching in both quality and depth – as well as the manager and coaching staff allowing the defense to slide despite knowing they had a contact-heavy pitching staff that relies on a strong and sure defense. And none of that was about team chemistry.
* I feel compelled to note, again, that Willson Contreras remained loyal to his team and his new assignment to bypass the WBC to stay in Camp Jupiter. The Cardinals apparently haven’t fostered the kind of team culture that would give the players a reason to stay in Jupiter and put the team first instead of running off to the WBC. The players have the right to play in the WBC, but with so many Cardinals walking out of camp they surely had to realize this would make it more difficult to prepare for the start to the regular season.
* The Cardinals seemed to have plenty of cohesion when they went off on an 11-3 run from May 7 through May 21. And after a 14-6 stretch that ended on May 27, the Cardinals had moved up to third place in the NL Central, were a workable six games under .500 at 24-30, and idled at four games out of first place – this, after trailing by as many as 10.
* So if the gang had recovered from this alleged WBC hangover and was playing inspired baseball to put themselves into position to hunt for first place … well, why did they backslide? Why did they capitulate and lose 13 of their next 17 games from May 28 through June 16? Are they also blaming that on the WBC?
* The Cardinals rebounded to go 17-10 (.629) in a stretch that began June 17. But they’re 5-11 since then …. and here we go again with more WBC nonsense.
* The Cardinal organization had 17 players in the WBC, but six were ticketed for the minor leagues. Eleven St. Louis major-leaguers were part of the WBC tournament. But the Cubs organization had 16 players in the WBC, the Brewers had 15, and the Astros had 14. Huh. I wonder why those teams didn’t collapse in a smoking heap of rubble. In Milwaukee’s case, I’m sure it had something to do with four starting pitchers — Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Wade Miley — staying in camp with their teammates instead of going off on a WBC ego trip.
The Cardinals must improve their starting pitching before the 2024 season. We all know that. But that’s not all. Somewhere along the line, Cardinals baseball turned soft, a condition that has led to reduced accountability and a willingness to deflect blame by conjuring flimsy excuses. Enough.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts a weekday sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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The “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and B. Miklasz is available at 590thefan.com, the 590 the fan app or 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, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus or Bill James Online.
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.