THE REDBIRD REVIEW

Let’s talk about Nolan Arenado.

Over his last four games through Sunday, Arenado was 9 for 18 with a double, two runs scored and three RBIs. With Arenado dispensing several big hits, the Cardinals won three of the four contests.

Arenado did not homer. He had one extra-base hit. And that’s fine. In the four-game stretch Arenado made some terrific plays at third base, went 2 for 7 with a walk and three RBIs with runners in scoring position. And instead of trying to hit every pitch a mile over the outfield wall, Arenado took a more pragmatic approach.

Three of his hits were pulled.

Two hits were straightaway shots.

Four hits were punched to the opposite field.

Five hits were stroked on two-strike counts.

Smart hitting. Calm and confident hitting. Timely hitting. Good hitting. And with Arenado going at this in a different way, no one should care if he smacked a homer. The Cardinals benefited from his hit-to-all-fields, two-strike approach.

And that’s a clue. With Arenado, it’s time to modify our view when assessing his offensive performance over the remainder of 2024.

He’ll hit some home runs. He’ll attack pitches that he can pull and drive over the barrier in left. But he doesn’t do that as often, and that’s putting it mildly. His rate of pulling fly balls is way down. His success in pulling fly balls for home-run shots has subsided, and the difference is dramatic.

Let’s recap the simple math on Arenado’s number of pulled home runs as a Cardinal each season:

2021, 34
2022, 30
2023, 23
2024, 6

And yet … every time Arenado launches a home run this season – which he’d done seven times through Sunday – the event leads to instant overreaction bordering on the cuckoo. He’s heating up! He’s starting to come on! That’s the Arenado we know! We have a feeling that big things are on the way! Watch out!

Wonderful thoughts. Except there is absolutely nothing in Arenado’s 2024 hitting profile to back up all of this huffing and puffing and dreamcasting. This lunging to portray any nice game by Arenado offensively – or just singular home run – as some extraordinary, season-altering moment is goofy and unnecessary.

In recent days Arenado has shown us something, and we ought to pick up on the message: he doesn’t have to hit home runs to be a good hitter. He can be a good hitter without hitting as many homers. And he can do this at age 33, helping the Cardinals score runs and win games without all of this screeching about home runs hit – or not hit.

Why do we keep waiting for the younger Arenado to show up? The guy who averaged 39.8 homers per season from 2015 through 2019 during a span that covered age 24 through 28. Or the dude who averaged 34 homers in his first two seasons with St. Louis at age 30-31.

It makes no sense to expect the peak-form version of Arenado to reappear. Stop it. Just appreciate Arenado for who he is right now as his career evolves and turns. He’s showing us that he’s capable of adjusting in a way that enables him to be a productive, morale-building source of offense as he accounts for age-related changes.

And it doesn’t help anybody to expect a blitz of home runs from Arenado. He stresses out rather easily, and that always works against him. It’s healthy for his mentality to get his hits and drive in runs without having a stupid, unofficial home-run quota hanging over his head. And the more that Arenado stays in an extensive productive mode without worrying about playing home-run derby … well, that might actually lead to more home runs. But he can’t force them.

It has to come naturally. Since June 9, Arenado has a .329 batting average with a .363 OBP and .412 slugging percentage. If he can keep doing that the rest of the way – with a reasonable increase in extra-base hits, but nothing thunderous – he’ll be fine. But it’s crazy to count on a massive home-run explosion from Arenado when he isn’t capable of doing that.

A more relaxed, at-peace Arenado can do more than the jumpy, high-anxiety, pressing Arenado.

That’s my theory, anyway.

ACCOUNTING DEPARTMENT: Going into Monday’s 3 p.m. (STL time) game at Washington, the Cardinals were 37-28 since April 24 for a .569 winning percentage that ranks No. 3 behind the Phillies and Dodgers among NL teams over that time … and of course the Cardinals enter Monday’s series wrap with a 32-18 record (.640) since May 12 that’s tops in the NL and second overall to Cleveland … another positive trend: through Sunday the Cardinals were 16-8 (.667) since June 12, a mark that ranks second in the NL and fifth overall.

RESILIENCE FACTOR: During their 32-18 run since May 12, the Cardinals are 15-3 in games that immediately follow a loss … and over the past 40 games leading into Monday, the Cardinals wer 14-6 in one-run outcomes, 6-5 in two-run decisions, and 5-2 in games determined by three runs. So, over that time, St. Louis is 25-10 in games that ended with a margin of three runs or less.

One more note along these lines: in the Las Vegas sports books a “close game” is defined as a game resolved by a margin of two runs or fewer. And for the entire season (through Sunday), the Cardinals were 27-20 in close games for a .575 winning percentage that ranks second in the NL and seventh overall.

WILD-CARD ODDS: As of Monday morning, FanGraphs gave Milwaukee a 75.8 percent chance of winning the NL Central title, with St. Louis second at 19.3 percent. None of the other three NL Central clubs had a division-winning shot higher than 1.7 percent.

OK, what about the wild-card probabilities? Via FanGraphs here’s how it looked, in order, as of Monday morning:

Braves, 75.9 percent
Padres, 51.0%
Mets, 35.7%
Diamondbacks, 34.3%
Cardinals, 30.4%

Which is interesting because right now the Cardinals are holding the No. 2 wild-card token and are only 2 and ½ games behind No. 1 Atlanta. But these postseason probabilities are always changing. I always enjoy looking at them, but for teams that are legitimately in the wild-card chase I don’t think playoff odds are important before the All-Star break. The wild-card probabilities become more meaningful during the latter stages of the regular season.

THE BATS ARE ALIVE: The Cardinals are 4-2 on the current road trip that concludes on Monday in D.C. The offense has done well at Pittsburgh and Washington, averaging 5.83 runs per game and cranking out a .295 average with a .353 onbase percentage, .423 slug and .776 OPS. The Cardinals batted .270 with runners in scoring position over the first six games. Six Cardinal hitters enter Monday’s game with an above-average performance offensively during the trip per wRC+: Nolan Gorman, Willson Contreras, Brandon Crawford, Masyn Winn, Nolan Arenado, Alec Burleson and Brandan Donovan. All six were at 11 percent or higher above the league average in the first six games.

BULLPEN NOTABLES: It’s been another good road show for the St. Louis bullpen. So what else is new? As we’ve been noting for weeks and weeks, this is a consistent team strength that rarely lets the Cardinals down.

– St. Louis relievers crafted a 1.75 ERA during the first six games of the current road trip.

– Ryan Fernandez has been the star of the current road tour, working in three games with no runs allowed in four innings.

– In 20 innings over his last 17 appearances, Fernandez has conceded one earned run for an 0.45 ERA.

– Since May 28 that Fernandez ERA (0.45) is the best among major-league relievers that have worked at least 14 innings over that time.

– For the season, Fernandez ranks third among MLB rookie relievers with a 1.99 ERA (minimum 40 IP) and is fifth with 1.1 WAR using the Baseball Reference model.

– Going into Monday, the St. Louis bullpen had the fourth-best ERA in the majors (2.73) through 89 games and was ranked No. 5 overall in Win Probability Added.

– Here’s an update of my running count on a stat that for some inexplicable reason continues to be ignored locally and nationally: the Cardinals are 38-2 this season when leading through seven innings and 41-0 when having the lead through the eighth inning. Just about every time I read a national analysis or commentary about the Cardinals, there’s a tone along the lines of, “they’re contending, even though we can’t understand what they’re good at.’’

Why is this such a mystery that leaves so many pundits befuddled? There’s no hocus-pocus here. There’s no devil magic. What are the Cardinals good at? People are still asking that question? Really? I’ll play along and see if I can come up with an answer: THE BULLPEN! OBVIOUSLY! Pardon my obnoxiousness. I’ve had too much coffee today … or maybe not enough coffee today. I’ll calibrate.

NL CENTRAL WATCH: The Cardinals were five games behind the first-place Brewers at the start of the new week, so there’s still plenty of work to do. That said, the Cardinals have the best winning percentage among the five NL Central teams since April 24.

From a St. Louis standpoint, a significant positive to their 32-18 zoom-zoom-zoom over the past 40 games was how much space the winning opened up on other NL Central teams.

As of Monday morning the Cardinals were five games ahead of Pittsburgh, 5 and ½ games ahead of Cincinnati, and six games ahead of Chicago.

Before their 32-18 streak the Cardinals were nine games behind Milwaukee, 7 and ½ behind Chicago, 2 and ½ games behind Pittsburgh and 2.0 games ahead of Cincinnati.

Since May 12, the Cardinals have trimmed four games from Milwaukee’s lead. And instead of being collectively 12 games behind the Cubs, Pirates and Reds in the standings – as they were on May 11 – the Cardinals were 16 and ½ games better than those three teams, collectively, in the standings as of Monday morning, July 8. It’s received little attention but the Cards have made huge gains.

FUNGOES

+ Welcome back, Lars Nootbaar.

+ Nolan Gorman: Is he back? Going into Monday’s road-trip finale, Gorman is 9 for 19 (.474) with a homer, three doubles, a .500 OBP and a .790 slug. A big part of the reason why the Cardinals have averaged 5.8 runs per game on their hops to Pittsburgh and Washington.

+ Through the first six games of the trip, the Cardinals batted .274 with a .343 onbase percentage vs. left-handed pitcher. The Redbirds limited their strikeouts (18%) and had a good walk rate (10%.) But the Cards didn’t homer in 95 at-bats against lefties, and that left them with a flat .343 slugging percentage.

+ Paul Goldschmidt continues to post encouraging Statcast numbers. He’s in the top 10 of MLB hitters in hard-hit rate, and in the top 16 percent in average exit velocity. But Goldy hasn’t been able to put that to work for high-impact results because of his 28 percent strikeout rate, too many swings and misses, and too many called strikes.

+ Willson Contreras: though he hasn’t played as much as his younger brother William in 2024 because of a fractured forearm that sidelined him for six weeks. Willson Contreras is besting William Contreras so far this season in onbase percentage, slugging percentage and OPS+. Willson has an OPS+ of 162 compared to William’s .126. But William has the bragging rights, at least for now, because the Brewers lead the Cardinals in the NL Central.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has provided informed opinions and perspective on St. Louis sports through his columns, radio shows and podcasts since 1985.

Please follow Bernie on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available at Apple, Spotify or wherever you access your podcasts. Follow @seeingredpod on X for a direct link.

Stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Brooks Baseball Net, and Sports Info Solutions 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.