It was a woebegone weekend at Busch Stadium, with the Cardinals failing to fly on the positive vibe of Thursday’s dramatic and inspiring home-opener victory over the Brewers.
The momentum, and the series, went Milwaukee’s way.
The Brewers opened a 9-2 lead on Saturday and won 9-5. It was more of the same Sunday: The Crew flaunted a revived offense, smashed their way to a 7-1 lead, and cruised to a 9-3 victory.
The Cardinals’ broadening list of early-season problems was exposed for all to see: hideous starting pitching, a thin lineup and a shortage of depth. The Cardinals weren’t sharp on defense, or adept at running the bases.
The Redbirds are 5-4 on the season. (Thank you, Miami.) They’ve lost both series against NL Central adversaries, winning only two of six from the Reds and Brewers.
I suppose it could be worse; the Cubs just lost two of three games in their series at Pittsburgh. They were outscored 15-3 during two consecutive losses to the Pirates. The Cubs (4-5) are 29th in the majors in runs per game (2.89) and have a team batting average of .167.
Back to the Cardinals.
Starting Pitching: Cards starters have pitched fewer innings (38.1) than the Cards bullpen (40.2.) Only one of their nine starts has gone past five innings. Only three MLB rotations have supplied fewer innings than the STL starters, and the Cardinals have the worst starting-pitching ERA (6.57) in the majors.
Wait, It Gets Worse: In six games against Cincinnati and Milwaukee, STL starters were punished for seven homers and 27 earned runs in 23.1 innings for a steaming 10.41 ERA. Reds and Brewers hitters blitzed Cards’ starting pitching for a .343 average, .415 OBP and .619 slugging percentage.
Put the bullpen stats into the mix, and STL pitching had a 7.79 ERA in their six games against Reds-Brewers, getting drilled for 11 homers, 10 doubles and a .498 slugging percentage in 52 innings.
Reality Check: The Cardinals can overcome a lot of things, but weak starting pitching is a real problem. In recent seasons the Cardinals have reached the playoffs with a mediocre offense, and did so with strong and stingy run prevention. But if the rotation cracks in 2021, the Cardinals are in trouble. You can’t succeed with a subpar rotation and a below-average offense. That’s a terrible combination. Obviously there’s plenty of time to get the rotation straightened out. And I’m confident that they’ll get it done.
OK, What Can They Do? K.K. Kim should return to the rotation later this week, probably on Friday. He’ll presumably take the spot occupied by Daniel Ponce de Leon. Rookie Johan Oviedo was fabulous against the Brewers on Sunday, pitching 4.2 scoreless innings.
Oviedo is confident in using his four-pitch mix of four-seam fastball, slider, curve and changeup. After impressing the Cardinals last season, Oviedo is even more alluring now. One obvious option: put the young RH into the rotation and move John Gant or Carlos Martinez to the bullpen.
The Martinez haters are excited by this possibility. Let’s take the personal dislike out of this and concentrate on the performance. Gant works his way into trouble but does a good job of getting out of it. In his only start so far, Miami hitters hit the ball hard. But if you look at his career profile, Gant does a pretty good of limiting hard contact. What about the innings? That’s always the question about Gant as a starter, and we know he’s been effective in the bullpen.
As for Martinez, this is what jumps out at me: hard contact. It’s only two starts, but hitters are barreling his pitches, and he’s been rocked for a 51.4 hard-hit percentage. The average exit velocity on contact against Martinez is 90.2 mph; that would be the highest exit velo against him in a season. I don’t put much value in 2020 statistics, but Martinez suffered a drop in swing-and-miss percentage last season, and that’s continued early in 2021.
I’d be reluctant to yank Martinez after two starts, and we’ll see how Gant does Monday night against the Nationals in his second start. The situation warrants scrutiny moving forward. Oviedo is an emerging resource that shouldn’t be wasted.
Obligatory Discussion On The Offense: The Cardinals are averaging 4.89 runs per game, which ranks ninth in the majors. Hey, that’s pretty good, right? Not really. I don’t much value on a team scoring runs late in blowout losses, and the Cardinals have three of those so far. The team is batting .219 with a .308 OBP and .367 slug. They rank 20th in OPS. Like many teams early on, the Cardinals are struggling to produce offense.
In my view, here’s an important factor in a potential turnaround: through nine games opponent starting pitchers have a 3.52 ERA against St. Louis hitters, limiting the Cards to a .213 batting average and a .626 OPS. (And keep in mind those numbers include their run-scoring spree against Cincinnati starter Luis Castillo in the season’s first game.) The Cardinals must do more damage against starting pitchers. It’s a significant part of their early problems.
A Look At Paul DeJong: in 462 plate appearances since the 2019 All-Star break, the Cards shortstop has batted .220 with a .299 OBP and .410 slug, plus a strikeout rate of 28%. And somehow Cardinals manager Mike Shildt sees a No. 4 or No. 5 lineup hitter in there. But the overall talent (offensively) is lacking, and that’s an obvious factor in Shildt’s lineup decisions.
Tracking Dylan Carlson: He’s hitting .207, but that number is influenced, at least to some extent, by lousy batted-ball luck. Carlson has a .176 average on balls in play, and that should level out over time. But with a walk rate up to 11.4 percent, boosting his onbase percentage to .314. He’s slugging .552. His OPS (.866) is third-best on the team behind Yadier Molina and Nolan Arenado among players that have at least 20 plate appearances.
Carlson has put together a five-game hitting streak; his OPS is 1.017 in the last five. He’s handling fastballs this season, batting .263 with three homers, a double and .789 slugging percentage. But Carlson will have to prove he can do some damage against offspeed pitches and breaking balls.
Time To Move Carlson Up In The Lineup? Bottom line, Carlson is 34 percent above league average offensively with his 134 OPS+. In a quiet offense, that stands out. If Shildt wants to adjust his lineup he has multiple options in Carlson: (1) bat him second, ahead of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado; (2) bat him third in between Goldy and Arenado; (3) put Carlson at cleanup. After All, Carlson did bat 4th for the Cardinals in their playoff series against the Padres and did an excellent job.
Yadier Molina Is Amazing: Of course you know that already. We have a lot of baseball left in April, but to this point Molina’s .367 batting average, .533 slug and .962 OPS would represent the best April of Molina’s career.
The Year Of Opportunity Has Shifted To Austin Dean: With Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill on the IL, the Cardinals’ decreasing outfield depth has created an opening for Dean. This opportunity is his chance to validate the organization’s optimistic view of his potential. And if he hits, the Cardinals would have little reason to move him to the side.
Dean, 27, didn’t do much in his first big-league showcase for Miami, batting .223 with a 656 in 311 plate appearances. But he put up very good numbers at Triple A, and that’s kept the Cardinals interested.
Dean did well for himself in the Milwaukee series. Thursday, his pinch-hit walk set up the winning two-run homer by Arenado. Starting in left field on Saturday and Sunday, Dean went 3 for 7 with a double, homer and five RBIs. We won’t talk about his defense.
(Speaking of opportunities, this a good time for Lane Thomas to get something going.)
Backed Into A Cold Corner: Through the first nine games, the Cardinals have gotten a .179 average, .299 slug, .524 OPS and a 38% strikeout rate from their corner outfield spots. Before his groin injury, O’Neill struck out 14 times in 29 plate appearances for a 48% strikeout rate.
Don’t Yell At Me, I’m Just Passing This Along: I’m well aware that Matt Carpenter is 0 for 12. And like most of you, I get burned out on the “he’s hitting the ball hard” defense used excessively by the Cardinals in support of Carpenter.
But here’s the thing: this is a sliver of a sample size, but early on Carpenter really is hitting the ball hard. According to Statcast Carpenter has barreled three of the seven balls he’s put in play.His barrel percentage (42.9) is the highest in the majors among hitters with at least 10 plate appearances. His hard-hit rate, 71.4%, is off the charts. His average exit velocity, 88 mph over the past two seasons, has jumped to 94.7. That puts Carpenter 29th among hitters.
More from Statcast: based on his quality of contact, Carpenter has an expected batting average of .223 and an expected slugging percentage of .709.
One issue that won’t go away: Carpenter keeps hitting balls into the shift. He doesn’t have a hit against the shift this season despite a hard-hit rate of 57%. Carpenter won’t help himself by adjusting.
A Few Bird Bytes: It probably means nothing, but Tommy Edman has a .780 OPS when he plays second base and a .571 OPS when he plays right field … mini-slump alert on Paul Goldschmidt. He hasn’t had an extra-base hit since doubling twice in the season opener at Cincinnati, dropping his slugging percentage to .314, and his OPS to .630 … Nolan Arenado has at least one hit in his nine games as a Cardinal, batting .333 with a .940 OPS … Goldschmidt and Arenado have combined to reach base 27 times this season but have scored 11 times. The No. 4 spot in the ST lineup is hitting .167 with a 31% strikeout rate. With runners in scoring position, the No. 4 spot has gone 1 for 10 with four strikeouts.
On Deck: The Cardinals and Nationals will play ball tonight at 6:45, opening a three-game set at Busch Stadium. Washington is off to a slow start, going 1-5 against Atlanta and the LA Dodgers. The Nats enter with a five-game losing streak, and they’re at the bottom of the majors with an average of 2.83 runs scored per game. Gant will face Washington RH Erick Fedde, who has a 5.29 ERA in 47 career games (32 starts) for the Nats … the Nationals were hit by Covid-19 just before the scheduled season opener. In fact, Monday night, three hitters will make their season debut against the Cardinals: Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber and Josh Harrison. And LH starter Patrick Corbin is also back; he made his first start of the season on Saturday in LA.
Thanks for reading …
Please 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.
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.