THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Over the weekend, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak was asked about the team’s chances of rebounding in 2024. These are the type of questions posed when team management still must answer to the franchise’s fourth-worst winning percentage (.438) in a full season during the 63-season Expansion Era.
In case you need a reminder – and you don’t – the 2023 Cardinals won 71 games. The dinky total was the lowest total by the franchise in a complete season since 1990. It was a bad year that left a stench.
We know all about 2023’s shortage of quality starting pitching and dependable relievers. We know all about the injuries and the outfield shuffle, the second-half slowdown of the offense and the awkward phase-in period between the pitching staff and new catcher Willson Contreras. We’ve all shoveled those piles of dirt a thousand times and there’s no new ground.
So here was the second part of Mozeliak’s lengthy answer.
And it was good stuff that had to be said.
“We got away from doing the little things,” Mozeliak told media types during his scheduled session at the Winter Warm-Up. “I learned a long time ago, if you don’t do the little things, you’re never going to do big things. We sort of got away from that last year. We’ve got to get back to that. So this offseason, we’ve taken a look in the mirror. We’ve done a lot of self-evaluation on how we can get back to that. That’s really what drives our spring training.”
I have to say something here. I wrote column after column and thousands and thousands of words last season about the Cardinals’ stunning break down on defense, the suddenly ineffective baserunning, and the glaring erosion of fundamentals.
Who will fix this? When will someone get busy on a cleanup? How could this be happening with a franchise that was schooled – for decades – by the late and legendary George Kissell, the revered godhead of fundamentally smart baseball? And except for my frequent yelps of protest and disgust, why did this wreckage receive such little attention?
So when Mozeliak talked about the little things, it was a really big deal for me. I don’t care about the size of a team’s payroll if a team is playing bad baseball. If you let the fundamentals fall apart, then you’ve created problems that have nothing to do with payroll. There isn’t a financial commitment to playing heads-up baseball that’s been essential to the franchise tradition.
This brings me to the second part of my series: looking at reasons why you should feel better about the 2024 Cardinals. I’m concentrating on team components that have a reasonable chance of improving. But I’ll also include a contrarian Yeah, But! caution after each happy-talk dose of positivity.
Let’s go …
No. 2 Reason For Optimism
The Sharpening Of Fundamentals.
No More Neglect.
A Return To Kissell Baseball.
The 2023 Cardinals were a haggard group.
Their flaws were visible in at least three ways:
The Defense: After leading the majors in defensive runs saved (257) from 2019 through 2022, the Cardinals finished 20th in the majors with minus 7 defensive runs saved in ‘23. And it was a lot worse than that for much of the season until some late (and belated) improvement kicked in. The Cardinals were effective when utilizing defensive shifts – but didn’t do it enough. How lousy was this 2023 defense? The Cardinals were tied for the worst defensive efficiency rating in the majors. Their minus 2.4 defensive WAR was the seventh-poorest by a Cardinals team since 1941. This terrible display was a source of significant damage to a pitching staff that was low on strikeouts.
St. Louis pitchers needed a strong defense. This was not an option. Fail. Last season Cardinals pitchers allowed a .320 batting average on balls in play – the highest BIP against any staff in the majors. But here’s something more profound than that: the .320 BIP average was the highest against a St. Louis pitching staff in a season since 1896.
The BIP average against Cardinal starting pitchers (.325) was the highest in a season since 1896.
I said 1896.
That was 140 years ago.
William McKinley was president of the United States.
And you don’t think that has anything to do with the performance of the 2023 pitching staff? Pitching and defense go together. And with such a horrendous defense behind them, low-strikeout St. Louis pitchers were clobbered in a worst-case scenario. If your team had the worst BIP average against its pitchers in a season in 140 years, then I’m thinking they’ll do better in 2024.
The Baserunning: In the three previous full seasons – 2019, 2021 and 2022 – the Cardinals averaged a net baserunning gain of plus 75.3 and never ranked worse than seventh-best in the majors. But the 2023 Cardinals lost their way. They were less aggressive on the bases. They were less intelligent on the bases. They’re net baserunning gain declined to +47. But it was even worse (+4) if we remove stolen bases from the equation. The Cardinals were one of MLB’s most inept teams at advancing from first to third base on a single, and in scoring from second base on a single. The slacking was dramatic lowering of the established standards. And there was no excuse for it.
Productive Outs. Situational Hitting: The Cardinals had a productive-out percentage of 23.9%, ranking 26th among the 30 teams. The 2022 Redbirds were above average in this area. The 2021 Cardinals ranked third in MLB with a 29.4 percent rate in productive outs. Some of this is related to the introduction of the DH into the National League in 2022; pitchers were no longer at the plate, clumsily trying to bunt a runner over. But in 2023, there just wasn’t as much emphasis on trying to advance the runner to the next base while making an out. And the Cardinals weren’t as effective at driving in a runner on the second out of an inning. Things like that. This was a factor in the 2023 Cards repeatedly coming up short in getting their guys home; only 28 percent of their runners scored last season, a figure that ranked 27th in the majors.
Mozeliak was right. The so-called little things add up, and become a big pile of trouble that can bury your team. And when you combine a shaky pitching staff with a shaky defense, it’s a disaster.
And when you don’t push it on the bases and play too conservatively, you lower the percentage of putting more runners into position to score.
When your hitters rely so heavily on home runs to score – and can’t take advantage of small-ball opportunities – then this is what can happen: a 35-68 record (.324) by the Cardinals in 2023 when hitting fewer than two home runs in a game.
The Cardinals are capable of playing better, cleaner defense in 2024. They had five Gold Glove winners in 2021, and collected more gold in 2022. Some of the slick-fielding dudes are still here including Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan.
Edman has received gold-glove votes at multiple positions, and he’s provided aggressively good defense in center field – his planned spot for ‘24. The rookie shortstop Masyn Winn has plus defensive range and a missile-launching arm. Nolan Gorman improved his second-base defense in 2023. Donovan was a plus defender when used in left field, right field and first base. Donovan was average when defending shortstop and third base.
Arenado had a down year defensively in 2023, and that’s unlikely to stay that way in 2024. As a rookie the inexperienced Jordan Walker was brutal defensively in right field for at least the first half of the season but showed major improvement over the final two months – the result of dedicated, hard-work mentoring sessions with outfield coach Willie McGee.
I expect the 2024 Cardinals to be more astute at deploying defensive shifts. Last season when the Cardinals didn’t go with a shift, the batting average against their pitchers on balls in play was a staggeringly high .337.
The baserunning should recharge in 2024. Over the final two months or so of 2023, manager Oli Marmol adjusted, had a more aggressive mindset, and turned his runners loose more often. That tells me that Marmol learned from the flawed approach to baserunning through much of 2023.
And I sincerely believe the foundation of fundamentals will be strengthened in 2024 for another reason: Mozeliak publicly shared his dissatisfaction with what he witnessed last season – the obvious neglect of the “little things.” And Mozeliak is putting Marmol to the test by declining to extend the manager’s contract beyond the end of this season. A contract extension is still much possible, but Mozeliak won’t reward Marmol until he sees a return to the alert and adept baseball that made George Kissell smile.
Marmol and the players should receive some valuable assistance from the new bench coach Daniel Descalso and the sharp-eyed supervision of first-year advisor Yadier Molina. I don’t think Marmol needs a push for motivation, but Mozeliak has delivered an unmistakable message: the Cardinals have options in place for a change in leadership.
Yeah, But! …
— The improvement is more minor than major and the fundamental flaws are still a problem in 2024.
— The hard-charging Edman will be in full-contact mode as he madly pursues fly balls, sinking line drives and potential home-run balls that are heading to the top of the wall. And these crashes will lead to considerable Injured List time for Edman.
— The Cardinals still can’t figure out this puzzle of defensive shifting.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb
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, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts 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.