THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Here’s my second pile of performance-based report cards for individual Cardinals in 2023. Today, it’s all about the pitchers. Starting pitchers. Relief pitchers. Unknown pitchers. Traded pitchers. And, unfortunately, a lot of disappointing pitchers.
In 2023 the Cardinals had a 5.08 starting-pitching ERA that ranked 26th among the 30 MLB teams. And in the 28 seasons that Bill DeWitt Jr. has controlled the franchise, that 5.08 ERA was the worst turned in by a group of St. Louis starting pitchers.
The 2023 Cardinal starters ranked 27th among the 28 DeWitt Era teams in Win Probability Added. And that was 27th among the 30 teams in the WPA category this year.
The Cardinals’ approach to starting pitching remained outdated in 2023. At a time when strikeouts rule, St. Louis starters ranked 29th among the 30 teams with a sad 17.4 percent strikeout rate.
It wasn’t much better for the bullpen crew. Cardinal relievers were 23rd in the majors with a 4.47 ERA. The team blew 41 leads and had a 56% save percentage that ranked 14th among the 15 National League teams. The bullpen’s overall value in Win Probability Added was close to the bottom.
In the coming offseason the St. Louis front office will strive to make the moves to prevent a similar disaster in 2024. Bad pitching and the abandonment of impactful defense caused the 2023 Cardinals to sag in run prevention. St. Louis allowed 5.12 runs per game, and only five MLB teams did worse than that.
Onto the report cards. Just a reminder: when applicable, I try to assess each pitcher’s performance based on each one’s established career standard. An acknowledged “star” pitcher will be evaluated differently than a marginal pitcher or one that’s short on big-league experience.
Miles Mikolas: On the plus side, Mikolas pitched 201.1 innings this season, ranking fourth among MLB starting pitchers behind Logan Webb, Zac Gallen and Gerrit Cole. On the down side, Mikolas had a 4.78 ERA that ranked 48th among 56 major-league starters who pitched at least 150 innings. Mikolas was inconsistent. He had 14 quality starts, which led St. Louis, but the right-hander had a 5.40 ERA over his final 2022 starts. His 15.9 percent strikeout rate was his lowest in a season as a Cardinal. And Mikolas allowed an average of 10.1 hits per nine innings, the worst of his St. Louis career. And despite Mikolas making frequent mention of “soft contact” hits against him, the truth is hitters had a hard-hit rate of 42.8 percent against him. Contrast that to his 29.2% hard-hit rate back in 2018, his best season as a Cardinal. Grade: D.
Steven Matz: In the second season of a four-year, $44 million contract, Matz did some good things but went down late in the season with a strained lat. Overall he had a 4.04 ERA in 17 starts, and a 2.81 ERA in eight relief appearances. After Matz was moved back into the rotation in early July, he looked very good, snapping off a 1.86 ERA and 25 percent strikeout rate in seven starts. But the latest injury ended his season in mid-August. If Matz can stay healthy in 2024 – our skepticism is warranted – he’d be a plus for the rotation. In his first two years with St. Louis Matz has averaged only 76.5 innings per season. In 2023 he contributed 105 innings but that wasn’t enough for an impoverished pitching staff. Grade: D.
Jack Flaherty: The Cardinals were hoping for a return to Flaherty’s 2019 form – or close to it – but it didn’t happen. He had a 4.43 ERA in 20 starts with an inflated 11.3 percent walk rate that pushed opponents’ OPS against him to .795. After posting a 5.63 ERA over May and June, Flaherty rebounded for a 3.03 ERA in his final five starts as a Cardinal. That upturn drew interest from several teams, and Flaherty was traded to Baltimore at the deadline. After his terrific 2019 season that led to a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting, Flaherty couldn’t stay healthy and had a 4.17 ERA in his final 52 starts as a Cardinal. Grade: D.
Jordan Montgomery: The rugged lefty was easily the Cardinals’ best starting pitcher this season before being dealt to Texas at the trading deadline. Monty posted a 3.42 ERA in 21 starts and allowed an average of only 0.9 homers per nine innings. His quality-start rate (57%) ranked 11th among National League starters. Montgomery had a difficult May, with a 6.04 ERA in five starts. But his ERA was 2.73 in his other 16 starts, and Montgomery’s overall 3.42 ERA was 10th best among NL starters that compiled at least 120 innings. Montgomery has done a fantastic job for the Rangers. Grade: B+
Matthew Liberatore: He was strafed for a 5.88 ERA in 11 starts, and right-handed batters beat up the lefty for a .315 average, .384 onbase percentage and .488 slugging percentage. His strikeout rate as a starter was an untenable 15 percent. Liberatore, 23, showed potential as a reliever but continued to be well below average as a starter. His 5.88 ERA ranked 158th among the 177 MLB starters that had at least 11 starts. The Cardinals had hoped for better results from Libby in his second big-league season. Grade: F.
Adam Wainwright: Overall it was a frustrating and physically painful final season for the second-greatest starting pitcher in Cardinals franchise history. Wainwright, 42, couldn’t overcome age or the various maladies that plagued him. His 7.40 ERA was the worst in a single season in franchise history among Cardinal starting pitchers that worked at least 100 innings. But Wainwright was also a source of inspiration and joy as he pitched surprisingly well in his final two starts to reach 200 career wins. And the sentimental farewell Waino Weekend was the highlight of an otherwise grim 91-loss season by the Cardinals. It was a precious experience and that’s worth something. At least Waino came through to deliver at the end of the line. Grade: D minus.
Zack Thompson: The young lefty was plugged into the big-league rotation in August and impressed in his first five starts. With a revamped slider, he had a 3.60 ERA and 25 percent strikeout rate in the five outings. But Thompson wasn’t as effective in his final four starts, getting bopped for a 5.75 ERA. And something of a trend emerged: poor first innings. In those last four starts Thompson had a first-inning ERA of 15.75 and usually settled down after that. Thompson was tipping his pitches and the hitters picked up on it. In those four first innings he was punished for a .333 average, .400 OBP and .722 slug. He’s in line to compete for a rotation spot in 2024, but much depends on the front-office search for starting pitching when the offseason officially begins. Grade: C minus.
Dakota Hudson: He worked in 18 games this season including 12 starts. He had a 5.26 ERA in his dozen starts and a 4.98 ERA in 81.1 innings overall. Walks were still an issue; over the last two seasons (combined) Hudson has a poor 13 percent strikeout rate and has walked 10% of his batters faced. Sure, he gets plenty of ground balls, but that hasn’t really done much to lower his ERA and pitch deeper into starts. Hudson lacks the efficiency that’s important for starting pitchers, and he’s largely incapable of getting the strikeouts he needs to punch his way out of jams. This season when pitching with runners on base, Hudson had a miniscule 10% strikeout rate and hitters tore into him for a .309 average and .447 slugging percentage. Grade: D minus.
Drew Rom: The rookie lefty was acquired as part of the package that came over from Baltimore for Jack Flaherty. The Cardinals gave Rom his first opportunity to pitch in the big leagues, and the results were unfortunate – eight starts, 33.2 innings, 8.08 ERA. He had one good start, pitching 5 and ⅓ scoreless innings against the Orioles. Other than that, Rom was hammered for 30 earned runs and a 9.52 ERA in his other seven starts. Too many walks. Not enough strikeouts. And a home-run rate of nearly 2.0 per nine innings. Grade: F.
Jake Woodford: With Wainwright on the IL during the first month, Woodford was inserted into the rotation but couldn’t take advantage of the unexpected chance. In six April starts he had a 5.72 ERA and was jacked for seven homers, eight doubles and a .570 slugging percentage. After that it was a chaotic season for Woody. He had a couple of injuries, had multiple stints at Triple A Memphis, and flexed between the bullpen and rotation. He finished the 2023 campaign with a 6.23 ERA and 6.61 FIP in 47 and ⅔ innings. Grade: F.
Drew VerHagen: The right-hander had a 3.98 ERA in 60 relief appearances. Over the final two months, VerHagen pitched to a 2.25 ERA in 22 appearances, holding opponents to a .141 batting average. But he didn’t have much strikeout pop, and left-handed hitters gave him trouble all season. Grade: D.
Chris Stratton: The durable and underrated righty had a misleading 4.19 ERA for the Cardinals. You can see that just by looking at his 3.03 fielding independent ERA, aka FIP. Stratton struck out 27 percent of hitters faced, and could take the ball on back-to-back days without a hitch. And he thrived against LH batters, knocking them down with an outstanding 36.4 percent strikeout rate. That’s why the Rangers wanted Stratton included in the deal for Jordan Montgomery. Smart team. Grade: B.
John King: The lefty reliever (and prospects) were transported here from Texas in the Montgomery-Stratton swap. King had a 1.45 ERA for the Cardinals in 20 appearances. He has low-strikeout stuff (13%) but got key outs with his dependably high 66.7% ground-ball rate. That said, I don’t know if King is for real and can do this again. LH batters hit him up for a .308 average, but part of that was attributable to lousy batted-ball luck. Still, this was a nice pickup by the front office and King should have a chance to win a bullpen spot in 2024 spring training. Grade: B minus.
Jordan Hicks: The erratic, high-velo righty found himself late during his time with the Cardinals. Moved into the closer role in mid-June, he saved eight games in nine opportunities and pitched to a 2.03 ERA. There was still some vulnerability on display – he had a 3.67 ERA for the Cards on the season – but Hicks did a good job in the few weeks before the deadline and enticed Toronto to trade for him. Hicks is eligible for free agency. Grade: C+.
Genesis Cabrera: The volatile lefty fell out of favor with manager Oli Marmol. And that’s all that mattered. “Cabby” was unhappy with a reduced role – apparently unaware that he had a 5.06 ERA for the Cardinals this season – and wanted out. The Cardinals shipped him to Toronto where he did pretty well, even with a drop in strikeout rate. But I’m grading him on his performance with STL. Grade: F.
Andre Pallante: Sure, this right-hander does a solid job against left-handed hitters, but that’s negated by the damage that RH bats do to him. In 2023 righty bats roughed Pallante up for a .357 average, .444 onbase percentage and .438 slug. Ground balls? Yes, plenty. Swing-and-miss nastiness? No. Strikeouts? Heck, no. Pallante faced 168 LH batters and 134 RH batters … so manager Marmol can’t hide him from those right-side hitters. And his walk-rate is twice as high (14%) against RH bats than LH bats. I really don’t understand the point here. Pallante doesn’t dominate left-handed hitters, and he’s pounded by right-handed hitters and for some reason Marmol thinks Pallante is some sort of rare relief specialist. After posting a 3.17 ERA as a rookie Pallante’s ERA went up to 4.76 this season. Grade: D minus.
J.J. Romero: This lively lefty had a good season. His ERA for his 36 and ⅔ innings (3.68) was hardly a precise reading on his quality. When we boil it down to the stuff that pitchers have the most control of – walks, strikeouts, homers – Romero had a 2.22 fielding independent ERA. He had a 29.3 percent strikeout rate against LH batters and held them to a .105 average. But Romero was solid against RH batters with a 28% strikeout rate and a .260 average against. In his final 19 relief appearances of the season, Romero had a 1.24 FIP with a 33% strikeout rate. A late-season knee injury took him out of service, but Romero earned credibility and trust that sets him up well for 2024. Grade: B.
Giovanny Gallegos: There were too many warning signs for Gio in 2023, and that raises questions about his quality viability going forward. I’ll just use the stats to show you what I’m talking about – comparing his 2019-2022 numbers to what he did in 2023. The pre-2023 figures are on the left, and the ‘23 season is on the right.
ERA: 2.84 … 4.42
Opponent average: 1.82 … .252
Opponent OPS: .556 … .758
Strikeout rate: 32% … 25.8%
Home runs allowed: 0.9 per 9 IP … 1.8 per 9.
Hard-hit rate against him: 38% … 46.2%
Until the 2023 season, the right-handed Gallegos was able to dominate left-handed batters. From 2019 through 2022, LH bats hit .180 with a .573 OPS and 31.% strikeout rate. But last season LH bats hit .299 with an .850 OPS and 21.3% strikeout rate. That’s a disturbing change.
In high-leverage scenarios, opponents batted .195 with a .616 OPS against Gallegos from 2019 through 2022. But this season he gave up a .271 average and .832 OPS in high–leverage pressure spots.
And his slider – previously a dominant pitch – was a big problem for him in 2023. Per Statcast, the slider had a +9 value in 2022, but that deteriorated to a minus 2 value in 2023.
All of the heavy usage seems to have caught up to Gallegos. And the new pitch-clock rules were probably a factor in 2023. But for whatever reason, his performance declined alarmingly in 2023. Grade: D.
Ryan Helsley: The righty reliever still has wicked stuff, but injuries were a factor in 2023, with Helsley missing 82 days with a strained forearm. His 1.25 ERA in 2022 escalated to 2.45 in ‘23, but don’t overreact to that. His fielding independent ERA was actually lower this season (2.25) than last season (2.34). Helsley’s strikeout rate dropped by about four percent this season but was still robust at 35.6%. If you wanted reassurance, Helsley provided it over the final month of the 2023 season. After returning from an extensive stay on the IL, Helsley was healthy and shooting flames like never before. In his 11 appearances over the final month Helsley had an 0.77 ERA and struck out 44 percent of batters faced. The only question with the hard-throwing Helsley is a scary one: can he hold up physically? Grade: B.
Andrew Suarez, Casey Lawrence, Jacob Barnes and James Naile: No grades here. The Cardinals used them late in the season, but only because they had no one else to turn to. The four relievers combined for a 5.58 ERA in 27.2 innings and didn’t have the swing-and-miss stuff that’s necessary to be effective in the majors. But I appreciated the effort – and no, I’m not being snarky.
In my next stack of report cards, I’ll look at the ownership, the front office, the manager and the field staff. And I’ll hand out some awards.
Thanks for reading …
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.