THE REDBIRD REVIEW 

After an extended downturn phase in his rookie season, Jordan Walker put on a show during the Cardinals’ six-game homestand that closed with Sunday’s 6-4 victory over the Pirates.

Offensively, Walker reminded us of his immense natural talent and why there was so much fuss made over him coming into the 2023 season. He’s also displayed significant improvement in his right-field defense, the result of his dedicated pregame work with Cardinals coach Willie McGee.

In six games against the Padres and the Pirates, Walker had 12 hits in 21 at-bats (.571) with two doubles, three homers and seven RBI. The binge generated a 1.095 slugging percentage and a 1.679 OPS. And Walker flashed impressive moments in his shifts in right field. His defensive progress was obvious.

“My reads aren’t where I want them quite yet, but they’ve been a lot better than at the beginning of the season,” Walker told reporters after Sunday’s win.

Walker’s powerful arm strength – which ranks in the 96th percentile among MLB outfielders – was always there. But he really showed it off over the past few days.

To put Walker’s resurgence in perspective, consider this: from the resumption of play after the All-Star break through his first 21 games in August, Walker batted .210 with a .290 onbase percentage and .339 slug for a .629 OPS.

During his period of struggle, Walker homered only three times in 124 at-bats.

Walker hit three homers in his final 13 at-bats of the homestand.

It’s no surprise to see rookie hitters fluctuate during their first MLB seasons. Hot streaks. Cold spells. Ups and downs. Confidence, followed by vulnerable stretches of doubt. Sequences of dominance, failure and making adjustments. Walker is no different.

Given his advanced progress at a particularly young age, Walker faced a more formidable challenge than many MLB rookies. He was fast-forwarded to majors after playing in just 201 games during a quick trip through the St. Louis minor-season system before the age of 21.

Until MLB opening day to start the 2023 season, Walker had never taken a single at-bat above the Double A level. Walker is a towering physical presence with a mature countenance. At times it’s easy to forget that he turned 21 on May 22. That’s why it’s so encouraging to see Walker play his best all-around ball as the season swirls into September.

Among MLB hitters who are no older than 21 this season, Walker leads in batting average (.274), onbase percentage (.341), slugging percentage (.453), and OPS. Walker’s .794 OPS is 71 points higher than that of dynamic 21-year-old Reds rookie Elly De La Cruz. That’s based on a minimum 300 plate appearances.

“When you’re a player with his skill set and aptitude, you’re bound to develop a lot quicker,” Cardinals manager Oli Marmol told reporters Sunday. “He loves the game. He loves working hard. And it’s a matter of time before we see a much, much better player, and we’re already getting a good version of him.”

Walker is high on the list of Cardinals that put up the best seasons at age 21 or younger. Minimum 300 plate appearances.

* According to the research database at Stathead, Walker’s 14 home runs rank third in a season by a Cardinal age 21 or younger. Albert Pujols had 37 homers in 2001, and Joe Medwick hit 18 in 1933. Next are Curt Flood and Stan Musial, who each hit 10 home runs, respectively in 1958 and 1942.

* Among Cardinals age 21 or younger who were in their official rookie seasons, only Pujols (37 in 2001) had more home runs than Walker’s current total of 14.

* Among Cardinals age 21 or younger who were in their official rookie seasons, Walker’s current .453 slugging percentage in a season would rank third to Pujols (.610 in 2001) and Musial (.490 in 1942).

* Among Cardinals age 21 or younger – including non-rookies – Walker’s .453 slugging percentage in a season would rank fifth behind Pujols, Medwick (.497 in 1933), Musial and Rogers Hornsby (.484 in 1917).

The homestand was a preview of coming attractions for Walker. We have years of entertaining, high-level action to look forward to. Moving forward, Walker will only get better.

ZACK AND DAK: Both guys pitched well against the Pirates over the weekend. Dakota Hudson gave up only three hits and a run in seven innings on Friday. Earning the win on Sunday, Thompson allowed seven hits and three runs in his seven innings of work. But Thompson didn’t walk anyone and struck out six. In his Friday start, Hudson walked two without a strikeout.

There are some glaring differences between the two starters, and I’m focusing on their work since the beginning of August.

1. Thompson has a 3.41 ERA in five starts and one relief appearance since Aug. 6. That standard ERA isn’t all that much different than his 3.63 fielding–independent ERA over that time.

2. In six starts since Aug. 2, Hudson has a 3.93 ERA. But because of his low strikeout capability, a higher walk rate, and a yield of 1.47 homers per 9 innings. (Thompson doesn’t give up as many home runs.) All of this gives Hudson a more relevant fielding-independent ERA of 5.69 over that time.

3. Thompson has a 25.2 strikeout rate in his last five starts and has walked 6.5% of hitters faced. Hudson has a 13.5% strikeout rate in his last six starts with a walk rate of 9.5%.

4. Batted-ball luck is a prominent factor here. Hudson has yielded a .210 average on balls in play in his last six starts. The batting average on balls in play against Thompson is a much higher .329.

5. Hudson has a low 8% swing-miss rate in his last six starts. Thompson’s swing-miss rate is 13.5% over roughly the same time frame.

In conclusion: though the right-handed Hudson has done good work to get a load of ground balls to lessen the opponent’s run total, he’s more dependent on his defense. He doesn’t miss many bats. His poor swing-miss and strikeout rates make him vulnerable. And the low .210 average on balls in play against him isn’t sustainable over a long period of time. That means trouble is on the horizon. Thompson has a good ground-ball rate (47%) that’s lower than Hudson’s 57.7% GB rate over Dak’s last six starts. But the Cardinals want starting pitchers that possess more swing-miss and strikeout power and Thompson qualifies. The lefty Thompson has been damaged by RH batters for a .442 slug, but he also strikes the RHB out at a 26 percent rate.

Hypothetically speaking, if a decision on a 5th starter for 2024 comes down to Thompson vs. Hudson, it’s clear that Thompson has more of what the Cardinals are looking for in a starting pitcher. Unlike Hudson, Thompson doesn’t have to rely on fortunate batted-ball luck.

ACCOUNTING DEPARTMENT: The Cardinals went into Monday’s off day with a 59-78 record this season for a winning percentage of .431 that ranks 14th among the 15 National League teams and 26th among the 30 MLB teams … the .431 winning percentage through 137 games is the worst for a Cardinals team since the 1995 Cards were also 59-78 at the same point of the team. But the 1995 season was delayed by the labor dispute that carried over from 1994, and the ‘95 Cardinals played only 143 games. The Cardinals haven’t had a worse winning percentage than .431 through the first 137 games in a full season since the 1955 Redbirds were 57-80 (.416) after 137.

THE JOLLY ROGER STRIKES BACK: With another series loss to Pittsburgh the Cardinals finished 4-9 (.308) against the Pirates this season. For the Cardinals, it was their worst winning percentage against the Pirates since Bill DeWitt Jr. and partners took over the St. Louis franchise in 1996. That’s 28 seasons of baseball. And it was the team’s poorest winning percentage vs. the Pirates in a season since 1997 Cardinals lost nine out of 12 to the Bucs (.250).

NL CENTRAL CHAMPS TO CHUMPS: The Cardinals aren’t done with division play for 2023. Over their final 25 games the Cardinals will play six against the Reds and seven with the Brewers. To this point the ‘23 Cardinals are 15-24 in NL Central games (.385) including a combined 12-21 mark against the Pirates, Cubs and Reds. Last season the Cardinals were 48-28 in division games (.631) and went 38-19 (.667) against the Pirates, Cubs and Reds.

PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT, LOSING STEAM? In his last four games of the homestand Goldy went 1 for 16 and struck out 16 times. In his last 150 plate appearances dating back to July 27, Goldschmidt is batting .240 with a .372 slugging percentage. Goldschmidt turns 36 on Sept. 10. His .451 slugging percentage on the season is 127 points down from last year. And his .814 OPS is 167 points less than his OPS in 2022.

NOLAN GORMAN: He had a two-run single in Sunday’s win and perhaps that will restart his offense. In his last 15 games Gorman is batting .135 in 60 plate appearances with no extra-base hits and a 41.6 percent strikeout rate.

NOLAN ARENADO: Among the nine Cardinals hitters that have at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star break, Arenado ranks seventh in batting average (.244), eighth in slugging percentage (.407) and is last in onbase percentage (.294), OPS (.701) and wRC+ (88). On the plus side, Arenado leads the Cardinals with 25 RBI since the All-Star break – one more than Goldschmidt. It’s a sign of the times when you look at the nine St. Louis hitters with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star break and see Arenado and Goldschmidt ranked eighth and ninth (respectively) in slugging, OPS and wRC+.

And consider this: Since the All-Star break Goldschmidt is tied for 14th among MLB first basemen with 0.7 WAR. Arenado is tied for 16th among MLB third basemen with an 0.4 WAR since the ASB.

MATTHEW LIBERATORE, YIKES: In his two starts since being returned to Triple A Memphis, the enigmatic lefthander has a 8.10 ERA in 6 and ⅔ innings. He’s walked a stunning 27 percent of batters faced. On Sunday Liberatore threw 83 pitches in three innings and was pulled early because of the wildly inflated pitch count. He walked five and surprisingly gave up only one run.

TOUGH SLATE AHEAD: The Cardinals had Monday off, but not entirely because it was a travel day to Atlanta for a three-game series against the Braves that opens Tuesday night. The Cardinals have an onerous schedule the rest of the way.

22 of their remaining 25 games will be played against teams that currently have winning records: Braves (3), Reds (6), Orioles (3), Phillies (3) and Brewers (7). And the Cardinals are 33-47 (.412) this season against opponents that are .500 or better. The Padres are the only non-winning team the Cardinals will face in September – though it’s conceivable that the Reds (currently 71-68) could have a losing record by the time they come to St. Louis for the final three games of the regular season.

The remaining schedule includes 16 games against opponents that currently are ranked no worse than 9th overall in MLB in winning percentage: Braves (1st), Orioles (2nd), Brewers (6th) and the Phillies (9th.) The Reds are presently tied for 14th in overall winning percentage and the Padres are 20th.

Via Baseball Prospectus, here is each remaining opponent’s postseason probability: Braves and Orioles 100 percent; Brewers 99.3%; Phillies 97.5%; Reds 13.1%; and Padres 5.1%. The Padres are obviously a longshot. As of Monday morning the Reds were in a four-team tie with the Diamondbacks, Giants and Marlins in the bidding for the NL’s third and final wild-card spot.

FanGraphs projects a final 72-90 record for the 2023 Cardinals. Baseball Prospectus is about the same with a 71-91 projection. FanGraphs has a projected 13-12 record for the Cardinals over the final 25 games. That seems a bit generous to me given the difficulty of the STL schedule.

Thanks for reading…

I hope you’re having a relaxing Labor Day weekend.

–Bernie

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.

 

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

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.