THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals are 32-23 as they open a three-game series tonight at Tampa Bay. But what would their record look like without the punch and pitching provided by their rookies?
As for the rookie hitters, we don’t need to post a lengthy review of their statistics on offense. We’ll just give you the shorthand, via OPS+. (The MLB average OPS+ is 100.) Gorman is 72 percent above average, Donovan is 59 percent above average, and Yepez is 23 percent above average.
As an added and valuable bonus, Donovan has logged 243 total innings at six different positions, and Yepez has played a total of 178 innings at three positions. Gorman is doing OK at second base, but he’s in the majors to swing the bat and inflict substantial damage.
Donovan ranks 5th among MLB rookies in the Baseball Reference version of WAR, with 1.5. Gorman (0.7) and Yepez (0.5) are tied for 6th and 12th respectively in rookie WAR.
As for the rookie pitchers …
Andre Pallante has a 1.23 ERA in 18 innings. He’s emerged as an essential presence in the bullpen but Pallante could transition to the rotation at some point. He came through in a spot start in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader at Chicago, limiting the Cubs to one run in four innings. Pallante’s 1.3 WAR is tied for third-highest among MLB rookies.
Lefty Packy Naughton has made two spot starts to cover rotation shortages – one good, one bad – and hasn’t allowed a run in six relief appearances. I don’t know why the Cardinals don’t utilize Naughton more frequently in a relief role; he’s certainly better than last-resort lefty T.J. McFarland.
Lefty Zack Thompson was promoted from Memphis in time to help the Cardinals secure a victory on Friday at Wrigley Field. Though he’s projected as a starting pitcher for the long term, Thompson is capable of making a difference as a reliever. His versatility is a plus for a team that has a lot of moving parts on the pitching staff.
And while top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore still needs more tuning at Memphis before he can tame RH hitters at the big-league level, don’t forget that the Cardinals won two of the lefty’s three starts – including his five shutout innings in an 8-3 victory over first-place Milwaukee. The Cards really needed that one, and Liberatore did a wonderful job of suppressing the Brewers.
Let’s not forget the five shutout innings of emergency relief supplied by Angel Rondon in the May 22 win at Pittsburgh. Rondon had to rush in after starting pitcher Steven Matz (shoulder) departed after four pitches.
And rookie reliever Jake Walsh is back in the bullpen. Walsh’s talent is real but raw, and he should be an asset as soon as he settles down.
Nine different Cardinal players have made their MLB debut this season including catcher Ivan Herrera. If the Cards require more support along the way, other rookies are ready in the minors including Herrera and corner outfielder Alec Burleson.
Others are making their way through the system and getting closer; that list includes No. 1 hitting prospect Jordan Walker, future starting shortstop Masyn Winn, center fielder Moises Gomez, starting pitchers Michael McGreevy and Gordon Graceffo and reliever Freddy Pacheco.
How deep is the St. Louis system? Well, in its updated rankings released last month, Baseball America had Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan ranked 7th and 8th respectively on the list of the Top 30 Cardinals prospects.
The St. Louis front office gets criticized or questioned for a lot of things, but the organization’s drafting and player development remains strong. It’s an essential part of the STL’s consistent success that includes eight postseason appearances in the previous 11 seasons. A lot of the credit goes to Randy Flores, the assistant GM and Director of Scouting.
The Cardinals have better depth this season because of their player-development success. And Oli Marmol has stretched that depth with creative managing including the spacing of his relievers during a demanding schedule made even more challenging by injury issues.
The Cardinals needed an infusion of above-average rookies this season to compensate for a so-so collection of talent signed as free agents – and one waiver acquisition – in the planning for 2022.
Let’s take a look …
ALBERT PUJOLS: Last season Dodgers manager Dave Roberts gave the Cardinals a blueprint on how to maximize the Pujols hitting performance. Before moving onto the Dodgers last season, Pujols made 69.5 percent of his plate appearances against RH pitching as an Angel early in 2021. What the hell was manager Joe Maddon thinking? Pujols can’t hit right-handed pitching. Period. The Dodgers intelligently cut back on Pujols’ encounters vs. RHP; only 42.1% of his plate appearances came against righties.
Cardinals manager Oli Marmol has largely disregarded the Dave Roberts approach and is a lot closer to Joe Maddon. So far this season Pujols has made 65.7 percent of his plate appearances against RHP. There haven’t been many opportunities for Pujols to take on lefties, but that isn’t the real issue. The problem is Marmol giving too many at-bats to Pujols against RHP. If Pujols had fewer plate appearances against RH, that 65.7% usage rate would be lower.
This season Pujols is batting .355 with a 1.002 OPS in 36 plate appearances vs. lefties.
And he’s batting .125 with a .522 OPS in 69 PA against RH pitching.
Since the start of last season, among MLB hitters with at least 215 plate appearances vs. right-handed pitching, Pujols ranks No. 321 out of 325 in OPS (.508), is No. 323 out of 325 in slugging (.256), and is No. 321 out of 325 in batting average (.164.). Pujols is 54 percent below average in adjusted runs created vs. RH since the start of last season; only four MLB hitters have done worse.
Pujols is outstanding against LH pitchers. Since the start of last season he’s batting .305 against them with 15 homers, a .346 OBP, .605 slug and .951 OPS. He’s 51 percent above league average against lefthanders in adjusted runs created over the last two years – and 73 percent above league average vs. lefties this season.
Marmol isn’t in an easy spot here, but managers have to make tough decisions even if the player is a franchise icon. Marmol must do what’s best for the Cardinals and reduce Pujols’ at-bats vs. RH pitching.
Gorman, who bats from the left side, is an obvious solution as the DH against RHP. Perhaps that will happen but for the Cardinals are stubbornly against the idea … which is utterly perplexing because they were prepared to go with a Gorman-Yepez DH platoon this season before Gorman injured his back in spring training. Gorman already has missed three games from STL lineup because of a sore back this season, but he can swing the bat with no problem. The fielding part of the game stresses his back.
But even if the Cardinals refuse to give Gorman many at-bats at DH, they’ll have a decision involving others. Left fielder Tyler O’Neill has returned from the IL and will start Tuesday’s game at Tampa Bay. And Dylan Carlson’s return from the IL should happen later this week.
Yepez has been starting at the corner outfield spots and can slide into the DH role against RH pitchers. He has a .279 average, .330 OBP, .477 slug, four homers, five doubles and a .807 OPS in 94 plate appearances against righties this season.
To this point Pujols has the team’s most plate appearances at DH (52) against RHP. But with the injured outfielders making their way back, it comes much easier for Marmol to shift Yepez into the DH slot against righthanders. The manager won’t have an excuse to give so many at–bats to Pujols as the DH vs. RHP.
COREY DICKERSON: The DH and corner outfielder has been a little better lately, but even then his .681 OPS in his last 10 games is still on the modest side. In 95 plate appearances against RHP this season, Dickerson is batting .205 with a .295 slug and .548 OPS. That’s terrible – especially for a LH batter. Among 234 hitters that have 95 PA vs. RH pitchers this season, Dickerson ranks 193rd in batting average, 205th in slugging and 214th in OPS. His $5 million salary provides roster protection for Dickerson … at least for now. The Cardinals have other options and can do better.
STEVEN MATZ: The Cardinals signed him to a four-year deal worth $44 million last offseason, and the left-handed starter had a 6.03 ERA when he went to the IL on May 23. It’s been a strange season for Matz. He’s pitched very well in five of his eight starts, crafting a 1.90 ERA in those assignments. But 19 of the 25 earned runs scored against Matz came in his other three starts – in which he had a 19.00 ERA. Ouch. (By the way: I didn’t include his aborted four-pitch start in the review of his pitching.) His talent is there, and I’d like to think Matz will become more consistent and reliable. I’ll decline to panic over his contract. Way too early for that.
NICK WITTGREN: The RH reliever has an unsightly 5.06 ERA in 23 appearances, and so he’s an easy one to jump on. I’m not as down on Wittgren as much as others are. In his first 12 appearances he had a 1.93 ERA. In his 11 most recent appearances his ERA is an abysmal 7.50. But the hard-hit rate against him is a reasonable 27.6 percent. He’s faced 99 batters and given up one homer. His groundball rate (42.6%) is fine. Wittgren’s strikeout rate (10 percent) is definitely a concern; until this season he had a career strikeout rate of 23.4%. Has anything changed?
Yes. His velocity on his fastball and slider has dropped two miles per hour since the start of last season. Next, a lot of what’s happening with Wittgren this season stems from batted-ball luck. In his first 11 games (1.93 ERA) the batting average against him on balls in play was .276. In his last 12 appearances (7.50 ERA) the average against batted balls in play against him is .356. Again, he’s keeping the ball in the yard this season, so this run of bad batted-ball luck is a real thing.
Finally: During his best seasons as a reliever, Wittgren used three pitches: four-seam fastball, changeup, slider. But last season he added a cutter. This season he’s added a sinker. So that means there are now five pitches in his arsenal instead of the three he utilized in his better times. None of the five are doing great things for him. I don’t know. Maybe streamline and get back to basics? I’m not giving up on this dude yet.
T.J. MCFARLAND: The lefty ground-ball specialist was re-signed by the Cardinals after pitching effectively in relief over the final three-plus months. I recapped his performance late last week and basically he’s way down there among the worst relievers in the majors this season with a 7.65 ERA and all sorts of cruddy stats. The GB rate (53.6%) is still impressive, and batted-ball luck hasn’t been kind to him. But that doesn’t account for McFarland allowing four home runs in facing 90 hitters over 20 innings.
And he’s gone off the cliff in his matchups against LH batters; they’ve rocked him for a .414 average and 1.073 OPS. The Cardinals have a real problem here, and his $2.5 million salary doesn’t justify keeping him on this roster.
DREW VERHAGEN: Honestly, I’m not sure. I need to see more. He has a 4.02 ERA in 11 games and 15.2 innings of relief work. In eight appearances since returning from the IL, his ERA is 3.27. He’s also above average in a key metric for relievers, Win Probability Added.
VerHagen’s fielding independent ERA is much higher because of his bloated walk rate (13%), and it’s imperative to fix that. This RH pitcher has prevented LH batters from hitting for power but needs to lower the slugging percentage against him by RH hitters.
VerHagen has improved his swing-miss rate from his time in MLB with Detroit, and that’s good. He has the talent but needs to (A) raise his ground-ball rate, and (B) throw more strikes. He has an awful strikes-thrown percentage of only 34.6 percent this season, and it would benefit to get ahead of the hitter more frequently on the first pitch of an at-bat. After getting an 0-1 count against a hitter this season VerHagen has allowed a .188 average and .508 OPS. But after a 1-0 count, VerHagen has given up a .304 average and .955 OPS.
If VerHagen can do a better job of controlling the strike zone, he can be a highly effective reliever for the Cardinals. If so, the team’s two-year, $5.5 million investment will pay off. I’d say “TBD” on VerHagen but I’m optimistic.
AARON BROOKS: Forget about it. He was designated for assignment after getting belted for a 7.71 ERA in five appearances covering 9.1 innings. As a Cardinal he faced 43 batters and was hammered for four doubles, three homers, a 48.5% hard-hit rate and a .926 slugging percentage.
PACKY NAUGHTON: We mentioned him in the top section of this column when talking about rookies that have given the 2022 Cardinals a lift. Naughton was claimed on waivers from the Angels after the lockout and he’s turning out to be a good find. I’ll focus on his performance as a reliever: 23 batters faced, six innings, no runs, five hits, one walk, a 26.1% strikeout rate and a 56.3% ground-ball rate. Hitters have a .227 average and .488 OPS against him. And LH batters are 1 for 10 with three strikeouts. Again: why isn’t Naughton being put into service as a busy reliever? Given McFarland’s horrendous performance in 2022, having Naughton sit around makes no sense.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net 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.