THE REDBIRD REVIEW

Greetings.

The Cardinals have reached 40-game mark, which puts them about 25 percent into their full-season schedule. How are they doing? You don’t need me to tell you, that’s for sure. We’ve all been watching the same games. And fans are not happy.

The team’s 16-24 record (.400) is only slightly better than last year’s 15-25 mark (.375) at the 40-game checkpoint. The Cardinals were hoping to disassociate themselves from the bust of 2023, but that hasn’t happened so far.

The .375 and .400 winning percentages represent the two worst starts to a new season since Bill DeWitt Jr. and partners purchased the franchise in advance of the 1996 campaign. Last year was about the horrifying collapse of pitching. This season it’s about the extreme failure of a defective offense.

The Cardinals are 29th among 30 teams in runs scored per game (3.40) and rank 21st with an average of 4.67 runs allowed per game. The defense, the base running and the small-ball components have improved. Manager Oli Marmol and staff have sharpened those areas.  The bullpen is an upgrade over 2023. Three of the five starting-rotation spots are doing fine, but the rotation is vulnerable on the back end. The lack of depth is a problem. Nothing new, there.

Here’s a look at the top developments and worst developments over the first 25 percent of the 2024 schedule. And in this piece, I’m evaluating on-field performance instead of going off on tangents about the manager, front office and ownership. I’ve been doing that over the last two seasons and will be doing it again. But today, it’s all about the on-the-field stuff. For some reason there isn’t enough scrutiny of players in this market. Makes no sense.

Marmol takes the heat because he’s highly visible before, during and after games. But chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak are ultimately responsible for what’s happening on the field. This is the team they put together. This is the manager they chose and and later rewarded with a two-year contract extension after the worst finish (71-91) in a full season by the Cardinals since 1990.

THE POSITIVES

1. Willson Contreras: Losing him indefinitely with a fractured left forearm was a cruel and jarring loss for the Cardinals. Contreras was having a tremendous season offensively, ranking eighth overall in OPS (.950), ninth in slugging (.551) and 11th in onbase percentage (.398.) Per wRC+, Contreras was 71 percent above league average offensively which tied him with brother William Contreras at No. 7 in the majors. And Willson Contreras improved across the board defensively this season, transforming into an asset behind the plate. No Cardinal has played harder or better than Contreras in 2024.

2. The Bullpen: The Cardinals have one of the stronger casts in the majors at protecting late-inning leads. From the seventh inning through the end of the game, they rank fourth overall and third in the National League with a 2.97 ERA. The Cardinals rank third overall with a 76% save percentage and have not blown a ninth-inning lead all season. When leading a game through six innings they’re 10-2, and when leading after eight innings they’re 14-0.

The Cardinals are third overall with a 76 percent save percentage and haven’t blown a ninth-inning lead this season. Ryan Helsley, JoJo Romero, Andrew Kittredge and Ryan Fernandez have collectively combined for a 1.84 ERA and 28 percent strikeout rate in 73 innings. Helsley and Romero have been especially outstanding so far. Helsley is tied for the major-league lead with 12 saves, and Romero is tied for the MLB lead with 13 holds.

3. The Three Free-Agent Starting Pitchers: We can nitpick some things; for example, I’d like to see Lance Lynn go deeper into starts. But Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lynn have a 3.32 ERA in 22 combined starts and the front office did well in signing them to free-agent deals. Lynn and Gibson haven’t gotten much run support, and the Cardinals are hardly lighting up the scoreboard during Gray’s starts.

Because of the shortage of runs, the Cardinals are only 11-10 in games started by Gray, Gibson and Lynn. But that record doesn’t mean they’re mediocre. It (mostly) means that the offense has let them down. Here’s the stat that gives us a look at the three starters’ value: when Gray-Gibson-Lynn start, the Cardinals are a game over .500. Their record is nine games under .500 when other pitchers start. Mozeliak did well with these signings. And consultant Chaim Bloom made an impact with the restructured bullpen.

4. Improved Defense: Last season the Cardinals had a defensive efficiency rating of .670 their worst rate in a season since 1930. This season their defensive efficiency rating is .687. The Cards rank 12th in the majors and third in the NL with 10 defensive runs saved.

The Redbirds have a defensive star at shortstop in rookie Masyn Winn, who leads the position with eight defensive runs saved. The outfield defense is slightly above average. The defensive ratings systems disagree on third baseman Nolan Arenado; he’s a minus three on defensive runs saved but a plus three in Outs Above Average. But I think Arenado clearly has been better defensively in 2024 compared to his work in 2023.

5. Masyn Winn: he deserves his flowers for a strong start to 2024. As I just mentioned he’s the best defensive shortstop in the majors based on runs saved and already has provided plenty of material for sensational-play videos. He’s hanging tough at the plate with a .275 average and .336 onbase percentage and leads the Cardinals with six steals.

5a. Michael Siani: The speedy, highly skilled defensive outfielder has been a wonderful surprise in this downer of a season. Defensively he’s among the best in the industry, tied for third in the majors with four Outs Above Average. He leads all MLB outfielders in success rate added. He is in the top three percent for range, top 30 percent for arm value, and top 17 percent in sprint speed. It’s fun to watch him play defense. And grateful Cardinal pitchers sure love seeing him out there.

Offensively, Siani is coming on. He’s 11 for 23 in his last eight starts, a batting average of .478. He leads the Cardinals in hits (10) and batting average (.476) in May. He’s an adept small-ball specialist, leading the league with five sac bunts. Siani is still only 24 years old and getting better by the day. I don’t know how the Cardinals could possibly consider sending him to the minors.

THE NEGATIVES

1. The Offense. But of course the offense. The 2024 Cardinals turned in the worst offensive performance through the first 40 games of a season since DeWitt Jr. took over as owner-chairman in 1996. Here’s where the 2024 Cardinals rank among the 29 DeWitt Era teams through 40 games:

* Last in runs, 3.4 per game
* Last in batting average, .220
* Last in onbase percentage, .298
* Last in OPS, .639
* Last in run differential, minus 51
* Next to last in slugging pct., .341
* Third fewest homers, 29

During the 64-season expansion era, only the 1969 Cardinals got off to a poorer start offensively through the first 40 games than the 2024 Cardinals. The ’69 team scored seven more runs than the ’24 team during the first 40 games.

In the opening 40 games of a season, the current .220 batting average is the worst by a Cardinals team during the expansion era. They’re also in the bottom three in OPS and onbase percentage.

The 2024 Cardinals are the lowest-scoring team in the National League. They’ve produced three or fewer runs in 25 of their first 40 games and have a 6-19 record to show. When the Cardinals score at least five runs in a game they’re 8-4. But they’ve done that only 12 times, tied for the second fewest in the majors.

Timely hitting has misfired. The Cardinals have the worst batting average (.192) in the majors with runners in scoring position. They’ve cashed in only 101 runs in RISP situations, the lowest among NL teams. The two teams at the top of the NL Central – Milwaukee and Chicago – have an average of 155 runs scored in RISP scenarios. This is just another significant reason for the Cardinals’ last-place status.

2. The Power Shortage. I know this also about the offense but it warrants a separate mention. The power shortage through the first 40 games has damaging repercussions. The Cardinals have hit 29 home runs – last in the National League and tied with the White Sox for the least in the majors. STL’s 29 home runs have produced only 44 runs, the fewest in the majors. They’re tied for the fewest homers (6) from the fewest homers struck from the seventh inning until the end of the game. That’s certainly a factor in the Cards’ 4-6 record in one-run games and 1-4 mark in extra innings.

Teams that fail to make an impact with home runs are at a competitive disadvantage. Nine of the 12 teams that hit the most home runs through Sunday in 2024 are ranked among the top 12 in runs per game. And 10 of the top 12 home-run teams have winning records.

3. Paul Goldschmidt & Nolan Arenado: I want to acknowledge that Arenado is batting .270 and has an above-average onbase percentage (.331). Arenado is slightly above average (3%) in OPS+. So he’s making contributions including a team-leading 20 RBIs.

Goldschmidt’s problems are more extreme. He’s hitting only .197 with a .280 OBP and has a glaring 32 percent strikeout rate. He’s statistically in the bottom 9 percent of qualifying major-league hitters in OPS and slugging. And Goldy’s wRC+ ranks 151st among 168 hitters and is 34 percent below league average.

Both stars are lacking in the power game. The average MLB slugging percentage this season is .386. Arenado is slugging .372; Goldy is at .279. They’ve combined for five homers in 295 at-bats. That averages out to a homer every 59 at-bats, far below their normal HR ratios. And both have homered only one time on pulled fly balls or pulled line drives. From 2021 through 2023 combined, Goldy and Arenado combined for an average of 45 homers per season on pulled fly balls and line drives.

4. The Younger Generation: Jordan Walker, age 22, is back in the minors after hitting .155 without a homer in his first 20 games. Nolan Gorman, age 24, is batting .187 with below-average power and a 32.4 percent strikeout rate. Lars Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan, Alec Burleson and Dylan Carlson are below league average offensively per OPS+. All are slugging under .400. Two young dudes – Masyn Winn and Ivan Herrera – are slightly above average in OPS+.

There’s plenty of time for all of these hitters to improve. But that doesn’t remove two important questions: (a) why do so many of their position players fail to develop into consistently impactful hitters; and (b) why do so many young hitters leave the Cardinals and burgeon elsewhere? Something is broken systematically.

5. The Back End of the Rotation: Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz and Zack Thompson combined for 17 starts over the first 40 games and had a 5.23 ERA. Matz is on the injured list with a strained back and isn’t progressing. Thompson was sent to Triple A Memphis and has walked an alarming 23 percent of hitters faced. Matthew Liberatore takes over the Matz spot in the rotation and is starting Monday night’s game in Anaheim. He has a 5.57 ERA in 19 big-league starts. When Matz went down, the Cardinals declined to plug in a starter from their Triple A rotation. It’s just another obvious example of the deep failure by this baseball operation to draft and develop pitching.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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. Friday. 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 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.

Stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions, Spotrac and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.