THE REDBIRD REVIEW
For the Cardinals, maybe 2023 was supposed to be this way: confusing, controversial, and wildly inconsistent.
After lurching to an abominable 10-24 start that ranked as the third-worst winning percentage (.294) through 34 games in franchise history – and the poorest record by a Cardinal team since 1907 – the Redbirds suddenly emerged from the crypt last week.
After going 5-1 in what could be a trajectory-changing road trip to Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, the Cardinals have won six of their last seven games.
There are flaws to fix – most of all, the starting pitching. Because with this front-office regime, it’s all about the starting pitching and the shortage of quality stuff.
There will be more avoidable logjams. That probably will occur soon (again) in the outfield.
And I’d suggest making the looney-tunes song the official walk-up song for catcher Willson Contreras. Not because of anything he’s done; it’s about the way he’s been treated.
But at least for now, the Redbirds have taken flight. How long this will last, no one really knows. The way most of this season has gone for the Cardinals so far, there’s always a dangerous power line up ahead to take them down.
Three against Milwaukee. Four against the LA Dodgers. That’s the schedule for the week, all at home, and it’s an appropriate time to mention that the Cardinals are 6-13 at Busch Stadium this season.
Put the worries on hold for a little while. The past week was fun. Starting with a 10-6 win over the Tigers a week ago Sunday, the Cardinals are 6-1 and have averaged 6.6 runs per game. They’ve powered up, smashing 14 homers in the seven games. The starting pitching remains problematic, but the bullpen has steadied. The Redbirds are being more aggressive on the bases, and the defense might be getting better.
Nolan Arenado has returned to being Nolan Arenado. Lars Nootbaar is back to being an onbase-slugging machine. Nolan Gorman is a menacing presence, be it starting or pinch-hitting. Paul DeJong is still making an impact. Brendan Donovan is on the upswing and finding the identity was observed in 2022. Andrew Knizner deserves praise for supplying a charge of offense after he took over for Willson Contreras behind the plate.
As for the pitching, Miles Mikolas continues to thrive after a slow start. Steven Matz is making progress. The bullpen has calmed down and holding steady.
When we take a look around, there are tangible signs of improvement. The Cardinals – at last – are making headway.
After winning only two series in the first 39 days of their season, the Cardinals went to Chicago and Boston and won two series in seven days.
That won’t matter if the Cardinals relapse. That’s why this seven-game homestand is so important. After winning the past week, the Cardinals must win the new week. It’s all about consistency. If the Redbirds can keep collecting series victories, the more we can talk about them being “back” or “for real” and keep a closer watch on the NL Central. But as the open the three game-series vs. Milwaukee, let’s put it this way: by winning six of their last seven, the Cardinals have given themselves a chance to have a chance.
Winning can chase the blues away. The Cardinals rallied around Contreras, turned a controversy into a stronger clubhouse bond, and pulled together as a team to restore some of the good vibes that were lost during the chaotic, first five-plus weeks of the 2023 season. Now we’ll see what they do from here
1. The Brewers (23-17) have won five of their last seven to move ahead of the Pirates and into first place in the NL Central. Beginning with a three-game sweep of the Cardinals at Dodger Stadium in the final series of April, LA is 15-2 in the last 17 games and just completed a three-game sweep of the Padres. The Dodgers, 26-15, have nudged the Braves aside for the NL’s top winning percentage (.634.)
2. The sweep at Boston was impressive for a couple of reasons. The Red Sox went into the weekend with a 13-7 home record and a six-game winning streak at Fenway. They were averaging 6.2 runs per home game. The Cardinals won Friday and Saturday by cracking Red Sox closer Kenley Jansen, who entered the STL series with an 0.77 ERA. In Jansen’s two appearances the Cardinals jumped on him for four hits, four walks, and five earned runs in one inning. That’s a 45.00 ERA. Jansen’s 0.77 ERA mushroomed to 4.26 on the season after the Cardinals left town.
3. The Cardinals had a 5.44 starting-pitching ERA before Knizner started nine consecutive games at catcher. In the nine games Cards starters were slightly better with a 5.05 ERA. But they also regressed in fielding-independent ERA, going from 4.74 FIP before the change was made – to a 5.10 FIP when Kizner took over. And the starters struck out only 14.5 percent of the hitters with Kiz behind the plate.
3a. This note from esteemed baseball writer Bob Nightengale of USA Today: “The reason for the St. Louis Cardinals’ decision to strip Willson Contreras from his catching duties just five weeks into his five-year, $87.5 million free-agent contract, a high-ranking Cardinals official told USA TODAY Sports, was quite simple: The starting pitchers told management they simply no longer wanted to pitch to him, at least not this season, after getting off to their dreadful start, producing an ugly 5.40 ERA. The Cardinals, off to their worst start in 50 years at 10-24, have since won five of six games after demoting Contreras, although the starting rotation has actually gotten worse, yielding a 5.47 ERA, with no starter lasting past five innings.”
I still can’t believe that STL decision-makers were so gutless in their rash decision to dump all of this on Contreras to appease a bunch of mewling starting pitchers who can’t do their own jobs well — but had no hesitancy to back-stab Contreras.
4. One more stat, on two-strike counts: over the last nine games the starters allowed a .292 average and .834 OPS on two-strike counts. Before that, they gave up a .261 average and .754 OPS. The St. Louis bullpen performance improved over the last nine games, so give Knizner some credit for that. For the entire pitching staff, the ERA was 4.67 ERA before the Contreras-Knizner move, and 4.13 when Kiz moved in. But some of these numbers require context, and it would take me too long to explain. But I’m not trying to downgrade Knizner’s work; he did a good job.
5. Knizner the hitter: In his nine–game run as the starting catcher, Knizner batted .281 with a .594 slugging percentage. His power produced two homers, four doubles and five RBI over the nine games.
6. Is Arenado over his slump? It sure seemed that way during the 5-1 road trip. Against Chicago and Boston pitching, Arenado batted .409, and had a 1.334 OPS with three homers and eight RBI.
7. Fun stat: before the road trip, Arenado had only three home runs on the season in 138 at-bats. During the trip, he had three homers in 22 at-bats.
8. You had to love Nolan Gorman’s road trip. He mashed a pinch-hit, two-run homer in the 9th inning Friday to take down Kenley Jansen and the Red Sox for a come-from-behind 8-6 win. Saturday Gorman had a ninth-inning pinch-hit double off Jansen to cut the Boston lead to 3-2. It was the key hit in the game for the Cardinals and set up their 4-3 triumph. The Cardinals hadn’t won a single comeback game in the 9th inning this season until reaching Boston.
9. On the road trip Gorman batted .313, had an excellent .476 onbase percentage, boomed an .813 slugging percentage, and hung a 1.289 OPS. He also struck two homers and two doubles for five RBI. But my favorite Gorman stat on the trip might be this one: had a 19% walk rate but only a 4.8% strikeout rate. That’s outstanding plate discipline and is a sure sign of Gorman’s growth in his second MLB season.
10. Gorman turned 23 on May 10. This season he’s batting .270 with a .366 OBP, .565 slug, nine homers, seven doubles and 28 RBI. His 157 OPS+ makes him 57 percent above league average offensively this season. Since his promotion to the majors early last season Gorman has a .462 slug and is 20 percent above league average offensively.
11. Lars Nootbaar is peppering the baseball. He had a fabulous road trip. During the team’s 6-1 run he has a .296 average, a 15.6% walk rate, a .406 OBP and .519 slug. That includes a homer, six RBI, seven runs scored, and two steals. In his last 10 games Noot is batting .425 with a .500 OBP and .600 slug for a 1.100 OPS. Pretty good! By now this question – should Noot bat leadoff – is not much of a question. In 75 plate appearances at leadoff he’s posted a .344 average, .440 OBP and .484 slug.
12. Miles Mikolas, good stuff. He pitched a swell game against Boston on Sunday night, disarming the Red Sox to one run on four hits and two walks in six innings. His 59 game score was his second-best of the season. Over his last six starts Mikolas has a 2.70 ERA over 33.1 innings, and the team won four of the six games.
13. The St. Louis bullpen had a 2.82 ERA in 22.1 innings during the trip. That part was pretty good. This part wasn’t good: too many walks (13) and not enough strikeouts (21.)
14. Let’s update one of my key stats for the Cardinal offense. As mentioned earlier, the Cardinals homered 14 times during their current 6-1 streak, and all of the homers came in their wins, with the Cardinals hammering three-plus homers four times.
When the Cardinals hit three-plus homers in a game this season they’re 8-1. When they hit two-plus homers, they are 11-5. When they hit fewer than two homers on a game, the Cards are 5-20.
15. While working on his overall game at Triple A Memphis, Jordan Walker on Monday was named the No. 1 prospect in the majors by MLB Pipeline.
“Walker took over the top spot, and even after an update and some bumps in the road, we weren’t going to take that away from him,” MLB Pipeline explained. “He’s still only 20 years old with a long history of hitting and some of the best raw power in the Minor Leagues. He needs to continue working on his transition to the outfield, but there’s enough top-line speed to make him adequate there in time too. We aren’t worried. Neither should you be.”
Thanks for reading …
Pardon my typos …
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
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.