THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals are doing their thing again, gaining altitude in the second half of the season. It’s become an annual tradition in recent years. They get lost before the All-Star break. They regroup and reset during the All-Star break. They turn into high-flying winners after the All-Star break.
It’s an odd ritual, but here we go again. To use a golf metaphor, the Cardinals are a back-nine team. On the front nine they misfire off the tee, end up in the water, or three-putt their way to bogies. On the back nine they find the fairways and greens and fill their scorecard with birdies.
After Thursday’s smiley-face 7-2 win at Wrigley Field, the Cardinals are 6-1 since the All-Star break. That’s the best record in the National League, and second overall to 6-0 Texas. It’s only been a week since the end of the All-Star festivities, but the Redbirds began to turn things around late in the first half by going 4-2-1 in their final seven series.
In their last five “normal” seasons – which of course excludes 2020 – here’s the simple disparity:
* Before the All-Star break: 224-232, .491
* After the All-Star break: 164-98, .626
That’s crazy. Or maybe it’s random. But the splits are extreme and there’s no reason to deny it.
We’ve seen it in the St. Louis pitching. Since 2018, the Cardinals have ranked 11th in ERA in the first half, and 4th in ERA after the break. They’ve had the 12th-best starting pitching ERA in the first half (4.09) and the fourth-best starter ERA (3.64) after the break.
We’ve seen it in the St. Louis offense. Since 2018 the Cardinals have ranked 23rd in runs in the first half, and 8th in runs after the break. They’ve been 21st in first-half OPS (.716) and 9th in second-half OPS (.758.) They do more slugging: 399 in the first half (25th) and .429 in the second half (9th.)
In 2018, the Cardinals went 41-28 after sacking Mike Matheny and promoting bench coach Mike Shildt to manager. Shildt immediately schooled the Cardinals in fundamentals to sharpen the defense and baserunning that had deteriorated under Matheny.
In 2019, the division-champ Cardinals fooled around until going berserk during a 32-12 charge that began Aug. 9. Starting pitching engineered that record. Led by the 23-year old Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals finished fifth in MLB with a 3.78 starter ERA. That included the second–best starter ERA (3.15) in the second half.
In 2021, there was the famous closing stretch run that produced an electrifying 17-game winning onslaught and an 18-1 record in 20 days. That memorable escapade clinched a wild-card playoff spot. The front office made a positive impact by acquiring starting pitchers Jon Lester and J.A. Happ in trade-deadline deals and, before that, adding effective bullpen pieces Luis Garcia and T.J. McFarland. In winning 21 of 24 games through Oct. 1, the Redbirds averaged 5.7 runs, cudgeled 42 homers and slugged .493.
In 2022, John Mozeliak and associates did it again by trading for starting pitchers Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana. In their 23 assignments for St. Louis, Montgomery and Quintana combined for a 2.56 ERA and the Cardinals won 17 of their 23 starts. And with Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado finishing first and third respectively in the NL’s MVP voting, the Cardinals went 40-21 in their final 61 games.
The 2023 Cardinals are obviously playing their best baseball of the season, having won six games in a row and nine of their last 11. The starting pitching and bullpen are sudden strengths. The STL offense is ransacking opposing pitchers. The Aug. 1 trade deadline may reshape the outlook, but this outbreak of winning has energized the team and the BFIB.
Now if only the Milwaukee Brewers would cooperate in conjunction with the Cardinal comeback by cooling down. That’s the problem. The Cardinals are still 10 games behind the first-place Brewers, who are 11-4 in July as part of a 20-9 warming trend that began June 16.
HELLO, STEVEN MATZ. It took him a while to get there (ahem) but Steven Matz is looking like the pitcher that attracted a four-year, $44 million free-agent investment before the 2022 season. Martz neutralized the Cubs over five innings, allowing five hits and a run with six strikeouts. Since being invited to rejoin the rotation, Matz has a 3.07 ERA in three starts. Including his relief work, Matz has a 2.93 ERA in his last 11 appearances. Three things: (1) He’s more aggressive about attacking hitters; (2) an enhanced changeup is making a big difference; (3) his renewed confidence is obvious.
GOODNESS FROM THE STARTING PITCHING: St. Louis starters have a 3.23 ERA in July, which ranks fourth in the majors for the month. The starters have been fab during the team’s 9-2 upturn, crafting a 2.38 ERA. The last 11 games have featured five quality starts. Excluding the all-bullpen game against Miami on Wednesday, the Cardinals have a 50% quality-start rate in 10 games.
In 13 combined starts this month, Jordan Montgomery, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Matz have collectively pitched to a 2.10 ERA in 72 and ⅔ innings. And the Cardinals have a 10-3 record in the July games started by Montgomery, Flaherty, Mikolas and Matz.
Winning games is a helluva lot easier when the starting pitching is a strength instead of a liability.
GET BACK, JOJO: Though St. Louis has a 5.11 bullpen ERA for July, the portrait is deceiving. They’ve been much better as of late, contributing to the current 8-1 streak with a more dependable 3.05 ERA.
The suddenly splendiferous lefty JoJo Romero was at it again last night at Wrigley Field, giving the Cardinals 1 and ⅓ innings of crisp, scoreless relief. He entered the fray in the bottom of the seventh after the Cubs had loaded the bases against rookie righty Kyle Leahy. The Cubs were hepped up on opportunity but JoJo retired Seiya Suzuki on a liner to tranquilize the threat.
Romero has a 1.80 ERA in seven relief gigs this month. In his last five appearances – all scoreless – Romero has jammed opponents with a 40 percent strikeout rate while limiting them to a .091 batting average.
RUNS ARE FUN: The Cardinals are 17-10 since June 17 and only three MLB teams – Braves, Brewers and Dodgers – have done better than that over that time. The St. Louis offense has done its part to jolt the season.
During the 17-10 reentry to respect, the Cardinals have averaged 5.4 runs per game, batted .280, reached base at a rate of 35.6 percent, and slugged .465. An .820 OPS over 27 games is damn fine work.
In winning six straight games through Thursday the Cardinals averaged 6.8 runs per game, batted .322, molded a .398 OBP and slugged .521.
JULY FIREWORKS: Going into Friday the Cardinals have scored the most runs in the majors (96) for July and put up the best onbase percentage (.368) and OPS (.848) while ranking second in batting average (.291) and fourth in homers (24). The Redbirds also have the top wRC+ in the majors for July, generating offense that’s 34 percent the league average. Add a .307 batting average with runners in scoring position, and it’s pretty durned difficult to find something to mewl about.
GANG-ATTACK HITTING: The Cardinals have 10 hitters that have posted an above-average wRC+ so far this month, and keep in mind that a 100 wRC+ is the average:
Willson Contreras, 272
Nolan Arenado, 193
Brendan Donovan, 181
Ivan Herrera, 166
Nolan Gorman, 138
Alec Burleson, 130
Lars Nootbaar, 120
Andrew Knizner, 118
Paul Goldschmidt, 112
Dylan Carlson, 104
PAULY DEJONG NOTABLES: DeJong hit his 13th homer of the campaign, a two-run shot, and raised his slugging percentage to .435. DeJong is 11 for 35 (.314) in his last 14 games with a .790 OPS. The Cardinals are only one of six teams this season that have generated above-average offense from the bottom three spots in the lineup, and DeJong is a prime reason for it.
DeJong has taken 81 percent of his plate appearances in the 7th, 8th or No. 9 spot this season. And DeJong has made 96% of his plate appearances at the 6-7-8-9 slots in the batting order. The Cardinals rank third in the majors for the best wRC+ this season in combined plate appearances from the 6-7-8-9 slots.
Among the 30 MLB hitters that have at least 200 plate appearances batting seventh, eighth or ninth, DeJong is tied for the lead with 12 homers, ranks third with a .463 slugging percentage and is seventh in OPS at .754. And his .553 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position when batting 7-8-9 is second best in MLB.
Perhaps the dumbest thing about the bizarro-world DeJong haters is their inability or unwillingness to apply context to his offensive performance. DeJong’s stats would be nothing special if he was putting them up from middle-lineup spots. But it isn’t easy to pump up the offense in the final three spots of the lineup, and DeJong’s performance has extra value because he’s strengthened a weaker area of the STL lineup.
For added context: DeJong has provided more offense from the 7-8-9 spots this season than Trea Turner has delivered for the Phillies in batting No. 1 through No. 5. I’m not kidding. DeJong’s wRC+ is 20 points higher than Turner’s at this point of the season. And DeJong is doing it from the bottom three places in the lineup. Turner hasn’t had a single at-bat this season when hitting lower than 5th in Philly’s lineup.
ETCETERA: Tyler O’Neill returned to the lineup Thursday with a healthy back and renewed purpose. In four plate appearances he had a double, two walks and scored a run … facing his former team this season Willson Contreras is 8 for 22 against the Cubs (.364) with a .962 OPS, three doubles, four walks and four RBI … Alec Burleson is batting .325 with a .822 OPS in 44 plate appearances this month … the Cubs went 1 for 8 with runners in scoring against Cardinal pitchers on Thursday … DeJong ranks in the 93rd percentile in Outs Above Average for his shortstop defense this season, which is terrific … rookie Jordan Walker blasted a two-run homer Thursday. In his last nine games, Walker is hitting .297 with a .514 slugging percentage with two doubles, two homers and four RBI … the Cardinals were 1.5 games behind the third-place Cubs going into Friday’s day game.
Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.
Bernie hosts a weekday sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
The “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and B. Miklasz is available at 590thefan.com, the 590 the fan app or 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, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus or Bill James Online.
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.