THE REDBIRD REVIEW
After wheezing through a bunch of games with a poky offense, the Cardinals have perked up and are breathing again. And they’re doing it without putting too much on the shoulders of All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.
Though both Goldy and Nado are contributing in a variety of ways, their parched for runs batted in. Goldschmidt hasn’t had an RBI in his last 13 games, and Arenado had gone nine straight games without an RBI until producing one against the Dodgers on Tuesday.
It’s difficult to drive in runs when the guys in front of you in the lineup are failing to get on base at a reasonable rate, but it’s been a relatively quiet time for two of the finest and most dangerous hitters in the National League. This season Goldschmidt and Arenado have combined for 36 homers, 48 doubles, 121 RBI and 101 runs scored.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, their three-game winning streak has been ignited, at least offensively, by the dudes that you’ll mostly find near the bottom of the lineup.
In beating the Phillies (twice) and Dodgers, the Cardinals have averaged 5.7 runs per game – they’re alive! – and batted .303 with a .879 OPS. They’ve also stirred from nap time to jolt opponents for 9 hits in 21 at-bats (.429) with runners in scoring position over the last three.
The reawakening was necessary after the Cardinals went drowsy with a 2-8 record, 2.0 runs per game, and a .125 average with runners in position over the 10 games that preceded the current winning streak.
In Tuesday’s 7-6 victory over the powerhouse from Los Angeles, the No. 6-7-8-9 spots in the lineup busted up the Dodgers’ seven-game winning streak. Albert Pujols, Juan Yepez, in-game replacement Lars Nootbaar, Corey Dickerson and Andrew Knizner combined for 8 hits and a walk in 16 plate-appearances, clubbed a homer (Pujols), scored five runs and drove home four RBI.
During the three straight wins over the Phillies (twice) and Dodgers, the 6-7-8-9 spots collectively went 19 for 42 (.452) with five doubles, three homers, 12 runs, 11 RBI, a .489 onbase percentage and .786 slugging percentage.
Over the past three games the St. Louis lineup has included a mix of rookies (Nolan Gorman and Yepez), low-cost free-agent signings (Dickerson and Pujols), backups (Knizner, Andrew Romine, Edmundo Sosa) and three hitters who began the season at Triple A Memphis (Gorman, Yepez and Nootbaar.)
It’s similar to the composition of the pitching staff for the last three victories, with the Cardinals handing the baseball to arms that are new here – or have been been revitalized or rehabbed here: Andre Pallante, Jordan Hicks, Johan Oviedo, Matthew Liberatore, Junior Fernandez and Packy Naughton.
This is exactly what a team needs to end slumps, reenergize, and come out swinging with the bats or with fastballs and sliders.
As manager Oli Marmol said after Tuesday’s very good win that included the interesting blend of players on the home team. “There were a lot of buttons. (The Dodgers) have a good roster. They have an answer for a lot of the moves you want to make, and so do we. Being able to go back and forth and compete the way we did is a credit to your guys. A lot of guys are contributing and that’s what’s going to be needed in this stretch before the All-Star break – different guys stepping up whenever the moments present themselves.”
It’s going to be needed after the All-Star break as well.
And that’s true even if left fielder Tyler O’Neill, center fielder Harrison Bader, catcher Yadier Molina and starting pitcher Steven Matz make a healthy, happy and successful return.
The Cardinals have their share of stars. But stars also must endure slumps, and periods of fatigue, or competing while dealing with minor injuries that slow them down for a time.
Stars are a driving force. Stars can win a lot of games for you. But it takes more than that. Having depth can win. Organizations win. A front office that fortifies the roster with crucial in-season additions can make the difference between winning and losing, the difference between making the playoffs or missing the playoffs, the difference between seizing the division title or letting the small-market Milwaukee Brewers beat you with a much lower payroll.
The Cardinals cannot count on the back benchers to deliver repeatedly, just the way we’ve seen during the past three wins. But they must provide a boost, especially during troubled times and with starting players missing. That’s positive for the overall morale.
And just imagine the boost to this team’s energy and morale if the front office did something to turn the Cardinals into a more viable, threatening contender for an extensive postseason run. The players are doing their part. The manager and coaching staff are pretty much doing all that they can. The fans are doing their share by showing up in large numbers to generate a lively winning environment at Busch Stadium. And now we must put more focus on the people who run the franchise from a baseball standpoint. What will they do to advance the mission to win and win big?
NOTES ON MY SCORECARD
The Accounting Department: The math at the top of the NL Central didn’t change on Tuesday, with the Brewers pushing through two rain delays to surf for a 6-3 win at Minnesota. The first-place Crew (49-39) leads St. Louis (48-42) by two games … with the win over the Dodgers the Cardinals improved to 10-5 this season in games against teams from the NL West … the Cardinals are 27-18 at Busch Stadium this year for a .600 home winning percentage that ranks 7th overall and 4th in the NL. Last season the Cardinals had a .556 win percentage at Busch … the Cards have won three in a row and four out of their last six in games against winning teams but are 23-29 overall vs. winning opponents in 2022 … the Cardinals are much better against winning teams at home (12-8) compared to the road (10-19) … but now that the Orioles are a .500 team (44-44) the Cardinals are 13-10 at Busch against opponents that are .500 or better … St. Louis still is trying to climb out of a hole that grew large during their 8-15 stretch that ended July 9. The Cardinals are 11-15 since June 15 …The Cardinals are 5-7 in their challenging 14-game run of schedule against the Phillies, Braves and Dodgers … if the Cardinals can get one victory over the Dodgers in this three–game series, they’ll do no worse than finish 6-8 in the 14-game test.
A Touch Of Parity? The NL Central Standings In July: Pirates 7-5, Reds 7-5, Brewers 5-5, Cardinals 5-7, and Cubs 4-7. And here are the NL Central standings since June 15: Brewers 15-10, Pirates 14-13, Cubs 11-15, Cardinals 11-15, and Reds 10-15.
Albert Pujols Rocks On: Another home run, blasted off another right-handed pitcher. More emotion and mirth and impact. Pujols may be old (age 42) but what he does for the Cardinals will never get old. Pujols is streaking: 7 for his last 15 in his last seven games and 5 for 11 in his last four. His surge includes two homers, two doubles, three RBI and three runs scored. When Pujols homers in a game this season the Cardinals are 4-1, and they’re 9-4 when he has at least one RBI.
The Pac Man: Regular readers of this space (thank you) know that I’ve campaigned for Packy Naughton to receive a full-time bullpen opportunity instead of being treated like a marginal MLB pitcher.
Naughton faced only four hitters in April and didn’t allow a run in his 1.1 innings.
He had a “busy” May, facing 18 batters over 4.2 innings, giving up only four singles with no earned runs and a strikeout rate of 31.6 percent. This is good, yes?
After that positive showing in May, and the STL bullpen having so many problems in middle-inning scenarios, and with left-handed reliever T.J. McFarland owning the worst relief-pitcher ERA in the majors … well, the lefty Naughton was surely in line for a more important role in June. Right?
Um, no. Manager Oli Marmol still wasn’t convinced. Instead of going to Naughton more often, the rookie skipper stayed with McFarland and other ineffective relievers. It made no sense, and I stated that repeatedly.
Marmol used Naughton for only 1.2 innings during the entire month of June … having the lefty face just five batters. Naughton gave up no hits or runs and walked one. So at the end of June, Naughton had pitched 7.2 innings in relief on the season without giving up a run and limiting 28 batters to five singles and two walks.
Here we are in July, a few days from the All-Star break, and Naughton is finally being utilized in a meaningful way.
So far this month he’s worked in six games, pitched 6.2 innings, and has given up only one run, two hits and a walk in facing 24 batters.
The rookie has been nipped for one earned run in 14.1 innings of relief this season, good for a sweet 0.63 ERA. Naughton would probably still be sitting – largely ignored – but McFarland (7.43 ERA) went on the Covid IL. And that’s when Marmol and pitching coach Mike Maddux remembered that Naughton existed.
Naughton reminded everyone of that again Tuesday night when he turned in the most important pitching performance of the game in the 7-6 win over the Dodgers. Naughton entered a white-hot mess in the 7th inning, with the Cards barely clinging to a 6-5 lead. Naughton relieved Junior Fernandez with the bases loaded and no outs. No problem. Naughton extinguished the threat by retiring Max Muncy and Hanser Alberto on short fly balls and a punch-out of Cody Bellinger. Bravo.
As a reliever this season Naughton has a 0.00 ERA in 13 appearances only 11 of 52 batters have reached base against him. Opponents are batting .146 – all seven hits have been singles – and Naughton has a 25% strikeout rate to go with his preposterously good 60 percent ground-ball rate.
Naughton has inherited nine baserunners this season, and none have scored. The other lefties used in the bullpen this season – McFarland, Genesis Cabrera and Zack Thompson – have collectively allowed 50 percent of inherited runners to score (16 of 32.)
When this lefty goes against LH batters in relief he’s about as nasty as it gets, giving up only one hit in 25 at-bats for a .040 batting average. And in a relief role Naughton has struck out LH batters at a rate of 34.6%.
The St. Louis front office struck out on most of its offseason moves, but John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch deserve praise for bringing in Naughton after the Angels let him go.
The Opener: Manager Marmol got cute by doing a Tampa Bay Rays impersonation – choosing to go with an “opener” (reliever Jordan Hicks) to start the game. Hicks allowed a hit and walked three in his 1.2 innings and was fortunate to get out of there without giving up some runs. Then came Johan Oviedo, Matthew Liberatore, Junior Fernandez, Naughton, Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos.
Once Hicks escaped danger, the next six STL pitchers were tagged for eight hits and six runs (five earned) in 7.1 innings. Much of the Dodger damage came against Liberatore, a left-handed starting pitcher who didn’t start because Marmol didn’t want to expose him to the RH-batter heavy LA lineup – especially at the top. Three of the first four hitters in the Dodger lineup batted from the right side, and Marmol wanted to steer around them by starting a RH reliever, Hicks.
But Liberatore was exposed to the RH-batter heavy lineup, anyway – allowing four hits and three earned runs while retiring only seven hitters. In eight plate appearances against Liberatore, RH batters went 4 for 8 with a double, a two-run homer and three runs scored.
One way or another, the Dodgers had a great chance to get to Libby; this season RH hitters have ripped him for a .309 average, .390 OBP, .630 slugging percentage and 1.019 OPS.
If the goal was to avoid having the Dodgers score on Liberatore early – and take their chances with Libby later on – well, OK. The Dodgers scored one run in the first four innings, and the Cardinals jumped to a five-run lead. When your team scores six runs in four innings, your win probability is strong.
All of this drama amounted to much ado about nothing. The Cardinals used seven pitchers who collectively gave up 10 hits, six walks and six runs, and the team’s 6-1 lead nearly went down the drain. The St. Louis offense saved the night by putting up seven runs. And the insurance run put up in the bottom of the eighth gave the Cardinals a two-run lead, which turned into a bigger deal when Freddie Freeman homered off Gallegos in the 9th to make it 7-6.
I appreciate innovation and creativity and am the opposite of an old-school baseball believer who hates anything new or different. I almost always like it when Marmol goes against conventional baseball thinking. But this time around, Marmol was fortunate that the Cardinals got off the field with a win. But it was a helluva win, anyway. When you beat the Dodgers, you’ve earned it.
Marmol & The Bullpen: All in all, Marmol has done a terrific job with the way he runs the STL bullpen. Yes, even if he took too long to recognize Naughton’s value. (All managers make these kinds of mistakes.) But he warrants praise for multiple reasons. He was stuck with three poor free-agent signings (McFarland, Nick Wittgren, Drew VerHagen.) The Cardinals went through an extra-busy schedule that strained the bullpen. For a time the Cardinals had to turn to the relievers to supply more innings because of a rotation that came up short. And Marmol and Maddux had to integrate new relievers into the bullpen, and reinvent the operation on the fly.
Going into Wednesday, the Cardinals have the No. 3 bullpen ERA (3.45) in the National League. That rates No. 8 overall. And among the 30 MLB bullpens, St. Louis ranks No. 2 to the NY Yankees in Win Probability Added (WPA.) That’s outstanding. WPA is a key metric for measuring the effectiveness of a bullpen, and the Cards bullpen has the highest WPA in the NL.
What’s Wrong With Gio Gallegos? Opponents have scored against Gallegos in each of his last three relief appearances. He has a 6.75 ERA in four appearances in July, with opponents connecting for two homers, a .733 slugging percentage and 1.027 OPS. And over his last seven appearances Gallegos has been belted for three homers, a .630 slugging percentage, and 6.14 ERA.
Gio’s average of 1.32 home runs yielded per 9 innings this season is a noticeable jump from his 0.9 HR/9 from 2019 through 2021. And his 3.44 ERA this season is up from his 2.76 ERA from 2019-2021.
It’s pretty easy to identify the problem: the fastball. Last season his four-seamer averaged 94.4 mph. This year that average has dropped to 91.1 mph, and the pitch doesn’t have as sharp of a break. At FanGraphs his fastball value is listed as below average after being well above average in recent seasons.
A year ago, based on quality of contact, the expected slugging percentage against Gallegos on the four-seamer was .363. This season the expected slug percentage against his four-seamer is .578. And his whiff rate on the four seam has fallen to 21.6% this season after being at 25.2% last year. The average exit velocity against the four-seam is up 3.5 miles per hour from last year. That’s led to a 51.3% hard-hit rate against the four-seam this season; last year that rate was 46.2%. And opponents aren’t chasing his pitches out of the strike zone as often as they used to.
Overall this season opponents have a .482 slugging percentage against the Gallegos four-seam fastball and have boomed three doubles and four homers in 56 at-bats that ended with the pitch. Opponents are slugging a much lower .302 against his slider with four extra-base hits in 63 at-bats that ended with the pitch.
Gallegos was overused by the team’s previous manager and we may be seeing the repercussions of that now.
From the beginning of the 2019 season until the end of June, 2021, Gallegos has a 2.34 ERA and was touched for a .277 slugging percentage and 0.8 homers per 9 innings. His strikeout rate over that time was 33.3 percent.
But since the beginning of July 2021, and carrying through the 2022 season to date, Gallegos has a 3.86 ERA and has been hit for a .394 slugging percentage and 1.1 homers per 9. His strikeout rate is 30% over that time.
The differences are obvious. Gallegos is still a good pitcher – but he isn’t the same.
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.