THE REDBIRD REVIEW

Earlier this month I listened to a national interview with Andrew Friedman, the brilliant president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The hosts asked Friedman about the key to the Dodgers’ sustained success with pitching.

Since Friedman was put in charge of the LA front office in 2015, the Dodgers rank first in the majors with a 3.38 ERA and rarely run low on pitching depth. They almost always come up with solutions, and part of that is knowing that the defense will save runs during difficult times for the pitching staff. In the crucial component of run prevention, no team does it better than the Dodgers.

Friedman’s answer was illuminating. He said the Dodgers don’t view pitching and defense as separate areas. The Dodgers consider pitching and defense as one entity, and the front office is determined to make sure to put them together. They won’t assemble a good pitching staff only to have it break apart because of damage caused by terrible defense. Dodger pitchers, Friedman said, can always count on strong support from their fielders.

Friedman wasn’t exaggerating. In his first season, 2015, the Dodgers were just a tick below average in defensive runs saved. That wouldn’t happen again.

Beginning in 2016, the Dodgers have never ranked worse than 10th in the majors for defensive runs saved in a season. In seven of the last eight seasons, LA has ranked among the MLB’s top six defenses in defensive runs saved. Take the eight-season block as a whole (2016-2023) and the Dodgers have saved more runs with defense – 462 – than any team in the bigs.

The Cardinals offer a fascinating, cautionary example of an organization that once valued defense – and greatly benefited from it – only to strangely deemphasize the value of defense for an unimposing group of pitchers. It was an inexplicable, careless blunder, and the Cardinals have paid a heavy price for the neglect.

From 2019 through 2022, St. Louis starting pitchers ranked 26th in the majors with a 19.6 percent strikeout rate. But over the same four seasons, the Cardinals ranked fourth in MLB with a starting-pitching ERA of 3.90.

The starters weren’t punished for their low strikeout and swing-miss rates. An excellent defense took care of the pitchers and kept the runs-scored total down. In defensive runs saved, the Cardinals ranked fourth in the majors in 2019, first in 2020, second in 2021, and were tied for third in 2022. The STL fielders a total of 257 runs over the four-season stretch.

And that’s why the Cardinals maintained an impressive ERA despite the shortage of strikeout firepower. Over the same four seasons, when you took the impact of defense out of it, the Cardinals ranked a below-average 18th in the majors with a 4.32 fielding independent ERA. The pitching really had to rely on a sure and rangy defense.

All of this went kaboom in 2023. After four consecutive seasons of smartly playing superb defense to protect vulnerable pitchers, the Cardinals went away from the highly effective formula … and it’s been a disaster.

In 2023 the Cardinals rank 24th in the majors in defensive runs saved at 15 runs below average. Their overall ERA (4.71) ranks 24th in the majors. Their starting pitchers are 25th with a 4.84 ERA. None of this is a coincidence. Remember what Andrew Friedman said: pitching and defense are a single entity. They can’t be separated.

If Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and manager Oli Marmol stayed true to that principle, this team wouldn’t be more competitive, have more wins, and be a lot less embarrassing.

With hopelessly thin and mediocre pitching and a faulty defense, the Cardinals are conceding 5.05 runs per game this season. That would be their worst showing in a season since the 2007 Cardinals gave up 5.12 runs per contest.

Sure, the limitations on defensive shifting are a factor in 2023. But it isn’t significant. And if the Cardinals try to use that as an excuse, that’s weak. Don’t let them spin their way out of this. Answer me this: if the restrictions on shifting are killing defenses in 2023, then why are so many teams playing high-quality defense. The Cardinals have actually done well this season when using defensive shifts … but they don’t do it enough, and that’s their fault.

The same applies to this notion of “improvement” on defense. After being minus 21 in defensive runs saved before the All-Star break, the Cardinals are a +6 in defensive runs saved during the second half. OK, that’s fine. Good for them. But here’s the much larger point: It’s too late. By the time this manager and the coaching staff got around to cleaning up the defense, the Cardinals already were miles away from first place.

Here are other indicators of a loose, unreliable defense:

The Cardinals rank 30th (last) in the majors in defensive efficiency. Converting only 66 percent of balls in play into outs.

Because of that the .325 batting average on balls in play against St. Louis is the highest against this franchise in a season since the Modern Era began in 1900. That’s an astonishing stat – one that’s been completely ignored locally.

The .274 batting average against the Cardinals in 2023 is the highest yielded by the team in a full season since 1993 (.276.)

The Cardinals are allowing 9.7 hits per nine innings, their highest in a full season since the Expansion Era began in 1961.

There’s more stuff to dish, but I’ve made my point. Take a look around the majors. Almost all of the teams that are destined for the postseason – or remain in strong contention – are ranked above average in either defensive efficiency, defensive runs saved, or both. Examples include Milwaukee, Toronto, Seattle, Minnesota, Atlanta, Texas, Baltimore, LA Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Houston.

Defense really matters, but the president of baseball ops and the manager defaulted on a team strength and let the defense lapse. But will there be any accountability? Of course not. The owner loves the president of baseball ops, the president of baseball ops loves the manager, and the manager loves the coaches. Everything is fine. Everyone is terrific at their jobs. That’s why the team is 16 games under .500 entering Tuesday’s tiff in Pittsburgh. That’s why more fans are staying away from Busch Stadium instead of using their tickets.

We could say that the Cardinals dropped the ball in 2023. I’d put it another way: they didn’t get to the ball. Not nearly enough times, anyway. There’s no defense for this defensive collapse of 2023.

ACCOUNTING DEPARTMENT: Monday’s loss gave the Cardinals a 1-5 record in their last six games, and they’ve been outscored 43-6 in the five defeats … in going 1-5 the Cardinals have scored 2.2 runs per game, allowed 7.7 runs per game, and have an ERA of 6.96 … the Cardinals are 11-18 since July 21 for a .379 winning percentage that’s tied with Arizona for the worst in the NL over that time … in this 11-18 stretch the Cards have scored 3 runs or fewer in 16 of their 29 games and have a 5.40 starting-pitching ERA that ranks 27th overall and 14th in the NL since July 21.

A NEW LOW IN THE STANDINGS: The last place Cardinals are 55-71 (.437). They fell to 1 and ½ games behind the fourth-place Pirates. They’re now a season-worst 13 and ½ games out of first place (Milwaukee) in the NL Central and are 11 games behind the second-place Cubs.

THE VICTIMS ARE NOW THE BULLIES: From 2016 through 2022, the Cardinals were 77-47 against the Pirates for a gleaming winning percentage of .621. But the Pirates are 6-2 vs. St. Louis this season and have outscored the Cardinals by 18 runs in the eight games … Monday’s loss gave the Cardinals a 13-21 record against NL Central rivals this season for a .382 winning percentage … last season the Cardinals were 48-28 against NL Central foes for a .631 win percentage … more specifically, the Cardinals are 10-18 (.357) this season against the Pirates, Cubs and Reds after going 38-19 (.667) against the three teams last year. And there could be more of this coming because the Brewers, Pirates, Reds and Cubs have loaded farm systems … by the way: the Cardinals are 0-4 at Pittsburgh this season.

KIZ STRIKES AGAIN: Andrew Knizner had another good night at the plate, accounting for the Cardinals’ lone run with a fifth-inning solo homer in Monday’s 13-1 wipeout by Pittsburgh. It was Knizner’s 10th home run of the season; in his first four years with the Cardinals he homered only seven times total.

Knizner’s slugging percentage for his first four seasons with STL was .288; he’s jacked that up by more than 200 points this season with a .497 slug this season.

Knizner is only one of 19 MLB catchers with 10 or more homers in 2023. Knizner’s .497 slugging percentage ranks fourth among MLB catchers that have a minimum 170 plate appearances this season. Only Yanier Diaz, Sean Murphy and Freddy Fermin have put up a higher slug than Knizner (minimum 170 PA.)

ANOTHER FUN CATCHER NOTE: Since the beginning of July, Willson Contreras and Knizner rank first and second, respectively, among MLB catchers in batting average, onbase percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and wRC+. That’s based on a minimum of 70 plate appearances over that time.

SOMEWHAT ODD CONTRERAS SPLITS: Contreras has 299 plate appearances when in the lineup as a catcher – and 110 PA when used as a designated hitter. For some reason – and this wasn’t the case during his time with the Cubs – Contreras performs much better offensively when he catches. Maybe it’s a pride thing and the all-out intensity that Contreras has when he’s catching. Maybe it’s random. Maybe it’s much ado about little.

Let’s take a look. Notes: I excluded onbase percentage because the rates are similar when he catches or lines up at DH. Also, please remember that the league average wRC+ is 100.

Batting Average: .271 as catcher, .228 as DH.
Slugging Pct: .469 as catcher, .348 as DH.
OPS: .824 as catcher, .696 at DH.
wRC+: 128 as catcher, .101 at DH
Homers: 12 as catcher, one at DH.

Contreras homers an average of every 21.8 at-bats as a catcher. At DH he has one home run in 92 at-bats. Makes no sense.

Since the beginning of July, Contreras has a .403 batting average and 1.208 OPS when he’s in the lineup as the catcher – and a .280 average and .720 OPS when slotted at DH. Go figure.

JOE POSNANSKI ON CONTRERAS: On his “Joe Blogs” blog on Substack, the award-winning sportswriter Joe Posnanski put Willson Contreras on his list of the hottest players since July 1.

“What an odd year it has been for Contreras,’ Posnanski wrote. “Remember when the Cardinals stopped letting him catch? And then, like a week later, they reversed course and made him a catcher again. And then (Yankees broadcaster) Michael Kay reported that when Contreras was catching, he was calling for certain pitches that the pitchers didn’t actually throw. The whole thing was a giant mess, a reflection of the Cardinals’ mess of a season.

“Well, since July 1, Contreras is hitting .378/.483/.612 in 32 games. This hasn’t helped change the overall story in St. Louis, but it is a good reminder that Contreras is a darn good hitter, and the Cardinals JUST signed him to a five-year, $87.5 million deal, and maybe the wise thing is to invest in your players rather than having knee-jerk reactions and making big, bold public moves that embarrass them. It sure seemed like the Cardinals used to know that.”

ON DREW ROM: I felt bad for the rookie while watching his MLB debut in Monday’s start against the Pirates. He was socked for six earned runs in 3 and ⅔ innings. He faced 24 batters and half of them reached base via eight hits and four walks. When the Pirates connected, they had nine hard-hit balls (56.3%). They barreled pitches at a rate of 31.3 percent. The average exit velocity off Rom was a blistering 95.4 mph. He got only three swings and misses. His fastball velocity averaged only 90.3 mph.

Rom, 23, got flustered. It was an unfortunate debut. If Rom gets another chance with the big club, I think we’ll see a better version of what he can bring to the show. That doesn’t mean we should view Rom as a sure-thing prospect. That obviously isn’t the case. Not yet, anyway.

RISP UPDATE: The Cardinals were 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position Monday. Their .178 average with RISP in August is the second-worst in the majors to Oakland’s .153. The Cardinals have left 922 runners on base this season, the most by a major-league team. And that’s 42 more runners stranded than the second-highest LOB team (Padres) in the National League.

AS THE ROTATION TURNS: Since the Aug. 1 trade deadline the Cardinals revised starting rotation has a 5.75 ERA that ranks 26th in the majors and 14th in the NL. In August opponents have slapped St. Louis starters for a .275 average, .330 OBP and .465 slug.

MATTHEW LIBERATORE TO THE IL: The strained back was more than the Cardinals let on – which is kind of what they do. Underplay injuries. Put it in the spin cycle and expect the media to fall for it. Which, come to think of it, works pretty well for the Cardinals. Liberatore was placed on the IL Tuesday. The Cards used the move to add depth to the bullpen in the form of right-hander Jacob Barnes, a travelin’ man that has worked as an itinerant reliever for the Brewers, Royals, Angels, Mets, Blue Jays, Tigers and Yankees. Barbes, 33, has a 4.72 career ERA in the majors (249 IP) with a 4.14 fielding-independent ERA.

The Cardinals signed him on July 19 after he had been released by the Rangers (May 21) and Phillies (July 10.) Barnes had a 1.53 ERA in 17 and ⅔ innings for Triple A Memphis. This is known as a “dumpster dive,” which also happens to be a popular hobby for the St. Louis front office. As for Liberatore – remember that time when he pitched an excellent game at Tampa Bay in a start that caused widespread hyperventilation?

ADAM WAINWRIGHT GOES FOR NO. 199: He made a solid, above-average start against the Mets last week, but the Cardinals scored only two runs in a 4-2 loss. You’ll hear a lot about Waino’s career 23-8 record and 3.60 starter ERA against the Pirates – but if we’re trying to be honest here, the numbers lack relevancy. At age 42 (almost) Wainwright isn’t the younger, career-peak model of himself. We know that just by looking at his 8.42 ERA this season. Wainwright hasn’t pitched against the Pirates this season but did post a very good start there in 2022.

Wainwright enters Tuesday’s assignment with an 8.24 road ERA that’s the third-worst among MLB starting pitchers this season. Only Noah Syndergaard (9.37) and Luis Severino (9.08) have done worse on the road.

Here’s the hope for Tuesday’s Waino Watch: (1) The Cardinals score early and often to enhance his odds of getting No. 199. (2) His start against the Mets – three earned runs in six innings – represented progress and he’s ready to deliver something similar when facing the Pirates.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can 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

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.

All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

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.