THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals were ambushed again on Tuesday night, getting shoved into a 5-1 deficit after one inning of play in Atlanta. There would be no recovery, no comeback, no hope. Final score: 7-1.
And the Tuesday loss was similar to Monday’s loss when the Braves pounded out a 6-0 lead after two innings and went onto win 6-3.
When the starting pitching buries the team early and makes its own offense irrelevant, the impact is catastrophic. The Braves had a 94 percent win expectancy when leading 6-0 in the first game, and a 85% win expectancy after jumping ahead 5-1 in last night’s game. The odds were stacked against the Cardinals, and a comeback was highly unlikely.
There’s no defending the starting pitching. The injuries to Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz were a blow to the rotation, but my empathy is limited for two reasons:
1) In the offseason planning for 2022, the St. Louis front office declined to take a more aggressive approach to ensuring rotation depth for the season. Given how the STL rotation was blasted apart by injuries in 2021, there’s no justifiable reason for allowing it to happen again. Aren’t you supposed to learn from dreadful experiences and do your best to prevent it from happening again? Signing Steven Matz to a four-year $44 million free-agent deal was fine … but hardly enough. Ironically Matz’s own vulnerable health history came into play with a left shoulder impingement that’s caused him to miss 45 days. When he rejoins the rotation, Matz will try to improve his 6.03 ERA.
2) The club took a risk by counting so heavily on Jack Flaherty, who missed 105 days with injuries last season and has been out for 83 days so far this season. After pitching 347.1 total innings in 2018-2019, Flaherty has contributed only 126.1 innings over the last two-plus seasons. The Cardinals assumed that Flaherty was all good, all healthy, and would roll through 2022 as if the injuries never happened. The confidence was naive. The consequences are severe. Flaherty and the team screwed up by letting Jack cut his minor-league rehab assignment short to return to the majors too soon. Again: it was essential to add more rotation depth.
3) It was ludicrous to put Jordan Hicks into the rotation despite his own history of chronic injuries and an acute shortage of preparation time in 2022 spring training. In an absolutely predictable outcome, Hicks was injured again (forearm) after making seven starts. He’s back in the bullpen.
4) Other NL contenders have been rocked harder by rotation injuries this season. Including Covid IL, Cardinal starters had missed 138 days to injury this season. Compare that to the Dodgers (359 days), Mets (308), Giants (187), Padres (182) and Brewers (151.) Spotrac, which tracks injuries, lists Jordan Hicks with 38 days missed this season. If we count his absent time in the starting-pitcher category, the Cards’ missed days total would increase to 176. But when Hicks went on the IL, the plan was to have him return in a bullpen role … so it’s fair to put his days-missed total in the reliever category.
5) The organization wildly overestimated the MLB readiness of starting-pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, who has a 5.66 ERA in five starts for St. Louis. And the field staff has opted to use Zack Thompson as a reliever. He’s good at it. But we can make the argument that Zack would be a capable starting pitcher for a team that needs capable starting pitching depth. In fairness the Cardinals deserve praise for drafting and developing Andre Pallante and recognizing his big-league readiness coming out of spring training this year. One bad start in Atlanta does not change that.
6) Other than Matz, the search for depth led to free-agent signings of Drew VerHagen and Aaron Brooks. Ugh. They’ve combined for a 6.75 ERA in 29.1 innings this season. Brooks was designated for assignment and is pitching at Triple A Memphis; VerHagen is on the IL for the second time this season and has missed 35 days in all.
7) Other teams jumped on the opportunity to sign notable starting pitchers to one-year contracts ranging from $1.75 million to $8 million in salary this season. And so far all have done very well, reasonably well, or otherwise solid. The list: Zach Davies (Dbacks), Jose Quintana (Pirates) Matt Moore (Texas), Chad Kuhl (Rockies), Johnny Cueto (White Sox), Chris Archer (Twins), Martin Perez (Rangers), Dylan Bundy (Twins), Michael Wacha (Red Sox), Jordan Lyles (Orioles), Tyler Anderson (Dodgers) and Corey Kluber (Rays.)
Lyles has the highest ERA (4.70) among pitchers on this list, but he’s been better than that with a 4.25 FIP that’s better than every STL starter except Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright. I think the Cardinals could – and should – aim higher than Lyles. That said, he’s averages nearly 6 innings per start
Matt Moore has been used exclusively in relief and is doing a terrific job in Texas with his 1.98 ERA. But this shows the intelligence of having an extra starter or two on hand; usually they can serve the team in a relief role if necessary. And until recently the Cardinals were using inferior bullpen guys who shouldn’t be working on a major-league mound.
Bottom line? Plenty of pitchers were out there at a reasonable price, or a bargain price, and every one of these arms were signed to a one-year commitment that limits the team’s liability.
The Cardinals are said to be looking at Davies, Kuhl and Lyles as potential trade targets. Well, both starters were available last offseason on one-year contracts that paid $1.75 million (Davies), $3 million (Kuhl) and $7 million (Lyles.)
The team’s current predicament could have been avoided. But evidently there was no room for growth on a team payroll that ranks 13th in the majors in 40-man roster spending.
NOTES ON MY SCORECARD
The Accounting Department: The Cardinals have lost five of their last six games to fall to 44-39 … the Brewers lost at home to the Cubs on Tuesday, so the Cardinals remained 3 games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central “race” … The Cardinals 20-23 on the road this season … they’ve lost 13 of their last 20 road games and are 4-11 in their last 15 road games … the Redbirds are now 18-24 against teams with winning record … and they are a horrid 5-16 record in their last 21 road games against opponents with a winning record …
The Cards are 7-12 since reaching their season high point of 37-27 on June 14 … the Cardinals have a losing record (28-29) in their last 57 games … since catcher Yadier Molina (right knee) went on the IL on June 17, the Cardinals are 7-11 with a 4.18 ERA including a 5.42 ERA by their starting pitchers.
Excuse Me, But I Have More To Say About The Starting Pitching: Even with the injuries to Flaherty and Matz, there’s no justification for the collapse of the St. Louis rotation. And the downturn is unsettling. Let’s take a look:
– The rotation ERA is 10.13 through the first five games of a seven-game road trip to Philadelphia and Atlanta. The Cardinals are 1-4 in their travels so far. In the five games the Phillies and Braves have blackjacked Cardinal starting pitchers Mikolas, Liberatore, Wainwright, Hudson and Pallante for a .408 batting average, .440 OBP and a .663 slug for a 1.103 OPS. The starters have faced 109 batters and 48 have reached base. The average start over the trip’s first five games was 4.26 innings. And with runners in scoring position the STL starters have been shredded for a .370 average and 1.005 OPS. Ugly stuff.
– Since Flaherty’s inadvisable return to the big-club rotation on June 15, the Cardinals have lost 12 of 19 games. The flimsy rotation has a 5.54 ERA in the 19 contests and is paramount in the team’s wrong-turn direction in the standings.
– The starters have only five quality starts in the last 19 games and have been popped for a .298 average, .482 slug and 1.145 OPS. Using the Game Score devised by Bill James, STL starters have delivered a below-average start in 13 of the 19 games. And this season when the Cardinals receive a below-average Game Score from their starter, their record is 13-25.
– Cardinals starting pitchers have a 4.98 ERA in the team’s 42 games against winning teams so far this season.
– And when the Cardinals play a winning-record team on the road, their starting-pitcher ERA is an eyesore 5.86.
– The rotation’s numbers against good teams are disturbing. Should the Cardinals qualify for the playoffs, this does not bode well for potential postseason matchups. Unless something changes, of course.
Final Thought On The Starting Pitching: The idea of going “deep” into starts is understandable. And lately the Cardinals are coming up way short in their innings count by starters. On the 1-4 road trip the bullpen has pitched nearly as many innings (19.2) as the starting pitchers (21.1.) This is never a good sign. That said, St. Louis starters are averaging 5.1 innings per start through the first 83 games of the season. The MLB average this year is 5.2 innings per start, so the Cardinals are right there. Other contending teams – Rays, Twins, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Giants – are averaging fewer (or the same) number of innings than the STL starters.
Here’s what I think: I’m not hung up on having a starter go six-plus innings. The game has changed, and “deep” starts aren’t as frequent in the modern pitching world.
As usual the Tampa Bay Rays get it. They rank dead last in the majors in rotation innings (369.2) and average only 4.6 innings per start – and have MLB’s fourth-best starting pitching ERA at 3.29. The Rays get quality work from their starters and don’t leave guys in because of some obsession with counting innings. They prefer quality; get the best from a starter, then get him out of there before he becomes vulnerable.
So why get hung up on the number 6, as manager Oli Marmol seems to be? If the six innings aren’t good innings, then what’s the point? I’ll take five good innings, or 4.1 good innings over six mediocre innings anytime. And that’s especially true now that the Cardinals are benefiting from the stellar relief being turned in by their updated bullpen. If the Rays can get quality work from their starters by having them throw fewer innings, the Cardinals should look at Tampa Bay’s example.
The STL Bullpen Is A Strength: This shouldn’t be overlooked during a time of the substantial stress and bruising being absorbed by Cardinal starting pitchers.
During the 1-4 road trip the St. Louis bullpen has a 0.92 ERA after allowing only two earned runs in 19.2 innings. And their bullpen ERA (2.52) is the second best in the NL since June 15.
The reason is obvious: the Cardinals have moved away from Nick Wittgren, VerHagen and T.J. McFarland and restocked the middle-innings relief corps with Zack Thompson, James Naile, Packy Naughton, Junior Fernandez, Jordan Hicks and Juan Oviedo. In the 19 games since June 15, those six relievers have allowed only three earned runs in 41.2 combined innings for a radiant 0.64 ERA. I mean, how can a group of six relievers do better than that?
Warning: Stupidity Could Cause A Bullpen Relapse. The Cardinals signed VerHagen and McFarland to free-agent contracts last offseason, and both are going through their injury-illness rehab assignments now. What happens when VerHagen and McFarland are cleared for a return to the major-league staff? Will the Cardinals engage in flat-out idiocy by bumping a couple of relievers who are doing excellent work to make room for VerHagen and McFarland – two brazenly ineffective guys that have combined to allow 36 earned runs in 46.2 innings this season? If you’re keeping score at home that’s a 6.94 ERA.
– Marmol made the right call in moving Tommy Edman out of the leadoff spot, at least for a while. During his slump, Edman’s onbase percentage of a leadoff man dropped to .329 on the season. Through May 22, Edman had a dynamic leadoff OBP of .370. Since May 23, his leadoff OBP is .299. That’s alarming. Overall in 182 plate appearances since May 23 Edman is hitting .241 with a .291 OBP, .329 slug and .621 OPS.
– The Cardinals are 4-39 (.103) with runners in scoring position over their last six games. And they’re 3 for 31 (.097) with runners in scoring position in the five road games in Philly and ATL. The Redbirds are also batting only .224 overall on the trip and have a .156 average with runners on base. The Cardinals have been outscored 28-14 in the first five games of the road trip. If we remove their five-homer, seven-run game Saturday at Philadelphia, the Cardinals have scored seven total runs in the other four games. Even with their poor recent performance on offense the Cardinals still rank second to the Dodgers in the NL with a 109 OPS+ and are in the top five (NL) in batting average, OBP and slugging.
– Brendan Donovan Has Cooled: It was inevitable because his high-level breakout numbers were unsustainable. In his last 13 games (12 starts) Donovan is hitting .205 with a .321 OBP and .318 slug for a .939 OPS. He has two extra-base hits over that time. That said, the rookie Donovan is still having a swell all-around season with his .401 OBP and .806 OPS and an adjusted OPS that puts him 34 percent above league average offensively.
Juan Yepez Gets His Rips: The rookie slugger has no walks and 17 strikeouts in his last 72 plate appearances going back to June 12. But I did not come here to criticize him. He’s aggressive at the plate. And during the stretch that began June 12, Yepez has seven homers, four doubles, 15 RBI, a .300 batting average, .657 slug and a .953 OPS.
For the season, Yepez leads all MLB rookies (minimum 190 PA) in slugging percentage (.514) and OPS (.832) and is second in OPS+ (135) and batting average (.279.) His 11 homers are fifth overall among MLB rookies and second in the NL to Pittsburgh’s Jack Suwinski, who has 14.
Next On The Sked: Miles Mikolas vs. Max Fried. The 6:20 p.m. game will be televised by ESPN. Mikolas has a 2.61 ERA in 16 starts this season including a 1.83 ERA in his last five assignments. Despite his superb pitching over the last five starts, the Cardinals went 2-3. As for the lefty Fried, he hasn’t allowed more than four runs in a start since opening day and has a 2.66 ERA in 16 starts. RH batters don’t beat Fried up; they have a .600 OPS against him this season.
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.