THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals’ downfall in 2023 was mostly caused by poor offseason planning, pitiful pitching and deplorable defense. The team’s offense could only do so much to compensate for the catastrophic failures.
But with 48 games remaining on the schedule, the STL offense is drooping. In losing 12 of their last 17 games, the Cardinals have scored three runs or fewer 11 times. They’ve been held to two runs or less in seven games. It’s a comedown for an attack that’s rated among the 10 best offenses in the majors for most of the season.
What’s gone wrong?
1. Poor timely hitting. During their 5-12 skid the Cardinals have done fine in the basic stats, batting .256 with a .325 onbase percentage and .429 slug. But they’ve averaged only 3.9 runs over that time. The prime reason is a .207 with runners in scoring position over the last 17 games. The drought has worsened over the last 11 games, with the Cards going 11 for 76 (.145) with RISP.
2. The shortage of knockout punches. Even though the Cardinals have done a solid overall job in hitting with men on base this season, they’ve failed to deliver knockout blows on too many occasions. And their run-scoring production has suffered because of their bad habit of abandoning too many runners.
Among MLB teams only Toronto has left more runners on base (836) than St. Louis (822.) The Cards have stranded 128 runners on base during this 5–12 stretch.
Despite ranking no lower than seventh in the majors in some key categories – batting average, onbase percentage, slugging, OPS and wRC+ – the Cardinals are 12th overall with an average of 4.62 runs per game. That’s pretty good but should be better. That’s difficult to do when leaving so many runners behind.
3. Individual hitters are failing to deliver at money time. When batting with runners in scoring position over the 5-12 stretch, Jordan Walker, Nolan Arenado, Nolan Gorman, Lars Nootbaar, Tyler O’Neill and the departed Paul DeJong collectively went 7 for 65 for a .108 batting average with RISP.
4. Reduced impact on home runs: In losing 12 of their last 17 games, the Cardinals have homered 25 times. That’s an average of 1.47 homers per game, which is actually better than their overall season rate of 1.39 HRs per contest. But not all home runs are equal; 18 of STL’s last 25 homers have been solo shots, struck with the bases empty. And they’ve hit six other homers with one man on base. Only one of the 25 homers was a three-run shot. Twelve of their last 14 homers have come with the bases empty.
5. Here’s another way to put it: the Cardinals have relied on high-impact home runs all season. In fact, 51.8 percent of their 527 runs this season were delivered via the home run. But even though their raw home-run count is above average during their 5-12 cold streak, the Cardinals have plated only 34.8 percent of their runs on the long ball. Too many solos.
SIGH: And then there’s Tyler O’Neill. He was banging after returning from a lengthy absence caused by a strained back. But now he has a “knee tightness” and has been scratched from the lineup for the second straight day. Does O’Neill like playing baseball? Does he want to play baseball?
ACCOUNTING DEPARTMENT: The Cardinals’ current .430 winning percentage ranks 27th in the majors, ahead of only the White Sox, Rockies, Royals and A’s … that .430 winning percentage is 14th among 15 NL teams with only the Rockies (.398) doing worse than that … with Tuesday’s loss to the Rays the Cardinals are 33-45 this season against teams with a .500 record or better. The Cardinals also have a losing record (16-20) against losing teams … the Cardinals are 11-13 since the All-Star break and are 2-5 in August … I forgot to mention this on Monday, but Sunday’s 1-0 loss to the Rockies gave the Cardinals a humiliating 9-23 record in games decided by one run.
STAT OF THE DAY: I used the StatHead search engine to come up with this one. MLB statisticians didn’t start tracking batting average with balls in play against a pitching staff until 1914.
So our sample size here is 110 seasons. The 2023 Cardinals pitching staff has been pelted for a .325 batting on balls in play. That’s the highest BABIP against Cardinal pitchers during the 110 seasons of available data.
The limitations on defensive shifts is one factor, sure. I say that because the overall MLB batting average is .248 this season, up from .243 in 2022 when there were no restrictions on shifts. MLB’s overall batting average on balls in play – .297 – is a seven-point increase from last season’s .290.
This season there has also been a dramatic reduction in the number of errors charged to defenders; official scorers are being generous in ruling hits instead of errors.
But that glaring .325 average on batted balls in play against St. Louis pitchers has a lot to do with the team’s subpar defense.
I’ve made frequent references to the Defensive Efficiency rating this season to show the alarming state of the Cards defense. And the formula for this is simple: how many batted balls in play does a defense turn into outs?
The Cardinals have the worst Defensive Efficiency rating in the majors, converting only 66.6 percent of balls in play into outs. My friend Joe Sheehan (JoeSheehan.com) recently added two notes on this in his excellent newsletter: “The Cardinals have not finished last in this stat since 1971, and the raw mark of (66.6%) would be their worst since 1930.
From 2019 through 2022, the Cardinals’ pitchers allowed a .278 batting average on balls in play, which ranked third in the majors to the Dodgers (.261) and Astros (.272).
This had nothing to do with randomness; the Cardinals led the MLB teams in defensive runs saved over that four-season span. St. Louis starting pitchers were 26th in strikeout rate over the four seasons and the outstanding, best-in-show defense was essential to their success.
The St. Louis defense collapsed this season. Their low-strikeout, low swing-miss pitching staff was exposed.
That – and not the shift limits – largely explains the massive increase of 47 points in batting average on balls in play against STL pitchers compared to the stretch from 2019 through 2022.
In 2022 Fielding Bible credited St. Louis infielders with 50 defensive runs saved; no MLB infield did better than that. This season Cardinal infielders collectively are a minus 7 in defensive runs saved. So that’s a net change of minus 43 defensive runs saved by the St. Louis infield from this year compared to 2022.
In a related note: The Cardinals have allowed 689 singles this season. The Nationals are the only MLB team that’s given up more singles (704) than St. Louis.
PUTTING A BAD SEASON IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT: With Tuesday’s unsurprising 4-2 loss to a superior Tampa Bay squad, the Cardinals (49-65) are 16 games under .500 for the first time since slouching to 36-52 on July 7.
Should the Cardinals fall to 17 games under .500, it would be the first time that’s happened since late in the 1997 season. The ‘97 Cardinals were 17 games under .500 with a 71-88 record on Sept. 25 – and reached their low point (71-89) of 18 games below .500 on Sept. 26.
Since Bill DeWitt Jr. became owner/chairman in 1996, the Cardinals never went below .500 in five different seasons and never dropped to more than four games under .500 in 21 seasons.
The Cardinals haven’t had a losing season since 2007 (78-84) but that team never drifted lower than 11 games under .500 during the year. The 1999 Cardinals also had a losing season (75-86) but their bottom point was 12 under .500 at 74-86 in the next-to-last game of the season.
MILES MIKOLAS: Tuesday evening the veteran righthander gave his team a sterling start and a chance to win at Tampa Bay. Mikolas allowed two earned runs in 7 innings, and one of the runs scored on a single allowed by reliever Andre Pallante after Mikolas was pulled from the game in the bottom of the eighth. In his last two starts Mikolas has limited opponents to four earned runs in 14 innings for a 2.57 ERA. And he’s struck out 12 with only one walk in the last two starts.
OLI MARMOL’S MOVE: The Cards manager has had plenty of withering criticism directed at him for his decision to make a pitching change after Mikolas allowed a leadoff triple in the 8th. Mikolas was still fresh, having thrown 80 pitches after making his first start in a week. I thought Mikolas had the opportunity to pitch his way out of the threat created by the leadoff triple.
MY OVERRIDING COMPLAINT: That would be Marmol’s choice to go with Pallante. Marmol is perpetually obsessed with Pallante, who isn’t as effective in 2023 after a solid rookie campaign in 2022.
Marmol ignores Pallante’s flaws including a skimpy 18 percent strikeout rate this season. And while Pallante gets bushels of ground balls with his 75 percent GB rate, I’ve already explained why that doesn’t matter as much in 2023 – the team’s porous infield defense erases a significant part of the advantage.
In 2021-2022 combined, opponents had a .212 batting average on grounders against Cardinal pitchers. This season opponents are hitting .252 on grounders, and that’s the fourth-highest yield among NL pitching staffs.
The other disconcerting issue with the right-handed Pallante is his struggles against RH batters. While Pallante has recently improved in this area, the weakness is still a problem. RH batters are hitting .296 against him since the All-Star break – which is a heck of a lot less than their .367 average against him before the All-Star pause.
It really depends how you want to parse it. For example: Pallante allowed a .318 average to RH hitters during the first three months, but their average against him is .375 since the start of July.
In the eighth-inning blowup, Pallante faced five batters. He retired the first hitter then Tampa Bay got him with four consecutive singles. RH batters went two for three with two RBI against Pallante in the eighth.
With a good defense behind him Pallante arguably would have gotten better results Tuesday. But as I mentioned earlier in this piece, the Cardinals have allowed the second-largest total of singles in the majors this season. The value of ground balls has gone down for St. Louis in 2023.
GOLDY UNPLUGGED: In the first two months of the season Cards first baseman Paul Goldschmidt slugged .512, hit a home run every 21 at-bats, and walloped a double every 12.4 at-bats. Since the beginning of June he’s slugged .394, homered every 27.6 at-bats and doubled every 44.2 at-bats.
The drop in homers isn’t that big of a deal. But during his career one of Goldy’s most enduring qualities is his ability to strum for high-volume production of doubles. Since coming to the Cardinals in 2019, Goldschmidt ranked 15th among MLB hitters with 115 doubles through 2022.
So far in 2023, Goldschmidt’s 22 doubles are ranked 58th in the majors. And he’s had only two doubles in 130 at-bats over his last 33 games. His slugging percentage over that time is only .354.
However … Goldschmidt hasn’t lost a thing this season in his average exit velocity (91.6 mph) and hard-hit rate (51.1%) Both metrics have improved from last season. I’ll take that as a sign that the doubles will come.
THE STRUGGLES OF JORDAN WALKER: At the end of June, the rookie outfielder crested with a .306 batting average, .375 OBP and .472 slug for a .847 OPS. Based on wRC+, Walker was performing 36 percent above league average up to that point.
But in 124 plate appearances since the start of July, Walker is batting .197 with a .242 OBP and .333 slug for a .575 OPS. His wRC+ over that time puts him 42 percent below league average offensively.
Hitting ground balls isn’t the problem here. His ground-ball rate has steadily decreased and is nothing like what we saw early in the season.
Here are a few of Walker’s issues at the plate:
* His hard-hit rate was a superb 56 percent at the end of June. Since then it’s only 34.5 percent. And he’s barreled only four pitches in his last 32 games.
* Walker’s average exit velocity was 92.8 mph through June. Since then it’s dropped to 89 mph.
* Plate discipline. Through the end of June Walker chased pitches out of the strike zone on 35.7% of his swings. That was on the high side, but it’s been worse – 40.3% – since the start of July. Walker’s walk rate was 8.1 percent through June but has plummeted to 4% since the start of July. His strikeout rate has gone up but not by an alarming amount.
ETCETERA: Center fielder Dylan Carlson should have caught that ball that went for the triple off Mikolas in the bottom of the eighth … big start tonight for Dakota Hudson; he has to prove that he can pitch consistently well. He had a fine start last week against the Twins (7 IP, 3 R) and can’t throw that away by pitching poorly against the Rays … Willson Contreras struck for his 12th homer of the season Monday and is batting .365 with a .608 slug and 1.060 OPS since June 16 … Through Tuesday rookies Walker and Alec Burleson each had a 98 OPS+ which is two percent less than the league average … but since the All-Star break Burleson is batting .352 with a .364 OBP and .630 slug. His wRC+ since the break is 170 which means he’s 70 percent above league average offensively over that time. And nine of Burleson’s 19 hits since the All-Star break have gone for extra bases – six doubles and three homers.
Thanks for reading …
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.