THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Though it’s wise to remain cautious and put tight restrictions on your optimism, those cuckoo Cardinals are threatening to become a better baseball team.
Tuesday’s 4-2 homecoming victory over the Houston Astros was an encouraging way to begin their 13-game trek into the All-Star break. Instead of grumping over jet lag following the London excursion, the Cardinals declined the excuse and won a ballgame after spotting the dynamic Astros starter Framber Valdez a 2-0 lead.
The Cardinals engineered their 12th comeback win of the season. That’s one of the lowest totals in the majors, but for the Cardinals to make a comeback in the NL Central, it helps to make comebacks in games.
The Redbirds were determined competitors. They were grateful to accept a quality start from Jordan Montgomery and didn’t fumble it away. The bullpen was unassailable and Jordan Hicks was the sandman.
Despite striking out nine times, St. Louis hitters made the most of their eight hits and four walks. They were thankful for an important two-RBI contribution from the underappreciated Paul DeJong, who leveled the score at 2-2.
The home team fired up by a two-hit, one RBI game from the intensely energetic Nolan Arenado. He doubled in the go-ahead run for a 3-2 lead and expanded it to 4-2 on a fabulous, mitt-dodging slide into home plate. Arenado’s trick gives me a chance to use a favorite word – legerdemain. Definition: an illusory feat, considered magical by naive observers.”
The Cards forgave a first-inning error by second baseman Brendan Donovan and a poor baserunning decision by Willson Contreras that gave the Astros an easy out. And the oddball Cardinals prevailed despite their hitters going 0 for 9 with five strikeouts after the fifth inning. They hit only one homer; usually they require multiple home runs. Hey, they got to the winner’s circle. It didn’t have to be a magnum opus.
The fellers have won six of their last eight games. It’s a welcome respite from the drudgery of a 32-45 record. The Cardinals are eight games behind the first-place Brewers, and 7 and ½ in arrears to the second-place Reds.
This isn’t hardly a bull-rush charge that’s frightening playmates in the NL Central, but at least the Cardinals are going in the right direction. Will the compass break again? Remember what happened after their 11-3 streak? The Redbirds lost 16 of their next 22 games and were grounded again. And even after winning six of their last eight, the team remains in last place.
The Cardinals have no choice. Winning must become their new habit. It’s like a weight-loss program for an overly large dude like me. It’s easy to knock off a few pounds right away, but what about succeeding over several months? That’s the difficult part.
And while the Cardinals have reduced their deficit – just as I’m getting slightly improved results on the scale – truth is, they haven’t made much progress.
After losing to the Mets 6-1 on June 16, the Cardinals were 16 games below .500. They trailed the division-leading Brewers by 8 and ½ games.
After going a happy 6-2 since then, the Cardinals are still staring at an eight-game deficit. They haven’t gained much ground because the Brewers, Reds and Cubs also have winning records since June 17.
During this time the only NL Central palooka are the Pirates, losers of eight of their last 10. How arduous is the Cardinals’ climb? The Pirates are 16-34 in their last 50 games and STILL lead St. Louis by three games.
Two more with Houston. The Yankees come to St. Louis for the weekend. The road takes them to the All-Star break with a four-game set at Miami, and then three against the White Sox.
After that, we’ll know more about STL’s “buyer or seller?” designation. One way or the other, the Cardinals have 12 games to influence the front-office view of their team.
Let’s proceed …
STAT TO REMEMBER: The Cardinals are 17-4 this season when gifted with a quality start. Is there a way to order more of those? Can Amazon help?
JORDAN MONTGOMERY, DIALED IN: The rugged lefty provided a fantastic start for the Cardinals, limiting the dangerous Astros to one earned run in 6 and ⅔ innings. Montgomery yielded six hits, walked one, struck out six, and induced two double-play grounders.
In his first four starts in May, Monty got roughed up for a 6.64 ERA that was a comedown from his strong first month. But he’s rebounded in his last six starts, giving up eight earned runs in 36 and ⅔ innings for a 1.96 ERA. That six-start run includes 33 strikeouts with only seven walks, and an opponent OPS of .616.
The outstanding performance was the fourth consecutive quality start by Montgomery. He leads the Cardinals with nine quality starts; that’s 43 percent of the team’s 21 QS.
Here’s the quality-start percentage for each St. Louis starter this season:
– Montgomery, 56%
– Miles Mikolas, 38%
– Jack Flaherty, 27%
– Matthew Liberatore, 17%
– Adam Wainwright, 11%
Steven Matz and Jake Woodford did not post a quality start in their 16 combined outings.
Montgomery’s quality start percentage is the 10th best by a National League starter this season. He is easily the team’s best starting pitcher.
JORDAN MONTGOMERY TRIVIA: Did you know that Montgomery and former Cardinals utility man Tim Jones graduated from the same high school in South Carolina? That would be Sumter High – as in Fort Sumter, the site of the unofficial beginning of the U.S. Civil War.
Tim Jones, a most amiable dude, played in 252 games for the Cardinals from 1988 through 1993. Retired NY Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson is the most prominent athlete to graduate from Sumter. He started at 2B during the Yanks’ run of seven AL pennants and three World Series championships between 1957 and 1964. Richardson was a seven–time All-Star who won five Gold Gloves. Richardson is 87 years old.
As a kid I saw Richardson sitting on the front steps of a Baltimore hospital in full uniform (minus cleats) after he’d been concussed on a hard slide in a game against the Orioles. Yep, he was just taking in some fresh air as my dad drove by, inching along in a traffic jam, as we headed home.
Sumter’s most prestigious alum is the renowned artist Jasper Johns, a recipient of many prestigious awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Wikipedia describes him as “an American painter, sculptor, and printmaker whose work is associated with abstract expressionism, Neo-Dada, and pop art. He is well known for his depictions of the American flag and other US-related topics. His works regularly sell for millions of dollars at sale and auction, including a reported $110 million sale in 2010. At multiple times works by Johns have held the title of most paid for a work by a living artist.”
Well, that’s nice but Jordan Montgomery will make more than that as a coveted starting pitcher in a lean free-agent market in the coming offseason.
Let’s hear it for the Sumter Fighting Gamecocks!
JORDAN HICKS, BACK WHERE HE BELONGS? Hicks closed Houston down with a 1-2-3 ninth inning, making him a perfect 5 for 5 in save opportunities since manager Oli Marmol put him in the closer role on June 17. In the five save situations Hicks allowed only three hits – and no walks – in five dominant innings highlighted by a 39 percent strikeout rate.
It’s easy to forget this now, but Hicks was a strong closer for the Cardinals in 2019. He was 14 for 15 in save opportunities, and had a 0.64 ERA over the 14 saves. His one blown save was a real clunker, but it happened early (March 31) and he was good to go after that. Sadly, Hicks’ turn as a closer ended with a torn UCL, and he made his last appearance on June 22. He returned in 2021 but wasn’t fully restored after the surgery and pitched only 10 innings.
In 2022 the front office had a cockamamie idea of turning Hicks into a starter. The horrendous decision set Hicks back, and he had a 4.37 ERA as a reliever last season. And frankly Hicks was flat-out awful earlier this season, lost his spot as a high-leverage reliever, and required a reset that’s working. As Derrick Goold explained, “the Cardinals shifted him on the pitching rubber to give his sinker a different angle against hitters.”
Hicks has thrived in a closer role. It makes him happy, and he goes into these assignments with confidence. Hicks got his chance to close again when Ryan Helsley went on the IL, and his awesome work is a huge factor in the team’s current 6-2 upturn. Since the start of the 2019 season, Hicks has 19 saves in 23 ops for a save rate of 82.6%.
THE “OTHER” JORDAN: The Cardinals have three successful Jordans in Montgomery, Hicks and Walker. The Jordanaires are an interesting quirk in the Cardinals’ season. But let’s talk about Jordan Walker, the rookie wonder who extended his hitting streak to 16 games in the series-opening win over Houston.
Walker has at least one hit in 34 of his 40 games in his MLB debut season. Since returning to the Cardinals from Triple A Memphis on June 2, Walker has gotten a hit in 18 of 20 games.
Walker is having a breakout June. On a list of 87 National League hitters that have at least 75 plate appearances this month, Walker ranks 10th in batting average (.333), 10th in onbase percentage (.418), 12th in OPS (.968) and 17th in slugging (.551). Even better, this month he stands eighth in the NL with a 169 wRC+ that puts him 69 percent above league average offensively.
For the season, among National League rookies that have a minimum 75 plate appearances, Walker ranks second in batting average (.303), third in wRC+, third in onbase percentage (.369), fourth in slugging (.472) and fourth in OPS (.841.) Walker is 35 percent above league average offensively this season.
ARENADO’S TWO-MONTH SURGE: The third baseman had a brutal first month, slugging .319 with a .600 OPS, two homers and 14 RBI. But since the start of May, Arenado is slugging .575 with a .920 OPS, 13 homers and 37 RBI. Per wRC+, Arenado was 35 percent below average offensively during the opening month. But he’s been 46 percent above average since then.
ARENADO’S DEFENSE: He’s still a minus 2 in Outs Above Average this season, and a minus 3 in defensive runs saved. But his defense will improve. In addition to his two hits, an RBI and the run scored on the great slide, Arenado played a sharp defensive game against the Astros on Tuesday. He had four assists – his most in a game since June 11 – to support J. Montgomery’s ground-ball pitching. He appeared to be in rhythm again after looking a little uncomfortable at third base. Arenado hasn’t been charged with an error since June 3, so I think he’s finding his comfort zone.
Arenado has gotten an out on 86 percent of the balls hit to him this season. That’s slightly below his career average of 88%, so it’s not as if he’s collapsed defensively. In my view, Arenado hasn’t benefited from the Cardinals usage of a defensive shift this season, and that explains some of his falloff.
He’s a minus five in defensive runs saved when the Cardinals put on a defensive shift, and a plus 2 in defensive runs saved with no shift. You’d think the dugout would catch onto this, but perhaps I’m incorrect. Based on the Fielding Bible metrics, the St. Louis infield positioning has been out of sync this season.
PROPS FOR DYLAN CARLSON: Since returning from an ankle injury on June 9, Carlson has quietly put up impressive numbers. In 51 plate appearances he has a 171 wRC+ – 71 percent above average – that leads STL hitters this month. For June Carlson is batting .293 average, a good-looking .431 onbase percentage and a .537 slug. And he’s chipped in three homers. Part of his high OPB is a 12% walk rate, and he’s cut down on strikeouts.
June has been a positive month for Carlson. That said, the switch-hitting outfielder still has problems against right-handed pitchers, batting .172 with a .644 OPS against them in June. Per wRC+, Carlson is 34 percent above league average vs. lefties this season and 11% below average against righties.
THE DEJONG FILE: With the Cardinals down 2-0, DeJong got them even with a solo home run in the third and a sacrifice fly in the fourth for a two-RBI night. In his last 12 games, DeJong has four homers in 45 at-bats with a .578 slugging percentage. That includes three homers and a .692 slug in his last seven games.
More from the DeJong File:
* Among MLB shortstops that have at least 190 plate appearances while exclusively playing shortstop this season, DeJong’s .464 slugging percentage ranks third to Corey Seager and Bo Bichette.
* DeJong is tied for ninth among MLB shortstops with four Outs Above Average defensively. That’s even more impressive considering that 19 shortstops have played more innings than Pauly at the position this season.
* DeJong’s 1.3 WAR this season puts him ahead of teammate Nolan Arenado (1.2) and ranks 15th among MLB shortstops. His WAR is just a smidge behind Trea Turner’s 1.4.
* For the season DeJong is nine percent above league average offensively per wRC+. That puts him ahead of many notable shortstops including Trea Turner, Jeremy Pena, Willy Adames, Bobby Witt Jr., Carlos Correa and Javy Baez.
* DeJong has a 36 percent strikeout rate in June. And he owns the worst strikeout rate (30.8%) among regular MLB shortstops this year. But DeJong compensated with his prominent slugging percentage and terrific defense. DeJong has 12 homers in 184 at-bats this season; he’s hit them at a rate of one home run every 15 at-bats. The hopelessly unhinged DeJong haters are fixated on his strikeouts, and I included his high wipeout rate just for them. I am a kind and caring individual.
* DeJong has a .585 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position. Six of his 10 hits in RISP situations have gone for extra bases including four home runs. And when hitting with runners in scoring position DeJong is 30% above league average offensively per wRC+. Interestingly, DeJong’s strikeout rate is a reasonable 22.2% when he bats with runners in scoring position.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Sports Info Solutions, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus.
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.