THE REDBIRD REVIEW

I’ve written plenty of words about the Cardinals and their rotten habit of screwing up the final game of a series. I’m tired of the angle but can’t ignore it. The team won’t give me a break; they do this over and over again to the point of absurdity.

This extremely irritating pattern surfaced again over the weekend, when the Cardinals the Cardinals had a 5-0 lead over the Cubs after three innings, only to louse up the game with a 6-5 loss in 10 innings.

Instead of locking in their five-run lead to win two of three from the Cubs, the Cardinals embarrassed themselves again.

They lost two of three games to an opponent that entered the series with a 3-14 record in its previous 17 games as part of a grim 11-24 stretch. The Cubs traveled to St. Louis with the No. 27 ranking in rotation ERA (5.10) and bullpen ERA (4.70) but the rag-tag pitching staff held the Cardinals to 10 total runs in three games.

We can talk about STL’s starting-pitching holes and the near-constant scrambling of bullpen plans, but it was inexcusable to get shut down by the Chicago pitching staff. Especially on Sunday, when the Cardinals went 2 for 22 with eight strikeouts and two walks over the final seven innings. That’s just the latest example of why I decline to point to the pitching pandemonium and give this team an all-purpose pass for losing.

The Cardinals have lost seven of 11 games since sweeping the Pirates in a doubleheader on June 14. At that juncture the Cards were a season-high 10 games over .500 (37-27) and had a 2 and ½ game lead over Milwaukee in the NL Central. The 4-7 letdown has dumped the Cardinals back into second place, a game behind the Brewers.

STL’s downturn includes three losses in their last four games and a 2-4 record in the last six. Mostly the Cardinals are making us dizzy as they twirl through mediocrity with a 12-13 mark in their last 25 games. In their last six series the Cardinals are 2-3-1. And that should be better, but the Cards repeatedly messed up by losing the final game in all six series.

There are five working theories here:

1) The Cardinals just aren’t that good, so let’s recognize the reality of the situation. Proponents can endorse this theory by citing one stat: the Cardinals are 12-4 against the Pirates and Reds, and 29-30 against the other teams they’ve played. So because of 16 soft-serve games against the Pirates and Reds, the Cards’ overall 41-34 record is misleading.

2) The Cardinals are good – but underachieving. I tend to go with this one. Based on their +60 run differential – No. 7 in the majors – the Cardinals should be 44-31 and leading Milwaukee by five games. Based on their +18 run differential, the Brewers should be 39-36. But “should be” doesn’t count in the actual standings.

3) It’s just the injuries. Be patient. Yes, the Cardinals have been hit by injuries, with five players missing at least 27 days so far: Left fielder Tyler O’Neill and pitchers Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty, Steven Matz and Jordan Hicks. And certainly the rotation disruption is a problem. But according to the injury tracker at Spotrac, St. Louis starting pitchers (three) have missed a combined 119 days on the IL this season. Only 10 MLB teams have endured fewer days missed by a starting pitcher than St. Louis.

And while the Jack Flaherty fiasco is disturbing – not to mention damaging – his shoulder woes go back to last season and there were no guarantees that he’d return to full pitching health and his former upper-tier form. So my empathy for the Cardinals – pertaining to Flaherty – is limited. The organization never got Flaherty’s shoulder issues under control or fixed.

Nine teams with better records than St. Louis have taken harder hits to their rotation. Here’s the list of the nine teams that have had more days missed by starting pitchers: Twins 404, Rays 368, Dodgers 323, Mets 267, Red Sox 211, Padres 173, Blue Jays 136, Astros 127, Brewers 125. In most cases these teams are getting through the injuries because their front offices were more aggressive than STL in securing rotation depth in advance.

Which leads to …

4) Too many mistakes by the St. Louis front office. John Mozeliak and staff didn’t do enough to supplement the rotation with acquisitions from the outside, their free-agent reliever signings have been a disaster, and the stubborn belief in shortstop Paul DeJong likely cost them some wins early.

5) I like Will Leitch’s complacency theory. The MLB.com columnist and my friend and “Seeing Red” podcast partner fears that front-office complacency has an influence on the players’ collective competitive edge. There could be something to that. When your management team is content to be pretty good and aim for a wild card each season instead of being more ambitious in the quest for greatness – the mentality could creep into the people that play the games.

Or perhaps the Cardinals can lure J.A. Happ, Jon Lester and Wade LeBlanc out of retirement, win 17 consecutive games, and all will be sweet and swell.

Jun 26, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; Chicago Cubs runner Nelson Velazquez (4) slides head first safe at home past St. Louis Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner (7) during the tenth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

NOTES ON MY SCORECARD

The Accounting Department: For whatever it’s worth (not much) the Cardinals are perched in the NL’s No. 3 wild-card spot, a half-game ahead of the Giants and 1 and ½ games above the Phillies … In the NL Central hunger games the Cardinals are only 10-10 against the Brewers and Cubs and have won 12 of 16 against the Reds and Pirates … it’s been a weird month in the NL Comedy Central; so far none of the five teams have a winning record in June. The Cardinals are 13-13, the Brewers 10-14 and the Cubs, Pirates and Reds are all 8-16 … the Cardinals batted .200 with runners in scoring position in their three games against the acclaimed (not) Cubs pitching staff … the Cards are 25-24 since May 7 … as John Denton of MLB.com notes, the Cardinals have a 7-15 record this season in series finales.

The Misadventures Of Jack Flaherty: Only two innings and 49 pitches against the Cubs, and then … goodbye again. Shoulder miseries have sidelined Flaherty again, and I’ll make sure to be skeptical overwhat the club has to say about the severity of the situation or a timetable for his return. When it comes to pitching injuries, the Cardinals lost credibility a long time ago with unrealistic, overly optimistic spinning of local media – myself included.

So someone please alert me when Flaherty is about to pitch in a major-league game again – but only if he’s been properly conditioned and sharpened for a proper return. I’m not up for the glaring failure of the hopelessly misguided three-start Flaherty rush job that never should have happened. And let me know if Flaherty makes it back in a way that doesn’t include lobbying and persuading the rookie manager to get what he (Flaherty) wants … even if it’s the wrong thing to do.

As a veteran on the 40-man roster, Flaherty was capable of vetoing any rehab  assignment. But just because he had the power to do so, it doesn’t mean that Flaherty did the right thing by pushing to return to MLB sooner than he should have. It’s a shame. Had Marmol, the front office and Flaherty handled this with maturity and a strong dose of common sense, Jack might be in a much better place right now. But looking back on it … what in the heck were these people — including the pitcher —  thinking to have Flaherty back on a major-league mound after he’d gone through a sore-shoulder winter, missed all of spring training and logged only two free-and-easy preliminary rehab-assignment starts that covered seven innings?

I can appreciate that Flaherty wanted to help the Cardinals and fast-forward himself to the major-league rotation, and he had the right to do so. But just because he had the right, that doesn’t mean he was right. This is bad judgment. And a case of giving in to impulse. Since May 31 of last season until returning on June 15 of this season, Flaherty had pitched only 16 and ⅓ innings in the majors. He clearly wasn’t ready to resume his career and reestablish his success. And now, here we go … another setback. I don’t know when Flaherty will return. But please: no more ego. No more blunders.

Trade Request On Demand: I can shout about how the front office must acquire a sturdy and talented starting pitcher ASAP — not exactly an original thought — but that ain’t gonna happen. The front office will wait on the reappearance of recovering lefty Steven Matz, and do some wishcasting on a possible Flaherty comeback. There will be praise for their stable of young starters that includes Andre Pallante, Zack Thompson, Matthew Liberatore, etc. There will be talk of starting-pitching prospects Michael McGreevy, Gordon Graceffo and possibly Connor Thomas. There will be dubious claims of other teams wanting the Cardinals’ top three prospects in exchange for a quality starter. We’ve been down this road many times, kids. Many, many times. So don’t lose any sleep over it. You know how this goes.

Cracks In The Rotation: Since Flaherty returned on June 15, the Cardinals are 4-7 and have a starting-pitching ERA of 4.82 and the supply line of innings is breaking down. In their last 11 games the Cards have gotten only four starts that lasted six innings – and five starts of fewer than five innings. Here’s the average number of innings per start during this 11-game stretch:

— Flaherty, three starts, 2.6 average IP.
— Dakota Hudson, two starts, 4.6 average IP.
— Adam Wainwright, two starts, 5.5 average IP.
— Andre Pallante, two starts, 5.8 average IP
— Miles Mikolas, two starts, 6.1 average IP

Two Potential Concerns: First, Pallante. The rookie RHP has done a superb job for the Cardinals this season but is up to 48 and ⅔ innings and hasn’t pitched more than 99 and ⅓ innings in a season since turning in 101 and ⅓ IP for his college team, Cal-Irvine, in 2018. How will he hold up physically?

Second: Wainwright, who turns 41 in late August. He starts against Miami on Monday night, and has a 7.71 ERA in his last two outings. That’s not a big deal, and presumably Waino will rebound at Busch Stadium, his favorite ballpark. But with other starters coming up short with innings, Marmol and the Cardinals are looking for Wainwright to pitch deep into starts. (For that matter, so is he.) But there’s been some fraying of Wainwright’s in-zone contact rates and his overall swing-miss rates. Opponents are chasing fewer of his pitches out of the zone and swinging less often. The obvious plan: be more disciplined and make him throw more strikes. And they’ve done some damage with that approach.

Through his first 14 starts of the season Wainwright has a 6.2% swing-miss rate that would be his lowest in a season. And he’s been hit for a 93.1% contact rate on pitches in the strike zone; that would be the highest against him in a season.

Wainwright enters Monday’s assignment with a 2.74 ERA at Busch Stadium in 47 starts since the beginning of 2019. That includes a 2.68 ERA in six home starts this season.

Unfortunate Note On the Bullpen: Three relievers signed to free-agent deals by the front office last offseason – Nick Wittgren, T.J. McFarland and Drew VerHagen – have allowed 46.6 percent of all earned runs charged to the St. Louis bullpen so far in 2022. If you add fellow free-agent Aaron Brooks to the rundown – he’s in the minors now – the not-so-fantastic four has given up 53.3 percent of the earned runs allowed by the STL bullpen this season.

That’s pretty remarkable considering that the Cardinals have used 13 other relievers this season (excluding Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina.) Wittgren, VerHagen, McFarland and Brooks have combined for a 6.67 ERA in the majors this season. The other 13 St. Louis relievers have combined for a 2.47 ERA.

Two Things That Make No Sense: The front office did claim Packy Naughton on waivers, and he’s done a very nice job as a reliever. When coming out of the bullpen, Naughton hasn’t allowed a run (and only five hits and two walks) in seven games and 7 and ⅔ innings. One of the mysteries of the season: why the manager and pitching coach have made such little use of Naughton as a reliever. Given all of the groaning about the bullpen, it makes no sense to keep Packy parked.

The same applies to RH reliever Jake Woodford. He’s been pushed to the side because the manager and the pitching coach believe his slider is ineffective. Well, even with a below-average slider Woodford has a 3.20 ERA in 10 relief appearances this season. Woodford has pitched 48 and ⅓ innings since the start of September 2021 and has a 2.79 ERA. He’s allowed a .240 batting average and .612 OPS. He’s faced 192 batters and given up one homer. Woodford came into Sunday’s game, faced one hitter, and got a double-play grounder to end Chicago’s 10th inning. But hey, he’s no Drew VerHagen. Question: in what world does it make sense to have Wittgren throw a second inning Sunday — he got blasted for four runs as the Cubs tied the game 5-5 — when Woodford was available and ready to give you multiple innings? Perhaps more than two innings? This is bonkers.

Excuse Me. I Must Holler About Something: Enough already with the non-stop babbling and narrative spinning over Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks. After he shut the Cardinals out for 7 and ⅓ innings Friday in Chicago’s 3-0 victory, the performance was attributed to the usual Hendricks mastery of the Cardinals.

You know, it’s impossible for the Cardinals to get to him. Because Hendricks owns them forever and ever. So let’s just give the Cardinals a ready-made excuse that even the manager signed off on after Friday night’s meek showing by his hitters. Hendricks is so great the Cardinals, they should just declare a forfeit.

That’s nonsense, of course. If Hendricks is such a sorcerer who can hold a team under his diabolical spell, then why do so many other lineups hammer him?

Since the start of last season Hendricks has experienced a decline related to shoulder problems. He isn’t the same guy, but the Cardinals apparently believe they can’t touch him. He has a 1.93 ERA against St. Louis in five starts over the last two seasons – and a 5.43 ERA in 41 starts against the other teams over that time. But hey, the Cardinals can’t be blamed for their failures against Hendricks because he’s all tricky and unpredictable and stuff and it’s unfair. This is so weak. Where’s the competitiveness?

Slumping: During the 4-7 stretch Tommy Edman is 9 for 48 (.188) with a .250 onbase percentage and .229 slug for a .479 OPS. Also notable is his 25% strikeout rate over this time.

Thumping: Brendan Donovan had five fine weeks after being promoted from Triple A Memphis on April 25. In his first 87 big-league plate appearances Donovan batted .286, had a .425 OBP and a .840 OPS. But Donovan is having a fabulous June, doing even better, and that’s a good sign. In 110 plate appearances this month he’s hitting .337 with a .427 OBP and .474 slug for a .901 OPS. Donovan has 32 hits this month, the most by a St. Louis rookie since Albert Pujols in 2001. According to Baseball Reference, Pujols had 34 hits in the first month of 2001, 33 hits in May of 2001, and 32 hits in June of ‘01.

Good Weekend For The Brewers: after losing the series-opener to visiting Toronto the Crew won two straight to take the series, 2-1. Rowdy Tellez homered twice for Milwaukee in Sunday’s 10-3 whomping of the Blue Jays. Slugger Hunter Renfroe is back on the IL (strained calf) but relievers Trevor Gott and Jandel Gustave have returned from the IL. Better news for the Crew: starting pitcher Brandon Woodruff is scheduled to come off the IL to start at Tampa Bay on Tuesday. He last pitched on May 27 in St. Louis and needed time to heal a high ankle sprain and a circulation problem in his right hand. After getting out of a miserable slump the Brewers are 7-3 in their last 10 games. And with the Cardinals falling down, the Crew is back in first place. After two games at Tampa Bay, Milwaukee will play a 10-game stretch against the Pirates and Cubs: four at Pittsburgh, three (home) vs. Chicago, and three (home) against the Pirates.

Next On The Sked: Miami is in town for three games. The Cardinals line up this way: Wainwright on Monday, Hudson on Tuesday, and Pallante on Wednesday. All games are 6:45 p.m. St. Louis time. The Marlins counter with Pablo Lopez on Monday, lefty Braxton Garrett on Tuesday, and the great Sandy Alcantara on Wednesday.

Lopez is 5-3 with a 2.61 ERA this season and has the 10th best starter ERA in the majors (2.87) since the beginning of 2021. (Minimum of 185 innings.) Alcantara – donated to Miami in the regrettable trade for Marcell Ozuna – is 7-3 with a 1.95 ERA this season. Over the last two seasons Alcantara ranks sixth among MLB starting pitchers with a 2.77 ERA, and is second in starts (48) and No. 1 with 312 innings. Since the start of the 2019 season Alcantara has a 3.18 ERA (10th in MLB) and is No. 3 for most innings pitched.

Garrett, the lefty, has a 2.51 ERA in his last four starts. But RH batters have pummeled him early on in his career. In 206 plate appearances the RH hitters are batting .299 against him with a .387 OBP, .486 slug and .873 OPS.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. 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 which is available in your preferred app store.

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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.

 

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.