THE REDBIRD REVIEW
As the Cardinals get set to start a three-game series at Camden Yards, let’s look at the Baltimore Orioles as an important history lesson for Cardinals ownership and management. We can call it a cautionary tale, or a warning. But the Orioles are a prime example of what can happen when a proud, consistently successful franchise gets complacent and soft and doesn’t maintain its standards.
The young, talented, prospect-populated Orioles are having a fabulous 2023 season. At 90-52 the O’s have the best winning percentage in the American League (.634) and are second in the majors to Atlanta (655.)
But it took many years for the Baltimore franchise to reach higher ground after a substantial period of futility.
— From 1966 through 1983, the Orioles had the No. 1 winning percentage in MLB at .588. The next best team in the AL, Boston, had a .541 winning percentage over that time. There was a huge gap between the Orioles and the teams below them. This run was highlighted by six AL pennants, and three World Series championships. From 1966 through 1983 the Orioles competed in the most postseason games (59), won the most postseason games (37) and had the highest postseason winning percentage (.627) among teams that played in at least 25 postseason contests. Future Hall of Famers were everywhere: Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray and manager Earl Weaver.
— The Orioles won their third World Series in 1983, and then began drifting in the other direction. Team owner Edward Bennett Williams suffered from terminal cancer, wasn’t as involved as he wanted to be, and died in 1988. The Orioles were sold to financier Eli Jacobs, who sat on his investment and watched it grow before flipping the franchise (as planned) to a group led by Peter Angelos in 1993. Future Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. was part of the original ownership group but had his eye on a purchase of the Cardinals. And that happened late in the 1995 calendar year. The tempestuous Angelos had a little success for a time before turning combative and unstable as a leader, and that unfortunate tradition has been carried forward by his son John Angelos, the caretaker of the Orioles. And for the longest time, winning wasn’t a priority. A great baseball franchise – largely neglected – slipped into dysfunction and defeat. There was too much change, instability and controversy. The Orioles were destined to fail.
— From 1984 through 2022, the Orioles made the postseason five times in 38 seasons. (This doesn’t include 1994, the season ended by a labor war that led to cancellation of the postseason.) And Baltimore’s winning percentage (.465) from 1984 through 2022 ranked 27th among the 30 teams. The 2023 Orioles will become the first O’s team to compete in the playoffs since 2016. But it took a painful rebuild – following a complete tear-down – to restore the Orioles to respectability. After decades in the darkness, they’re contending for a championship.
— Orioles fans were alienated and disgusted by the losing and the craziness … and no one could fairly blame them. And they’ve been slow to warm to a truly entertaining team. In 2022 the Orioles had a winning record (83-79) after five consecutive miserable losing seasons. But despite the upturn, the ‘22 Orioles were 24th in the majors with an average home attendance of 16,893. This season it’s gotten better, but the O’s still rank only 21st with an average home attendance of 23,041. But so much damage was done to the franchise by a sequence of bad owners, a speedy recovery was all but impossible. The fans have been slow to trust the Angelos family, and even now there’s skepticism about the future.
I’m not saying that Bill DeWitt Jr. is anything like the owners that the good people of Baltimore had to endure for far too long. The Cardinals have had tremendous success under DeWitt. They’ve been among the top franchises in the sport since he took over in 1996. He’s added two World Series titles and four NL pennants to the trophy room. DeWitt’s Cardinals are tied for fourth among MLB teams in winning percentage since 1996. During the DeWitt Era, only the Yankees have competed in more postseason games than the Cardinals and won more postseason games than the Cardinals.
It’s also true that the Cardinals have slipped in recent years, having gone 5-14 in their last 19 postseason games including 1-9 in the last 10. Complacency set in. The ambition lapsed into a more lethargic state. Their successful model is outdated. The Cardinals have lost ground in the overall MLB payroll rankings. The commitment to winning – as in capturing a World Series – isn’t close to what it should be. The Cardinals have been caught, and surpassed, by teams they once dominated.
This franchise has been stable and admirable and prosperous under DeWitt, but now there are sections of empty seats at Busch Stadium. The 2023 season has turned a lot of fans off and they’re staying away. As the Cardinals open the series in Baltimore, they’re in last place in their division. They are 14th among 15 NL teams, and 26th overall, in winning percentage.
Again, it would be an insult to DeWitt to liken him to the ownership that took the Orioles down to the ground in Baltimore. He’s much, much better than that. But I’m looking at this through a different prism. There has to be some changes.
DeWitt should pay close attention to the Baltimore experience. When you do nothing but win then neglect to uphold the standards and the smart operational philosophy that made you great – and you start taking your loyal fan base for granted – then all of it can fade away. And it can happen sooner than you ever imagined. Thankfully, the Orioles are back after their long reconstruction project. That’s awesome for Baltimore, good for major-league baseball. But it didn’t have to be this way for O’s fans. The Orioles never should have descended into failure and irrelevancy.
This is the power of ownership. The people responsible for your team can make every day – every decision – count. Or the bosses can do nothing or too little, let the arrogance seep in, lose the burning desire to win, and let a special team fall apart. The Cardinals don’t have to go into a long freefall. DeWitt has the chance to intervene, pull the Cardinals together, and prevent one bad season from becoming a horrendous, decade-plus of bad seasons.
ACCOUNTING DEPARTMENT: After a terrible 2-10 stretch the Cardinals have straightened out for a 7-4 record in their last 11 games. They’ve won five of their last seven and went 4-2 at Atlanta and Cincinnati on the first two legs of their three-city road trip which concludes with a three-game set in Baltimore that opens Monday night … The Cardinals are 25-28 since the All-Star break and 28-29 since July 6 … At 63-80, the Redbirds have a .441 winning percentage and are trying to avoid finishing worse than the 1978 (.426) and 1990 (.432) Cardinals. The 1995 team had a .441 winning percentage but played only 143 games in a season delayed and shortened by the labor dispute between players and owners that spilled over from 1994.
MILES MIKOLAS: The 35 year-old righthander got slammed for seven hits and five earned runs in his 5 and ⅓ innings in Sunday’s 7-1 loss at Cincinnati. In 19 starts since the end of May, Mikolas has a 5.40 ERA and a diminishing strikeout rate of 12.7 percent. His swing-miss rate over that time is only seven percent.
Based on the data at Baseball Savant, Mikolas remains highly effective when he uses offspeed pitches. And he’s above average on breaking pitches. But his fastball value – four-seam and sinker – is in the fourth percentile, meaning that he’s in the bottom four percent with those pitches.
This season opponents are hitting .344 with a .534 slugging percentage against his sinker, and .296 with a .513 slug on his four-seam. With the number of remaining starts dwindling in the late stages of the 2023 season Mikolas has a 4.75 ERA, 15.4% strikeout rate and 7% swing-miss rate.
For Mikolas, this would be his worst performance in all three categories in a season since signing with the Cardinals before 2018. Another significant problem for Mikolas is getting hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone. At his best, in 2018, hitters chased out-of-zone pitches on 29.7 percent of their swings. This season that chase rate is down to 25.2%.
It’s concerning issue when an aging pitcher (A) he doesn’t get many swings/misses; (B) has a plummeting strikeout rate; and (C) has two very hittable types of fastballs; and (D) can’t bait hitters into chasing pitches outside of the zone as often as they used to. The contact rate against him this season (85.7%) would be the highest against him as a Cardinal.
Mikolas signed a two-year contract extension before the ‘23 season. He turns 36 next August and will be 37 when his two-year deal runs out after the 2025 season.
GORMAN AND WALKER: During their 7-4 stretch the Cardinals have slugged .434 and averaged 5.9 runs per game. Jordan Walker (age 21) and Nolan Gorman (age 23) have played a big part in the eruption. In the last 11 games they’ve combined for a .320 average, four doubles, seven homers, 18 RBI and 16 runs scored … in their last seven games the Cardinals are 5-2 and have averaged 6.6 runs with a .342 OBP and .426 slug. In the seven games Walker and Gorman combined for five homers, three doubles, 11 RBI and 14 runs while batting a combined .306.
WILSON CONTRERAS: As the Cardinals were winning seven of their last 11 games, their catcher batted .323 with a .382 OBP, .936 slug, six homers and 13 RBI. Among MLB catchers that have logged at least 200 plate appearances at the position this season – and excluding the DH – Contreras ranks second to Atlanta’s Sean Murphy in OPS (.957) and wRC+ (134.) He’s also third in slugging (.507), sixth in OBP (.350), sixth in RBI (56) and 10th in batting average (.270).
The wRC+ metric means Contreras is 34 percent above league average offensively in his plate appearances as a catcher. Last season St. Louis catchers were 41 percent below the league average in wRC+. A dramatic difference, eh?
This is precisely why the Cardinals signed Contreras to a five-year deal last winter for $87.5 million
MATTHEW LIBERATORE AS A RELIEVER? He certainly pitches with more confidence and authority when used as a reliever. These are mini samples, but: in his relatively brief career, Liberatore has a 16.2 percent strikeout rate as a starter, and a 21.6% strikeout rate as a reliever. This season Liberatore has worked 2 and ⅔ innings in relief and has a strikeout rate of 44.4 percent. Again: mini sample. But it still catches your eye.
ZACK THOMPSON: I liked how the snappy lefty pitched Saturday in the 4-3 win over the Reds. Sure, Thompson got popped for three runs in the second, but he held the Reds scoreless in his other four innings, and that gave the Cardinals a chance to take a 4-3 lead that held up. In his five-inning start, Thompson gave up five hits and three walks. I wasn’t crazy about the walks, but the Great American Ball Park is a dangerous yard for pitchers. But Thompson also struck out six of 22 Reds that he faced (27%) and that helped prevent more damage.
That’s another reason why Thompson is so appealing; he strikes dudes out. In all of his MLB pitching performances (including relief) since July 23, Thompson has an 11 percent swing-miss rate and a 25.6 strikeout rate. And that’s a big help; unlike most St. Louis pitches Thompson isn’t as dependent on defense and batted-ball luck.
In 2023, left-handed starting pitchers have a 5.14 fielding independent ERA (FIP) when pitching at Cincinnati. Thompson’s FIP in Saturday’s start was a tidy 2.66. He did a nice job in his first career start at the insane pitcher-hostile ballpark.
In responding to a reader question about fixing the Cardinals for 2024, the great analyst Eno Sarris (The Athletic) made several observations:
– “Internally, I would trust Zack Thompson to handle a spot. Since converting back to starting, he’s been excellent, and that new cutter is probably the reason why … he has an interesting above-average fastball, an almost “cut-ride” fastball that is only a couple of horizontal inches from being a decent Justin Steele comp, and a huge curveball that has the most drop in all of baseball in the second half. The cutter fits right in between those pitches in terms of movement and velocity and forces hitters to think more.”
– “Tekoah Roby looks like a stud, and he could be ready quickly, so count him as the young pitcher I’m most excited about who could contribute in 2024 … but you still need a couple of starting pitchers.” (Sarris likes prospect Tink Hence but believes Roby is closer to reaching the majors.)
Roby came to the Cardinals from Texas in the deal that delivered pitchers Jordan Montgomery and Chris Stratton to the Rangers. In his first nine innings for the Cardinals’ Double A affiliate in Springfield, Roby has allowed three hits and has a strikeout rate of over 40 percent.
– More from Sarris: “How about five years and $75 million to Japanese left-hander Shota Imanaga? His Japanese stats compare favorably to both Yoshinobo Yamamoto — who’s most likely coming over this offseason — as well as to Kodai Senga, who just got that contract last year from the Mets. The only problem is that Imanaga is older (already 30) and shorter than both, but his stuff plays up big time, and he misses more bats than the other two — and the uncertainty of bringing a pitcher over from another league offers a chance to get a bargain.”
– Final suggestion from Sarris: “For the second starter, I’d shop below the top of the market and see if I couldn’t get a veteran like Sonny Gray (Twins.) for less than $20 million a season. Guys with great curveballs like his seem to age well, and though his strikeout rate is down some, he’s still missing bats at an above-average rate.”
Great stuff from Eno. And thanks to The Athletic, as always. I’m a happy subscriber! And you should subscribe too.
Thanks for reading …
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.
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.