THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Sigh. Here We Go Again: The Cardinals toddled through another defeat on Monday night, falling 5-2 to the Washington Nationals. For the ninth time in 10 games, a Cards starting pitcher failed to reach six innings. Cards hitters had six hits and struck out 11 times. They had more sac bunts, two, than extra-base hits (one.) The home team went 1 for 6 with runners in scoring position and stranded seven runners. Hey, it’s a trip back in time to the 2019 NLCS!
The Cardinals have lost three straight to level off to 5-5 on this hatchling of a season. But I’m putting a positive spin on this .500 stuff. Yes. I am. When you have the worst starting pitching in the majors, and your hitters are batting .219, and you’re relying on a 38-year-old catcher to bat cleanup and carry you through another day — well, this 5-5 looks pretty good. It could be worse. It should be worse. And it might get worse. This team has problems. This is the part where I’m supposed to say IT’S EARLY.
Rotation Redundancy: Through 10 games, Cards starters have averaged 4.3 innings per assignment. They have only one start that survived through six innings; in the majors only on rotation has the forward worse. (Pittsburgh’s rotation does not have a single start of 6+ innings.) The Cards rank 26th for IP by starters; their 6.44 rotation ERA is 30th.
In the National League, 10 teams have received at least four starts of 6+ innings from their rotations. And 12 have at least three such starts. An inadequate rotation and tired bullpen have conspired for a 5.32 team ERA. In 121 seasons of Cardinals baseball, the 5.32 is the sixth highest ERA over the first 10 games of a season.
Serious Underlying Issue: Cardinals’ starting pitchers don’t throw enough strikes, and that certainly drives up their pitch count. Through Monday their percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone is 38.6%, worst in the NL and 29th in the majors. The percentage of called strikes + swinging strikes, 25.5%, is 27th overall and 14th in the NL. And while we’re on the topic, Cards starters also have the worst first-strike percentage (53.9) in the majors.
And here’s another thing about the Cardinal starting pitchers: they don’t get enough ground balls. Their GB rate of 37.6 percent is the fifth lowest in the majors. And that’s especially glaring because Cards’ starters had the highest ground-ball rate in the majors, 48.3%, in the 16 seasons before 2021. The shortage of grounders goes a long way in explaining why the STL rotation has allowed the fourth-highest slugging percentage (.474) in MLB early on this year.
C’mon throw strikes. Make ‘em hit it on the ground. You fellas have an outstanding defense behind you.
In A Related Note: The rival Milwaukee Brewers have the best starting-pitcher ERA in the majors, 1.99. And the highest strikeout rate. And they’ve allowed a weak .310 slugging percentage.
John Gant And The 6th Inning Gauntlet: It was Gant’s turn Monday night, and the tonsorially extravagant RH did fine through five innings, ceding one run, and keeping his team in the ballgame. Ah, but after declining to pinch-hit for a sac-bunting Gant in the bottom of the fifth, manager Mike Shildt sent the pitcher back out for the sixth inning.
In doing so, Shildt disregarded Gant’s history of facing a lineup for the third time in a start. And in this instance, the Gant would take on three LH batters. And … yeah. You know. Juan Soto opened with a single, Josh Bell walked and Kyle Schwarber doubled in a run for a 2-1 Nats lead. Shildt intervened, signaling for reliever Giovanny Gallegos. After a sac fly by Starlin Castro, it was 3-1 visitors.
Gant has braved the opposing lineup for the third time through on 25 occasions. In working to 110 batters for a third time in a game, Gant has been pelted for 14 extra-base hits, and allowed an opponent OPS of .868. His third-time-through ERA is 7.54. Sheesh.
OK, About That Sac Bunt In the 5th: It’s a tie game, and the Cardinals have runners on first and second base. Meaning that they already had a runner in scoring position. Send up a pinch hitter, get a hit, and probably take the lead. But Shildt gave up an out by having Gant bunt. Gant is good at this specialty, but that isn’t the point.
First of all, Gant had come out of that game; trying to have Gant pitch the sixth was a high-risk gamble. And with a runner on second and one out, a pinch-hitter, followed by leadoff man Tommy Edman, sets up the Cardinals for two shots to plate the go-ahead run. So why give up an out there as part of a two-step plan that also puts a vulnerable Gant back on the mound in the top of the sixth?
After the game, Shildt said he could have inserted LH reliever Genesis Cabrera in the game for the sixth inning — but he decided against it because the Nationals had RHB Ryan Zimmerman in the dugout to pinch hit. But during his career when working as a reliever Cabrera has pitched to 114 RH batters and held them to a .160 average and .637 OPS with a 28% strikeout rate.
As a side note, I really respect Shildt for taking ownership of the two decisions gone bad. And i understand that the Cardinals are desperate to stretch the starters to alleviate their innings shortfall and ease up on the bullpen. Sometimes these decisions work; Monday the decisions went the wrong way for Shildt and the Cardinals. This is also known as Baseball.
“Today was me not doing a good enough job,” Shildt said late Monday night. “Players win games, managers avoid losing games. I didn’t do my part today with that decision.”
Checking The Lineup, No. 2 and No. 3: In spring training Shildt devised a lineup that had Paul Goldschmidt hitting second, in front of Nolan Arenado. And Shildt has gone with that combo in nine times this season. (It would have been 10 times, but Goldy missed the home opener with back stiffness.) It makes sense to frontload your best hitters to get them more plate appearances — and to try and jump on a pitcher for an early lead in the first inning?
How’s it going so far? It worked beautifully In Game No. 1 at Cincinnati. Goldy and NA combined for six hits in 10 at-bats, with two RBI and four runs scored.
But with Goldy slumping, the 2-3 punch isn’t as formidable. After the big day in Cincinnati, Goldschmidt and Arenado are a combined 15 for 69 (.217) with a .609 OPS, five RBIs and seven runs.
And what about the first inning and the quick-attack strategy that clicked in Game 1 at Cincinnati. (Shaking head.) Since then, when in the lineup together batting 2nd and 3rd, Goldschmidt and Arenado are a combined 3 for 16 in the first inning with one run and no RBIs. All three hits came from Arenado.
OK, let’s add Tommy Edman and the leadoff spot to the mix. Through 10 games the Cards 1-2-3 hitters have combined for a .264 average, .708 OPS, 17 runs scored, and 9 RBIs. But over the last nine games, the top three spots have a .236 average, .660 OPS, 12 runs and seven RBIs.
The impact is less than expected or hoped for. But give it some time. The top of the lineup will undoubtedly improve when Goldschmidt heats up. In his last eight games he’s batting .147 with a .363 OPS, three runs scored and one RBI. That said, he’s hitting a lot of balls hard, and his average exit velocity is way up so far. He’ll be fine.
Updating A Stat I’m Monitoring: The Cardinals’ troubles against starting pitchers continued Monday night, with Washington RH Erick Fedde allowing one run, two hits and two walks in 4.2 innings. For the season the Cardinals are batting .208 with a .608 OPS against the opposing starter, striking out at a rate of 26.4%.
Starting pitchers have a 3.38 ERA against St. Louis. But since the Cardinals blasted Reds starter Luis Castillo for eight earned runs in 3.1 innings during the first game of the season, opposing starters have a 2.09 ERA against STL. In the last nine games the Cardinals have batted .182 with a 29.4% strikeout rate against starting pitchers.
Since walloping Castillo in the opener, the Cardinals have scored only 9 runs in the first five innings of their last nine games. From the sixth inning on, they’ve scored 26 runs in the nine games. That tells us a lot, yes?
Molina Vs. The Outfielders: In the last seven games Cards catcher Yadier Molina has scored as many runs (7) as the team’s entire collection of outfielders. The outfielders have a 16-10 advantage over Yadi in hits; but then again he’s had 53 fewer plate appearances than those dudes. It’s close in extra-base hits: outfielders 5, Molina 4. And the outfielders are clinging to a one-homer lead (3-2) over the 38-year-old catcher. Combine runs scored and RBI, Molina trails by only six, 19-13. But those dang outfielders have three times as many at-bats as Molina over the last seven games.
OK, I’m being silly now.
Seriously, Let’s End On A Positive: All Hail Molina! Another homer Monday, raising his season batting average to .353 and his OPS to .998. And this is big: there’s a career milestone in play Tuesday night; if Molina starts (and why wouldn’t he?) he’ll catch his 2,000th MLB game. And he’ll become the first player in major-league history to catch 2,000 games for one franchise. UPDATE: Molina is resting Tuesday; apparently the plan was to give him the chance to catch Adam Wainwright for No. 2,000. So the Cardinals will go without their hottest hitter on Tuesday night against Stephen Strasburg. OK.
Next Up, Are We In For A Duel? It’s Jack Flaherty vs. Strasburg. Great matchup. First pitch 6:45 p.m.
Time for me to sign off.
Thanks for reading…
Please check out Bernie’s 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 live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.