The Cardinals play their next six games at Milwaukee and Colorado. Those are tough yards for pitchers, and the Cardinals will be going into the two hitter-friendly funhouses with a shaky starting rotation that has a 7.14 ERA in the early days of 2023.

Gee, what possibly could go wrong for the travelin’ Redbirds? The starting pitchers must improve and do it as soon as possible. I believe it will happen, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

I think we’d all agree that the next six games could be hazardous to the St. Louis starters. I don’t think Milwaukee’s American Family Field and Denver’s Coors Field are the ideal venues for a rotation rehab.

Over time – preferably sooner than later – this rotation should settle down. Well, it can’t get any worse.

The St. Louis 7.14 starter ERA ranks 28th in the majors. The team’s fielding-independent ERA for the starters is 5.44, which ranks 22nd.

There are many problems early on, but none have been more damaging than the starting-pitching vulnerability in the first two innings of games.

These numbers are so bad, it’s comical. In the first two innings of their six starts, here’s how starters Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Jordan Montgomery, Steven Matz and Jake Woodford have done:

* 12 innings, 20 earned runs, 15.00 ERA.

* 28 hits, seven walks, two hit batters.

* Only 9 strikeouts in 71 batters faced. That’s a 12.7 percent strikeout rate.

* In the first two innings opponents have plastered the St. Louis starters for a .467 batting average, .521 onbase percentage and .850 slugging percentage for an OPS of 1.371.

Other than that, everything was peachy.

But look closer, and we see a few things that offer hope for an upturn. Look, we all have legitimate questions about this rotation. We’re collectively frustrated by a front office that’s reactive instead of proactive in upgrading the rotation.

And as awful as the rotation looks right now, it isn’t much different than what we’ve witnessed in recent seasons during the first week of the schedule.

Through the opening six games in 2021, Cardinal starters had a 5.67 ERA. In the first games in 2022, the rotation ERA was 5.53. Those performances got better over time. But factor in the usual injuries and shortage of depth, the rotation required urgent care before the trade deadline.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak acquired lefties Jon Lester and J.A. Happ in 2022, then made moves for lefties Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery last summer. The influx of starters helped. The patches were effective. But the rotation was average – not elite.

Substantial problems can’t be solved this early in a season. That’s unrealistic. But with some help, this rotation can mend on its own.

The bottom-line starting pitching was woeful over the first two series, and I’m not trying to gloss over that or make excuses. But I want to offer a couple of notes for your consideration:

The opponent batting average on balls in play against ST starting pitching is .400. The opponent average on balls in play during the first two innings is .468. Both figures are preposterously high and will come down over time. Through Wednesday the MLB-wide batting average on balls in play was .203. So, yeah, the Cardinal starters can count on improved batted-ball luck. It will happen.

Opponents are 7 for 14 (.500) when hitting ground balls against STL starters during the first two innings of games. The MLB average on ground balls is .231.

When hitting for soft contact, opponents are 5 for 8 (.624) against Cards starters during the first two innings. The MLB average on soft-contact balls in play is .192.

Opposing hitters are 11 for 22 (.500) on medium contact against the Cards during the first two innings. The MLB average on medium contact is .259.

As you can see, Cardinal starters haven’t caught many breaks early in games, and this won’t last. The starters can’t control the luck factor on batted balls in play, but over time the St. Louis defense will come to the rescue.

That said, the Redbird starting pitchers have only themselves to blame for issuing too many walks, and not striking out enough hitters, during the first two innings. And it’s up to the starters to make smarter, better pitches to reduce the home-run count against them.

You may be wondering: why put so much focus on the pitching statistics from the first two innings?

Answer: because once the starters have gotten past the first two innings, their performance is more representative of who they are – or at least much closer to reality.

From the third inning on, St. Louis starters have pitched to 69 batters over 17 innings. They’ve struck out 29% percent of batters faced and allowed a .220 batting average with a .270 slugging percentage – with no home runs. Their collective starter ERA beyond the first two innings is 1.59. The fielding-independent ERA is 1.91.

The starters aren’t as good as that 1.59 ERA indicates, but this is what can happen when they (A) limit the damage by rolling up strikeouts; (B) make higher-quality pitches to deny or reduce home runs; and (C) benefit from improved batted-ball luck.

From the third inning on, the average on balls in play against Cardinal starters is still a little on the high side – but it’s a more reasonable .326.

This group will do better going forward. I just don’t know if it will happen in Milwaukee and Colorado.

KEN ROSENTHAL ON TYLER O’NEILL

This is what Ken wrote for The Athletic:

“The Cardinals did not want to sell low on outfielder Tyler O’Neill over the winter, not after he appeared in only 96 games last season and batted .228 with a .700 OPS. But if manager Oli Marmol was going to get down on O’Neill for failing to hustle in only the fifth game of the season, maybe the team should have been more open to trading him, or one of their other outfielders, for a starting pitcher.” 

Great point by Rosenthal. When a manager turns on a player and publicly embarrasses the player only five games into the season — and then foolishly goes after the player again before then sixth game — it points to more significant issues beyond what happened on Tuesday night when O’Neill was thrown out at home and accused of a failure to hustle.

The Cardinals should have given more serious thought to dealing O’Neill before  Marmol could go on the attack and potentially damage O’Neill’s trade value. And if the temperamental insists on benching O’Neill more than initially planned, interested teams will be well aware of the grudge and try to low-ball the Cardinals in a trade. And the Marmol-T.O. drama could drag on.

BIRD BYTES

1. The Cardinals were no match for the Braves. Yeah, I’m stating the obvious. In their first homestand of the season, the Cardinals took two of three games from Toronto before getting swept by Atlanta. The Cards’ 2-4 record puts them in last place in the NL Central – but it’s too early to worry about the standings.

2. Notes On The Sweep: The Braves outscored the Cardinals 17-7 in the series … Atlanta hitters had 13 extra-base hits; the Cardinals had six … Atlanta out-homered St. Louis 6-2 … With runners in scoring position the Braves batted .316 with a 1.017 OPS; the Cardinals hit .200 with a .450 OPS… in the series the first three hitters in Atlanta’s lineup – Ronald Acuna, Matt Olson and Austin Riley – combined to hit .366 with four homers, four doubles, 11 RBI, 11 runs scored and a .756 slugging percentage.

To put it mildly, Atlanta was a clear winner in the starting-pitching competition. Over the three games Braves starters Charlie Morton, Dylan Dodd and Bryce Elder collectively allowed four earned runs in 16.1 innings for a 2.20 ERA … Cards starters Woodford, Matz and Mikolas combined for 15.2 innings and were pounded for 15 earned runs and six homers and a 8.62 ERA.

St. Louis hitters were embarrassed by Dodd and Elder. Dodd made his first big-league start on Tuesday, and Wednesday’s start was just the 10th in the majors for Elder. No matter. The two inexperienced Braves starters collectively worked 11 innings and allowed only one run for a 0.81 ERA.

The Cardinals scored only four runs against the Braves over the final 23 innings of the three-game series … the Cardinal bullpen was very good, allowing two runs (both against Jordan Hicks) in 11.1 innings. For the series the Braves batted .154 with a .426 OPS against the St. Louis bullpen.

3. Baserunning: Through six games, the Cardinals have had more runners thrown out on the bases (6) than any team in the majors. And they’ve had the most runners thrown out at the plate (4.) Perhaps manager Oli Marmol can have a little talk with third base coach Pop Warner and suggest that it might be smart to slow the boys down a little by putting up the stop sign more often. (Ironic?)

4. Defense: Not a big deal here; I just wanted to take a peek at the defense over the first six games. The Cardinals rank 26th in the majors in defensive runs saved, at four runs below average. The early problem spots have been right field (Jordan Walker) and second base (Brendan Donovan.) Walker doesn’t have much experience in the outfield and he’s just played his first six games at Busch Stadium – and it can get tricky in right field. Donovan was slightly below average as a second baseman last season.

5. A Wonderful Wednesday For Jordan Walker. The only highlight of an otherwise dull loss to the Braves was Walker’s first major-league homer. The solo launch came with two out in the 7th inning, and Jordan later doubled home a run for a two-hit, two-RBI day.

Walker, 20, has opened his big-league career with a six-game hitting streak. He’s hitting .333 with a .542 slugging percentage, and his OPS+ is 47% above league average offensively.

Walker has five RBI, sharing the team lead with Nolan Arenado and Brendan Donovan.

Walker, who bats from the right side, has been terrific against right-handed pitching, hitting .381 with a .409 onbase percentage and .619 slug.

Walker has an average exit velocity of 91 mph and an excellent hard-hit rate of 62 percent. That hard-hit rate means 62% of Walker’s batted balls in play have left his bat at 95 mph velocity – or higher. What the heck will Walker do when he gains more extensive big-league experience?

Thanks for reading …

– Bernie

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.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Statcast and Bill James Online.

 

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.