THE REDBIRD REVIEW
One more week of games to go. Three at Milwaukee, then the “Waino Weekend” three-game series against Cincinnati at Busch Stadium.
As the Cardinals wobble their way to the finish line, they’re 68-88, 20 games under .500. The Brewers are 88-68, 20 games over .500. Seems appropriate. The Brewers have been a tough rival for the Cardinals during Craig Counsell’s time in the manager’s office, and his team is about to clinch a third NL Central since 2017.
In the process Counsell has gotten the best of the three managers – Mike Matheny, Mike Shildt, Oli Marmol – chosen by the St. Louis front office since Tony La Russa retired after winning the World Series. It took a couple of years for Counsell to oversee a rebuilding project, but since the start of the 2017 season, his Brewers rank sixth in the majors with a .554 winning percentage. The Cardinals (.530) are ninth.
A busy offseason is on the horizon. It will be the most important offseason for this team since chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. purchased the Cardinals before the 1996 season. I’m looking forward to seeing what DeWitt and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak will do to pull this team out of a swamp and into the 2024 postseason.
At this point there isn’t much left to say about the 2023 Cardinals, but I’ll certainly give it an honest try …
STATE OF THE CARDINALS: For the record here are the five worst winning percentages by a Cardinals team through the first 156 games of a season:
* 1978: 67-89, .429
* 2023: 68-88, .436
* 1990: 70-86, .449
* 1976: 71-85, .455
* 1997: 71-85, .455
The 1978 Cardinals finished with 69 wins and 93 losses. If the 2023 Cardinals can win at least two of the remaining six, they’d have at least 70 wins. And that would keep them “ahead” of the ‘78 Redbirds. I don’t think there are any prizes for that … I’m just pointing it out.
TRENDING: Going into Monday’s off day, the Cardinals had lost five of their last six games and are 3-7 after their successful 6-3 showing on that road trip to Atlanta, Cincinnati and Baltimore. With two more losses in 2023, the Cardinals would finish with at least 90 defeats. If that happens, it would be only the 19th season of 90+ defeats for a Cardinals team since 1898. And they’d become only the fourth Cards team to lose 90+ since 1976.
SIX MORE GAMES IN THE NL CENTRAL: As we mentioned, the Cardinals will face the Brewers and Reds in their final week of baseball in 2023, it’s a good time to note their weakness against NL Central rivals this season.
In 2021 and 2022 combined, the Cardinals had a .592 winning percentage in games against the Brewers, Cubs, Reds and Pirates. Last season the ‘22 Cardinals bullied division mates with a 48-28 record for a .631 winning percentage. This year the Cardinals are 18-28 (.391) in NL Central games. That just underlines, again, how much the Redbirds have fallen in their crash of ‘23.
LUKEN BAKER: I wanted to see more of him late in the season, with the Cardinals having a clear opportunity to take an extensive look at some of their younger players. They did that on the pitching side, auditioning relievers and giving plenty of starts to Drew Rom and Zack Thompson.
Manager Oli Marmol started Baker in all three games at San Diego, and Baker did a good job with a .333 average, a homer and three RBI. He drew three walks and reached base on 50 percent of his plate appearances and slugged .667 against the Padres.
Baker has been doing better in recent times and clearly benefits from more regular playing time. In his last 10 starts – plus another game that he entered in the second inning – Baker was 8 for 34 with six walks, two homers, a double, and seven RBI. His .235 batting average in those 11 games was nothing special, but he drew six walks to pump a .350 onbase percentage with a .441 slugging percentage during that time. And Baker kept his strikeouts down, with a 20% rate over the 11 games. The big guy can hit if given a legitimate chance to show it.
Here’s what I don’t understand: the Cardinals have been out of contention – and sentenced to a losing record – for weeks and weeks and weeks. They had ideal circumstances for giving Baker a chance … but in September, Baker ranks 12th on the team for most plate appearances.
That’s ridiculous. It makes no sense. And it shows that there never was any real commitment to take a deeper look at this power hitter who blasted 33 homers, drove in 98 runs and put up a slash line of .334/.440/.720 at Triple A Memphis. And Baker isn’t a grip-and-rip type. He has a refined hitting approach. This season in Memphis he had a 15.5 percent walk rate and struck out only 20 percent of the time.
Based on comments Marmol made to reporters in San Diego, the manager apparently plans to play Baker in the final six games. That’s fine. But he could have easily played Baker more often this month – and even before that – instead of waiting for the final 10 days of the season.
When you don’t take the time to give inexperienced players a real shot at showing what they can do, there can be repercussions. In 2019, Randy Arozarena inexplicably had only 15 plate appearances in September, and the Cardinals traded him to Tampa Bay after the season.
For whatever it’s worth: in September Baker’s .751 OPS ranks fifth on the team among Cardinals with at least 35 plate appearances. The only guys with a higher OPS this month are Willson Contreras, Nolan Gorman, Jordan Walker and Richie Palacios. This was before Gorman and Contreras went on the IL.
ARENADO’S BELATED SHUTDOWN: He was placed on the IL before the start of the San Diego series because of recurring back spasms. I’m sure we all respect Arenado’s competitive intensity, his unbreakable desire to play, and his belief that it’s his duty to be there for his teammates. As manager Marmol noted, Arenado wants to set a positive example for his younger teammates.
But over a considerable period of time, if a guy is hurting in a serious way that negatively impacts his performance, then it makes sense to be more cautious and shut him down. Arenado doesn’t have to prove anything. There’s no sane question in the world who would question his effort or dedication to his job. So what’s the point of suffering pain? Not the usual wear-and-tear aches and soreness during a 162-game season; that’s part of the gig. I’m referring to a specific injury that debilitates a player. And in those situations it’s really hard for an athlete to elevate his team with his performance. Because of the chronic injury, he isn’t close to being the same player.
This was the case with Arenado, a man of admirable character. Excluding the Covid-shortened 2020, Arenado in 2023 had the worst offensive performance of his career for the second half of a season. His lowest batting average (.241). His lowest onbase percentage (.290), slugging percentage (.373) and OPS (663.) His second-lowest home run total (7) after the All-Star break.
In his final 26 games for the Cardinals this season, Arenado didn’t homer in his 100 at-bats. He batted .190, had a .255 OBP and slugged .230 for a .485 OPS. Per wRC+, he was 66 percent below league average offensively in those 26 games.
Excluding 2020, Arenado finished the 2023 with his lowest slugging percentage (.459), OPS (.774) and OPS+ (109) an entire season since his rookie campaign in 2013. And his 26 homers and 93 RBIs were his third-lowest totals in those categories in a season.
For the first time since 2014, Arenado couldn’t amass a combination of at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs in a season. (That excludes 2020.)
Arenado also finished the season with just a +1 in defensive runs saved. That ranked 15th among MLB third basemen. Until 2023, he’d never been ranked worse than eighth in DRS at the position in a season. His streak of consecutive seasons of winning the NL Gold Glove at third base will likely come to an end.
WAINO WORLD: during his two consecutive winning starts that got him to his coveted 200 career wins, Adam Wainwright gave up only two earned runs in 12 innings for a 1.50 ERA. He was especially fantastic in the start that earned No. 200, pitching seven shutout innings and yielding only four hits to the Brewers.
During the stretch that began with Waino’s winning outing at Baltimore on Sept. 12, the other St. Louis starters had a combined 6.60 ERA in their 10 assignments. That includes a 7.20 ERA by Zack Thompson in two starts, an 8.18 ERA from Miles Mikolas in two starts and a 8.25 ERA in Drew Rom’s three starts.
With no disrespect to Waino, at 42 and at the end of a punishing season for him, he shouldn’t be outperforming multiple St. Louis starters down the stretch. But Wainwright did exactly that, and credit goes to him for coming through late in his final MLB season. This is more of a reflection on the other starters.
TRACKING LARS NOOTBAAR: He’s picked it up a bit as of late, going 6 for 23 (.261) with two doubles in his last six games. But it’s been a rough final month for Noot, who returned from a freak groin injury (and a two-week absence) on the first day of September. In 92 plate appearances this month, Nootbaar has batted .180 with a .304 OBP and .282 slug and only one home run.
The timing of the injury was unfortunate. In his last 29 games before getting felled by a foul tip to the sensitive spot, Nootbaar batted .337 with a .440 OBP and .587 slug with six doubles, a triple and six home runs. Over that time Nootbaar has a higher walk rate (15.2%) than strikeout rate (13.6%.)
The Cardinals need a full-on version of Nootbaar in 2024. He’s an essential piece of their offense when he’s healthy and playing. He’s missed 49 in-season days to injury this season. And he’s averaged 110 games played over the last two seasons.
HERE’S A STAT I DIDN’T KNOW: I missed this one. So if you’re already aware of this, I apologize for my redundancy. But here’s a cool [piece of Wainwright info from OptaSTATS. I’ll lay it out in four quick steps:
1. Since the beginning of the MLB division era (in 1969) a total of 10,331 players have made their big-league debuts.
2. Since 1969, there have been 2,394 players to hit 10 or more home runs in their careers.
3. Since 1969, 36 pitchers have reached 200 career victories.
4. Only one player has done both: Adam Wainwright.
Hopefully, Wainwright will get some at-bats this weekend and raise his career home-run count to 11.
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.