THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Now that the World Series matchup is set – Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Texas Rangers – let’s have another “Can The Cardinals Learn Anything?” session. We did this earlier in the postseason and it’s time for a sequel.
I’ll leave out the “Hit Ball Far In The Postseason” stuff. The Cardinals have to get back to the playoffs before we can drill down on what it will take to win lots of games in October. Remember those wonderful days?
1. Know thy starters. Don’t overrate your own mediocre pitchers. You better have at least two strong starting pitchers to take into the tournament. Three is even better.
And there’s no need to hold anything in reserve. Use your best starters extensively.
Just look at the four teams that qualified for the last two World Series:
Philadelphia, 2022: Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola handled 11 of the 17 starts (65%) and handled 75.4% of the total 81 and ⅓ postseason innings pitched by the starters. But the Phillies also had a good third starter in Ranger Suarez. And if you put him in there with Wheeler and Nola, the trio made 14 of the 17 postseason starts and worked 80% of the postseason innings supplied by Philly starters.
Houston, 2022: Justin Verlander, Framber Valdes and Cristian Javier made 11 of the team’s 13 postseason starts and pitched 75 percent of the innings by Astros’ starters. The Astros tried to force Lance McCullers Jr. into the postseason rotation, and he made two poor starts – not sharp after another injury-torn regular season. Manager Dusty Baker was fortunate to have a fallback option in Javier.
Diamondbacks, 2023: Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly and rookie Brandon Pfaadt got the ball for 11 of the team’s 12 starts in the American League playoffs. And the trio handled 98.2 percent of the starter innings. Pfaadt found his groove late in the regular season pitching to a 2.51 ERA with a 33.8 percent strikeout rate in his final three starts. Manager Torey Lovullo put faith in the rookie and turned him loose in the postseason; Staadt paid off with a 2.70 ERA and 33.3% strikeout rate in four starts.
Rangers, 2023: Jordan Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi made eight of the 12 starts during the American League playoffs. Manager Bruce Bochy also went with Max Scherzer and Andrew Heaney for two starts apiece. Scherzer wasn’t sharp after returning from a strained shoulder muscle but the Rangers couldn’t resist Scherzer’s exceptional resume – and who could blame them? Bochy hopes Scherzer will find his better form during the World Series.
The Phillies and Astros played each other in the 2022 World Series won by Houston – then each made it to their respective League Championship Series in 2023.
Over the last two postseasons the Phillies and Astros played 54 games (combined) and 83.3% of the starts were made by Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Ranger Suarez.
2. The deeper the bullpen, the safer you are. And your manager better know what he’s doing in the postseason crucible.
The Phillies and Astros demonstrated that over the last two postseasons. And Lovullo reordered Arizona’s bullpen late in the 2023 regular season – just in time for the postseason. The D-backs’ enviable bullpen depth was a prominent factor in winning the NL pennant. The Texas bullpen isn’t as firm, but Bochy has gone heavily with his three best relievers to deal with the high-leverage situations. Let’s look at Win Probability Added: Among the 18 teams that qualified for the postseason over the last two years, the Diamondbacks ranked No. 1, the Astros were No. 2, the Rangers are No. 3, and Philadelphia was 8th. And of the 21 teams that have qualified for the postseason over the last three seasons, the Cardinals ranked last – 21st – in bullpen Win Probability Added.
No wonder. Mike Shildt brought in a burned-out Alex Reyes – who had a 6.08 ERA in his final 12 regular-season appearances – to serve up the game-winning, walk-off home run to the Dodgers in the 2021 wild-card game. A year later, Oli Marmol froze in the dugout in the top of the 9th inning and watched Ryan Helsley turn STL’s 2-0 lead into a towering inferno that destroyed the home team. In an epic failure, Marmol waited too long to intervene and the Phillies erupted for six runs.
(And the way the game is played now, it really helps to have as many high-velocity, high-strikeout relievers in your pen as possible. The Cardinals have missed the mark on that in recent seasons.)
3. Defense, defense, defense.
This season the Diamondbacks ranked 4th and 7th in MLB, respectively, in defensive runs saved. The World Series-champion Astros were fourth in MLB in defensive runs saved. In 2022, the World Series-champion Astros were fourth in the majors in defensive runs saved. In 2021 the two teams that won their league pennant – the Astros and Braves – ranked 3rd and 8th in MLB (respectively) in defensive runs saved.
So over the last three tournaments – among teams that made it to their league championship series – the only outlier was Philadelphia. The Phillies were poor defensively in 2022 and again in 2023.
Just to remind everyone (again) that the 2023 Cardinals were tied for the worst defensive efficiency rating in the majors in 2023. This was a significant, detrimental factor in the 91-loss season. Just as a very good STL defense was a real plus in the 93-win, division-title season in 2022.
4. There are no absolutes, but having an experienced manager sure does seem to matter.
I think Oli Marmol has talent and is smart and can grow into the job. But he’s still developing on the job … and in a serious, traditional and ever-loving baseball town this is a big job.
The last three World Series won by the Cardinals were guided by Whitey Herzog in 1982 and Tony La Russa in 2006 and 2011. And both of these men were innovators and trailblazers in their day. They were ahead of the game, so to speak. I bring this up because baseball front offices around the majors fell into a pattern of hiring young, inexperienced managers … believing that they’d be more fluent in advanced metrics and bring a smartest-guys-in-the-room thinking to the job. Yeah, well … you don’t have to be really young and really inexperienced to qualify for smartest-guy-in-the-room status. Herzog and La Russa (and many others) proved that. Perhaps this obsession with controllable, undeveloped and overwhelmed managers is cooling off. This may prevent the Cardinals from hiring a 20-year old to be their next manager.
The managers that have led the previous 13 World Series champions had an average age of 56.4 years old. And though four of the 13 won the World Series in their first big-league managing jobs, the four had an average age of 52.3 years old. And one of the managers, Brian Snitker, spent 20 years managing in the Atlanta’s minor-league system before landing the big-league gig. Over the 13-season stretch the youngest manager to win it all was Boston’s Alex Cora (age 42) in 2018.
Snitker was 65 when his Braves won the World Series in 2021. Dusty Baker was 73 and in his 25th season of MLB managing when Houston won the 2022 World Series. And this year’s title will go to Bruce Bochy (Texas) or Torey Luvollo (Arizona.) Bochy, 68, is in his 26th season as a big-league manager. He’s led three teams to the World Series (Padres, Giants and Rangers) and has won it all three times. Lovullo, 58, is in his seventh season as the leader of the D-backs. And he maintained respect in the industry even as Arizona went into the rebuilding mode and got slapped around.
5. Payroll isn’t everything. But a larger payroll does enhance your team’s chances of winning the World Series.
The last time the Cardinals won the World Series, 2011, they were 10th in the MLB payroll rankings. From 2011 through 2022, the nine of the 12 World Series were won by teams ranked among the top 10 in payroll. The only exceptions were the 2015 Royals (17th), 2017 Astros (17th) and 2014 Braves (14th.)
But all three of those teams were loaded with cost-controlled players that weren’t yet eligible for free agency. And in many cases they had players that performed up to the level of an expensive free agent even though they hadn’t been through their first free-agent cycle. So it’s possible to win the championship without a Top 10 payroll, but it requires a pipeline of substantial young talent that keeps flowing.
The Cardinals were doing that for a good number of years, but that area of their franchise-building declined – and especially left a void in the starting-pitching stock. The free-agent price for an elite or even very good starting pitcher has skyrocketed. The Cardinals didn’t keep pace with that trend … and couldn’t compensate by having impactful, consistent home-grown starting pitching at the ready.
In 2023 the Cardinals ranked 15th in 26-man payroll and 16th in the 40-man competitive-balance tax payroll. It would be an anomaly for Arizona to win the World Series with the 24th-ranked payroll. Texas is more representative of the changing trend, ranking 6th in payroll this season.
So what makes the Diamondbacks different from the Cardinals? The D-backs spend less money than St. Louis, right?
Sure. But they have two top-rotation starters in Gallen and Kelly. The Cardinals are missing that component. The Diamondbacks have presumptive NL Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll, who hits for power and steals bases like crazy – and was fifth among NL position players in WAR this season. And there’s more to it than that. Unlike the Cardinals, Arizona played great defense in 2023. Unlike the Cardinals, Arizona was exceptional at running the bases and did a lot of damage with their speed.
And the D-backs received more collective Wins Above Replacement (WAR) than St. Louis from position players age 23 or younger. The totals: 10.2 WAR for Arizona’s young guys and 2.3 WAR for STL’s young dudes. The Diamondbacks also have a more experienced coaching staff and a more experienced and respected manager. Their head of baseball operations, Mike Hazen, came from the Theo Espstein tree of young baseball executives.
And a couple of other things are true:
– Arizona won only 84 games this season so let’s try to remember that. The D-backs were under .500 with 45 games remaining in the regular season. They had a negative run differential in their 162 games. Arizona may be playing like the 1998 Yankees (114-48) this postseason, but let’s try to have some perspective here. The 84-win Diamondbacks got molten hot at the right time, just like the 83-win 2006 Cardinals.
– It’s also true that Arizona lost 110 games in 2021 – and, until this year, made the playoffs only two times in the previous 15 seasons. The Diamondbacks blew up their roster and started over. They took dynamite to the roster on more than one occasion. It was an extended, painful process that went on and on and on.
The Cardinals have never opted for the blow-it-up and tear-it-down strategy. But they’ve been the more consistent and successful franchise. Let’s not be silly here.
It’s also true that the Cardinals have fallen behind the times and must modernize, adapt and adjust. Sometimes it just makes sense to go in a new direction. Rangers owner Ray Davis reluctantly fired Jon Daniels, the longtime boss of the baseball operations in Texas. He brought in Chris Young, the Ivy Leaguer and former 13-year MLB veteran pitcher to lead the front office. The brilliant Young was just what the Rangers needed.
These Cardinals have smart people who gradually took winning for granted and let things slide. It happens. It can also turn around. With the right attitude and the right moves, the Redbirds can catch up. The biggest question: are the people running the franchise capable of reinventing themselves?
Thanks for reading …
Have a swell weekend …
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
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.