“April is the cruelest month.”
— T. S. Eliot
The Cardinals spent the month of April in a free fall, unable to defeat gravity or most of the teams on their schedule.
They reinvented the so-called “Cardinal Way” and reversed it by losing games in every conceivable manner. All of it – starting pitching, bullpen, defense, baserunning, a balky offense and a lack of competitiveness – belied the traditional qualities we associate with Cardinal baseball.
If you’re too young to have seen the sad-sack St. Louis Browns play, the 2023 Cardinals are offering a view of what it was like. They Cards aren’t as inept as the 1939 Browns, a team with a .279 winning percentage that finished 64.5 games out of first place. But the underfinanced and underwhelming Brownies were doomed from the start of most seasons.
The Cardinals? As spring training closed, they told us the team was capable of winning the National League pennant and the World Series. But 29 games into the season, they have the fifth-worst winning percentage (.345) in the majors. And in the NL, only Colorado (.310) is worse. The Cardinals have won only two of nine series so far, with one split. World Series? How about winning any series, including the regular season.
Since 1901, only five Cardinal teams had a lower winning percentage through 29 games than the 2023 Redbirds: 1902, 1903, 1907, 1918, 1947 and 1973.
In the NL Central, the Cardinals reside a startling 10 games behind the first-place Pirates. According to research by the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cardinals haven’t been 10 games or more out of first place by April’s end since 1907. Hat tip to Derrick Goold of STLtoday for passing that along.)
The Cardinals haven’t been more than six games under .500 at the end of April since 1973.
April is gone. But first I’m looking back by posing this question: why were they so abysmal in the first 29 games?
1. Hubris: Management didn’t do enough last offseason to strengthen the team, once again choosing to overrate its vulnerable starting-pitching cast for the third straight year. Despite an embarrassing sequence of postseason failures, management remained happily complacent and assumed this team was much better than it was.
As recently as 2019, the Cardinals had the seventh-highest 40-man payroll in the majors. This year the Cards are listed at No. 15 in the 40-man payroll. After taking advantage of a weak NL Central and three rebuilding teams last season – the reason for their misleadingly high 93-win total — the ‘23 Cardinals have been caught flat-footed by the dramatic improvement shown by division opponents early on. A Cardinals club that went only 45-41 in non-division games last season should have strived to build a stronger overall for 2023. But after signing free-agent catcher Willson Contreras, that was it.
2. No Identity: Last season the Cardinals were inspired by the presence of Albert Pujols, catcher Yadier Molina and starting pitcher Adam Wainwright. There was Pujols’ historic chase for 700 career home runs and Wainwright-Molina setting a MLB record for the most career starts by a pitcher-catcher combination.
The surrounding excitement generated highly-charged energy, a frisky competitive edge, the joy of playing the game — and reminded every player what this franchise stands for. In 2023, what do the Cardinals stand for? Who are they? What do they do well? What is their team identity?
That’s the problem: this team doesn’t have a winning formula to lean on. This team has no identity. The good vibrations of 2022 have faded and blandness has set in. Even the pepper-shaker ritual seems tired and played out.
3. Too Many Excuses. This is what the Cardinals do best. They talk about being the victims of bad breaks and tough luck. Their starting pitchers refer to all of the bloops and little ground balls that beat them. But they never talk about the 44.3 percent hard-hit rate against them that’s fourth-highest in the majors against a team’s rotation. They don’t talk about the .470 slugging percentage against them – the sixth highest in the majors. The starters don’t talk about how their inadequate strikeout rate, 20.4%, ranks 24th in the majors. And they don’t talk about how the soft-contact rate against them, 12.7%, is the fifth-lowest in MLB. Sure, they’ve been on the wrong side of the luck factor at times. But so have their opponents.
4. Manager Oli Marmol: The challenges faced by Marmol as a rookie in 2022 are minor compared to what he’s enduring so far this season – and he doesn’t seem to have answers. His messaging is nondescript. And while it’s right to hold players accountable, you don’t do it by losing your temper and going public by throwing a player (Tyler O’Neill) under the Clydesdales hitch.
Does this look like a happy team to you?
Yes the front office could have given the manager a more capable roster. But as is, the in-house talent should be better than 10-19. More than anything, the Cardinals are deteriorating in the fundamentals, and I’ll go over that in a bit.
5. The Offense: Too many underachievers. Too much confusion (the outfield.) At the end of the end of April the Cardinals rank 20th in MLB with an average of 4.24 runs scored per game.
No team has stranded more runners on base (216) than St. Louis. Based on positive factors such as batting average, onbase percentage, OPS+, and the third highest hard-hit rate in the majors, the Cardinals should be producing more runs – but they aren’t.
The Cardinals get plenty of men on base but rank 27th in the majors at getting their runners home to score, doing it a rate of only 27 percent.
For the season, the Redbirds have scored three or fewer runs in 48 percent of their games – the eighth-highest percentage in MLB – and are 1-13 when it happens.
6. Nolan Arenado: He’s essential to this team’s success. His defense is fine, but Arenado just completed the worst opening month of his career offensively. He set new career lows in an opening month in batting average (.239), homers (2), doubles (3), onbase percentage (.281), slugging (.319), OPS (600) and OPS+ (67.) That OPS+ makes him 33% below league average offensively. And Arenado’s current 21.5% strikeout rate would be his highest in a full season.
7. Outfield Follies: The outfield was supposed to be a big, bold dangerous part of the offense. We’re still waiting. Roster construction is one of the problems, of course. The Cardinals opened the season with five outfielders, which proved to be too many because Marmol struggled to find enough at-bats for everyone. That led to the team optioning rookie Jordan Walker to Triple A Memphis last week. Management couldn’t even get that right; it turned out to be a bad decision to have Walker open the season in St. Louis.
The remaining four outfielders – Lars Nootbaar, Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, and Alec Burleson – had 120 combined plate appearances on the 10-game West Coast trip and collectively batted .215 with two homers.
For the season, STL outfielders have hit only eight home runs – averaging one homer every 40 at-bats – with 32 RBI and a .382 slug.
8. Tyler O’Neill: Not trying to blame him for the disappointing overall performance from the St. Louis outfield. But has anyone been more frustrating than O’Neill? He had a homer and two RBI on opening day, but in 85 plate appearances since then, O’Neill has one homer, four RBI, is slugging a languid .329, and has a 34 percent strikeout rate. The 2021 season seems like a long time ago.
9. Starting Pitching: There’s been some improvement as of late; Cards starters had a 3.71 ERA and three quality starts in their 10 games out west. But this group is too inconsistent and has a mediocre strikeout-walk ratio. With runners in scoring position their walk rate is too high (12.6%) and their strikeout rate (19%) is way too low. It just shows that the starters create a lot of their own problems. Jordan Montgomery is spared from criticism here, but Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, and Steven Matz should be doing better.
Because of spotty control, the inefficient Cards starters average 93 pitches per start while averaging just over 5 innings per start. They’re 24th in quality-start percentage. Their rotation ERA (4.94) ranks 22nd.
It’s difficult to establish successful consistency when your rotation gets in trouble early in games. In the first two innings this season, St. Louis starting pitchers have the fourth-worst ERA (5.74) in the majors and have been smacked for a .318 average, .390 onbase percentage and an alarming .538 slugging percentage. The Cardinals are 1-4 this season when trailing after the first inning, 2-7 when trailing after two innings, and 1-10 when trailing after three innings.
The Cardinals declined to add starting pitching last offseason. When asked about that by Tom Ackerman (KMOX), here’s the answer from president of baseball operations John Mozeliak:
“I still don’t know what that means,” Mozeliak said. “And who we should have gotten or why. There were a couple of pitchers we did pursue. Ironically they’re both on the IL.”
Mozeliak talked about how “you never know” about signing starting pitchers because of injury risk, and that’s true.
And Mozeliak added: “Again, I do not feel like the starting pitching is our reason we’re not having a better record right now. I think it’s a collection of a lot of things.”
10. The Bullpen, Trending Down? Overall the St. Louis bullpen has done good work, with their relievers posting the highest strikeout rate in the majors (29.5%) over the first month. But on the 2-8 road trip the relievers had a 5.52 ERA and walked 14.4% of batters faced. On the downside, the Cardinals have lost six games in relief, have a 44.4% save rate, and a 10.93 ERA in high-leverage situations.
11. Porous Defense: The Cardinals have slipped on defensive runs saved, going from seven to three in relatively short time. Other metrics are more ominous. The Cardinals rank 27th in defensive efficiency, 28th in zone rating, and 30th in zone rating prorated over 150 games. All of this is substantially down from where the Cardinals ranked in 2022. And this is one of the main reason why St. Louis ranks 26th in run prevention this season, giving up 4.69 runs per game.
12. Baserunning: Even though it’s much easier to steal bases under the new rules and larger base surfaces, the Cardinals may have failed to receive that packet of information from MLB. They haven’t been nearly aggressive enough to take advantage of the new freedom and rank just below the MLB average with 19 steals. I don’t get it. And because the St. Louis pitchers are so lax in holding runners on, opponents have stolen 21 bases against the Cards including 13 on the 2-8 road trip. If the opponents understand the impact of the new rules, then why are the Cardinals stuck in the past?
According to the composite FanGraphs baserunning rating the Cardinals are the worst team in the majors. They’ve had 11 runners thrown out on the bases, tied for third most. Excluding force-outs, they’ve taken only 20 bases on batted balls in play, ranking 25th. Last season the Cardinals were the fourth-best team in MLB with a bases-taken percentage of 46 percent. In the opening month of this season the the Cards had a bases-taken rate of 38%, which ranked 24th.
We’ve seen obvious slippage on defense, a glaring decline in baserunning and pitchers disregarding opposing-team runners on first base. The fundamentals are collapsing under Marmol and his reshuffled coaching staff. It’s just all-around bad baseball, and the Cardinals have five months to clean it up, and shake it up.
Coming Tuesday: A look at the Cards’ chances of getting back into the NL Central race.
Thanks for reading …
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.
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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 my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
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.