THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Can we trust the Cardinals?
Honestly, I’m not sure.
Their season has been a sequence of ups and downs. They lost 24 of their first 34 games, only to win 11 of the next 14, and then stalling through a 3-7 road trip to Cincinnati and Cleveland.
This is the best I can do: the Redbirds weren’t as awful as their 10-24 start appeared to make them. They weren’t as good as they seemed to be during their 11-3 upturn. And their visit to Ohio was murky at best. Familiar problems resurfaced over the past week: faulty starting a perplexingly inconsistent offense, and sketchy work by the bullpen.
The 3-4 record in Ohio reminded us of several realities:
We might want to slow down the high-speed yapping about the Cardinals rolling to the NL Central title. Yes, the division is hideous again, but it’s silly for St. Louis to look down on the Brewers, Pirates, Reds and Cubs. At 24-31, the Cardinals fit right right in with this clown-car division. A good St. Louis team would be leading this sorry division on Memorial Day – but the Redbirds aren’t good. They’ll have to earn a division championship, and to do that it’s important to establish more consistency.
The Cards’ hot streak was entertaining and inspiring and gave us welcome visions of better days ahead … but it didn’t last. Their red-hot offense turned frigid, and once again their problematic pitching made it difficult to sustain success.
The Cardinals have made progress, cutting their NL Central; deficit from 10 to five games. But they lost a terrific chance to move closer to first-place Milwaukee by splitting a four-game series at Cincinnati and losing two of three to a Cleveland team that statistically has the worst offense in the majors. The Cardinals had the worst offense in the Cleveland series, and that’s kind of sad.
Who are the “real” Cardinals? We’re still trying to find out.
* The 3-4 road trip caused the Cardinals to drop in the NL Central standings. They’re in fourth place as they go into Memorial Day, haven fallen a game behind the third-place Reds and a half game behind the last-place Cubs. After briefly getting to within four games of the first-place Brewers, the Cardinals trail the Crew by five again. And the Cardinals are 3 and ½ behind the second-place Pirates.
* The Cardinals (24-31) have a .436 winning percentage that ranks 13th among the 15 National League teams, just ahead of the Nationals (.434) and Cubs (.423.)
* The Redbirds are 13-16 on the road and 11-15 at home.
* They’re 16-23 against teams that are above .500, and 8-8 against opponents that are under .500.They’re 5-11 in games determined by one run.
* They’ve lost four of six games to opponents that compete in the wretched American League Central division
* Based on their run differential (+13) the Cardinals should have a 29-26 record.
The Cardinals scored 26 runs in the seven games against the Reds and Guardians, but eight of the runs came in one game, the 8-5 win over the Reds on May 23. The Redbirds scored 18 total runs in the other six games, averaging 3.0 per contest. After scoring 13 runs in the first two games of the roadie, the Cardinals averaged 2.6 runs over the remaining five games.
In the seven Ohio games the Cardinals batted .216 overall. And in 66 plate appearances with runners in scoring position they hit .196, had a poor 27.3 percent strikeout rate and managed only one home run.
The Redbirds were especially brutal in the three-game series at Cleveland, hitting .186 overall and .067 with runners in scoring position.
NEED TO DO BETTER
Five prominent hitters struggled in the seven game against the Reds and Guardians:
1. Nolan Arenado was 2 for 20 (.100) with a 30.4 percent strikeout rate.
2. Willson Contreras was 0 for 17, which includes an 0 for 4 showing with runners in scoring position. Contreras has gone 1 for 30 (.034) in his last eight games.
3. Nolan Gorman went 1 for 12 in Cleveland and batted .179 on the the trip. He did not homer and had a 28 percent strikeout rate.
4. Paul DeJong had an 0 for 12 series in Cleveland. For the overall trip Pauly batted .130 with a 28 percent strikeout rate. But he did have a homer, double and four RBI with runners in scoring position.
5. Tommy Edman was 4 for 26 (.154) and went 1 for 6 with runners in scoring position. One oddity: The switch–hitting Edman – who almost always bats from the left side against right–handed pitching – went 4 for 9 with a double and triple when hitting from the right side against righty pitchers. But Edman was 0 for 13 with four strikeouts when batting from the left side against right-handers. Edman’s experiment – batting right against righties – is going well.
YOU DID GOOD
Several Cardinal hitters had strong performances on the road trip.
1. Brendan Donovan batted .316, walked seven times, posted a .500 onbase percentage, swatted two homers and a double, slugged .684, scored six runs and led STL with two steals. Donovan helped the otherwise listless Cardinals manufacture a 2-1 win on Saturday by hitting a solo homer – and later stealing third and scoring on a wold pitch for the winning run.
2. Lars Nootbaar: He had a couple of bad strikeout spells during the roadie but batted .310 with a .375 onbase percentage and a .483 slug. His productivity included two doubles, a homer and six RBI And Noot went 5 for 6 with with runners in scoring position.
3. Rookie Alec Burleson is being targeted by impatient fans, but he went 6 for 20 (.300) on the trip with a homer and three RBI. He was one of few Cardinals that had a good series in Cleveland, going 3-8 (.375) with the homer and two RBI.
4. Andrew Knizner started three of the seven games at catcher and provided a jolt of offense by going 4 for 11 (.364) with a .417 onbase percentage, .727 slug plus a double and a homer. Through Sunday, Knizner has a .449 slug and .708 OPS this season – which is better than Contreras’ .366 slug and .674 OPS. Contreras has many more plate appearances (211) than Knizner (78), and history tells us that “Kiz” has struggled to put up decent offensive numbers during his career with the Cardinals. But if Knizner can maintain his .708 OPS it would be the best of his career. Contreras has five homers by Knizner is right there with four home runs. Contreras has homered every 37 at bats this season; Knizner has hit a HR every 19.5 at-bats
5. Paul Goldschmidt hit three solo homers and had a 15 percent walk rate, which gave him a .407 onbase percentage and .739 slug on the trip.
STARTING PITCHING: STILL A HUGE PROBLEM
Let’s start with the positive. Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty each made one start during the trip and pitched brilliantly, giving up one run (Flaherty) over 14 combined innings.
Other than that? Dreadful. In five combined starts Steven Matz, Matthew Liberatore, Jordan Montgomery and Adam Wainwright were ripped for 21 earned runs in 23 and ⅔ innings for a horrendous 7.98 ERA. To be fair, one of Montgomery’s two starts – Sunday in Cleveland – was decent. And the three starters that faced the Guardians – Liberatore, Flaherty and Montgomery – had a combined 3.71 ERA. But that was mostly because of Flaherty’s seven-inning, one-run start.
In an overdue move, Matz has been reassigned to the bullpen for an undetermined amount of time. The Cardinals rank 23rd in MLB with a rotation ERA of 4.93.
RYAN HELSLEY, PART ONE
Two things here: (1) Helsley’s 2023 season isn’t nearly as dominant of what we saw from him in 2022. More on that later. And (2) manager Oli Marmol absolutely screwed up Sunday by having Helsley pitch to Jose Ramirez with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth and the Cardinals clinging to a 2-1 lead.
Marmol had two choices: have Helsley pitch to Ramirez, who by far is Cleveland’s best hitter – or intentionally walk Ramirez to load the bases and go after the next hitter, Josh Bell. Marmol chose Helsley vs. Ramirez, and Ramirez drilled a two-run double to give the Guardians a 3-2 walk-off win.
The double came after Helsly had walked two Guardians in a row by throwing eight consecutive balls. In that context, Helsley’s shaky control had to be a factor in Marmol’s thinking; Bell has a good walk rate (10.7%) against right-handed pitchers.
That said, challenging Ramirez was a mistake simply because he’s a far superior hitter than Bell. Two factors here: (1) Ramirez had been effective against St. Louis pitchers all weekend – no surprise considering his abundant talent. (2) Ramirez is punishing right-handed pitching this season: .328 average, .408 onbase percentage, and a booming .520 slug. And though Helsley has a good strikeout punch, Ramirez had struck out only 11 times in 147 plate appearances (7.4%) when batting against RH pitching. The outcome, the winning double, was predictable.
HELSLEY, PART TWO
Here are a few info bits about Helsley’s 2023:
— He has four blown saves in 20 appearances this season. In 2022 he had four blown saves in 54 appearances.
— His current ERA is 3.52. Last year Helsley had a 1.25 ERA.
— Helsley’s strikeout rate has gone from 39.3 percent last season to 30 percent this year.
— His swing-miss rate, 18.4 percent last season, has fallen to 14.8% in 2023.
— His walk rate is up and his strikeout rate is down. Accordingly his strikeout-walk ratio has dropped: 4.7 strikeouts for every walk last season; this year it’s 2.64 punchouts for every walk.
— His four-seam fastball and slider are still nasty pitches. But compared to 2022, opponents are hitting 106 points higher against Helsley’s four-seamer and 63 points higher against the slider.
— Last season Helsley converted 19 of his 23 save opportunities for a success rate of 83 percent. This season he has six saves in 10 opps for a 60% success rate.
— The Cardinals have suffered three walk-off losses this season; Helsley was the reliever (and the losing pitcher) in all three.
The Cardinals’ bullpen has 12 blown saves this season, tied for second-most in the majors.
PRAISE FOR JORDAN HICKS
The RH reliever has been phenomenal since May 8, having appeared in seven games and pitching 9 and ⅔ innings without allowing a run. Hicks has faced 33 batters over that time, dominating with a 39 percent strikeout rate and limiting them to a .035 batting average. And he’s only walked three of the 33 batters.
If we want a larger sample size, here it is: in his last 14 appearances, covering 17 innings, Hicks has a 1.59 ERA with a wicked 42% strikeout rate.
Could Hicks get an opportunity to work as a closer? I don’t know, but this a dramatic turnaround from his 6.97 ERA during his first seven relief assignments of the season.
NEXT ON THE SKED
Kansas City is in town for a two-game series which begins Monday afternoon (1:15 p.m.) The Cardinals have a chance to rebound from their disappointing road trip. The Royals, 16-38, have the second-worst winning percentage (.296) in MLB. And that’s only because the historically gross Oakland A’s are 10-45 (.182)
Adam Wainwright starts for the Cardinals today. Going back to late last season, Wainwright, 41, has a 6.84 ERA in his last 10 starts. That includes a 6.33 ERA in his first four starts this season.
Thanks for reading …
Enjoy the day.
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.