THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals are down to their final eight games of the regular season. There are many positives. They’ve all but officially clinched first place in the NL Central. They have the second-best record in the majors (38-18) since July 27, and are No. 3 overall in winning percentage since the All-Star break.
With 89 victories, the Cardinals need only three more triumphs to bag their most wins in a season since 2013. The Albert Pujols Show has been a source of tremendous enjoyment and exhilaration. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina setting a new MLB record for most career starts by a pitcher-catcher combination was a cool and proud moment. We’ve been treated to Paul Goldschmidt’s MVP-caliber season, and watched Nolan Arenado make plays that normal third basemen can’t even dream of. Rookies, particularly Brendan Donovan, have put in major contributions and added energy.
But as we peek ahead to the postseason, the team’s list of concerns seems to be expanding. Are the anxieties legitimate and lasting, or just an alarming phase? The final days of the regular season may provide answers.
Either way the postseason is a new season, separated from the immediate past. The feeble offense we’ve watched in September could turn fierce in October … or it could remain dormant. Both things are possible. But it would be good to see the Cardinals show improvement during the countdown to their first-round playoff series.
Since there are eight games left on the schedule, here’s my rundown of the eight areas that are causing apprehension.
1. The Offense Remains On Mute. Since Sept. 4 the Cardinals have scored two runs or fewer in 10 of 21 games and were shut out four times. Over that time the Redbirds are averaging only 3.4 runs per game and rank 28th in the majors in batting average (.214), 29th in onbase percentage (.283), 26th in slugging (.364) and 28th in OPS (.646). This does not exactly inspire confidence for the big games to come.
2. The Stillness Of Paul Goldschmidt: On Aug. 25, Goldy slammed two homers and delivered five RBIs in STL’s 8-3 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field. He did all of that damage in five plate appearances. But in his 27 games since then, Goldschmidt has virtually the same production – two home runs and seven RBI – but in 114 plate appearances. Since Aug. 26, the starting All-Star first baseman is hitting .217 and slugging .340 with a 24.5 percent strikeout rate.
Instead of making progress and getting closer to normal, Goldschmidt’s funk is worsening. In his last seven games he’s 4 for 27 (.148) with no homers, RBI or runs scored and a worrisome strikeout rate of 38 percent. Goldschmidt has put together one of his best seasons in the majors, hitting 35 homers and knocking home 112 runs. He’s in the process of establishing personal bests in OPS+ (182) and slugging (.584) and remains the clear front runner for the NL’s MVP award.
But wouldn’t it be swell to see the return of the May-through-August Goldy? Over the four months he hit .342 with a .430 onbase percentage, .666 slug, 1.096 OPS and 32 homers.
3. The Glaring Decline Of Adam Wainwright: Five September starts, 24 innings, 38 hits, 6.38 ERA. He’s struck out only 7.8 percent of batters faced, a steep drop from his 19.5 strikeout rate during the first five months. Hitters are batting .365 with a .414 OBP and .452 slug against Waino in September. His walks/hits per inning has swollen to a problematic 1.96. His swing–miss rate is a poor 5.3 percent. His ground-ball rate for the month is down (37%). During this unfortunate stretch opponents have battered Waino’s curve ball for a .326 average and .457 slugging percentage. They’ve walloped his cutter for a .464 average and .571 slug. The sinker is very hittable.
That’s the sound of alarm bells going off. Wainwright and the Cardinals prefer to call this a “dead arm” period. Others may see it as a 41-year-old starting pitcher who is trying to push through the exhaust fumes after his long and prosperous MLB career. In line with strict franchise custom, the Cardinals declined to push it by giving Wainwright unwanted time off to regenerate, and that likely made the predicament worse.
By going along with Wainwright’s wishes and letting this awkward situation continue without a precautionary and logical shutdown, manager Oli Marmol has put himself in a potential jam. Potentially a very uncomfortable jam. I’m genuinely surprised, because up until now Marmol hasn’t backed away from making tough decisions. If Wainwright can’t bounce back – and time is running out – how could you possibly include him in the three-starter plans for the first postseason round? Wainwright will start Sunday’s home game against the Pirates. Can he suddenly turn things around? The usual disclaimer: It’s always a stupid move to count Waino out.
4. Nolan Arenado, Close But Not Quite There: Like Goldschmidt, Arenado has produced a strong overall season led by his 30 homers, 100 RBI, .540 slug and .898 OPS. There are some stirrings but his September isn’t as noisy as hoped, with a .222 average, .358 slug and .650 OPS with two homers. Once the Cardinals clinch, some days off may help Arenado and Goldschmidt.
5. What’s Up With Jordan Montgomery? In his last three starts the lefty has given up 21 hits – including five home runs and six doubles – in 13 earned runs in 14.1 innings for a 8.16 ERA. That’s a sharp contrast to Monty’s first seven starts as a Cardinal since coming over from the Yankees: a sweet 1.45 ERA and only one home run allowed in 43.1 innings.
A few quick but important points: (A) during the three-start downturn Montgomery has a 26.4 strikeout rate and a swing-miss rate of 13%. Good signs. And he wasn’t going to sustain a 1.45 ERA, so regression was inevitable. (B) The home run spike is a concern, but aside from that he’s come out on the wrong end of batted-ball luck with a .390 batting average against him on balls in play. (C) Until this season Montgomery hadn’t pitched more than 157.1 innings in a major-league season. He’s up to 172.1 innings in 2022, and that could be a factor. (D) Increased use of his four-seam fastball worked very well when Montgomery made the switch from the Yankees to the Cardinals. But in his last three starts right-handed hitting opponents have crushed the four-seam for a .467 average, three doubles, two homers and a 1.067 OPS in 15 at-bats that ended with the pitch. RH batters also have a .600 average with a homer and a double against the sinker in his last three starts. Montgomery is suppressing RH hitters with his non-hard stuff, so perhaps it’s time to reconsider pitch-selection strategy.
6. Is The Rotation Going To Be OK? I’ve already discussed the issues related to Wainwright and Montgomery. But this month the Cardinals have received mostly fine work from their other starters. Look at it this way: starters not named Wainwright or Montgomery have combined for a 2.15 ERA in 79.1 September innings. That would be Jose Quintana, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson. St. Louis is tied for the sixth-best rotation ERA (3.45) in the majors this month. Marmol will have good options available to him for plotting a first-round rotation. Things will look brighter if Montgomery rebounds.
7. Here We Go Again: Uncertainty In The Outfield. Lars Nootbaar is heating up again after a severe slump, going 6 for 13 (.462) with two doubles and two homers during his final four games of the SoCal swing. And rookie Juan Yepez is 6 for 17 (.353) with a double and a homer after being promoted from Triple A Memphis.
So that’s a plus. But Corey Dickerson has 1 hit in his last 26 at-bats, Dylan Carlson is batting .172 for the month with no homers and a 29% strikeout rate, and Tyler O’Neill remains sidelined by a strained hamstring.
If Carlson and O’Neill can reignite, their impact would transform the offense. But is that something the Cardinals can count on? Not really. The Cards can be hopeful, yes. And a resurgence isn’t out of the question. But let’s be honest here. Carlson and O’Neill have been inconsistent and enigmatic in 2022.
This month St. Louis outfielders are batting .209 with a subpar OBP (.282) and slug (.368) and rank 23rd with a .649 OPS. That must change, and soon, for this team to be at its best offensively going into the postseason.
8. Keeping An Eye On Ryan Helsley: He’s among the best and most intimidating closers in the bigs this season. But in the past he’s worn down or been vulnerable to injury if pushed too hard. Knowing this, manager Marmol has done a smart job of taking care of Helsley. But we’ve seen some warning signs. Here’s why I say that:
— First 36 appearances: 0.61 ERA, 1.31 FIP, one home run yielded to 159 batters faced, .151 opponent slugging percentage and a 41.5% strikeout rate.
— Last 15 appearances: 3.18 ERA, 5.12 FIP, five home runs to 68 batters faced (ouch), .476 opponent slugging percentage and a 33.8 strikeout percentage.
NOTES ON MY SCORECARD
Road Blues: The 2–4 excursion to San Diego and LA left the Cardinals with a 38-38 road record on the season … and a 10-20 road record against winning teams. The Cardinals still have not registered a series win on the road when facing winning opponents. In nine such series they’re 0-6-3 against the Brewers, Mets, Braves, Phillies, Blue Jays, Rays, Padres and Dodgers.
In the 30 road games against those eight winning teams the Cardinals averaged 3.3 runs per game and batted .229 with a .296 OBP and .371 slug. That’s a .667 OPS. And STL hitters had a 23.7 percent strikeout rate. On the pitching side, Cardinal starters had a 5.17 ERA in the 30 road games vs. winners.
The Cardinals have two more road games against a winning opponent – Tuesday and Wednesday in Milwaukee.
Accounting Department: The Cardinals are 13-10 in September for a .565 winning percentage that ranks fifth in the NL and ninth overall … the Cardinals are 3-5 in their last eight games, and have a 8-9 record in their last 17 … the Cardinals are 44-24 against NL Central rivals this season but have a record of 45-41 in all other games … minus their 35-16 record against the Pirates, Reds and Cubs this season the Cardinals are 54-49 against all other opponents including Milwaukee.
Pujols Leads The Way: He was the team’s best player in the first six games of the current eight-game road trip. That’s for obvious reasons, topped by career home runs No. 699 and No. 700. But Pujols, 42, isn’t supposed to be carrying the Cardinals … and he’s carrying the Cardinals. He’s 7 for 19 on the current trip (.368) with a team-high five RBIs.
Among Cardinals that have at least 150 plate appearances since July 10, Pujols ranks first in slugging percentage (.669), OPS (1.042), home runs (17) and park-and-league adjusted runs created – at 90 percent league average offensively. He’s also second in batting average (.313), third in RBI (40) and fourth in OBP (.373). Since July 10 Pujols is averaging a homer every 9.7 at-bats and an RBI every 4.15 at-bats. That’s bananas.
The Fantastic Jose Quintana: After twirling a gem at Dodger Stadium on Friday night, “Q” has the top ERA by a National League pitcher in September at 0.71. And since making his Cardinal debut on Aug. 4, Quintana’s 2.14 ERA ranks fifth in the NL and 11th overall. His 1.5 WAR as a Cardinal is eighth in the NL and tied for 12th overall since Aug. 4. The Cardinals are 9-1 in his starts. Quintana hasn’t given up more than two earned runs in any of his 10 starts for the Redbirds.
In his 25.1 innings (four starts) for September he’s allowed only 16 hits – no homers – and walked just one batter. Opponents are hitting .182 with a .200 OBP and .227 slug against him this month.
Quintana continues to keep the ball in the yard; he’s been touched for only one home run by the 217 batters he’s faced as a Cardinal. And his ground-ball rate as a Cardinal (50%) is among the best in the majors.
Quintana is a definite go for the postseason rotation. Depending on the opponent, he could start Game 1 of the first round. As a Cardinal, Quintana has been effective at home (1.86 ERA) and on the road (2.45 ERA.) And in his 10 starts the left-handed Quintana has been terrific against RH batters, limiting them to a .240 average, .288 OBP and .292 slug.
Well done, John Mozeliak.
Helluva Road Trip, So Far, For The Bullpen: In the six roadies against the Padres and Dodgers, Cardinals relievers were stingy in allowing only two earned runs in 18.1 innings for a 0.98 ERA. They held hitters to a .185 average and .526 OPS.
Need To Ramp It Up: In the first six games of the road trip Tommy Edman went 1 for 23 with seven strikeouts; Corey Dickerson was 0 for 13 with five strikeouts; Goldschmidt was 4 for 22 (.182) with seven strikeouts, Dylan Carlson was 4 for 20 (.200) with five strikeouts, and Andrew Knizner went 0 for 15 with five Ks. And then there’s Paul DeJong. In 73 plate appearances since Aug. 14 he has only five hits, a strikeout rate of 40 percent, and is batting .078.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
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.