What a week. The offense slowed, the starting pitching was gross, and manager Oli Marmol ignited a public controversy with outfielder Tyler O’Neill. After Marmol’s tough-guy show, the fired-up Cardinals stumbled to lose three of their next four games. I may have just used some sarcasm there; the Cardinals were the opposite of a revved-up team. They’ve fallen down the NL Central basement steps and are 3-6 and in last place.
After hammering the Blue Jays for 22 runs while winning two of three games, the Cardinals managed to score only 14 runs while losing five of six to the Braves and Brewers. Ouch.
After the first nine steps in a prolonged 162-game schedule, the Cardinals have won fewer games (three) than 24 MLB teams, and they’re the only NL Central entity with a losing record.
This is where I’m supposed to add a few points:
We knew the Cardinals would face a tough schedule during the first month.
It’s only nine games.
The 2011 Cardinals started out with a 3-6 record and it didn’t stop them from winning the World Series. Yep. It’s early.
Adam Wainwright soon will return from the IL.
But really …
The freak-outs are premature — which is why it was so strange to see a manager pick a fight with a player five games into the ’23 season.
That said, the boys need to rise up and play some winning baseball. The challenge begins Monday night with a three–game series at Coors Field in Colorado. In theory the St. Louis hitters have a good chance to strike early, avail themselves to plenty of runs to build a shelter for their wobbly pitchers. That’s the optimistic view, and there’s no reason to talk about a pessimistic view — because we already know what that is.
Yeah, it’s early. But this would be a fine time for the Cardinals to energize and reset the season.
THE REDBIRD REVIEW: LET’S DO IT!
THE OVERVIEW: The Cardinals are 1-5 since winning two of three from Toronto in the opening series. This poor stretch (3-6) has left the Cardinals in last place in the NL Central, four games behind first-place Milwaukee (7-2.) STL’s .333 winning percentage is tied for 26th in the majors. The Cardinals haven’t been 3-6 after their first nine games since 2017.
OFFENSE: The slumping Cardinals have dropped to 23rd in the majors with an average of 4.0 runs per game:
RUN PREVENTION: The Redbirds have allowed 4.67 runs per game which ranks 18th in MLB.
Moving On ….
THE JORDAN WALKER WATCH: I was concerned about Walker late in spring training when his offense went quiet after he suffered a mild shoulder strain. Silly me. After his first nine MLB games, the 20-year-old rookie is batting .353 with a .405 onbase rate and a .588 slugging percentage. His debut includes two doubles, two homers and eight RBI.
— Among rookie Cardinal hitters age 20 or younger, Walker has the most home runs (2) and RBI (8) during the first nine games at the start of his MLB career.
— As mentioned, Walker is batting .353. He has a .993 OPS. Only Stan Musial, in 1941, had a higher batting average (.457) and OPS (1.144) than Walker over in the first nine games at the start of a career. When you’re hanging out with Stan the Man, you’ve had an excellent start to your career.
— Walker is performing 66 percent above league average offensively per OPS+
— Walker’s .353 average is No. 1 on the Cardinals among lineup regulars. He’s tied with Nolan Arenado for the team RBI lead and shares the team lead for homers (2) with Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan.
— Walker leads MLB rookies in batting average and is second in RBI, third in slugging and OPS, and fourth in onbase percentage.
— Walker has hit safely in his first nine MLB games, tying Ted Williams as the youngest age-20 hitter to do that at the start of a career. Eddie Murphy – with hits in 12 straight games in 1912 – holds the MLB record for consecutive games with a hit by a 20-and-under hitter.
— Walker is tied for 10th in the majors with 16 hard-hit balls through nine games. (A hard-hit ball is one that leaves the bat at 95.5 mph or higher.) Walker has an overall hard-hit percentage of 59.3; that ranks 19th in MLB. His impressive average exit velocity of 91 mph is above the league-average of 88 mph.
— Walker is batting .333 on four-seam fastballs, .583 against sliders, and has an expected average of .408 on curves. Based on quality of contact, Walker has an expected expected .528 slug against all fastball types. And against the slider, he has an expected batting average of .583, with an expected slugging rate of .556 against breaking balls.
STARTING PITCHING: St. Louis starters rank 22nd in the majors with a 5.52 ERA. They’ve had only one quality start in nine games. Their quality-start percentage (11%) is tied for 24th. And the starters’ Game Score average (45) is tied for 23rd. In the Game Score metric devised by Bill James, the average start is 50.
ABOUT THE GAME SCORE: How important to a team is the Bill James version of a quality start? It’s definitely meaningful, and that’s why I pay attention to it all season. In 2022 when St. Lous had a 50 Game Score or higher they were 66-26 for a .717 winning percentage. And when the starter had a below-average Game Score, the Cards were 27-43 for a .385 win pct. Early in 2023 the Cards are 1-6 in a below-average start.
JACK FLAHERTY’S WEIRD APRIL: After his first two starts, Flaherty is 1-1 with a 1.80 ERA and opponents are batting .133 against him. Among starters that have pitched at least 10 innings, Flaherty has a better ERA than Sandy Alcantara, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Spencer Strider and Shane Bieber. In his first start, Flaherty allowed no hits or runs in five innings in STL’s 4-1 win over Toronto. In losing 4-0 at Milwaukee on Friday, he gave up four hits and two runs. Could have been better, yes. But in both starts, Flaherty’s bottom-line performance should have been much worse.
Flaherty has 45 batters this month – and has walked 13 of them. That’s a walk rate of 28.9 percent, by far the worst by a MLB starting pitcher with at least 10 innings. The second-worst walk rate (15.9%) belongs to Kansas City’s Brad Keller and it isn’t close to the Flaherty-bad level.
The deluge of walks leaves Flaherty with a 6.19 fielding-independent ERA that ranks 68th among 76 starting pitchers. That FIP is a truer indication of his performance quality.
Flaherty has prevented extensive damage by limiting opponents to a .100 batting average with runners in scoring position. And of the 13 opponents who walked against Flaherty, only one came around to score (8.8%). He’s limited hard contact, ranking fifth-best among MLB starters with a hard-hit rate of 29 percent.
Flaherty has been outstanding when battling through the adverse circumstances he put himself in, but the pattern won’t last. His 88.9% runners-stranded rate won’t last. The .176 batting average against him on balls in play won’t last. A ridiculously high walk rate will eventually lead to huge trouble for Flaherty, so he must put an end to the John Gant impersonation.
JORDAN MONTGOMERY: The Cardinals don’t have an “ace” that fits the traditional, dominant prototype. But Montgomery sure looked like a No. 1 type of starter in Saturday’s 6-0 victory over the Brewers. He pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing only three hits and two walks while striking out nine.
Monty is clearly STL’s best starter in the early days of the season, going 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA. The other starting pitchers – Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Jake Woodford, Steven Matz – collectively have a 6.68 ERA in 33.2 innings.
The Brewers stacked the lineup with right-handed hitters to take on the lefty Montgomery but couldn’t get to him. In his first two starts RH batters are hitting .184 vs. Montgomery. As a Cardinal, Montgomery has faced 265 right-handed hitters and held them to a .230 average and .650 OPS. Nice.
Montgomery has made 13 starts for the Cardinals since being acquired from the Yankees in exchange for center fielder Harrison Bader. Montgomery has a 2.97 ERA in 75.2 innings for the Redbirds and the team is 10-3 in his starts.
QUESTIONABLE MOVE BY MARMOL: The Cardinals had the bases loaded with no out in the eighth inning of Sunday’s setback. They were trailing 6-1 but had the opportunity to launch a comeback. But Willson Contreras struck out after going up 2-0 on the count. Tommy Edman was next and hit a fly ball to short left that wasn’t deep enough to score the runner from third on a tag-up. Up next, Brendan Donovan. The Brewers brought in a lefty reliever, Hoby Milner, to take on the LH-swinging Donovan.
To avoid the left vs. left matchup, Marmol pulled Donovan in favor of the right-handed hitting Taylor Motter. Motter struck out on three pitches, and a once-hopeful St. Louis rally was snuffed and turned into no rally at all.
I still don’t understand the move for a simple reason: Donovan is effective against lefties. There was no reason to yank him for a RH pinch-hitter. Donovan is 2 for 4 with a walk against lefties this season. For his career, MLB Donovan has batted .292 with a .432 onbase percentage against lefties. That isn’t a weakness; it’s a strength. Donovan has a fantastic 18.3% walk rate against lefties, and a walk in that situation would have brought in a run to make it a 6-2 score with the bases still loaded. And in that scenario, Marmol could have used switch-hitter Dylan Carlson to bat for LH-hitting Alec Burleson. A Milner vs. Carlson matchup would have given the Cardinals an advantage; Carlson is a career .318 vs. lefties with a .379 OBP and .491 slug.
But with the Cardinals finally generating a threat against Milwaukee late in the game, and a lefty reliever coming in, Marmol removed one of his best hitters against lefties (Donovan) and didn’t use a hitter (Carlson) who mashes lefties. Makes no sense.
TYLER O’NEILL: PLEASE HIT BALL FAR: Tyler O’Neill had three hits in 12 at-bats (.250) against the Brewers but struck out five times in 13 plate appearances, a strikeout rate of 38.4%. Since blasting a two-run homer on Opening Day, O’Neill doesn’t have an extra-base hit or an RBI over eight games and has struck out in 29.6% of his plate appearances. O’Neill currently has an 84 OPS+ which means he’s 16 percent below league average offensively. And his slugging percentage (.367) is too low for a guy with so much power.
The dude needs to start hitting. His defense is nothing special. According to Statcast, O’Neill has a 75 percent success rate in center field, which is minus five percent below the expected rate. He doesn’t look instinctively sharp out there. And as I mentioned in this space Friday, O’Neill is a minus four so far in net baserunning gain per Bill James Online. Lars Nootbaar’s imminent return from a thumb injury will give Marmol several lineup options to choose from in a crowded outfield. Among the outfielders only Juan Yepez has a lower OPS+ than O’Neill.
STL OFFENSE NEEDS TO GET CRANKING: The Cardinals have scored 2.3 runs per game during their 1-5 slide. During the last six games the Cards had a solid share of hits (.251 avg.) and an above-average OBP (.332.) But they failed to capitalize and score more runs because of a poor performance with runners in scoring position.
Against Atlanta and Milwaukee, the Cardinals went 9 for 44 (.205 avg.) with runners in scoring position and struck out at a rate of 27.5 percent. Over the weekend in Milwaukee, Cardinals were 5 for 24 (.208) with runners in scoring position and struck out 39.3% of the time. The Cardinals flubbed two different bases-loaded scenarios during the Milwaukee series, scoring no runs in the two inviting opportunities.
* During the 1-5 stretch the Cardinals are last in the majors in Isolated Power (.089) and 27th in slugging percentage (.340.) To use a Marmol term, that’s unacceptable.
* In the Milwaukee series Paul Goldschmidt, Wilson Contreras, Tommy Edman, Nolan Gorman. Brendan Donovan, Taylor Motter and Andew Knizner were a combined 7 for 56 (.125) with 16 strikeouts and one RBI. Gorman, while 0 for 6, did have two walks in the series.
* Jordan Walker didn’t succumb to the cold spell; he went 4 for 10 against the Brewers (.400) with a two–run homer and three RBI. His RBI single produced STL’s only run in Sunday’s downer of a loss.
* In their two winning starts against the Cardinals, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta collectively worked 11.1 innings and were dinged for eight hits and an earned run for a 0.79 ERA.
* The Cardinals left an astonishing 30 runners on base during their three games in Milwaukee. Only three MLB teams have stranded fewer runners than St. Louis this season.
* In a stretch that began over the final four innings of at-bats in the 9-4 win over Toronto, the Cardinals have scored only 14 runs in their last 58 innings.
* Per Katie Woo of The Athletic, the Cardinals have trailed in 41 of their past 52 innings.
* Here are the starting pitching matchups for Cards-Rockies:
- Monday, 7:40 pm STL time: Steven Matz vs. German Marquez.
- Tuesday, 7:40 pm STL time: Miles Mikolas vs. Kyle Freeland. By the way, Freeland hasn’t allowed a run in his two starts (12.2 innings.)
- Wednesday, 2:10 pm STL time: Jack Flaherty vs. Jose Urena.
* Know Thy Enemy: Milwaukee has won seven of its last eight games, averaging six runs per game and pitching to a 2.38 during the 7-1 streak. The Crew are better than anticipated. But … it’s early.
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. We recorded a new pod on Monday, April 10.
All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Statcast and Bill James Online.
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.