THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals have broken down offensively, and we don’t have Jeff Albert to kick around anymore.
On a not-so-manic Monday at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals were flattened again, this time by the visiting Giants. After giving up another late lead, and losing another game by one run, the Cardinals slouched to 27-40 on the season. This ties them for the worst record by a Cardinals team through 67 games since 1980.
Hey, at least your favorite team can claim superiority over Kansas City and Oakland, the only big-league teams that are more buried in losing than St. Louis right now.
And if the Cardinals can win both games against the Cubs across the pond in London next weekend, they’ll be crowned as the baseball champions of England. Seeing that this would be their first distinguished title since winning the World Series in 2011, perhaps the Cardinals will receive an invitation to Buckingham Palace.
OK, I’ll suspend the snark but reserve the right to go with sarcasm later in this column.
On a more serious note, the Cardinals are wasting a spate of quality starting pitching, and that’s a shame. Since May 25, a span of 16 games, St. Louis starters have a 3.03 ERA that ranks second in the majors.
And in a sign of the times, the STL starters have MLB’s finest starting-pitching ERA (3.21) over the last 13 games. But instead of taking advantage of this encouraging upturn to start winning, the Cardinals have lost 10 of those 13 games.
Sure it’s a small sample and all of that stuff, but when you have the finest starting-pitching ERA in the majors during a 13-game window, you can’t go 3-10. But here we are.
The offense hasn’t supported the starters over the last 13 games, averaging 3.0 runs, batting .221 overall, and hitting an abysmal .123 with runners in scoring position. Monday’s setback was typical; the Cardinals have scored three or fewer runs in 13 of their last 17 matchups. They’ve scored five or more runs only twice during the last 17.
The bullpen is letting the starters down, getting drilled for a 5.77 ERA that ranks 29th in the majors since May 28. In the 13-game stretch the relievers have squandered four leads after the fifth inning to burn potential wins into final-score losses. For the season the St. Louis bullpen is tied for third in the majors for the most blown saves (14), rank 26th in save percentage, and are 27th in Win Probability Added. And on Monday the high-leverage reliever Ryan Helsley was placed on the IL with a strained right forearm. The Cardinals’ shaky bullpen instantly became more vulnerable.
Back to the feeble offense …
What’s the problem here? Their timely hitting has gone kaput. This team is desperate for some big hits but aren’t getting enough of them. And that’s an understatement. I wrote about it yesterday, but let’s update.
– Since May 25 – which coincides with the starting-pitching improvement – lineup regulars Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Willson Contreras, Nolan Gorman and Tommy Edman are a combined 4 for 47 (.085) with runners in scoring position.
– Arenado and Goldschmidt each failed to drive in a run late in Monday’s defeat, and they’re a combined 1 for 18 with runners in scoring position since May 25. We can make that 1-for-22 between them with RISP if we go back to May 22.
– Since May 22, Lars Nootbaar has more RBI with runners in scoring position (5) than Arenado and Goldschmidt combined (3). And keep in mind that Nootbaar has missed the team’s last 11 games with a back injury. For that matter, Paul DeJong also has more RBI (5) with runners in scoring position than Goldy and Arenado combined (3) since May 22.
– Willson Contreras and Nolan Gorman are collectively 2 for 25 with 12 strikeouts in RISP situations since May 22. That’s a 46% strikeout rate in their 29 plate appearances with RISP over that time.
We shouldn’t be surprised to see the Cardinals suffer from diminished run production. But we should be surprised to see Goldschmidt, Arenado, Contreras and Gorman come up empty so often when having so many opportunities to drive in runs.
What can be done?
One obvious move: It’s way past time to adjust the lineup and pull Contreras out of the No. 5 spot. I’ll address this in another column that I’ll post soon. But this is a substantial problem.
Other than that, you pretty much have to ride it out and hope that Goldschmidt, Arenado, Gorman and Contreras and others can start delivering runs when the Cardinals have men in scoring position, and men on base. Gorman’s recent trend is a concern and I’ll give you the details later in this column.
Nootbaar is progressing but we can’t be certain of his return date. His .380 onbase percentage would look good in this lineup right now, and though his slugging percentage (.390) is on the low side, he has power and is capable of reviving it. Two stints on the IL have disrupted his continuity, and last year Nootbaar performed much better offensively when he became a regular presence in the lineup.
Rookie corner outfielder Jordan Walker could become more of a factor. Look, his defense can cause anxiety, but he’s done well at the plate since returning from Triple A Memphis on June 2. In 39 plate appearances since the promotion Walker is batting .314 with two homers, a .385 onbase percentage and a .514 slug. The ground-ball rate (58%) is still too high, but Walker has improved his plate discipline – walking three times with four strikeouts since returning.
Despite the recent famine, the Cardinals are still 6th in the NL this season with an average of 4.58 runs per game and rank fourth in OPS+. Good hitters are in place. They just have to start hitting again, especially when they’re loaded up with RBI opportunities.
ACCOUNTING DEPARTMENT: The Cardinals are 6-13 since completing their 11-3 run that ended May 21 … they’ve lost eight of their last 10 and, as noted, are 3-10 in the last 13 … One of the worst aspects of their season is their sorry 13-19 record at Busch Stadium … Monday’s loss left the Cardinals at 7-16 in one-run outcomes …seven of their last nine games – and 11 of their last 19 – have been determined by a one-run margin … in 2021 and 2022 combined, the Cardinals were 16 games over .500 (52-36) in one-run games … the last-place Cardinals trail the first-place Pirates by 8.5 games and are 7.5 games behind the second-place Brewers.
QUICK HOOK. OVERMANAGING: Matthew Liberatore gave the Cardinals a good outing on Monday, allowing two runs in six innings. The Giants got to him for two runs in the third, but he blanked them over his final three innings and appeared to be in firm command. I say this because he needed only 34 pitches to zip through the final three innings – an average of 11.3 pitches per frame.
Over the final three innings Libby gave up two hits, didn’t walk anyone, and struck out 33.3 percent of his batters faced.
Liberatore threw only 86 pitches in his six innings and displayed no signs of fatigue or stress. He was obviously fresh and pitching with confidence. When you have a spry starting pitcher rolling at a brisk pace and holding the Giants down in a game the Cardinals led 3-2 after the end of six, why in the heck would Oli Marmol pull Liberatore and put the game in the hands of an unreliable bullpen?
The way Liberatore was rocking, he absolutely was capable of giving his team another inning. But in a glaring example of overmanaging, Marmol brought in reliever Andre Pallante who gave up a run that tied the game 3-3. Marmol can’t have it both ways. He frequently talks about the need for Cardinal starters to go deeper into games – only to pull Liberatore after six innings for no viable reason. And the bullpen did not include the injured Helsley during this game, and that should have been a factor in Marmol’s decision.
And you don’t bring in a dude (Pallante) who has a high walk rate this season (10.5%) and can’t be trusted to pitch a clean inning. Sure enough, Pallante’s two-out, bases-empty walk kept the Giants alive in the top of the seventh, and after two consecutive singles the Cardinals lost their lead.
Pallante has walked 13 hitters this season, and four have come around to score – a rate of 36.4%. There’s a pattern here, but the young skipper chose to ignore it.
HOT-SEAT RANKINGS: CBS Sports dot com baseball analyst Dayn Perry posted his top-five hot seat rankings for managers and placed Marmol at No. 2, behind Buck Showalter (Mets.)
“The Cardinals have arguably been the most disappointing team in baseball this season,” Perry wrote. “They notched 93 wins and the NL Central title in 2022, but in 2023 they’ve stumbled badly despite a great deal of roster carryover. At this writing (before Monday’s loss), the Cardinals are on pace for 96 losses and their worst full-season winning percentage since 1919.
“Marmol is by all indications safe for now. The front office hired him to replace Mike Shildt in large measure because he was more willing to implement the front office’s vision at an in-game level. Firing him less than two years into his tenure would be a curious look for baseball-ops president John Mozeliak. As well, a new manager this season in St. Louis would be the team’s fourth since 2018, which would reflect poorly upon the front office’s capacity to choose managers.
“All that said, if the losses keep piling up, then the pressure will increase for Mozeliak and company to do something drastic. Fair or not, the Cardinals’ decline in the field and on the bases also doesn’t reflect well on Marmol.”
By the way, Dayn Perry has a personal blog on Substack that’s dedicated to Cardinals’ analysis. It’s called Birdy Work and I’m a big fan … and a longtime admirer of Dayn’s analysis. Just google Birdy Work and it will pop right up.
TOMMY EDMAN: After a terrific start to the season – he had a .788 OPS as recently as May 27 – Edman is 5 for 45 (.111) with a .200 onbase percentage and .356 OPS in his last 13 games. His struggles against right-handed pitchers have intensified this season, with the switch hitter batting .204 with a .603 OPS against them so far this season. Per wRC+, Edman is 34 percent below league average offensively vs. righties – and a whopping 49% above average vs. lefties. That’s an extreme split.
Edman has impressed in his 92 innings of defense in center field, and his speed is an obvious asset. How will Marmol play this when Nootbaar returns? He could go with Walker in left, Dylan Carlson in center, and Nootbaar in right. But what if Marmol wants to keep Edman in center instead of having him play shortstop and second base? If that’s the case, please try to enjoy yet another outfield logjam.
PAUL DEJONG: The shortstop went 2 for 4 Monday which included his ninth home run of the season that cut the Giants’ lead to 2-1 in the fifth. But with the Cardinals trailing by a run, Pauly also hit into a double play in the ninth. So the home run doesn’t mean he’s “back” to the robust level of offense that he put up earlier this season. That said, DeJong’s current 108+ – eight percent above average offensively – would be his best in a season since his 2017 rookie year. And his current slugging percentage, .455, would be better than his .444 slug in 2019 when he homered 30 times. I think it’s fair to say – even with his slumps – that DeJong has exceeded the expectations set for him in 2023.
A CLOSER LOOK NOLAN GORMAN: In his last 18 games, Gorman is batting .159 with a .270 slugging percentage and .476 OPS. He struck out three times Monday, raising his strikeout rate to an eye-opening 42.6% since May 23.
Here’s a before and after look at Gorman’s season.
Before May 23 … and since May 23:
Walk rate: 12.7% … 6%
Strikeout rate: 24.7% … 42.6%
Swinging-strike rate: 13% … 18%
Chase rate: 26.4% … 33.5%
Slugging pct: .636 … .270
wRC+: 177 … 30
Just a quick follow-up on wRC+, which is park-and-league adjusted runs created. Gorman was 77 percent above league average offensively through May 22. Since then he’s been 70% below league average offensively.
Is this just a slump or something more serious?
AN OUTSIDE VIEW OF THE CARDINALS: This was written by Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic:
“Like the Mets, there’s talk about job security, specifically for manager Oli Marmol, and speculation the Cardinals could be sellers at the deadline. Their starting pitching depth was an issue this spring and St. Louis has struggled mightily to win one-run games. The Cardinals have an (16.1) percent chance to make the playoffs, but this looks like a flawed roster. There’s not an easy fix here and, Cardinals voodoo magic aside, it’s tough to see places for a prolonged hot stretch even though St. Louis has the benefit of the NL Central being a weaker division.”
NEXT ON THE SKED: Jack Flaherty comes into Tuesday’s start with a 2.06 ERA in his last six starts. But walks are still an issue for Flaherty and the Giants are capable of exploiting his wildness. In 10 games this month the Giants have walked 42 times and have a .347 onbase percentage that’s tied for fourth-best in the majors for June. The Cardinals will try to break their three-game losing streak.
The Giants will start right-hander Alex Cobb, who has a 3.01 ERA on the season. But it’s been turbulent for him lately, with two bruising outings at Milwaukee and Colorado giving Cobb a 5.33 ERA in his last five starts.
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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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.