THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Is there anything that we can learn about the Cardinals while watching the early competition in MLB’s 2023 postseason? Maybe so. But there’s also a danger in reading too much into the 14 playoff games played through Sunday. You may rush to judgment at your own risk.
Let’s take a look at a few things …
1) The early parade of relievers is impressive and reaffirms the value of a strong, forceful bullpen.
Having high-velocity bullpen assets and options is a huge plus in postseason baseball. And it isn’t just the strikeout muscle. A bullpen filled with versatility and matchup flexibility can really help a manager at this time of the year – provided, of course, that the manager is astute enough to make the correct maneuvers.
– Arizona swept Milwaukee in two wild-card round games and won the NLDS opener from Los Angeles in large part because of bullpen that gave up two runs in 12 innings (1.50 ERA) with a 28 percent strikeout rate.
– Minnesota is 2-1 with a bullpen that has a 29 percent strikeout rate and has allowed a .219 average. In putting Toronto down in two straight games, Twins relievers threw 7.1 scoreless innings and had a 37 percent strikeout rate.
– Philadelphia won two straight from Miami and upset Atlanta in Game 1 of the NLDS with considerable assistance from a bullpen that has a 0.93 ERA in 9 and ⅔ innings. The strikeout rate is good (24%) but not intimidating. But manager Rob Thomson set up his ‘pen in a way that gave the Phlilies a chance to suppress Atlanta’s high-powered offense that’s equipped with left-handed mashers.
In Game 1, Thompson followed through with his plan to use starting pitcher Ranger Suarez for a limited time, removing him after 3 and ⅔ innings. Thompson had six hard-throwing relievers lined up – including two lefties – who shut the Braves down for 5 and ⅔ shutout innings, allowing four hits, all singles. In fact, all five of Atlanta’s hits were singles.
It wasn’t about the strikeouts. But this sequence of relievers that came in with various pitching styles kept the Braves off balance. Atlanta manager Brian Snitker was prepared for Philly’s planned strategy beforehand and countered by juggling his lineup. The decision angered Braves fans and brought out the second-guessers crowd. Why mess with a dynamic attack that became the first offense to slug .500 for an entire season while tying the MLB single-season record with 307 homers?
“A lot of their heavy-leverage guys are left-handed (relievers), and (we’re) just trying to get the right-handers up there more. It’s something we’ve done in the past. This is the postseason. This is different than the last 162 games we played. And a big part of their bullpen are left-handed guys.”
The Braves had their chances but went 0-5 with runners in scoring position. Thomson’s tactic paid off in this one. In a best-of-five series, Philadelphia earned a critical victory in Game 1. Because of the scheduled off day after Game 1 – what an absurd schedule – Philadelphia can send top starters Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola after the Braves in the next two games. And these extra days off will give Thomson a chance to flood the zone with relievers in upcoming games.
What does this have to do with the Cardinals? Well, the Redbirds had a flat and inadequate bullpen in 2023, ranking 22nd among the 30 teams in strikeout rate (22.2%), strikeout-walk ratio and Win Probability Added. The mediocrity must be addressed this offseason. Yes, the Cardinals need a transfusion of starting pitching for 2024. But it’s important to have a bullpen that can punch out more hitters and protect leads. The 2023 Cardinals ranked 24th in the majors with a 56 percent save rate and blew 28 saves. The St. Louis bullpen had a 7.11 ERA in high-leverage spots, which ranked 11th among NL teams.
2) When you have a chance to acquire a good-to-great starting pitcher, don’t be afraid. Get it done.
We’ll use Pablo Lopez as the perfect example. The Cardinals engaged the Marlins in trade talks for Lopez last offseason but apparently were turned off by Miami’s asking price. The Twins wanted an upgrade and happily sent Luis Arraez to Miami for Lopez. Arraez, the defending AL batting champion, did his thing. He gave the Marlins a .354 with an .861 OPS this season. But for all of his hits, Arraez couldn’t prevent the Marlins from ranking 26th in runs scored per game this season.
The Twins already had a decent rotation but wanted to be stronger in 2024. It worked. And it was worth trading Arraez. Lopez teamed with Sonny Gray (and others) to give Minnesota a more formidable brand of starting pitching.
With Lopez aboard, the Twins led the majors in quality starts with 76. Among MLB rotations the Twins had the top strikeout rate (26.3%), were second in ERA (3.82) and WAR and were fourth for most innings pitched.
As for Lopez, he ranked in the top 11 of MLB starting pitchers in fielding independent ERA, strikeouts per nine innings, innings pitched and WAR. And he was tied for fifth in the majors with 20 quality starts.
The Twins were 19-13 in games started by Lopez during the regular season. We can make that 21-13 by including his early work this postseason; Lopez is 2-0 with an 0.71 ERA.
What does this have to do with the Cardinals? Um, plenty. Despite the many obvious warning signs the STL front office made no offseason additions last winter. The result was catastrophic.
The 2023 Cardinals had a 5.08 starting-pitching ERA that ranked 26th. And in the 28 seasons that Bill DeWitt Jr. has owned the franchise, that 5.08 ERA was the worst turned in by a group of St. Louis starting pitchers in a season. Moreover, the 2023 Cardinal starters ranked 27th among the 28 DeWitt Era teams in Win Probability Added. And at a time when strikeouts are essential to success, the St. Louis starters ranked 29th in the majors with a feeble 17.4 percent strikeout rate.
That’s hard to digest when we realize (again) that the Cardinals took a pass on acquiring Pablo Lopez.
3) Bruce Bochy has returned, and it just brings back memories of Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa and the valuable attributes of an experienced, conflict-tested manager in October.
After taking a six-season break from managing, Bochy came back this season to take over the Texas Rangers. Though the Rangers wobbled in the second half – going 32-33 since July 22 – Bochy stayed calm and got his team into the postseason with a 90-72 record. That’s a fine rebound for a franchise that hadn’t made it to the postseason since 2016.
It’s gotten even better this postseason. Bochy’s Rangers knocked off the 99-win Tampa Bay Rays in a 2-0 sweep during the wild-card round. And now Texas has staggered 101-win Baltimore by seizing a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five ALDS. That’s a 4-0 record – and on the road – against the two teams that had the most victories in the American League this season.
Bochy’s team allowed one run in two games against the Rays. They went into Baltimore and gave up two runs in the series-opening 3-2 victory. That was a 1.00 ERA through the first three games. The pitching wasn’t as sharp in Game 2 at Baltimore, but the Rangers pounded Orioles pitching for 10 runs in the first five innings and were never in trouble after that, winning 11-8.
In Game 1, Bochy surprised many by starting Andrew Heaney, who had pitched in relief late in the season. And Bochy piggy-backed him with Dane Dunning. The Bochy composite got 17 outs, and then Bochy went with a traditional bullpen setup the rest of the way.
Bochy Ball, baby!
It’s why he’s won 48 postseason games, fifth all time. And starting with his term as manager of the San Francisco Giants, Bochy is an astonishing 40-17 in the postseason – good grief! – with three World Series championships.
What does this have to do with the Cardinals? During La Russa’s 16 seasons (1996-2011) in St. Louis the Cardinals won 50 postseason games, most in the National League and second in the majors to the NY Yankees.
The La Russa total included 44 postseason wins from 2000 through 2011 – the most in the National League and 19 more victories than the next-best NL team had over that time.
In his last eight seasons (2004-2011) as the STL manager, LaRussa’s team led the majors in postseason wins (34), captured three NL pennants, and raised two World Series trophies.
Since La Russa’s retirement after the 2011 season the Cardinals have won 25 postseason games, one pennant and no World Series.
For a while (2012-2014) the La Russa legacy lived on through the holdover players who were part of his teams. Naturally the La Russa influence couldn’t last.
Since the start of the 2015 postseason the Cardinals are 5-14 in the playoffs for an embarrassing .263 winning percentage. And 16 MLB teams have won more postseason games than the Cardinals over the last eight seasons.
The front-office philosophy has changed. Teams want controllable, pliable managers who will do as they are told with analytics, pitching-use patterns, and lineup configurations. Some of the puppet managers have done well, obviously. They’ve been given too much talent to fail on a regular basis.
But there’s something to be said for having strong, independent-minded managers who can absorb meaningful advice from upstairs – but don’t need to follow a printed-out script of “suggestions” handed down from superiors.
(I don’t know. Perhaps this explains why the well regarded St. Louis pitching coach Mike Maddux “retired” after the 2022 season. Funny how quickly Maddux unretired to go to work for the highly accomplished Bochy. Skeptics can surmise something here: Maddux didn’t really retire. He was just waiting for Bochy to make it official and take the Texas gig. )
La Russa was more than an old-school rooster. He was way ahead of his time, anyway. The way these new-age managers aggressively use their bullpens in today’s game? TLR was way ahead of the curve on that one. The young La Russa picked up considerable knowledge from Baltimore Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, who went with the “Moneyball” approach decades before anyone knew what the heck Moneyball was.
Which brings us back to Bochy, 68. He manages like a dude who has done this before, many times. He doesn’t need to be a hyper-driven manager who feels the need to show off by making so many moves to cover his own insecurity.
“It’s kind of hard to read the emotion on him because sometimes he looks like he’s folded up in a lawn chair sitting there watching the game,” Texas catcher Mitch Garver said of Bochy. “But we trust his decisions and the way he manages the game.”
4. Building a team to win a lot of low-scoring games in the regular season makes sense. But be careful about assuming it will work in the postseason.
Under manager Craig Counsell, the Brewers have been excellent at winning one-run games. Since the start of the 2018 season the Brewers have made the playoffs five times in six years. Counsell’s strong belief in pitching and defense is a significant reason. The Brewers play in the smallest TV market in the majors and don’t have the spending power of the big-dog teams. That forces the Brewers to make choices about where to invest their payroll dollars, and they’ve put the emphasis on the pitching-defense part — believing it’s the best way to win for a team that can’t go wild investing huge dollars in offense.
And Counsell’s instincts are correct. Despite having a limited offense for much of his time in Milwaukee, the Brewers have won more games than a lot of higher-spending teams including the Cardinals. And that’s where Counsell’s record in one-run games comes in. Since the beginning of 2018, Milwaukee is preposterously good at winning games by a one-run margin: 149 victories and 98 losses for a remarkable .603 winning percentage.
One problem: when you go into the postseason, you’d better pack an offense that can win some games on its own. Yes, sometimes you have to slug your way to postseason glory; just look at the 2011 Cardinals. Or the 2022 AL champion Phillies. That’s been a struggle for the Brewers, who are 1-9 in their last 10 postseason games with Counsell. The Crew hasn’t won a postseason round since eliminating Colorado in the NLDS in 2018.
What does this have to do with the Cardinals? St. Louis has underperformed offensively in recent postseasons. No need to recap but it’s pretty bad. Generally speaking the Cardinals took solid — or better — offenses into the tournament but didn’t get much done. Beginning with the 2019 NLCS, the Cardinals have been shut down too often and can’t break through. It’s up to the hitters of course. And the Cardinals were capable of scoring more runs in recent playoff ball. But above all else, you have to make sure that your offense can do some damage in the tournament. And that means making sure that you have enough firepower to make that happen. It’s not smart to undercut your offense by limiting payroll investment and redirecting more money into pitching. It’s a fine line, I know. But it’s something to think about, and Milwaukee provides an example.
These records are through Sunday’s action and don’t include Monday night’s games.
+ The teams with the top-five winning percentages during the regular season – Braves, Orioles, Dodgers, Rays, and Brewers – have gone 0-8 in the postseason so far. The Rays and Brewers each were eliminated in two games during the wild-card round. And Texas needs only one more win in their ALDS series to eject the Orioles from the postseason.
+ The teams that had first-round byes were 1-5 in the postseason through Sunday. This applies to the Braves, Orioles, Dodgers, and Astros. At least the Astros are 1-1 in their first two ALDS games vs. Minnesota.
+ In the 2022 postseason the teams that had the top-six winning percentages during the regular season went 17-18 in the playoffs. Houston, which had the second-best winning percentage during the reg season, won the World Series. And the Astros won 11 of 13 postseason games to get it done. But the other five teams on the list of six – Dodgers, Braves, Mets, Yankees and Cardinals – were a combined 6-16.
I guess there’s an advantage to dominating the regular season and/or receiving a first-round bye. But it’s kind of hard to see it, right?
That said, I don’t think it’s as simplistic as it seems.
Here’s a worthwhile point of view from Sporting News baseball writer Ryan Fagan.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.
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.