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Can the Cardinals Come Back? As Rapper Chuck D Would Say: Can’t Truss It

Hello, again. Just a quickie on the reasons why I can’t buy into the idea of a Cardinals comeback.

Before I get into it, I wanted to praise (again) the Cardinals’ starting pitching. I didn’t know what to expect from the arms this year. I was cautiously optimistic, yes, but nothing would have surprised me.

Even with the inevitable dings and slumps, the St. Louis rotation has rated among the top five in MLB all season in earned-run average and quality starts. You couldn’t realistically ask more from the starters than what they’ve contributed. So a tip of the ol’ cap to Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha.

As effective as they are, the starters can’t compensate for all of the team’s weaknesses — most of all, the offense. Case in point: the Cardinals rank 5th in the National League for most games allowing no more than three runs, with 47. But the lumber hasn’t built much on that; the Cards rank 11th in the league in winning percentage when holding opponents to three runs or fewer in a game.

As MLB opens the weekend schedule on this beautiful Friday the Cardinals are 53-55. They trail the first-place Cubs by 4.5 games. The Cards are 3 games behind the second-place Brewers.

With 54 games remaining, it’s possible to overcome the deficit.

I don’t see it, not after noting an extensive list of trends that don’t lead to optimism.

Here’s what I’m talking about …

— Of the 54 games left on the schedule, the Cardinals will play division rivals 31 times. So far the Cardinals are 18-27 in NL Central games. If it holds, that .400 winning percentage would be the poorest division record by a Cardinals team in the 22 seasons of Bill DeWitt Jr.’s ownership.

— The Cardinals will play 18 of the 31 NL Central games on the road. This team hasn’t won an NL Central road series since taking three of four in Milwaukee during the third week of April. The Cardinals have lost five consecutive road series against division mates. Their NL Central road record since taking the April series in Milwaukee is an abysmal 3-13. Overall the Cardinals are 6-14 in NLC road games this year.

— Overall the Cardinals are 22-29 on the road this season, and the .431 winning percentage ranks 21st in the majors.

— The Cardinals haven’t been a .500 team since June 2. Since then, they’ve whiffed on six different opportunities to reach .500 — the latest coming Thursday in Milwaukee.

— The monthly records are depressing. Cardinals went 12-12 in April … 13-13 in May … 13-16 in June … and 14-12 in July. I don’t see signs of a surge there.

— The climb to get way above .500 will likely be a grueling, backbreaking endeavor. It isn’t impossible, but again, the trends aren’t favorable. Here’s why:

  • The Cards have been above .500 for only 22 days this season
  • They’ve been exactly at .500 on eight days
  • They’ve been below .500 on 78 days

– We know that the offense has sputtered all season. But it’s getting worse. I’ll use the National League rankings here. Overall the Cardinals rank 11th in runs per game, 11th in homers per game, 10th in OPS, and 10th in slugging. But in going 10-10 since the All-Star break, the Cardinals rank 13th in runs per game, 13th in homers per game, 13th in slugging, 13th in OPS. Considering that there are 15 teams in the NL, being 13th in the vital categories is kind of bad.

— The Cardinals play a lot of close games. Bad news. And because of the impotent offense and a bumpy bullpen, close games have been a horror show for this team. It isn’t just STL’s 17-21 record in one-run games. Or their 8-10 mark in two-run decisions. To me, the stat that sums it all up is the Cards’ record in games that are tied from the sixth inning on:

  • 7-9 when tied going into the 6th
  • 4-12 when tied going into the 7th
  • 2-10 when tied going into the 8th
  • 4-8 when tied going into the 9th
  • 4-6 when tied going into the 10th
  • 3-4 when tied going into the 11th
  • 1-3 when tied going into the 12th
  • 1-3 when tied going into the 13th

– The Cardinals have blown 31 leads this season. They have lost 10 times after toting a lead into the sixth inning, lost seven times after carrying a lead into the seventh, lost four times when ahead going into the eighth, and have been punched out for three losses after being on top at the start of the ninth.

— When their best stretch of the season fizzled out after May 14, the Cardinals have a 32-40 record over their last 72 games. Their .444 winning percentage since May 15 ranks tied for 23rd in the majors and is 12th in the NL.

— Yes, the Cardinals are underachievers. Based on underlying stats, run differential and strength of schedule played so far, all “expected wins” systems insist the Cardinals should be over .500 right now:

  • FanGraphs, 58-50
  • Baseball Prospectus,  59-49
  • ESPN Power Index,  57-51
  • Baseball Reference,  56-52

— Meanwhile, multiple projections have the Cardinals finishing 81-81. That won’t get them into the playoffs. For the playoff odds, FiveThirtyEight gives the Cardinals a 17 percent chance to qualify for the postseason. FanGraphs (15.5 percent) and Baseball Prospectus (15.2%) aren’t quite as high.

— The Cardinals have a lousy record against good teams, and haven’t dominated bad teams. The Cards are 24-33 against teams that have a winning record in today’s standings. They’re 29-22 against teams with losing records, which is decent. But the Cardinals have to beat up on lesser teams and haven’t helped themselves by going 4-9 (total) against the two teams, Orioles and Reds, that have the worst earned-run averages in the majors.

— The Cardinals made no moves at the trade deadline … they continue to give too many at-bats to below-average hitters (park-adjusted runs created) such as Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. Mike Matheny’s lineup construction is flawed. And he sticks with lost-cause hitters for too long instead of being quick to make obvious changes … and there isn’t enough elite offensive talent, which isn’t Matheny’s fault. But it is up to the manager to put players in their best position to succeed.

— One more time: fundamentals: The Cardinals have lost more runners on the bases through unforced errors (79) than any NL team. Though some defensive metrics systems give them a higher grade, the Cardinals are 20th in Ultimate Zone Rating.

— The Cardinals’ bullpen is extreme, and inconsistent: Just one stat here. According to FanGraphs, the Cards are tied for third in the majors for most “shutdowns” by relievers, with 104. But the relievers have also been blown up too many times; only four teams have more  bullpen “meltdowns” than the Cards’ 60.

If the Cardinals gave me more reasons to generate authentic optimism, I’d be happy to do it.  But it’s Aug. 4, they’ve played 67 percent of their regular-season schedule, and there are too many serious flaws.

I’m still waiting, but …

Can’t truss it.

Thanks for reading, and have a swell weekend.

–Bernie

Miklasz – Note to Mike Matheny From a ‘Bitter’ Fan: You Aren’t Managing the 2011 Cardinals