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The Cardinals Are Flawed. So Is Every Other NL Team Except Arizona

Well, that was quite a stretch. Thirteen games of Cardinals baseball, played over 15 days.

Fifteen days of madness.

Madness as in wild, crazy, volatile games packed with high drama and daring comebacks that made this team so likable. Madness as in the Cardinals and their fans rolling on a wave of happiness and delirium.

Madness as in dreaming a little dream of making Joe Maddon sad, and reclaiming the NL Central from the Cubs, and seeing if that old red hoodie still fits, because you might need to get the gear ready for some October postseason baseball.

Madness as in wanting to damage inanimate objects after watching this team squander momentum, good feelings and optimism because of poor play, competitive ambivalence and incomprehensible managing.

Madness as in reaching the breaking point on frustration, and ripping the TV from the wall, savagely attacking the ottoman with a corkscrew, or using your tickets to an upcoming Cards home game as a firestarter for the Big Green Egg as you prepare to smoke some brisket.

Thirteen games, 15 days.

  • Winning two of three from the visiting Mets and getting it done by refusing to head to the airport for the trip to Pittsburgh until victory was assured in the third and final game, even if it took 13 innings to secure a 4-3 win.
  • The Cards flying high to Pittsburgh, feeling confident, and sensing that their team was about to put together a special run of baseball. The Pirates swept the Cardinals. The Cardinals and their manager blew a 5-0 lead Friday, then went into a funk over the next 48 hours, losing the next two games and getting outscored 11-2. The Cardinals barely made a peep in the final 24 innings of that series, scoring two runs. Someone named Nick Kingham shut the Cardinals down and out for seven innings (one hit, nothing else)  in the series finale.
  • The Cardinals returned to Busch Stadium. They barely got by the lowly Chicago White Sox but came away with consecutive 3-2 wins. Nothing wrong with that after stinking up Pittsburgh.
  • Next: the Cubs and three awesome wins, with memorable rallies for extra-innings rescues and wins.
  • Late in the second game of the Cubs’ showdown the Cardinals lost revered catcher Yadier Molina for four to six weeks after he was struck with a high-velocity foul ball that smashed into his groin area with such force, he was immediately taken to the hospital for emergency surgery.
  • This was a demoralizing turn, but the Cardinals proudly dug in with their cleats, wrestled Saturday’s game from the Cubs, and stunned the Cubs late Sunday night on 14th-inning two-run homer by Dexter Fowler. This streak of lightning finished off the team from Wrigleyville and  completed a splendid three-game weekend sweep for the Cardinals.
  • Hey, that’s a five-game winning streak … and the Cardinals were 4-1 against the Cubs on the season … and they had the Minnesota Twins and their losing record coming into Busch Stadium for a quick two-game set. Time to stretch that winning streak, boys!
  • Uh, no. The Cardinals’ inspiring weekend uprising was followed by yawning, snoozing and snoring. The Cards paused to catch up on their rest, taking their 40 winks with the Twins in town for two dreadful games that lacked entertainment value … or a pulse from the home team. In 64 plate appearances over 18 innings, the Cardinals wormed their way to six hits and 11 base runners, batting .107. The Twins outscored the Cardinals 13-1.   Matt Carpenter, Fowler, and Marcell Ozuna were a combined 0  for  20 with 7 strikeouts.

What does it all mean?

Who the hell is this team?

I have the answer: the Cardinals are pretty much like every other team in the National League. There’s only one truly distinguished team in the league at the moment. And that would be the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are 24-11. The D-backs have actually dominated other good teams, winning 14 of 21 games against opponents with winning records. And Arizona hasn’t lost a series this season, winning 10 and splitting another.

The Cardinals are scratching and clawing in a large crab pot with all of the other teams that are trying to get up, and get out, and prove that they’re real contenders. All of these teams have attributes and strengths. All of these teams can claim a certain number of successes. All of these teams are flawed, and inconsistent, and incomplete. And if we look at all of these teams, you’ll see quirky aspects to their records — things that undoubtedly drive all of their fan bases goofy with confusion and frustration.

The Cardinals (20-14) have the worst batting average in the majors this month (.194), and are down near the bottom for May with an average of 3.14 runs per month. But they’re also tied with Atlanta for the the league’s second-best winning percentage. Not only that, the Cardinals are tied for the fifth-best winning percentage in the majors.

It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

Not with three substantial lineup pieces hitting so poorly, you can spot them among the worst hitters in the majors here on May 9.

Ozuna, the coveted cleanup hitter, ranks 150th among 171 qualifying MLB hitters with a .328 slugging percentage. Fowler (.303) is No. 162. And Carpenter (.295 slug) is No. 163.

What about OPS? Ozuna ranks 156th with a combined onbase-slugging percentage of .605. Carpenter’s .601 OPS is  No. 157. And Fowler’s .567 OPS is 164th; only seven hitters are below him.

Ozuna was supposed to serve as the cleanup hitter the Cardinals have been yearning for. And I believe he’ll certainly produce more than he has to this point. But through 34 games, here’s where the Cardinals rank in several key categories at the No. 4 spot in the lineup in comparison to the other 29 teams:

  • 27th with a .638 OPS
  • 29th with a .338 slug
  • 30th in Isolated Power (ISO), .086
  • 29th in total bases
  • 30th in extra-base hits (only 8)
  • tied for 28th in homers (2)
  • tied for 16th with 20 RBIs.

There’s more to this than Ozuna. of course.

Using the park-adjusted runs created metric (wRC+) from FanGraphs — 100 is average — the Cardinals have too many primary starters drifting well below the league-average standard offensively.

Kolten Wong, 14% below.

Carpenter, 27%  below.

Ozuna,  23%   below.

Fowler,  39% below.

Or to put this another way: The Cardinals’ eight primary position-player starters have 1,030 plate appearances so far. And 513 of the 1,030 PA — or just under 49 percent — have been taken by Carpenter, Fowler, Ozuna and Wong.

That’s a severe drain on your offense. And the condition will only get worse with Molina out of the lineup. Even though he’s a league-average player offensively — his wRC+ is exactly 100 — Molina had six homers, 17 RBIs and a good .456 slugging percentage. He also was batting .350 with a .550 slug in “close and late” situation. Backup catchers Carson Kelly and Francisco Pena won’t be able to match Molina’s offense.

But do not fret…

Other NL contenders are dealing with their own issues, and searching for solutions. Their fans are just as baffled and ticked off as Cardinals fans. This is a league filled with crabs in a pot. And to make the playoffs, they’re just going to have to fight it out, claws snapping, to survive and make their way at the top.

If the Cardinals can keep team MVP Tommy Pham healthy and get their four underachieving hitters cranking at even an  average  level, their postseason chances will improve.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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