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Checking the Cardinals at the 4th of July: Likes, Dislikes, Surprises, Disappointments

After splitting the first two games in their three-game series at Arizona, the Cardinals were 43-41 record on the season and already past the halfway mark of the 162-game schedule. By now we’ve seen plenty to formulate solid impressions of this team.

By the 4th of July,  our blessed national holiday, the baseball season has usually taken shape.

The reality: The Cardinals are trending poorly.

After completing a three-game weekend sweep of the Cubs on Sunday night May 6, the Cardinals were atop the NL Central with a 20-12 record. They led second-place Milwaukee by 1.5 games.

Since May 7 the Cardinals are 23-29, pending the outcome of Wednesday’s series finale at Arizona. Their 23-29 ledger and .442 winning percentage rank 12th in the NL and 21st overall and represent a lengthy, tumbling fall since that triumphant taking of the Cubs at Busch Stadium.

On  May 6 the Cardinals ranked 5th in the NL with an average of 4.59 runs scored per game. And they were second in the league, and third in MLB, at run prevention — allowing 3.63 runs per contest.

But over the last 52 games through Tuesday, the Cardinals were 11th in the NL in average runs scored (4.09) and 9th in the NL in run prevention (4.52.)

Since May 7, here are the NL Central “standings” through Tuesday:

Chicago  32-20

Milwaukee  30-20

Cincinnati   29-23

St. Louis   23-29

Pittsburgh  21-29

That’s ugly.

Will there be fireworks?

Or just firings?

On this 4th of July, here’s a list of what I like — and dislike — about the 2018 Cardinals.

I’ll follow with the names of Cardinals that have delivered surprisingly pleasant performances — and then the names of Cardinals that have disappointed the most.

Like it. Like it a lot: The starting rotation. Despite dealing with injuries, the Cards’ 3.53 starting pitching-rotation is fifth overall, and No. 3 in the National League. The rotation strikeout-walk ratio isn’t great — 2.44 eighth in the league — but their starters rank first in the NL in lowest OPS (.666), slugging percentage (.356) and home-run rate (0.88 per 9 innings) allowed. Without the protection of this rotation, the Cardinals already would have drifted away into a losing record. Cards’ starters have pitched 6+ innings and given up two earned runs or less in 33 games. And the team record in those well-pitched games is 25-8. The Cardinals have had some shorter starts from their younger starters — five innings to be exact. But when the Cardinals have gotten a five-inning start without the starter being touched for more than two runs, their record is 7-2.

Don’t like it. Can’t stand it: The Cardinals are soft. Too many mental errors, too many avoidable mistakes, too many lapses in judgement. The clumsiness and decreased mental acuity has led to an MLB-worst count of 69 errors charged. The Cardinals don’t take a smarter approach to hitting with two strikes. The pressure seems to crack them too often. This team loses too many games through carelessness. Manager Mike Matheny likes to portray his men as the descendants of the “Gashouse Gang” for their fighting spirit and scrappiness. That’s a false and absolutely absurd narrative. The Cardinals have answered back by scoring in just 26.4% of the innings after an opponent scores this season, and that’s the second poorest rate by an MLB team. A few walk-off wins don’t erase an entire body — and an obvious body — of work.

Frankly, I hate this: The Cardinals don’t play with a hard edge, and the evidence is displayed by a 23-22 record at Busch Stadium this season … and a 105-102 record at home since the start of the 2016 campaign. That .507 winning percentage ranks 9th in the NL over the last two-plus seasons. The Cardinals have played 15 series at home this season and have won only six of the 15, with eight series losses and one split. In their last 57 home series, the series won-lost record at Busch is 22-30-5. And the Cardinals record for home series won, lost or split since the start of the 2016 season is 27-35-5. That’s really sad. And cushy soft.

Don’t like it, the team shouldn’t like it, this is embarrassing:  Since completing a three-game sweep of Cincinnati at Busch Stadium on April 22 that left the Reds wobbled with an embarrassing 3-18 record — the Reds (34-31) have played better baseball than the Cardinals (30-33.)

Like it, but: The Cardinals inexplicably are 25-16 in games against their NL Central rivals Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Of course, that means the Cards are 18-24 outside the division… so we shouldn’t like that.

Don’t like it: Seven years into the gig, and manager Matheny remains baffled by the task of running a pitching staff during games. I had genuine hope coming into the season. I was rooting for Matheny to take advantage of having a new pitching coach, Mike Maddux, to take a hard look at himself and use the Maddux influence as a chance to reset. But it isn’t happening. I don’t blame Maddux, who does good work with individual pitchers. But by now it’s clear that no one will be able to nudge Matheny into evolving in his thinking on pitching-related tactics or pitcher usage. For some completely bizarre reason that defies all logic and common sense, team management and ownership evidently remains convinced that Matheny will improve. Hey, let’s be fair. Mike needs more time. Let’s get that contract extension ready for Matheny and take it through 2025.

Like it: The young pitching in the organization. Just say a little baseball prayer and hope that the wings of the baby birds won’t be broken.

Do not like, do not understand the management double standards for coaches. Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was fired, despite the consistently good performance by Cardinals pitchers from 2012 through 2017. (Namely a 3.39 ERA that was tied for second-best in the majors.) The Cardinals have been mostly mediocre offensively — with an alarming number of underachieving hitters, and a flawed hitting approach — and John Mabry is here. As I always say, it isn’t my team. The owner and the team president are in charge of setting the performance standards for the big-league club.

Don’t see how anyone could like this: The Cardinals rank 10th in the NL in runs (4.26 per game) and slugging percentage (.306) and are floating in that area in other key statistical categories for offense. But we’re seeing a historically incept Cardinals offense. This is the 23rd season of franchise ownership for Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. The 2018 Cardinals are on pace to rank 20th among the 23 DeWitt teams in runs, 21st in slugging, 22nd in OPS (.708) and wOBA (.313), and 23rd in onbase percentage (.312), batting average (.241). The ’18 Cardinals would also be 23rd and last in batting average (.239) and OPS (.675) with runners in scoring position.

Like it, really like it. Going into Wednesday the Cardinals’ Triple A affiliate Memphis Redbirds were 53-32, have won six in a row, and lead their Pacific Coast League division by 12.5 games. The boys play hard, play smart, are sticklers for fundamentals and pitch with precision. Stubby Clapp is a helluva manager, and for years now Mike Budaska has been the most astute and respected batting coach in the organization.  If you’re frustrated by the major-league Cardinals getting owned by the major-league Cubs since July of 2015 including the 2015 NLDS  … the Cards are 24-36 vs. their rivals since July of ’15 … well, perhaps this will cheer you up a little: The Memphis Redbirds just completed  a five -game sweep of the Cubs’ Triple A team at Iowa — outscoring the Iowa Cubs 39-13. And for the season, Memphis is 11-1 against the Iowa Cubbies with an 81-40 advantage in runs scored.  Dakaota Hudson won another game and is 12-2 with a 2.33 at Memphis. No need to have him pitching in St. Louis. Not when there’s a PCL Championship to pursue … let’s get that PCL flag boys! Urgency!

Don’t like it: This roster is short on premium position-player talent, and  that’s on president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch. According to the Wins Above Average metric at Baseball Reference the Cardinals rank 8th among the 15 NL teams at 0.5 WAA with their cast of position players. And here’s how each team in the NL Central ranks in the league in Wins Above Average for position players:

Chicago  1st,  8.8

Cincinnati  3rd,  4.9

Milwaukee  4th,   4.7

St. Louis   8th,  0.5

Pittsburgh   12th,   minus 3.4

Two other notes: the Cardinals aren’t ranked higher than fifth in the NL at any position (non-pitcher) in Wins Above Average … and overall the Cardinals are 17th among the 30 MLB teams with that non-pitcher WAA of 0.5.

Now, let’s move on and take a look at the players…

The Most Pleasant Surprises of the First Half 

1. Miles Mikolas, starting pitcher:  Excellent job by Mozeliak and Cardinals’ international advance man Matt Slater to scope this one out in Japan; Mikolas is a gem. He’s 8-3 with a 2.61 ERA and 11 quality starts, has a 53% ground ball rate, and control the strike zone to the tune of an exceptional 5.54 K-BB ratio. He’s walked only 13 of 411 batters faced this season (3.2%), the second best by an MLB starter. He’s even stingier against LH batters; only 6 walks in 236 batters faced (2.5%.) And Mikolas has held RH batters to a .439 OPS that’s the lowest against any pitcher in the bigs. Put this man on the NL All-Star roster.

2. Jordan Hicks, rookie reliever: At 21, he’s among the busiest and most effective relievers in the majors. In 42.2 innings Hicks has an ERA of 2.53, and opponents haven’t scored on him in 33 of his 39 appearances. His strikeout rate is escalating with a boost from his reworked slider. At the start of this week the young blazer led the majors with 319 pitches clocked at 100+ miles per hour, leaving former radar-gun champ Aroldis Chapman far behind … with Chapman registering  112  fewer  pitches of 100+ mph than Hicks this season. But this isn’t a one-trick pitcher. Opponents are only 2-for-34 this season (.059 average) against Hicks’ curve and slider. Hicks also ranks 9th among big league relievers with a ground ball rate of 61.6 percent.

3. Yadier Molina, age-defying catcher: It isn’t that I expected Molina to be falling apart this season; his endurance has been nothing short of amazing. But this proud man turns 36 in nine days, and at some point you’d think he’d slow down a bit. Forget about it. To get this warrior out of the lineup, it will take a 103 mph Hicks fastball fouled directly back, by the powerful Kris Bryant, and into Molina’s man basket.  Emergency surgery, a few weeks off to heal, no problem. Since returning from the DL on June 5, Molina through Tuesday had a .340  onbase percentage, was slugging .529, had an .870 OPS, and had cranked four doubles and six homers with 11 RBIs and 12 runs. For the season, despite missing the month, Molina leads NL catchers with 12 homers, is second in slugging (.487), and is fourth with 35 RBIs. Opponents have attempted only 17 steals on Molina in 461.1 innings. Still playing at all All-Star level.

4. Jack Flaherty, rookie starting pitcher: I’m not surprised that Flaherty is in the STL rotation and doing well; I just didn’t expect him to be so good, so soon. At 22 years old, he’s made 12 starts this season and has a 3.16 ERA with a 29.1% strikeout rate. Flaherty had another terrific outing going at Arizona on Tuesday until losing a duel with Paul Goldschmidt that culminated in a three-run homer by the D-Backs’ king. Hey, it happens. The kid isn’t Chris Carpenter just yet. The Flaherty slider will cause considerable anguish for MLB hitters for a long time. This season Flaherty has an overall swing-miss rate of 43.9% on the slider. And when he throws the slider for a strike and batters go for it,  they’re still swinging and missing at a high rate of just under 29 percent. But the beauty of the slider is the frequency of hitters chasing out of the strike zone — a 42.2 percent chase rate. And when the hitters chase the Flaherty slider out of the zone, their swing and miss rate is an absurd 66.2% … and to repeat: He’s 22 years old.

5. Closer Bud Norris: Except I’m not surprised. When the Cardinals signed him before spring training, I thought it was a smart move. It was then, and it looks even smarter now. He’s converted 16 of 18 save opportunities, has a 2.57 FIP,  and is buzzing hitters for a 33% strikeout rate. Just hope that Norris and Hicks can avoid the wood chipper and stay healthy.

6. Rookie infielder Yairo Munoz: I chuckle at the people who have hissing fits over Munoz making errors at shortstop after filling in for the injured Paul DeJong. The kid is 23, a rookie, and relatively inexperienced at the position, never starting more than 84 games at shortstops in a minor-league season. Munoz started 60 games at short at Class AA, and 36 games at short at Class AAA … and we’re shooting dragon flames from our little nostrils because Munoz ain’t OZZIE  SMITH in his first big-league trial at short? Hysterical.  Munoz will play better D with more experience; the tools are there. Especially the rocket arm. But let me ask the dragon people a question: Going into Wednesday, Munoz had made 30 starts at shortstop in place of DeJong. And in 117 plate appearances in those 30 starts, Munoz batted .330 with a .368 OBP and ,450 slugging percentage. He knocked in 17 runs. And with runners in scoring position, Munoz batted .370 with a .630 slugging percentage and tied Jose Martinez for the team lead with 14 RBIs with RISP since May 22. Did  anybody expect this high level offensive performance from Yairo Munoz after DeJong went off to the DL with fractured hand? Given the circumstances, Munoz did a fantastic job.  Excellent trade by Mozeliak and Girsch.

The Most Disappointing Cardinals of the First Half

1. Dexter Fowler, what the hell happened here? To this point of the season, 177 major-league hitters have 250 or more plate appearances. Among the 177, Fowler is nestled at 176th with a .171 batting average, ranks 169th with a .276 OBP, and is at No. 175 with his .278 slugging percentage. Only Chris Davis (.497) and Alcides Escobar (.513) have a worse OPS than Fowler (.554.) And this week Fowler, 32, was criticized publicly for his energy and effort … or lack thereof. The outfielder is out of power, or so it seems. Only two MLB hitters have experienced a larger drop in exit velocity than Fowler from 2017 to 2018.

By the way: Cheer up, Mozeliak. I know that five-year, $82.5 million deal for Fowler isn’t looking real sweet right now — not with 3.5 years and about $57.5 million in guaranteed paychecks to go. But at least you didn’t go completely off the deep end by giving Chris Davis a seven-year contract for $161 million. Baltimore signed Davis to that deal before the 2016 season. And it runs through 2022. Davis, the slugger who no longer can no longer slug, is batting .155 with an anemic .265 slugging percentage this season. And he’s striking out at a rate of 36.3%. The Orioles still have to pay this dude for 4.5 more seasons … at a remaining cost of $76.5 million in guaranteed salary.

2. Marcell Ozuna, left fielder. Ozuna isn’t terrible, or anything like that. But based on the buildup of expectations, he’s having a mediocre season. Sure, Ozuna heated up there for a while in June, and we were happy to praise him for it. But he’s back into the frustration mode again; going into Wednesday Ozuna was batting .207, slugging .241, and had two doubles, no homers, four RBIs and a 30.6% strikeout rate in his previous games. And the Cards’ offense is sagging again. Ozuna is  batting .277.  He has a .321 OBP. He’s slugging .406. He’s homered 10 times, and driven in 44 runs. But you expected a lot more than that. I expected a lot more than that. And after trading four prospects to Miami for Ozuna, the Cardinals expected more than this. In 2017 Ozuna walloped 37 homers, ripped home 124 RBIs, and slugged .548.  Using the slugging percentage as a reference point, last season Ozuna was Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner who had a career .548 slug. Through July 3, Ozuna’s .406 slug made him (take your pick) Jeff Blauser or Chuck Knoblauch — both of whom finished with a career . slugging pct. of .406. Through Tuesday Ozuna had only 19 extra-base hits in his first 334 plate appearances. Last season, in his first 338 PA for Miami through July 2,  Ozuna had 2w homers, 35 extra-base hits and a .573 slugging %.

3. Greg Holland, supposed to be the closer. Look, Holland is on a much better track now. And if he keeps going in a positive direction Holland will be a formidable presence coming out the bullpen in the season’s second half. But we can’t ignore his pitching between April 9 (his Cardinals’ debut) and May 25 …. what a nightmare this was. In Holland’s first 18 appearances he had a 9.45 ERA, walked 20% of batters faced, and was punched or a .525 slugging percentage. This night of the living dead stuff, but Holland seems revived after a stay on the DL and some rehab pitching in the minors.

4. Kolten Wong, second base: Last season Wong batted .285; this year, 191.  His current .294 OBP is 82 points down from last season’s .376. Wong’s slug percentage (.322) is 90 points lower than last season’s .412. And his current .616 OPS (through Tuesday) is a huge drop from last season’s career-best .788. Great glove, and Wong’s defense has value. But offensively, I can’t figure this dude out. This much is apparent: If an MLB  hitter can’t handle a fastball, it’s trouble. And Wong is batting .146 on fastballs this season (14 for 96). That’s the worst batting average against fastballs by a MLB hitter.

5. Luke Weaver, starting pitcher: Weaver’s 5.16 ERA ranks 87th among 94 pitchers that have made at least 15 starts this season. The OPS against him (.766) ranks 60th. And over his last 14 starts Weaver has been tagged for a 5.90 ERA and .818 OPS. In the large group of pitchers that have made at least 15 starts this season, only Tyler Chatwood, Brandon McCarthy and Brent Suter have turned in fewer quality starts than Weaver (four.) And when Weaver goes through a lineup for the third time in a game, he’s gotten blasted for a .360 average and 1.082 OPS (fourth worst against a starter.)

6. Tommy Pham, center fielder: After his break-out 2017 campaign and a Phamtastic start to the 2018 season, I have to say I’m stunned by what’s transpired in Pham’s last 46 games (through July 3.) In 190 plate appearances over that time he’s batted .184 with a .247 OBP, and a .299 slug. His plate discipline has gone awry; Pham has a 29.4% strikeout rate and 7.3% walk rate during this tough stretch. This is one of my favorite people, so I take no pleasure in relaying this stat. But since May 12, among the 61 MLB hitters that have at least 150 PA, Pham ranks last in slugging and OPS and next to last in OBP and batting average.

7. Jedd Gyorko, infielder: I’ve mentioned this before, but we have to go in there again, because for some unknown reason this stat is largely being ignored by pressboxers.  Gyorko, who bats right, hasn’t hit right-handed pitching with authority for a long time. Since the 2017 All-Star break Gyorko is batting .200 in 275 plate appearances against RH pitchers, with a 27% strikeout rate. He’s homered every 41.6 at-bats against the rights. His .308  slugging percentage against RHP since the ’17  All-Star Break is the 6th worst in MLB among hitters with at least 230 PA — and well below the league average of .439. And Gyorko’s OPS vs. RHP over this time is .573, in the bottom 10 and significantly under league average .769 OPS over that time. Gyorko still smashes left-handed pitching — he has a .667 slug and 1.075 OPS against them since the 2017 All-Star break — but he’s turned into an extreme platoon-split hitter. And through Monday Gyorko had grounded into 14 double plays in 65 opportunities (21.5%) since the 2017 All-Star Break — 8th worst in MLB among hitters.

Have a happy and safe 4th of July …

And thank you as always for reading my work.

–Bernie

More – Cardinals: Mozeliak Questions Fowler’s Energy. It Could Be That Fowler Is Old.