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The Cardinals’ Edge Over the Cubs in Starting Pitching Can Make This Rivalry Close Again

Since the start of the 2015 season, the Chicago Cubs have won 32 more regular-season games than the St. Louis Cardinals, competed in 32 more postseason games than the Cardinals, and won 18 more postseason contests than the Cardinals.

From 2015 through 2017 the Cubs won a wild-card playoff game, two National League Division Series, a National League Championship Series and a World Series. While the Cubs rolled on for three seasons — emerging as one of the most powerful forces in major league baseball — the Cardinals were just another team in the way. The Cubs shoved the Cardinals out of the 2015 NLDS in four games, and the Cards sputtered to 86 and 83 wins over the next two seasons (2016 and ’17) failing to reach the playoffs.

In a few days the season will make the turn into August. And for the Cubs and the Cardinals, 2018 is looking a lot like 2016 and 2017. As the two NL Central rivals open a three-game series on Friday night at Busch Stadium, they might as well be in different leagues.

The Cubs are 60-42, and have the best winning percentage (.588) in the NL.

At 51-51 the Cards are one of three NL teams tied for 9th in the league with a .500 winning percentage.

After sweeping the visiting Cubs in a three-game weekend series that ended May 6, the Cardinals led the NL Central with a 20-12 record. The Redbirds were 3.5 games in front of the 16-15 Cubs. Looking good. It was early. But looking good.

How little we knew.

This would be the peak point of the St. Louis baseball season.

Since May 7 the Cubs are 44-27 and have won 15 of 22 series, with five series losses and two splits.

The Cardinals have skidded to a 31-39 mark for the league’s 12th best winning percentage (.443) over that time. And in the Cardinals have won only FIVE of their last 22 series since sweeping the Cubs (with 11 series losses and six splits.)

Manager Joe Maddon’s Cubs occupy first place in the NL Central. They have opened a nine-game lead on the fourth-place Cardinals, who are no longer managed by Mike Matheny.

According to Playoff Odds Report posted Friday morning at FanGraphs, the Cubs have a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs — the highest probability in the league. The Cardinals have a 13.1% shot at getting to the playoffs; nine other NL teams have better odds.

Unless Red Schoendienst and Stan Musial can pull some strings upstairs to change the trends, the Cubs will make it to the postseason for the fourth consecutive season — and that would be a first in franchise history. And the Cardinals would flunk out and fail to qualify for the postseason for the third straight year; that hasn’t happened since 1997-98-99.

The Cardinals don’t appear to be narrowing the gap on the Cubs. If anything, the Cubs’ superiority over the Cardinals seems more imposing than ever. The former NL kingpin has fallen and can’t get up. And the Cubs are drop-kicking the Cardinals to make sure they stay down.  Since losing those three straight games in St. Louis in early May, the Cubs are 5-3 against the Cardinals.

Going back to September 2015 and Including the 2015 NLDS, Maddon has a .607 winning percentage in his last 61 games against the Cardinals. And the Cardinals have won only four of their last 19 series against the Cubs, with 14 series defeats and two splits.

From the St. Louis perspective, this is a bleak picture.

Is there any hope for the Cardinals in the near future?

Of course.

Two words: Starting Pitching.

The Cardinals will have to fortify other areas, of course. Their lineup does not have a catalyst, an agitator, a synergist. It does not have an Albert Pujols (circa 2001-2011) or even a Pujols Light. The front office must find a solution for filling this longtime void. And it’s time for president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch to reconsider their method for bullpen construction. The Cardinals are inferior to the Cubs in another defining area: Defense.

But offense is the Cubs’ biggest advantage over the Cardinals. The Cubs’ lineup is deeper, has more options, packs more top-to-bottom power, and uses a smarter hitting approach to draw plenty of walks to keep the team onbase percentage inflated.

* In runs scored, the Cubs are first in the NL at 5.08 per game … the Cards 8th at 4.46 r/g.

* Walk rate: Cubs 2nd in the NL at 9.8%. … Cards 9th at 8.6%.

* Onbase percentage:  Cubs 1st in NL at .346 … Cards 9th at .318.

* Slugging pct: Cubs 3rd in league at .423 … Cards 8th at .404.

* OPS:  Cubs 1st in NL at .769 … Cards 9th at .722.

* In park adjusted runs created (wRC+) the Cubs’ position players are 14 percent above the league average offensively; that’s tied with the Dodgers for the best in the league. The Cards’ non-pitchers rank sixth in the NL at two percent above the league average offensively.

* The Cubs’ position players have combined for 22.4 Wins Above Replacement, the most in the league. The Cardinals’ position player WAR value of 13.4 ranks sixth in the NL.

* There’s a huge difference in overall outfield play. The Cubs’ outfield is No. 2 in the league with 10.2 WAR. The St. Louis outfield is a dismal 11th in the league with 3.0 WAR.

* Counting players with a minimum of 100 plate appearances this season the Cubs have nine hitters above the league average offensively based on park-adjusted runs created: Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Ian Happ, Ben Zobrist, Albert Almora Jr., Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward. The Cardinals have seven: Matt Carpenter, Jose Martinez, Yadier Molina, Yairo Munoz, Tommy Pham, Harrison Bader, and Paul DeJong.

But that last statistic raises a point. Sure, the Cubs have more good hitters than the Cardinals do. But if Mozeliak and Girsch can make this lineup stronger for 2019, the separation (offensively) between the Chicago and St. Louis won’t be as wide as it is now. And you can make the case that the two offenses would be much closer together in effectiveness if the Cardinals had received the widely expected quality of performance from outfielders Marcell Ozuana and Dexter Fowler. Ozuna is 16 percent below the league average offensively this season; Fowler is 36 percent below average.

The Cardinals don’t need a miracle to boost their offense and make it more competitive for matching up against the Cubs’ hitters. The STL front office just needs to find one true impact bat that the team can rely on. And then add a second bat as another upgrade.

The Cardinals are also doing something unusual — at least by their historical standards. The organization appears to be developing several legitimate power hitters. In the new MLB Pipeline prospect ratings, outfielder Tyler O’Neill has been moved into the top 50 overall (any position) at No. 48. In the Cardinals’ Top 30 rankings, MLB Pipeline has O’Neill at No. 2, rookie third baseman Nolan Gorman at No. 3, and third baseman Elehuris Montero at No. 8.

I can’t remember a time when the Cardinals had three young, on-the-rise power assets of such potential magnitude. For much of the time over the last 30+ years (I arrived in STL in 1985), the Cardinals didn’t have any power hitters in development — let alone three.

— O’Neill has 25 homers, 59 RBIs and a .708 slugging percentage in 59 games and 219 at-bats at Triple A Memphis. He should be in the big leagues right now.

— Montero, still only 19, is on a fast track, already thriving at Class A Peoria. In 91 games Montero is batting .318 with a .378 OBP and .510 slug. He’s ignited 20 doubles, three triples, 13 homers and driven in 63 runs. One Cardinals’ official believes Montero could be with the big club by late in his age 21 season, which is roughly two years from now.

— Gorman, a recent Arizona high school grad and the 19th overall pick in June’s amateur draft, was the first player born in the 2000s to be taken in the MLB draft. He’s already lighting up the skies across the Appalachian League. In his first 26 games and 96 at-bats for the Cardinals’ rookie-league Class A team at Johnson City, Gorman has 7 homers, 3 doubles, a triple, 16 RBIs and a .563 slug. As expected, he’s striking out a bunch. But Gorman is also walking a bunch too and has a .419 OBP.

The Cardinals at least have some power potential on the tree — seemingly capable of eventually becoming the kind of intimidating presence that can give the team more punch.

But going forward, the Cardinals have an edge in starting pitching. And that’s why the gap between the teams isn’t quite as impossible as it seems from the St. Louis side.

Let’s run through this quickly:

1. The Cardinals already have a parade of young starters showing up to pitch for the big club: Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, Daniel Poncedeleon, John Gant — and the latest arrival, Dakota Hudson. You haven’t seen Hudson yet, but he’s been the best starter in the Pacific Coast League this season. You’ve seen the others and know they’re  talented and can pitch effectively, even if Weaver is having a disappointing season overall. And don’t forget Jordan Hicks, 21, in the bullpen. Triple A Memphis RH Ryan Helsley recently was shut down (shoulder) as a precaution but he throws 100 mph and should be good to go soon. Alex Reyes has been set back twice by season-aborting injuries but still remains the organization’s No. 1 prospect. And another wave of young pitching is forming in the lower minors.

2. The Cubs haven’t developed  much pitching because they’ve prioritized offense and the hoarding of young hitters.  That’s worked well; the Cubs are a great team that did something historically profound in winning the World Series in 2016. But the worthwhile penalty for that success is a shortage of homegrown starting pitching; it’s the only real weakness in the Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer baseball operation. The Cubs have to buy pitching, or rent pitching, or trade for pitching. One prominent free-agent signing — Boston’s Jon Lester, for $155 million — was brilliant

3. But it doesn’t always work out for the Cubs. Last offseason they invested $165 million in free-agent contracts for Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. It’s been a rough four-plus months. Darvish, who was signed for $126 million, has a triceps injury. He’s had made only eight starts, is 1-3, and has a 4.95 ERA in 40 innings. No one seems to be certain of when Darvish will return. Chatwood is 4-5 with a 4.98 ERA and the highest walk rate (19.4%) in the majors. In a combined 27 starts, Darvish and Chatwood have a 4.97 ERA. And they’ve turned in only six quality starts in their 27 assignments.

4. To fill the void caused by Darvish going numb in the triceps and Chatwood going wild in the strike zone, the Cubs are (as of Friday morning) finalizing a deal to acquire veteran LH Cole Hamels from Texas. Given Hamels’ postseason pedigree (16 career starts, seven wins, 3.48 ERA) it was a sensible move for Chicago — even if the aging Hamels has a 10.23 ERA in his previous five starts. The Cubs didn’t give up much for Hamels (one OK prospect and another to be named later.) But according to multiple media reports the Cubs will pick up $4 million of Hamels’ remaining salary for the season. In other words: They’re spending another $4 million to solve a serious rotation flaw that wasn’t solved last offseason despite the Cubs’ investment of  $165 million in Darvish and Chatwood.

5. Using the salary information at Baseball Prospectus, let’s compare the rotation funding of the Cubs and Cardinals. If we add Hamels to the list, the Cubs are paying $82.7 million to seven starters: Lester, Darvish, Chatwood, Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Mike Montgomery and Hamels. Darvish and Chatwood represent 44.29 percent of the money being paid to Cubs’ starting pitchers this season.

6. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Cardinals are paying seven starting pitchers combined salaries of $45.6 million, with 42.72% of that going to injured veteran Adam Wainwright, who makes $19.5 million. But the other six starters on the BP list — Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes — a combined $26.5 million.

7. Before bringing in Hamels, the Cubs were paying their starting pitchers an average salary of $13.1 million this season. The Cardinals’ starting pitchers are being paid an average salary of $6.5 million. Heading into the weekend, the Cardinals were third in the majors and second in the NL with a rotation ERA of 3.46. The Cubs were 13th in MLB and seventh in the NL with a rotation ERA of 4.04.  Cardinals’ starting pitchers had accrued 8.5 WAR this season — more than doubling the 3.0 WAR by Cubs’ starters.  During their current 17-7 hot stretch, the Cubs have needed to score an average of 6.1 runs per game and slug .446 with an .819 OPS to overcome a starting pitching ERA of 5.27.

8. This isn’t just about money, though obviously the Cardinals are receiving exceptional value from the two-year, $15.5 million investment in Mikolas. I’m thinking the Cubs would like to have that one compared to, say, their $126 million bet on Darvish.

9. This is also also about youth, and cost control. Including the new or recent arrivals such as Poncedeleon, Gomber, Hudson and even John Gant, every active Cards’ starter is under the age of 30. (Wainwright, who turns 37 next month, hasn’t pitched since May 13 because of elbow miseries and is in the final year of his contract.) Including relievers, the Cardinals have gotten 10.0 WAR this season from pitchers age 29 and younger. The Cubs gave 4.9 WAR from pitchers 29 and younger.

10. The Cardinals have a bunch of arms age 26 or younger: Martinez, Wacha, Flaherty, Hicks, Poncedeleon, Gomber, Gant, Mike Mayers, Weaver and Dominic Leone (on the DL.) And Dakota Hudson is joining that group. To this point of the season, the Cardinals have 6.2 WAR from pitchers 26 and younger. (That includes 0.2 WAR from Sam Tuivailala, who was traded to Seattle on Friday.) The Cubs have 1.3 WAR from pitchers 26 and younger and all are relievers. And pretty much all of that WAR was supplied by Randy Rosario and Carl Edwards, Jr.

Just so we understand each other …

The Cubs are a better team today, and it isn’t close.

And a large part of that is on the Cardinals, who haven’t found the Pujols Light bat or assembled a reliable bullpen for 2018. But starting pitching does matter, especially if it’s young, talented, in abundance, and cost controlled. And the Cardinals’ one edge over the Cubs is potentially a big one that can bring parity to this rivalry.

Take care and have a great weekend.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie

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