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In a Crucial Series at Busch, the Cardinals Have a Chance to Make the Dodgers Blue

The Dodgers and Cardinals open a four-game series at Busch Stadium on Thursday night. It’s a large, long weekend event that impacts the postseason picture for both teams. Two classic, historically profound National League franchises will clash in a four-game set of high-stakes baseball. It’s a beautiful thing.

With the Cardinals down to 16 regular-season games to go on the schedule, here are 16 facts, stats, thoughts, observations, and opinions…

1. The Cardinals lead the Dodgers by two games in the bid for the league’s second Wild Card. If the Cardinals do no worse than a 2-2 series split, they’d have a two-game lead over LA with only 12 games remaining. Of course, the Cardinals are welcome to win three or four games from the Dodgers on their annual visit to St. Louis. If the Cardinals can go 3-1 in the series or sweep it — that’s asking for too much — the Dodgers will be flopped on the canvas, discombobulated and searching for their mouthpieces. Had to go with the boxing metaphor there.

2. Since breaking into the big leagues with the Orioles as a 19-year-old in 2012, left-side infielder Manny Machado has played in 909 regular-season games, and he’s competed in 28 MLB ballparks. But Machado has never played at Busch Stadium in St. Louis — until now.

3. Hey, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. is a Machado fan.  And the Cardinals tried to trade for Machado last offseason. If DeWitt has any intention of going in big to sign a free agent to a monster deal, Machado would be the guy. So y’all be nice to Machado this weekend.  You just never know.

4. The Dodgers are 26-24 since Machado’s first game with his new team following the trade from Baltimore to Los Angeles  immediately after the All-Star break. Machado hasn’t hit as well for the Dodgers (118  OPS+) as he did for the Orioles (163  OPS+) but is having perhaps his best offensive season. In 636 combined plate appearances for the O’s and Dodgers, Machado has 31 doubles, 33 homers, 99 RBIs, a ,536 slug, .909 OPS, 14 steals in 16 attempts, and a 147 OPS+ (meaning that he’s 47 above league average offensively.) Machado just turned 26 in July.

5. Raise your hands if you predicted this before the season: The Cardinals would enter a crucial mid-September four-game series against the Dodgers and start pitchers Austin Gomber, Jack Flaherty, John Gant, and Adam Wainwright. Gomber and Flaherty are rookies; Gant had 1.047 years of MLB service time before the season.  Gomber, Flaherty and Gant opened the 2018 season in the rotation at Triple A Memphis. Wainwright opened the season on the disabled list. Before 2018 Gomber had never pitched in the bigs; Flaherty and Gant had combined for 33 MLB appearances and 88.2 innings. Until returning earlier this week, Wainwright, 37, didn’t pitch in a major-league game for 120 days since re-injuring his right elbow in an aborted start at San Diego on May 13. Waino has pitched in five games (23 total innings) for the Cards this season. After what happened in San Diego it was reasonable to assume Wainwright wouldn’t be able to return this season — but there he was on Monday night, throwing five innings in a start against the Pirates. This is an unlikely foursome, no? Gotta love baseball.

6. Clayton Kershaw faces Gomber tonight. Kershaw, 30, has been limited to 22 starts so far this season because of his ongoing problems with his back. But he’s still Kershaw; the left-hander has given up no more than two earned runs in 19 of his 22 starts this season. In his last 16 starts Kershaw has a 2.27 ERA.

7. Some Kershaw notables from Inside Edge: Kershaw has a first-pitch strike rate of 70.3% this season, 2nd highest in MLB to the Cardinals’ Miles Mikolas (70.5%) … Kershaw has allowed an OBP of just .253, tied for 4th best among MLB starters. And a big reason for that low OBP is his 3.9% walk rate, third best among MLB starters … Opponents are very aggressive on the first pitch thrown by Kershaw in an at-bat; their swing rate of 38.5% on first pitches is the highest in MLB among starters … LH batters have a swing-miss rate of 31.2% against Kershaw this year … Opponents have a groundball rate of 60.4% against Kershaw’s curve and slider this season, 6th highest among MLB starters … His pitch of choice against the first batter faced an inning is the slider (40.7%, second highest in MLB) …  Kershaw loves the slider in late innings, throwing it 50.3% of the time … overall Kershaw has thrown the slider on 41.7% of his pitches this season … When opponents face a two-strike count against Kershaw this season, they’ve rallied to reach base only 18.6% of the time with an OPS of .375. … RH batters can expect a lot of the excellent finesse from Kershaw; he’s thrown off-speed pitches 62% of the time his season against RH batters — third highest rate in the majors .

8. Here are today’s Playoff Odds from Baseball Prospectus, listed in order of probability of reaching the NL postseason: Cubs 99.6% … Braves 99.2% … Brewers  99.1% … Cardinals  70% … Rockies 61.5% … Dodgers 69.3% … Diamondbacks 9.5%.

9. A peek at the Cardinals remaining schedule: 10 of their final 16 games will be played at Busch … four of the five teams on the schedule have winning records (Dodgers, Braves, Brewers, Cubs. Only the Giants have a losing record … 9 of the final 16 games will be against teams that have a better record than the Cardinals as of now (Braves, Brewers, Cubs.) Here’s the sked: Four home games with the Dodgers; three games at the Atlanta Braves; three home games against the Giants, three at home against the Brewers, and three games against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

10. Among NL postseason contenders, the Cardinals have the  most difficult  remaining schedule based on opponent winning percentage. Here are the strength of schedule rankings among the NL postseason hopefuls. (I’ll list the in order of opponents’ winning percentage):

Cardinals  opponents  .559 

Diamondbacks  opp  .551

Rockies opp   .535 

Phillies opp  .517 

Braves opp  .513

Dodgers  opp  .493

Cubs  opp  .485 

Brewers opp  .469 

11. Cardinals hitters are struggling against changeups: Over the last 14 days Cards are 2-for-42 against changeups (.048). And Cardinals’ hitters are slugging only .119  on changeups over the last 14 days; worst in MLB.

12. The Dodgers’ bullpen was 4th in the majors last season in Win Probability added; this year their relievers are 17th in WPA. The bullpen has been the Dodgers’ burden for  much of 2018.

13.  The Cardinals’  2018 record is quirky in this regard: This season they rank 19th among the 30 MLB teams in winning percentage (.551) in games played against opponents that are .500 or under .500. But in games against winning teams, the Cardinals’ .559 winning percentage is third-best in the majors behind the Red Sox and Yankees.

14. Among NL contenders, the Cardinals have received the highest value in contributions made by rookie pitchers based on Wins Above Replacement. (The Baseball Reference, aka bWAR). Here’s the rookie-pitcher bWAR for each contender:

Cardinals,  5.8 wins above replacement.

Phillies,  3.3

Braves,  2.5

Diamondbacks,  2.2

Dodgers,  1.8

Rockies,  0.5

Brewers,  0.5

Cubs,  0.3

15.  Speaking of rookie pitchers, Jack Flaherty is special: Opponents are hitting just .193 against him this season, fourth lowest BA against any MLB starting pitcher with at least 72 IP.  And on pitches in strike zone foes are hitting just .220 against Flaherty; the second lowest BA against an MLB starter this season. When Flaherty has a two-strike count on a batter, they hit .122 against him; sixth lowest against a starting pitcher. Against the Flaherty fastball, opponents are hitting just .211 against him, seventh lowest BA vs. a starter. What about inside fastballs thrown by Flaherty? Opponents are hitting just .149 against the pitched, second lowest BA against a starter this season. But it isn’t just the smoke; Flaherty has held opponents to a .171 batting average on non-fastballs.

16. Marcell Ozuna’s two seasons: Before the All-Star break, Ozuna had a .385 slugging percentage and was 11 percent below the league average offensively in park adjusted runs created (wRC+.) Since the All-Star break, Ozuna is slugging .531 and is 34 percent  above league average offensively (wRC+.)

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Shildt’s Cardinals vs. Matheny’s Cardinals: It’s a Rout for the “Shildtbirds”