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The 2018 Cardinals Weren’t Bad. They Just Weren’t Good Enough.

Let’s go full Tony La Russa here and play a hard nine.

Nine reasons why the Cardinals failed to reach the postseason for the third consecutive season:

1. They weren’t good enough.

Sometimes we sit here, fans and media, and shovel out a bunch of convenient narratives and theories. We want to satisfy our desire to get to truth about what really went down. Sometimes it’s as simple as this: The 2018 Cardinals were pretty good. They had a great stretch, but that 22-6 record in August wasn’t what the Cardinals were. At the end of 162 games, the final record tells you about your team. And the Cardinals were 88-74, which is pretty good. “Pretty good” as in 13th overall in MLB and sixth in the NL in winning percentage (.543).

In the past, “pretty good” would have gotten the Cardinals into the tournament.  Between 2012 and 2017, every NL team that won 87 games made it to the playoffs. But not this year … not with so many teams tanking and becoming a source of easy wins. The better teams got to 90 wins without as much strain as before. Stacking wins wasn’t as difficult; 11 MLB teams won 90+ games — compared to eight 90+ teams in 2017, and six in 2016. Every AL playoff team won at least 91 games. Four of the five won 95+ to make it through.

All NL postseason qualifiers reached a minimum of 90 wins. Four of the five won either 91 games (Dodgers, Rockies) or 95 (Cubs, Brewers.)

2. Except for brief stretches the bullpen was an enormous liability.

Cardinals’ relievers combined for 0.5 Wins Above Replacement this season, ranking 12th in the 15-team NL. The bullpen finished 12th in ERA (4.38), 13th in expected fielding independent ERA (with a 4.51 xFIP). The bullpen ranked 14th in strikeout-walk percentage and was last in the league in Win Probability Added. September was a dumpster fire AND tire fire; St. Louis relievers had a 5.09 ERA for the month. And during the final week, when the Cardinals collapsed by losing five of six to the Brewers and Cubs, the bullpen ERA was a hideous 7.04.

3. The young starting pitchers sputtered to the finish line. But it was pretty much bad all over.

The Cardinals’ rotation had a 4.60 ERA in September, which ranked 13th in the NL and 24th overall. That included a 5.28 starter ERA in the fnal week. In the final month Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, John Gant, Daniel Poncedeleon and Luke Weaver combined for 81 starting-pitching innings and allowed 50 earned runs for a 5.56 ERA.

Adam Wainwright had a 4.84 September ERA.

If you remove Miles Mikolas from the September equation — he gave up only eight earned runs in 33.2 innings — the other Cardinals’ starters had a combined 5.40 ERA.

The starters came in on the low side for innings pitched in September, ranking 11th in the NL.

The Cards’ overall 4.81 ERA for September (starters and relievers) ranked 27th overall in the majors and 14th in the NL.

4. The defense was clumsy for much of the season and downright embarrassing in the final days. 

The Cardinals buried themselves under an avalanche of errors.  And the base-running was just as awful.

5. The offense went on the fritz in September.

This season the average number of runs scored per game by an MLB team was around 4.6. So anything less than that in a game should be considered below average. In going 12-15 in the final month the Cardinals were held to four runs or fewer in 14 of their 15 losses. And they ranked 21st overall in slugging percentage (.381.), 18th in OPS (.694), and 15th with a .313 onbase percentage. The Cardinals were 10 percent below league average offensively for the month in park adjusted runs created.

6. Matt Carpenter faded from league MVP conversation in September. Carpenter batted .170 with a .313 OBP and .245 slugging percentage. Carpenter struck out on nearly 30 percent of his September plate appearances and was 45 percent below league average in park adjusted runs created for the months. Using the same metric (wRC+) the Cardinals were pulled down by below-average September hitting performances from Yadier Molina, Jose Martinez, Harrison Bader, Jedd Gyorko and Matt Adams.

7. Mike Shildt had too many bullpen-management gaffes.

Or, to put it another way: a little too much Mathenaging. Still, Shildt went 41-28 after replacing Matheny for the NL’s third-best record since July 15. Shildt was a significant upgrade. But I hope he’s got a better plan for the bullpen in 2019.

8. Bush League record at Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals were a pedestrian 43-38 at home this season. And they screwed up late by losing seven of their final 11 games at Busch Stadium. Terrible timing.

9. The front office failed to reinforce the roster for a late-season push.

The Cubs and Brewers kept adding players to the roster and made their teams better. Even with extreme bullpen problems and a fatigued rotation, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch made a few marginal moves — adding pitchers Tyson Ross, Chasen Shreve and first baseman Matt Adams — that delivered negligible impact. Perhaps the 22-6 August swayed Mozeliak and Girsch into believing that everything was fine.

It wasn’t.

Thanks for reading ….

Bernie

More: Notre Dame Up, Penn State Down. Heroes and Villains Of CFB Week Five