What Went Wrong For the 2016 Cardinals

We looked earlier about the things that went right for the Cardinals.  If you go by the record, more things went right than wrong.  I mean, they won 86 games, stretching their streak of finishing at least 10 games over .500 to nine straight years.  So on balance, things went their way more often than not.

However, if you are looking at expectations, both by the front office and by the fan base, this year was much closer to a failure than a success.  No postseason games for the first time in five years.  A team that was completely blown out by the Cubs and needed an historic almost-collapse by the Giants (and a surprising sweep of the Mets by the Braves late) to really be in the wild card race.  The hallmarks of this team–pitching and defense–betraying them more often than not.

When you finish just one game out of the playoffs, it’s easy to point some fingers at what went wrong.  While this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, here are some of the issues that wound up making 2016 a year to forget.

Injuries.  It started last November when we found out that Lance Lynn was going to be out for the season due to Tommy John surgery.  Given the depth that we believed the Cardinals had in the rotation, that seemed a blow but not one that couldn’t be absorbed in the way Adam Wainwright‘s injury during 2015 was absorbed.  Instead, Lynn’s loss wound up being huge as it not only led to a five-year contract for Mike Leake (which is its own discussion) but when everyone in the rotation save Carlos Martinez wound up going south, there was no one else to stabilize the craft.  There’s no guarantee Lynn would have done that, of course, but given his career body of work, it’s a reasonable assumption.

That was just the beginning, of course.  Jordan Walden, who was supposed to be part of this incredible back end of the bullpen, never threw a pitch for the Cards this season and while the bullpen was listed as a strength in our first post, there’s no doubt a healthy Walden would have made it significantly better, plus might have led Mike Matheny to replace Trevor Rosenthal a little quicker (though it might not have).  We saw Rosenthal and Maness go down with injury as well, though unfortunately they took a while to tell the club they were hurting.  Michael Wacha‘s stress reaction flared up again, imperiling his career as we know it and also leading to some terrible outings.  The Patron Pitcher of the Blog, Tyler Lyons, was lost in the second half to a knee injury just when a long man could have been really useful.  Heck, Mike Leake even came down with shingles, though given he was replaced by Alex Reyes for that time, that has to rank pretty low on the list.

The offense wasn’t immune as it seemed like there was a bounty out on hands and thumbs for a while.  Brayan Pena got hurt in the spring, leading to much more playing time for Yadier Molina than expected (though that worked out in the second half).  Matt Carpenter strained his oblique and Brandon Moss hurt his ankle, putting both of them on the disabled list at the same time and putting a dent in the overall offense.  Neither seemed to be their old selves when they returned, either.  Aledmys Diaz went out for most of the second half after being hit in the hand by a pitch and Matt Holliday had the same thing happen soon after.  While injuries could lead to good things–Ruben Tejada‘s injury opened the door for Diaz, after all–for the most part it was another year of losing key piece after key piece, which is starting to feel like a Cardinal tradition.

Starting pitching.  Remember 2015, when the Cardinals had an historic pitching staff and won a lot of low-scoring, taut games?  That was not the case at all in 2016.  While ERA isn’t the be-all and end-all of pitcher evaluation, of course, it’s probably pretty telling when your rotation has marks like these:

Carlos Martinez 3.04
Adam Wainwright 4.62
Jaime Garcia 4.67
Mike Leake 4.69
Michael Wacha 5.09

Overall, the starters had a semi-respectable 4.33 ERA, but that’s mainly because Alex Reyes helped bring that down (and, also, there were a lot of unearned runs out there due to another one of our issues).  When your offense has to score five a night regularly to make up for what the rotation is doing, that’s quite a strain.  The fact that the offense was able to do that fairly often is a feather in their cap.

The issues weren’t just the runs allowed, but also the innings they allowed them in.  Outside of Martinez, it seemed to be a remarkable occurrence when the starter went past the sixth inning.  A number of games, they were done after five or even fewer, putting more and more of a strain on the bullpen.  It’s no wonder those guys hit a bit of a wall in August because they were pitching much more than they ever expected.

The home record.  After a stretch where they won at least 45 games a year at home, the Cardinals cratered to a 38-43 mark at Busch, a mark only made even somewhat salvageable by a 5-2 last week of the season.  If the Cards even played .500 under the Arch, those three games would have been enough to avoid a playoff and slide into the Wild Card Game.  There were a number of theories bandied about for this issue, and besides it being entirely random, the best one in my mind was the fact that this power game didn’t play well in a park that tends to slightly lean toward the pitchers.  The fact that they won 55 games in 2015 when they had outstanding pitching and much less power seems to be a point in their favor there.  It seems unlikely they’ll slip that badly at home again next year, though it’s possible that their strong road record would take a hit to compensate.

Jose Oquendo.  This is where we get into some nebulous stuff.  Oquendo was gone all year long after two knee surgeries and there was no doubt that his presence was missed, though it’s difficult to know exactly how much of these issues were due to his absence.  Many of the defensive miscues came from players that have spent a lot of time with Oquendo over the years, so you wouldn’t think he’d need to be around to for them to still be able to make the plays.  Aledmys Diaz could have probably used some of that coaching and, indeed, he made a lot of errors early, but that doesn’t explain some of the other miscues.

It’s also interesting to think about how third base coaching might have impacted the season.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of too many egregious errors in judgement by Dave Maloney in waving runners in, but you also wonder if Oquendo would have sent someone where Maloney didn’t or vice versa.  Oquendo, for the most part, has been pretty nondescript over at third, so I don’t expect that there was much difference between him and Maloney, though when you are talking about the small margin of one game, as we are this season, any small difference could have actually been very important.

It sounds like Oquendo is going to be this generation’s George Kissell going forward, instructing minor leaguers and focusing more on development.  I’ve thought for a while Oquendo was a great option for that given his long history with the organization and his teaching ability.  We’ll see, though, if the coaching staff gets a bit of a shakeup this offseason with the knowledge that Oquendo isn’t returning.

Baserunning.  Every time there was a baserunning blunder by the Cardinals, you could almost guarantee that this 2015 Tweet from El Maquino would be retweeted by someone.

This year, legitimacy was obtained.  As Maq notes in his post, the Cards, depending on who is doing the measuring, lost one or two wins due to their baserunning exploits.  Whether it was a lack of going first to third or, more likely, a ridiculous attempt at an extra base, if there was a way for the Cardinals to have a baserunning error, they did it.  They had a sacrifice fly double play, for goodness sake.  That never happens!  (Though, in fairness, apparently the Giants did the same thing late in the year.  I’d never seen that before, then it happened twice in 2016.)

Mike Matheny preached aggressiveness in Jupiter.  Go when you want, try to make things happen.  That makes sense in Little League, in high school, in college perhaps, maybe even at times in the big leagues.  But if someone is in the big leagues, they are there because, on the whole, they can make plays.  The odds of someone throwing you out at home in high school have to be like 5-10%, but in the majors it’s probably closer to 50% given the situation and the personnel.  People at the big league level can play the game.  You need calculated aggressiveness, perhaps, but not wild and unchecked aggressiveness.  Even when this plan obviously was causing problems, Matheny didn’t seem to alter the game plan.  We’ll see if that changes in 2017.

Defense.  This is not your father’s…well, hang on, I remember those days!…Gold Glove St. Louis Cardinals.  A franchise that is synonymous with flashing the leather made 107 errors on the season, sixth in the majors.  It’s probably not surprising that no team above them made the playoffs either.  Errors are the roughest of fielding stats, of course, but no matter what the measure, rough or refined, St. Louis was not a good team overall.  Anecdotally, it seemed like they improved in the second half, at least in the error department, but still there were a number of plays not made or balls that just were out of the reach of defenders.  John Mozeliak has said that both baserunning and defense are going to be major issues this offseason, though it’s difficult to know exactly how the Cardinals are going to improve them with some of the personnel they are likely to have.

There were no Pete Kozma situations this year, though this was a season, with all the power, that you could have had a steady glove that didn’t hit much be absorbed in the bullpen.  Kolten Wong is probably the best second baseman on the squad when it comes to defense, but his lesser bat this year, especially with folks like Jedd Gyorko around, meant that he spent more time on the bench while the club hoped Gyroko would drive in three if he let in two.  That’s not the only situation, though it probably is the most obvious.  Again, when a club gives up 59 unearned runs on the year and misses the playoffs by such a narrow margin, it’s fair to ask whether if they’d caught the ball a little more often they’d be playing a little later in the year.

Mike Matheny.  I put Mike on here not in the pejorative manner that some would but more an acknowledgement that, no matter what you think of a manager, it’s likely he had influence when the playoffs are missed by such a thin margin.  I still believe Matheny has grown some as a manager, though I wouldn’t rank him in the top half of baseball or anything.  The man has flaws and is still learning on the job, which can be seen in some bizarre lineups or questionable decisions that seem based on loyalty more than facts on record.

Matheny has some folks on Twitter that defend his every move.  At times, I think he could have some Donald Trumpesque miscues and those folks would still spin it as a positive thing.  (Which, sadly, seems to be the case with the actual Trump as well.)  There are also some on Twitter that, if Mike Matheny donated blood before a game would complain that he’s hurting the team by not being at 100% before a game in the dog days of August.  There is more of a pronounced split on Matheny than there has been in a while, though TLR definitely had his fervent detractors in his early days in St. Louis.

While I walk much more of a middle road, it’s still fair to say that given the narrow margin, even a slight improvement at manager might have made the difference.  I know that Chase and Maq recently talked about how much a manager is worth on one of their podcasts, but their idea that he made a net difference of five games or more seems high to me.  I do believe that a manager can make a difference on the margins, though, and that’s where this season was lost.  If Matheny reins in the wild horses, if he realizes the issues with Trevor Rosenthal quicker, if perhaps he’d been less locked into Matt Holliday in the third spot in the lineup, it’s possible that the one game difference would have been made up.

Again, I don’t lay all of this at the feet of Matheny.  We don’t know the dynamics of the clubhouse either–it could be that he was able to keep people focused or get a little more out of folks, which might have been worth a win here or there that another manager wouldn’t have gotten.  It’s not as simple as saying if there was someone else besides Matheny in the manager’s chair the club would have made the playoffs.  Maybe that’s true, maybe things would have spiraled more out of control.  Just on the face of it, though, there were some decisions that didn’t seem to work out and given the one game, that could have been a big deal.

There are plenty of other things you could put on this list.  Brandon Moss’s ridiculous slump to end the season.  The inability to get timely hits.  As we keep saying, when you fall just short you can find plenty of things that would have made the difference.  Hopefully the front office is able to change some of those things this winter and we’re talking about playoff series again this time next year!

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