We are three weeks and 15 games into the season and the Cardinals have been in very few competitive games. Either they are scoring runs by the bushel or they are allowing enough runs early that, while they may make a comeback, it was always a long shot. They have not played a one run game yet and even though they only lost by two yesterday, with the way Aaron Nola was going that gap felt like much more. Take out the game in Miami where they rallied late to win and you’ve had a pretty good idea of the outcome by the third or fourth inning.
Now, if the offense kicked in and the pitching reached its expectations at the same time more often, we wouldn’t be complaining about a lot of uncompetitive games. I don’t know about you, but I’m fine with winning a lot of games by five or six runs. People talk about the drama and excitement of a close game or a tight pennant race. I’m more of the idea of get a big lead early and slowly pull away. Drama is fine in retrospect, less so in the day-to-day.
Still, that’s a moot point right now. The offense is still struggling to find any sort of consistent rhythm. Early on, you could at least count on the top of the lineup, but even Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado couldn’t keep that up forever. Goldy’s six for his last 33 (.501 OPS) and Arenado four for his last 23, though two of those hits have been homers so his OPS is .718. These guys are going to slump a bit and we expect them to come out of it, though actually Goldy’s hit .185 since Opening Day, so he’s been struggling for a bit.
Which leads to a conversation that Tara Wellman and I had last night on Gateway to Baseball Heaven. We keep being told that the approach for everyone on the team is good. We see Cardinals on a lot of the leaderboards for metrics such as hard hit rate. Yet we are three weeks into the season and the results still aren’t there. They are 20th in the majors in OPS. I guess you can see some results in the homers, because they are tied for seventh in the bigs where they were bringing up the rear the last couple of years, but 1/5th of them have come from newcomer Arenado and 1/5th of them have come from Yadier Molina, who is just age defying and inexplicable. (Credit where it’s due: they are also 17th in strikeouts and I expected them to be much higher.)
Let’s use Matt Carpenter for a discussion point here. When you go to his Baseball Savant page, this is what you see.
Now, first off, I don’t know if there’s anything funnier right now than looking at Carpenter’s spray chart. Bunt single to the left, homer to the right. That’s it. Those are the data points. It’s a problem, I know, but it tickles me every time.
But look at the stuff on the left there. He’s in the top 10% of average exit velocity, hard hit percentage, expected slugging, barrel percentage. Yet he’s hitting .069/.200/.172. Mike Shildt keeps putting him in the middle of the lineup on the expectation that at some point some of these things are going to translate into production. It’s not an unreasonable supposition. It’s the exact same approach they took with him during his slow start in 2018. That stretched out two weeks before the fuse caught and he rocketed into MVP consideration. It has happened before.
However, there’s a point of view that the Cardinals caught lightning in a bottle then and are now using it as a policy instead of recognizing its rarity. I’m not sure it’s a legitimate argument, but there’s got to be some reason that almost everyone that has “good metrics” is scuffling at getting results out of those metrics. Part of it is that strikeouts don’t count in some of these metrics and Carpenter, for example, is striking out at a 34% clip. Not putting the ball in play will short-circuit a lot of things while leaving a smaller sample of balls actually hit. It’s one of the reasons I was surprised where the club ranked in strikeouts.
I have no idea what the answer is. Like Shildt said, you’d rather see them having hard contact than a lot of weak contact. If it was the latter, there’s more impetus to change an approach. You don’t win baseball games in rankings and spreadsheets, though. Being the best at hard hit rate doesn’t help if the hits don’t lead to runs. We will reach 10% of the season tonight, though. Fortunately, the Cardinals aren’t in the NL West, where the Dodgers already have 13 wins and would be 5.5 up on the Redbirds. They are in the NL Central, where they are two games behind the Reds and one behind the Brewers. If things break right this week, with the Reds coming into town on Friday, they could be a first place team before you know it.
I wouldn’t say it’s time to panic. I will say it’s reasonable to be concerned. Hopefully the law of averages starts working out in the Cardinals’ favor.
Saturday (9-4 win)
Hero: Yadier Molina. Rest obviously has done Molina good. The legend hit two home runs, being part of two back-to-backs in the same game, and drove in four. We’ll be telling Yadi stories forever.
Goat: Tough day to pick one out. I guess I’ll go with Justin Williams, who had a hit but didn’t score nor drive in any runs. Austin Dean went 0-2 but he walked twice. We’ll talk about KK here in a moment.
Notes: Before the game, the line from the Cardinals was that Kwang Hyun Kim was being prepped to return to the rotation at full strength, ready to throw 100 pitches. Apparently that was a line of fill in the blank, because Kim was pinch-hit for (with Carpenter, who struck out) in the top of the fourth with the Cardinals up 9-3 when he was at 68 pitches. After the game, Shildt said they’d planned for him to go around 75. No idea why the different messages–people would have been expecting a lower pitch count for a guy that had been out for a while. It didn’t help the whole “not taxing the bullpen” thing, though….Kim looked pretty good, all in all. The Phillies put a two-out rally on him in the first that led to a run (and could have been more) and he worked around the second-and-third, no-outs situation in the fourth as best he could by getting a grounder and a sac fly. Given his lead, that didn’t hurt too badly. Kim looks like someone that might be able to finally give the team some innings–when they let him throw more pitches….Molina and Paul DeJong went back to back in the Saturday blues, which reminded everyone of the Craig Kimbrel game, so that was nice….the bullpen allowed one run (by Ryan Helsley) in six innings, though Alex Reyes made the ninth longer than necessary by loading the bases.
Sunday (2-0 loss)
Hero: Yadier Molina, for different reasons. The club only got two hits and Molina had one of them. DeJong had the other (back to back games with a hit for DeJong, so maybe there’s something stirring there) but Molina didn’t strike out.
Goat: Aaron Nola was in such command that it’s hard to single out anyone, but Matt Carpenter went 0-3 with three strikeouts, including one with one of the rare instances of a runner on, before he was double-switched out of the game.
Notes: John Gant allowed only two runs in five innings, but there was some luck to that. He walked five and gave up five hits (including an absolute laser to Bryce Harper in the first) so it could have been much worse. One of those hits, by J.T. Realmuto, hit a baserunner which ended an inning. We’ve seen worse, for sure, but it’s a bit of a concern there….Tommy Edman had his hitting streak snapped, though he reached on an error so it should continue his on-base streak….John Nogowski is now 1-11. Some would argue it’s not a surprise since he’s not getting regular time, which is 1) possible and 2) an argument that has always been applied to someone–I vividly remember us using it on Tyler Greene–and it’s a little bit of the “backup quarterback” syndrome. Also, Nogowski ended spring on an 0-7 and without his 4-4 game against the Marlins, he’d have hit .241 this spring and likely no one would have been clamoring for him to go north. He was never going to start so he’s got to figure out how to do it from the bench….Andrew Miller didn’t give up any runs, which was a nice change of pace.