First Place? Reviewing How The Cardinals Got Here and What Is To Come

Aug 22, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Dexter Fowler (25) reacts to the bench after hitting a two run home run against the Colorado Rockies during the seventh inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

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In a shocking turn of events, the Cardinals might actually be a good baseball team. They do currently hold a 2.5 game lead over the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central, after all. Despite an up and down season — highlighted by the worst May imaginable — they find themselves opening the final week of August right where they had hoped to be all along. Thank goodness.

So with a strong homestand completed, an important series about to begin, and a lack of writing on my end — I felt that this was as good a time as any to look over the last few weeks that led the Cardinals to the position they are in, and preview some aspects of what the calendar holds in store.

How They Got Here

Taking Care of Business

Following a worst-case scenario, 0-5 roadtrip in California, the Cardinals have continued to do what they have been doing throughout the 2nd half — take care of business against the teams that they are supposed to beat. You can call the schedule soft, but they can only play the games they are given and the division rivals get to play the same teams over the course of 162 games. Still, they have done well to make the most of catching some teams — Pittsburgh and Colorado, mostly — on their way down.

Luckily, the schedule affords a few more weeks of these opportunities, which I will discuss later.

You Go We Go?

Dexter Fowler got a way-too short look at the leadoff spot back in May, spending just 5 games at the top of the order and going 0-23. Now, that was a poorly timed move, as Fowler had hit just .182 in the 7 games leading up to the lineup change (and even that was heavily fueled by a 3-hit game) and he would go on to hit just .208 in the 10 games that followed. So the trial at leadoff was in the midst of his worst 3-week stretch this year.

Unfortunately, it took a while for Mike Shildt to give him another look, but it has been paying dividends recently. Since taking over as the regular lead-off man on August 6th, he has a slash line of .279/.400/.525, 3 HR’s, 6 2B’s (team leading), 18 RBI (team leading), 11 Runs scored, and a 141 wRC+ that ranks behind only Marcell Ozuna during that time.

He has also improved his BB and K numbers, walking 17.3% of the time over the last 18 games, compared to just 10.8%  before August 6th, and striking out 20% of the time, compared to 24.9% previously.

The team is 13-5 in those 18 games.

The Cardinals leadoff spot produced a MLB-worst .619 OPS and 65 wRC+ from Opening Day through August 5th. Since Fowler has taken on the role, their .971 OPS and 154 wRC+ from the top spot ranked 4th and 5th in baseball, respectively.

This is a major development, aiding a lineup that might finally be coming around.

Good Hitters, Hitting

This has been the issue all year, no? Well, over the last few weeks, we are finally starting to see some of the self-improvement the team has been longing for. Since August 9th (return from Cali trip), 9 Cardinals have a wRC+ above 100 (league average) with the most notable being the heavy lifters in the 3 and 4 spots. Paul Goldschmidt has a 136 wRC+ — much closer to his 141 career mark — and Marcell Ozuna has been pacing the team with a 178 wRC+. The much complained about (mostly because he was being used in the outfield) Tommy Edman is soaring with a 146 wRC+, Kolten Wong is at 124, and even Matt Carpenter has been above average at 106. In small samples, Harrison Bader and Lane Thomas have produced a wRC+ of 173 and 154, respectively.

Now they get to travel to a hitting haven in Milwaukee to face a pitching staff that has struggled of late. Keep it going, boys.

Jack Flaherty and Friends

Over the last 16 games, Flaherty has made 3 starts, providing 18 innings with a 0.50 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .125 against him. Going back further, Flaherty has thrown 56.1 innings with a 0.80 ERA over his last 9 starts. He has provided the #1 pitcher that the rotation has lacked all season.

He’s not alone, as Dakota Hudson has rebounded to a stellar 0.79 ERA in his last 4 starts and even Michael Wacha looks more like himself with a 3.29 ERA, 24.6% K%, and 8.2% BB% in his last 3 games.

Over the last 3 turns (plus 1 game), the rotation has posted a 3.27 ERA, good for 5th in the NL during that time.

The bullpen has continued to do good work, leading all MLB bullpens with a 2.21 ERA and 2.61 FIP over their last 16 games. They trail only Cleveland in relief ERA for the entire season.

Carlos Martinez has been effective, though scary, while converting saves. The guys that get the ball to him have been dominant, with Gallegos continuing to own everyone and Andrew Miller allowing just 1 hit (a solo HR) in his last 22 batters faced. Tyler Webb, a guy I have dissed the entire year, has looked great over the last few weeks. The additions of Ryan Helsley, Junior Fernandez, and (maybe) a good version of Dominic Leone give the group a lot of octane for the middle innings as well.

It is, statistically, the best bullpen in the National League. Stay tuned.

What is to Come

Carpenter Finding His Tools?

With Carpenter looking similar to himself in the finale against Colorado, we may be on the verge of a resurgence. I have held the the opinion that Carpenter needed one big game to provide a watershed and propel him to swing with confidence.

It remains to be seen whether Sunday was a turning point or an outlier. However, a trip to Miller Park is an ideal spot to build on his 3-4 game. A rebound from Carpenter will be big in the short-term, with Wong’s injury forcing Edman to 2B and Carpenter back into the lineup at 3B, but it is even bigger long-term as a good Carpenter could be a force behind Goldschmidt and Ozuna.

We’ll see. This is still developing.

The Calendar

Going forward, the Cardinals have the toughest overall schedule of the 3 NL Central contenders, with an Opponent W%/G factor of .498. Milwaukee has the easiest schedule at .488, and Chicago is at .489. However, head-to-head between the 3 teams will sway the standings as well as the picture of the schedule strength. Milwaukee and St. Louis play within the Central’s Top 3 for 13 more games. The Cubs have 14 such games.

The next 20 games, running through September 15th, could prove to be a pivotal stretch for all 3 teams.

For Milwaukee, that stretch includes all 13 of their games against the Cardinals and the Cubs, along with 2 against Houston. A 4-game series against the Marlins provides relief, but the heavy head-to-head — with the cameo by Houston — looms as a stretch that could drop the Brewers way back in the playoff race. Or, if things go well for them, it is a chance to climb. If they climb, they face a SD/PIT/CIN/COL finish to the season that would bode well for their overall chances. If they tumble, then that soft schedule could just include wins that are too little, too late. Pivotal.

For Chicago, they play 11 of their next 19 on the road, a place where they have struggled. They open the stretch with a series in New York facing a Mets team on the verge of leapfrogging them in the Wild Card race. The next 3 weeks also include the remainder of their games against the Brewers. As I stated with Milwaukee, that is a chance to rise or fall. The key for Chicago is basically to avoid an implosion. If they remain near the Cardinals (either ahead or behind) for the next 3 weeks, then anything can happen when the two meet up for 7 of their final 10 games.

For St. Louis, they need to continue to feast on lesser competition, as their final two weeks will not be easy. Bookended by road and home series against the Brewers, the Cardinals get a 14 game stretch against Cincinnati (home), San Francisco (home), Pittsburgh (road), and Colorado (road). We have seen what is possible while playing the Pirates and Rockies. Getting the Reds at Busch is an advantage over a sub-.500 team, and the best of the bunch, .500 San Francisco, is also a much better matchup in St. Louis.  Afterwards, they get the very good Washington Nationals (home) before starting the head-to-head finish with the Cubs. Sandwiched between the Cubs’ series is a roadtrip to Arizona to face a solid D’Backs team. Hopefully they catch a team looking forward to the offseason, but it looms as possible trap games.

The next 3 weeks provide the best opportunity for the Cardinals to build a division lead, which they need to do considering the Cubs can make up ground quickly in those final matchups. Head-to-head gives them a shot to sink the Brewers, and the soft middle gives them a chance to bank wins. They need to win each of the next 6 series, which would get them to 85 wins with 13 to play. For a while, that seemed like a win total we may not see for the season, but it is well within reach now.

Whether they can pull all of this off remains to be seen.

However, the trends have been positive and the path to the postseason does exist.

The stretch run starts tonight in Milwaukee.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference for the stats and schedule. Featured image credit: Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

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