Cards Struggle to Prove Themselves Against Winning Teams

With two pretty ugly losses to Boston, the St Louis Cardinals fall to 3-5 during the month of May, and 8-13 for the season in games against teams that currently have winning records.  These winning teams that the Cardinals have played so far are Boston (now 21-18), Chicago (now 20-19), Milwaukee (which currently leads the division at 23-18), the Yankees (currently 24-13), and Washington (now 25-14).

Twenty-one of the season’s first 38 games is a pretty heavy dose of the better teams in baseball, and has exposed some of the early-season weaknesses that this team will need to improve on in order to compete with these better teams going forward.

From an offensive standpoint, the Cardinal team batting line isn’t that far removed from the league averages for those teams.  Against the pitching staffs of the Red Sox, Cubs, Brewers, Yankees and Nationals (these numbers courtesy of baseball reference) all of their opponents have combined to slash .250/.319/.413/.732.  The Cardinal’s slash line against these teams is .251/.328/.408/.736.  But, those teams, combined, allow an average of 4.47 runs per game.  The Cardinals are scoring just 3.95 runs per game against them.

This lingering problem was on full display last night as St Louis put four early runs on the board, but never scored again over the remaining 11 innings of the long and frustrating game that they eventually dropped 5-4 in 13 innings (box score).

From the point where Dexter Fowler walked to load the bases with one out in the second (St Louis ahead 3-0 at that point), the Cards went 7 for 38 (.184) with 10 strikeouts.  After getting three successive hits with runners in scoring position in that second inning, they went hitless in their final six such opportunities.

To this point – against these winning teams – the Cards are just 35 for 170 (.205) with runners in scoring position.  For the most part, this team has found itself overmatched by these pitching staffs in the pivotal moments of these games.  Through 21 games, the Cardinals have come through in crunch-time at bats against this list of teams just three times this season: Randal Grichuk’s opening day walk-off single that beat the Cubs 4-3; Aledmys Diaz’ seventh-inning home run that broke a 1-1 tie and helped the Birds beat Milwaukee 4-1 on April 22; and Kolten Wong’s eighth-inning infield hit that tied the May first game against Milwaukee at 4-all (a game the Birds would lose 7-5 in 10 innings).

One of the strong early impressions this team is making is that they are not mentally tough enough to beat the better teams in baseball.

Kolten Wong

Wong had the double that was in the middle of the three-run second inning.  He finished with three hits for the evening.  It was his sixth multi-hit game of the season and his second three-hit game.  Kolten has pushed his season average to .273 by hitting .291 in May (16 for 55) and .309 (29 of 94) in 25 games since April 17.  Wong has hit safely in 21 of his last 25 games.

While much of the Cardinal club has been found wanting against better competition, that is not the case with Wong.  With his 3 hits yesterday, Wong is now hitting .407 this month (11 for 27) and .317 for the year (19 for 60) when playing against teams that win more than they lose.  He is 8 for 21 (.381) against them with runners in scoring position.

The development of Kolten Wong into the player that we’ve always thought he could be is one of the best things that could happen for the future of this franchise.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko added a couple more hits last night.  Jedd is showing no signs of slowing down much in May.  He is now hitting .328 this month (19 for 58) with a .534 slugging percentage.  He has 3 doubles, 3 home runs and 10 RBIs in 13 starts this month.  He has also now hit in 18 of his last 22 games, hitting .368 in that span (32 for 87) and slugging .644.  His hits include 7 doubles, a triple and 5 home runs.  Jedd has driven in 14 runs in those games.

Gyorko has played in all 8 games this month where the Cards have faced winning teams, and acquitted himself well.  Jedd is 10 for 35 (.286) against them with 3 home runs (.543 slugging percentage).

Over the course of the season so far, Jedd has probably been our most consistent weapon against the better teams that we’ve faced. He has played in 18 of the 21 games – starting in 17 of them – and hit .309 in those contests (21 for 68).  Nine of those 21 hits have gone for extra bases.  Two doubles, one triple, and six of the seven home runs he’s hit this season have come at the expense of winning teams.  He is slugging .632 in those games.

Jedd, however, is 0 for 11 against these guys with runners in scoring position.

Magneuris Sierra

Magneuris Sierra – who has at least one hit in all seven of his major league games – had his fourth two-hit night of the season last night.  It raises his average to .367 in his short exposure to the major leagues (he is 11 for 30).

Sierra’s only exposure to over .500 teams has been this home stand when the Cards have engaged the Cubs and Red Sox.  Magneuris has played in 3 of the 5 games, going 5 for 13 (.385) at the plate (and 3 for 6 with RISP).

He certainly isn’t dazzled by it all.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter’s halting May continued.  Matt was the only Cardinal starter not to get a hit last night (0 for 5) but he did draw a walk – his sixteenth walk in 14 games this month.  Moreover, although he only has 12 hits this month, 7 of those hits have gone for extra-bases, including five home runs.  Matt’s batting line so far for May is .245/.424/.612.  There are very few players who could hit less than .250 and still be considered legitimate player-of-the-month candidates.  Carpenter, I think could be one of them.

His season batting line (.244/.396/.496) shows that same pattern – although not with the kind of power we’ve seen from him so far in May.  Matt has had that kind of season against winning teams, too – but without quite enough of the production to really say he’s having a good year against them.

In the 8 games he’s played against these teams in May, Matt is just 5 for 28, but with a double, 2 home runs and 7 walks – a .179/.333/.429 batting line (which still equates to a .762 OPS).  For the season, Carpenter has played in all 21 games against teams that currently have winning records (starting 20).  His 70 at bats in those games have produced just 16 hits, but 6 of those hits have been for extra-bases (4 of them home runs) and he’s walked 15 times in those games.  His 2017 batting line – so far – against winning teams is .229/.360/.429 – an OPS of .788.  Like Gyorko, Carpenter is 0 for 13 against all these guys with runners in scoring position.

Ultimately, the hope is that his strikeout totals (currently 25 in those 70 at bats) will level out in favor of a few more hits.  And, maybe, even a few with runners in scoring position.

Mike Leake

Nothing but warm fuzzies for erstwhile number four starter Mike Leake. Mike is now 8 for 8 in quality starts this season (this in spite of the fact that he has now served up 4 home runs in his last 3 games).  Mike has – of course – pitched at least six innings in every start so far, with last night being only the third time all season that he’s needed to throw over 98 pitches to achieve that. At 2.03, Mike still leads the NL in ERA.

Last night was already the second time that Mike has entrusted a lead to his bullpen, only to see it slip away.  He allowed only 1 run in 6 innings against Cincinnati on April 30, walking off with a 4-1 lead only to see the Reds take advantage of the bullpen (and Rosenthal, for that matter) for a 5-4 victory.

Making his performance even more impressive is that half of those starts have come against the winning teams that we’ve listed above.  He is 2-1 against those top offenses with a 2.08 ERA and a .200 batting average against.  In the 26 innings that he’s pitched in those 4 games, Mike has walked just 6 batters (none last night).

How Do The Other Starters Fare Against Winning Teams?

The other starters are a mixed bag.  Carlos Martinez has been very good (2-2, 2.84 in 5 starts – 3 of the quality starts), and Lance Lynn has been OK (1-2, 3.63 in 4 starts – 1 quality start).  In 6 starts against these teams, Adam Wainwright has managed 1 quality start (his last time out against the Cubs), going 2-3 with a 4.99 ERA against them.  Michael Wacha (who was skipped for both the Chicago and Boston series’) has only seen these teams twice – the Yankees on April 14 (6 innings, 4 runs, 9 hits, 2 home runs in a 4-3 loss) and May first against Milwaukee (a no decision after 6 more innings and 4 more runs).  Although they have been much better recently (2.08 in the 8 May games) the bullpen holds a 4.55 ERA against these teams so far.

Trevor Rosenthal

Trevor Rosenthal has been so good for so much of this season.  Going into last night’s eighth inning he hadn’t allowed a hit over his previous 5 games and hadn’t been scored on over his previous 7.  Those streaks came to an end when Xander Bogaerts (he of the .338 batting average so far this season) sliced an 0-2, 100-mile-per-hour fastball into the right-center field gap for the triple that set up the game-tying sequence.

Rosenthal’s season ERA is still a fine 2.93, but (and this is in a very small sample size) in his 7.1 innings against the better teams he’s faced he has been tagged for 4 runs on 7 hits (a 4.91 ERA).  A lot of veteran hitters (like Bogaerts and Joey Votto and Ryan Braun) can handle that 100-mph heat.  Especially if it’s up a bit in the zone.

Seung-hwan Oh

Seung-hwan Oh pitched multiple innings last night for the fourth time this season.  One of his innings was a little complex, but he came through not allowing a run.  Oh is now unscored on in his last 6 games, and hasn’t allowed an earned run over his last 13 games.

In 11.1 innings against winning teams this season, Seung-hwan has pitched decently well (4 of 5 in save opportunities with a 3.18 ERA).

Matthew Bowman

After enduring a little lag at the end of April through the first days of May, Matthew Bowman has righted his ship.  He pitched last night’s eleventh inning in 1-2-3 fashion with 2 strikeouts.  Matthew hasn’t allowed an earned run over his last 5 games, and his ERA for the month is 1.69 with a .176 batting average against.

Of all the relief pitchers who have risen to the occasion against the better teams, Matthew has been, perhaps, the most impressive.  He has worked in 12 of the 21 games played against them so far, pitching 10.2 innings.  In those innings, he has given just 5 hits and 1 run (on the home run that Milwaukee’s Jesus Aguilar managed against him on May 4).  He has walked 2 and fanned 9, leading to an 0.84 ERA and a .143/.184/.229 batting line against some of baseball’s toughest offenses.  He has also stranded 8 of the 10 runners he’s inherited in these games.

Next Up

San Francisco (playing better lately) is just 17-25 so far.  After that series, the Cards go on the road to face the 23-18 Dodgers and the surprising 25-15 Rockies.  That will be followed by a 4-game home series against the Dodgers again before we take our act to Wrigley.  After this upcoming Giant series, the Cards won’t play another team that currently has a losing record until they roll into Cincinnati on June 5 to play the Reds (currently 19-20).  Assuming the Cubs stay above .500, that will mean 34 of the Cardinals first 54 games this year will be against teams with winning records.

NoteBook

After winning two of three against the Dodgers, San Francisco will the first Cardinal opponent to have won its previous series since they played Pirates in mid-April.  The Cards previous 8 opponents had come in with 7 series losses and one split.

The emphasis on aggressive base-running has had mixed results.  The Cards have run into a bunch of bad outs on the base-paths.  On the other hand they are 15-5 this month in stolen base attempts.  On the extremes of this philosophy are Aledmys Diaz, who already has as many steals (4) as he had all of last year, and Tommy Pham, who in just 11 games has already set career highs in steals (3) and steal attempts (5).  Meanwhile, Fowler – who was added in part to provide some stolen base threat after stealing 13 last season – has only attempted 1 stolen base so far (a successful attempt, as it turns out).

As a footnote to this article, remember that Kellogg was the umpire at first base the night before who called a myriad of Cardinal hitters out on the kind of very slight check-swings that you almost never see called.

The Cards, I imagine, will be glad not to see Jeff Kellogg (one of baseball’s least competent umpires) for a good long while.

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