Doing Battle with Winning Teams

Yes, it could have been much, much better.  When Corey Knebel froze Greg Garcia with a 3-2 curveball, the home standing Brewers had held on to their 2-1 victory, giving them the 2-1 series win.  As with so many other games this season, the Cards fell just short.  As with so many other opportunities recently, the Cards just missed another chance to reach the .500 mark.

In the midst of the frustration, in the longer view all of this has been not so bad.

Yesterday’s game marked the end of a 13-game streak of games against winning teams – many of them among the league’s best.  The streak began on July 21 with 3 games in Chicago (the defending world champs, in case you forgot, who had yet to lose since the All-Star Break when we arrived in town).  It continued with a 7-game home stand against the two teams currently sitting in the two Wildcard spots, Colorado and Arizona (who also happen to be 2 of the 4 NL teams that have won 60 or more games already this season).  It then finished with these three games in Milwaukee – which I admit are the most disappointing of the lot, as the Brewers looked like they were beginning to sink.

Still, out of all of that, the Cards finished this fairly daunting streak of teams whose composite winning percentage is currently .548 with a solid 7-6 record.  Seven of the thirteen games (including all of the last four) were one-run games – with St Louis winning 3 of the 7.  Remember, prior to this, St Louis was 17-27 against winning teams, and are 17-21 overall in one-run games.

No, they couldn’t manage the “run” they keep talking about.  At the same time, it was a definite step forward.  The June version of this team would have gone 4-9 or worse during this stretch.  This finally looks like a team that can compete with the better teams in baseball.

Throughout the run, the heroes were the pitching staff.  Against four highly regarded offenses, the pitchers held the line with a 3.27 ERA and a .230 batting average against.  This continues an impressive streak that runs to the last two games before the All-Star break.  Over the last 22 games, Cardinal pitchers hold a 2.82 ERA.  This is the pitching staff that management believed heavily in at the beginning of the season, and as this impressive run grows, it is easier and easier to see why.

Holding the team back, of course, has been the scuffling offense that has been averaging only 3.75 runs per game since the All-Star Break.  Yesterday’s performance – which saw them finish 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position, ending with 1 run and just 6 hits – is fairly representative of the recent struggles the hitters are fighting through.

As an exercise, I looked at the four pitching staffs – considering their season stats coming into their series’ against the Cards.  Over the 113 offensive innings we had against these teams, an average offense would have been expected to score 51 runs, hit 15 home runs, and bat .246.  The Cardinal actuals were 50 runs scored, 13 home runs hit, and a .253 batting average.  Over the course of the season – in 57 games against winning teams – St Louis is hitting .240 and scoring 3.89 runs per contest.

The message of this 13-game test is that the pitching staff looks like it can compete with the best offenses out there.  This is great news, because there is even more highly regarded pitching on the way from the pitching-rich farm system.

The questions swirl around the offensive component.  Can they show up as more than an average offense against the better teams in the league.  There are hitters on the way, too, so the lineup – as it stands – should be on notice.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong finished his day with a single in the sixth inning, and a double that was almost a home run in the eighth.  Wong looks like he’s starting to heat up, now, with 6 hits in his last 21 at bats (.286).

While there are questions about other bats in the lineup, Wong is spending this season answering questions about whether he is the second baseman of the future or not.  Yesterday’s hits bring his season average back up to .291.  In 38 games against winning teams, Wong is hitting .289 (35 for 121).  His absences from the lineup have probably been more damaging to this team than we immediately realize.

Matt Carpenter

Yes, Matt Carpenter was pushed back down to the three hole in the lineup, so his 0-for-4 should have been anticipated.

During his first two full seasons, Carpenter was one of the team’s best hitters against winning teams. In 2012-2013, Matt played 154 games against teams that would finish with winning records. He hit .314 against those guys (165 for 525).  Over the most recent seasons, though, he has lost most of that edge.  Since 2014, Carpenter has played 180 games against winning teams, hitting just .238 (156 for 655) with 175 strikeouts.  This year, Matt has played in 54 of the 57 games against winning teams.  He is 43 for 185 (.232).

Stephen Piscotty

Stephen Piscotty finished the game 0 for 3 with two strikeouts and a walk.  His last three at bats (which were both strikeouts and the walk) were excellent battles that lasted a total of 22 pitches.  Still, Stephen – who is still re-inventing himself – has been back from the DL for 3 games, during which he has one gift single in 8 at bats.  He is 1-for-12 in the season’s second half, and, stretching back 7 games before his injury, Piscotty is hitting .121 (4 for 33) in his last ten. His last extra-base hit was a double on July 2 – 38 at bats ago.

For the season, Stephen hits .216 (25 for 116) against teams with winning records.

Michael Wacha

Coming off a great July – he was 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA – Michael Wacha’s first August start was a bit disappointing.  When they sent up a pinch-hitter to take his at bat in the fifth, Wacha had allowed only 1 run – but had also only pitched 4 innings.  They were grinding innings.  It took him 81 pitches to navigate through those innings, which saw him surrender 5 hits and 3 walks.

Overall, Wacha has been one of those puzzle pieces that has mostly fallen short when facing winning teams.  Yesterday was his tenth start against a winning team.  He has managed only 2 quality starts against them, going 2-4 with a 5.84 ERA.  This number, though, has gotten better lately.  Wacha made 3 of the starts in this 13-game stretch against winning teams.  He was 1-1 with yesterday’s no decision, and a 3.38 ERA.  His batting average against these opponents was a solid .233.

Coming down the stretch, Wacha still looks like he is more answer than issue.

Other Starters facing Winning Teams

Of the members of the rotation, it has been Lance Lynn – whose future is very much in question here in St Louis – who has been the most effective when matched up with the better teams the Cards have faced.  Lance has made 11 starts against teams with winning records.  He has a 4-3 record in those games, with a 3.11 ERA in 63.2 innings, and a .178 batting average against.  Speaking only for myself, I’m not entirely convinced that Lance’s future isn’t as promising as some of the young arms on the way.

Mike Leake has also been very good matched up against winning teams.  In his 11 starts and 73.2 innings against them, Mike has a 5-5 record, a 3.18 ERA, and a .217 batting average against.  This isn’t just a factor of his good early start to the season.  He started twice in this recent 13-game gauntlet.  He pitched 12 innings, throwing quality starts both times, and going 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA.

Adam Wainwright has made 10 starts against winning teams, with better than expected results – 5-3 record and 3.28 ERA.  Carlos Martinez has been more hit-and-miss than hoped for.  In 12 starts against these opponents, Carlos is 4-5, 3.72.

Brett Cecil

Three consecutive two-out singles against Brett Cecil in the fifth inning doomed the team yesterday.  After a long streak of excellence that culminated with his brief enthronement as the team’s closer, Brett is sort of broken again.  In 8 innings since the All-Star Break, Brett has given 4 runs on 14 hits that have included 5 doubles and a home run.  Since the break, opponents are batting .389 and slugging .611 against Cecil.

Seung-hwan Oh

Settling back into the set-up role that he began in last year, Seung-hwan Oh looks like he has found himself.  He has allowed no earned runs in his last 7 games (7 innings), during which he has allowed just 6 singles.  In these games, batters have missed with 31% of their swings against him, 58% of the batters who have put the ball in play against Oh have hit it on the ground, and 72% of the pitches he has thrown have gone for strikes.  He has looked very sharp recently.

While this has been an uneven season for Oh, he has always been good against winning teams.  His ERA against them last year was 2.53 in 32 innings.  This year, his ERA against them is 2.49 in 25.1 innings.

NoteBook

With their series win over Pittsburgh, Cincinnati becomes the sixth of the Cardinals’ last seven opponents to have won their previous series.

The Milwaukee series was the Cardinals sixteenth road series of the season.  In going 22-29 on the road, St Louis is 5-10-1 in their road series thus far.

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