DeJong Reverses RISP Trend in Cardinal Win

Fearless forcast – mark it down.  At some point this season, the Cardinals will lose a game to the Cincinnati Reds.  It hasn’t happened yet, but it will.

It almost happened Saturday afternoon.  Three Cardinal home runs accounted for all of their scoring in a 4-3 win (box score) – a game in which they were 0-or-6 with runners in scoring position (RISP).  This has been a continuing sore spot for an offense that has still mostly underachieved (in spite of the fact that they are still scoring 4.81 runs a game).  With the 0-for-6 on Saturday, the Cards fell to 6 for 32 (.188) is RISP opportunities over their four previous games.  It also dropped them to .230 (35 for 152) for the season in RBI opportunities.

For one afternoon on Sunday, though, the concerns were temporarily allayed as St Louis cruised past Cincinnati (for the seventh straight time this season) by a 9-2 score (box score). One of the game features was a 5-for-16 performance (.313) with runners in scoring position.  Whether this is the beginning of a turnaround is yet to be determined.

Noteworthy in the game – and in the early season struggles – is second-year shortstop Paul DeJong.  Entering the game just 2-for-19 (.105) with runners in scoring position, Paul had ducks on the pond every time he came to the plate Sunday afternoon.  Batting eighth in many of the recent games, manager Mike Matheny sought to change things up by batting DeJong fifth this day, and the game continually found him.

In the first inning – with the game still scoreless – DeJong came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out.  He bounced into the 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.

Now it’s the third inning.  The Cards have just pushed their lead to 2-0, when Paul came to the plate with runners at first and second and one out.  But instead of another rally-killing ground ball, DeJong slapped a single that positioned a runner (Yadier Molina) at third, where he would score on a fly-ball off the bat of Tyler O’Neill (his first major league RBI), giving the Cards a 3-0 lead.

When Dexter Fowler led off the fifth with a walk and a stolen base, DeJong had yet another RISP opportunity.  Nothing came of this as Paul grounded out.

In the meantime, the Cardinal offense had slowed, and the Reds began to chip away at the deficit.  So, when Paul came to the plate in the seventh inning – with runners at first and second and two out – the Cards were clinging to a 3-2 lead.  Just 3 for 22 at this point with runners in scoring position on the season, Paul DeJong finally came through.  He delivered a crushing three-run homer that took much of the pressure off, and sent the Cards on to their decisive victory.

While DeJong hasn’t (yet) been as consistent as he was in his rookie year, this was – nonetheless – his seventh home run of the young season.  Big hits in clutch situations from DeJong would go a long way toward healing what’s wrong with the St Louis offense.

If DeJong is turning the corner, the RISP results are still frustrating for Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter.  Wong ended the third by striking out with runners at first and second.  He is now 2 for 11 (.182) in the early season with runners on base.  Carpenter had a fourth inning chance with two on and no one out, but he was retired on a fly ball.  Matt is just 2 for his first 15 (.133) in RISP situations.

Again, it’s early.

Two RISP Pitching Notes

On the subject of runners in scoring position, a couple of pitching numbers jumped out at me this morning.  Neither pitcher pitched on Sunday, but rookie Jordan Hicks and top starter Carlos Martinez have both found another gear when pitching in RISP situations.  Hicks has held batters to 0-for-16 in these opportunities so far this season.

As for Martinez, he served up a two-run single to New York’s Yoenis Cespedes in the second inning of his shaky opening start against the Mets.  That has been the only hit this season off of Carlos when he has had ducks on the pond.  Batters are now 1-for-24 (.042) against Martinez in these situations – including 0 for their last 21.

Speaking of Pitching

Miles Mikolas (Sunday’s starter) added another strong effort to the rotation’s early success.  Miles finished his day having pitched 7 innings, allowing 1 earned run on 5 hits.  Since the first two games of the season, the Cardinal rotation holds a 2.73 ERA, allowing just 8 home runs over their last 112 innings.

Recent Scoring Changes – For Those Scoring at Home

Dexter Fowler’s struggling start got a little better.  In the fifth inning of the April 12 game in Cincinnati, Fowler reached when his pop-fly to short fell in.  Originally scored an error, Dexter has now been awarded a hit on the effort.  It pushes his early season average up to .192.

Lefties Prospering Against Cards

The date was Thursday, April 12, and the Cardinals – 3-2 losers the previous evening against Milwaukee – were clinging to a 5-4 lead in the sixth inning in Cincinnati.  With Dexter Fowler coming to the plate, a runner on first, and one out, Cincinnati brought in the lefty Amir Garrett.  Fowler bounced his third pitch through the hole into left.

Twenty games into the season, that is the switch-hitting Fowler’s only hit in 18 at bats against a left-handed pitcher (.056).

Earlier in the season – on April 1 – Paul DeJong came to the plate in the second inning in New York to face Met lefty Steven Matz.  It would be the first time DeJong would face a left-handed pitcher this season.  It was a good battle, but on the seventh pitch of that at bat DeJong lofted a home run over the left-field wall.  He has not had a hit against a left-hander since (0 for his last 13).

Last year, Fowler hit an ok .252 against lefties (27 for 107), and then-rookie DeJong hit .288 against them (23 for 80) with 6 home runs and a .600 slugging percentage

So far, this year, Fowler and DeJong are among many Cardinal hitters who have gone missing when opponents trot left-handers out to the mound.

Last Thursday afternoon, as Chicago left-hander Jon Lester toyed with the Cardinals (he allowed just 1 un-earned run on 2 hits over 6 dominant innings, striking out 7), I reflected again on this franchise’s historical challenge in hitting left-handed pitching.  After going 0-4 against Garret and Wandy Rodriguez (two lefties out of the Cincinnati bullpen) on Saturday afternoon, the Cards are now hitting .199 (30 for 151) against lefthanders this season – and the malaise seems general.  A surprising turn of events for a team furnished with a wealth of impact right-handed bats.

Marcell Ozuna last had a hit against a left-hander back in the sixth inning of the April 10 game against Milwaukee.  He was 3 for 8 against them at that point, but has gone 0 for 9 against them since.  Matt Carpenter is a left-handed batter, but he plays every day.  He is 2 for 17 (.118) against lefties.

Yes, it is exceedingly early – far too early to be concerned about such things.  But – given our struggling history – this is always one of the early trends that I check.

While the malaise is general, it is not absolute.  Jose Martinez – another impact right-handed bat – began the season 0-for-5 against lefties, but has gone 3 for 5 against them since (all those hits coming in his last three at bats against Cincinnati’s Brandon Finnegan).  Harrison Bader got one of the few hits against Lester on Thursday, and another hit against Finnegan on Saturday – he is 3 for his first 9 against left-handers.  In the early going, Tommy Pham had been the most consistent hammer against left-handed pitching.  He is 7 for his first 14 against them with a home run and 5 walks (a .500/.632/.714 batting line).  He missed the Lester game, and has been day-to-day with a groin issue.  The Cardinals sorely miss his production.

Lefty Batters Bedevil the Team as Well

One thing that has distinguished this pitching staff through its early hot start has been its ability to control left-handed hitters – especially with right-handed pitching.  But, in spite of the fact that the Cards have won two of the last three, they have struggled recently against left-handed hitters.

Nowhere was this more evident than that Thursday afternoon in Chicago.  Through his first three starts, Luke Weaver had little trouble dispatching lefty hitters.  At the point when he took the mound that Thursday, left-handed hitters were only 6 for 28 (.214) against him – with only one of those hits going for extra-bases.  But the Cub lefties (Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward) peppered him to the tune of a combined 5 for 6 – all singles.

Similarly, Michael Wacha mostly had his way with left-handers through his first three starts.  They were only 5 for 30 (.167) with only one of those hits for extra-bases (a double).  He also fared poorly his last time out.  Over 6.2 very sharp innings, Michael allowed only 1 run on 6 hits – but 5 of those hits came off of left-handed bats.  Again, they were all singles and Wacha was able to minimize the damage.

A couple of relievers have also taken some damage against lefties.  When Matthew Bowman retired Schwarber on a ground ball to lead off the sixth-inning Thursday afternoon, it marked the eighth straight left-handed better that he’d set down.  But before he could get out of the inning, he surrendered a game-icing, two-run homer to Heyward, and followed that up by allowing a single to Lester.

Perhaps the most concerning is left-hander Tyler Lyons.  Counted on to be a late-inning contributor, Lyons allowed a potential victory for Carlos Martinez to slip away on Saturday when all four batters to face him in the seventh reached base – with two of them scoring.  Three of those batters were left-handed – Jesse Winker (who walked), Joey Votto (who also walked), and Scooter Gennett (who tied the game with a two-run single).  Lefties are now hitting .333 (7 for 21) against our main lefty in the bullpen.

As I look at these numbers, I keep repeating “it’s early, it’s early.”

Maintaining his dominance against everyone is Saturday’s starter Martinez.  Cincinnati’s lefties were 2 for 11 against him, and their righties just 1 for 7.  For the early season, left-handers are just 10 for 62 (.161) against Carlos, and right-handers just 9 for 47 (.191).  Martinez is having one of the most encouraging Aprils on the team.  Over 4 starts since his chippy opening day in New York, Carlos has surrendered 1 run in 27.1 innings – a 0.33 ERA.

Bullpen Takes on a Little Water

After being tagged for 15 runs during the season’s first two games, the Cardinal pitching staff had been one of baseball’s best.  Over their last 18 games, they hold a 2.97 ERA.  Even so, this team has been subjected to intermittent spottiness from its bullpen.  This was in evidence, of course, during the Thursday loss in Chicago (when Bowman served up the home run), but also in the two wins against Cincinnati.  Bud Norris saved his fifth on Friday, but not until he had allowed a ninth-inning run on a walk and two singles.  And then, on Saturday as mentioned, Lyons couldn’t hold a 3-run lead.

Over their last 9.1 innings heading into Sunday’s game against Cincinnati, the Cardinal bullpen had been tagged for 12 hits (a .324 batting average), 6 walks, 2 hit batsmen (a .444 on base percentage), and 6 runs (a 5.79 ERA).  The bullpen has done little to alleviate my concerns.

Although I do have to say this for them.  When Jordan Hicks escaped his first bases-loaded threat (in the seventh) it meant that only 3 of the last 33 runners inherited by the Cardinal bullpen have come home to score – a number we are going to have to start keeping an eye on.

Hicks, by-the-way, is still at 0.00 through his first 11.2 major league innings.  His command is still a concern, but this is one of the most promising young talents on the team.

Still Waiting on the Offense.

After a significant off-season overhaul, we are still waiting to see the newly potent offense.  After beating the Reds on Saturday on just 7 hits, the Cards are hitting .239 as a team.  They are scoring enough runs to win games – although the offense has become decidedly inventive to make that happen.

In the 8-5 loss to Chicago, they managed just 5 hits, but scored runs on a wild pitch, a bases-loaded walk, a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch and an RBI groundout that turned into two runs on a throwing error.

On Saturday, 3 of the 7 hits were home runs, accounting for all the runs – and just enough of them in their 4-3 win.  It all adds up to 13 runs over their last 3 games, in spite of a .221 team batting average.

Most caught under the wheels of the stalling offense is projected starting second baseman Kolten Wong.  Kolten’s break-out 2017 gave the entire organization hope that this talented player had finally turned the corner.  But Wong has struggled out of the gate.  With his 0-for4 on Saturday, Wong’s average sunk to .133.  I do not believe that there is any loss of confidence in Kolten by the organization.  April is too early to give up on anyone.  But his slump has cost him at bats – first to Greg Garcia and now to the returning Jedd Gyorko – a situation that will make it even harder for Kolten to find his rhythm. Gyorko has gone 2 for 4 with 3 walks since his return, and will prove difficult to keep out of the lineup.

At the top of the order, Fowler (.181) and Carpenter (.182) are also scuffling.  As these players are more established, they will continue to get their at bats. But the offense will not get healthy until these three players start to return to form.

Again, far too early to worry.

NoteBook

Paul DeJong’s second-inning home run on Saturday meant that St Louis has now scored first in 8 straight games – something they never achieved last year.  They have won 7 of them.

Yadier Molina – whose seventh-inning home run proved decisive – has now started 19 of the first 20 games of the season.  Quite a pace for a 15-year veteran.

Saturday’s attendance total of 42,382 pushed the home average to 40,000.1.  The first 8 home games have drawn just 320,001 fans.

Early Season Trends – 2018

With the recent announcement that this afternoon’s game in Chicago would be postponed due to “inclement weather,” the Cardinals and their fans will get an extra day to relish their 5-3 win (box score) over the Cubs last night –a victory that pushed their early season  winning streak to five in a row (four of them against the struggling Reds).  Now 10-7, the Cards find themselves just 1 game behind in the division.  Seventeen game into the 2017 season, the Cards were 7-10 and 2.5 back.  The year before – in Chicago’s runaway year – they hit the 17 game mark 9-8, but were already 3.5 games back.

After a staggering start, this team seems to have regained its footing, somewhat.  But, of course, there is still a lot of season to play out, and most of the real questions I have about this club can’t truly be answered until September.

Until then, let’s look at a few of the early trends of the 2018 season – through the first 17 games – remembering always that it is much too early to take any of them too seriously.

Weather

With a second cancellation in Chicago, the weather would qualify as one of the early stories of the season.  However, I must add that the Cardinals have been less affected than many other teams.  There have been multiple cancellations across all of baseball.  As far as the Cards are concerned, today is only their second cancellation of the season.  If they manage to play their scheduled make-up game tomorrow, they will have survived the early season weather debacle with just one game to make up later in the season.

But the effect of the cold has gone beyond postponed games.  Last night they played for the fourth time in 17 games in starting temperatures below 50 degrees.  It was also the second time already in the young season that they started a game with the temperature under 40 degrees.  By comparison, the Cards never played a game last year where the official starting temperature was under 50 degrees, although through the first 18 seasons of this century, they have averaged 3.4 sub-50 degree games a year (going 29-33 in those contests).

Games started in sub-40 degree weather are rarer.  Through the first 18 seasons of this century, the Cards had only started two games with the temperature below 40.  The first occurred on April 9, 2007 when they won in Pittsburgh 3-0 in 37 degree weather.  The other occurred almost 9 years later, also in Pittsburgh, this one a 4-1 loss on opening day (April 3, 2016) in 39-degree weather.  (That game was part of a season opening 3-game sweep at the hands of the Pirates that sort of set the tone for the 2016 season).

Last night’s game was already the second this season that the Cards have started with temperatures in the thirties, and – at 35 degrees – earns the distinction of being the coldest game that St Louis has played this century.  Back on April 7, they beat Arizona 5-3 in 37-degree weather. In fact, three of their four sub-50 degree games occurred during their opening home stand that averaged only 51.5 degrees.  So in that sense, the season-opening cold has been a little historic.

All of this, of course, is set against the backdrop of baseball’s decision to open the season earlier than usual (March 29).  Bad timing, to say the least.  This decision has come under some criticism in the wake of the sometimes inclement weather, but I predict (and I rarely make predictions this early in the season) that by the middle of summer when the players are getting those few extra days of rest (which was the reason for starting the season early) these cavils will be mostly forgotten.

History

Speaking of history, the season is less than a month old and already the Cardinals have been re-writing the history books.  On the good side was a 13-4 conquest of Cincinnati on April 12 that featured the second-hardest hit home run by a Cardinal in the Statcast era (113.7 mph off the bat of Jose Martinez – the hardest hit ball of his career); the longest home run (438 feet) off the bat of Yadier Molina in the Statcast era (which dates to 2015); and the longest home run – unqualified – of Paul DeJong’s young career (464 feet).

Nine days earlier, they had landed on the down-side of history.  On April 3 in Milwaukee, Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham began the game with back-to-back homeruns.  For all of that, the Cardinals carried a snug 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning, at which point the game was given to newcomer Dominic Leone to close out.

It started well, with Eric Sogard flying out and Lorenzo Cain striking out.  One out away from victory, Leone stumbled, serving up homeruns to Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun.  And just like that, Milwaukee had pulled out a 5-4 victory.

In the process, they turned that into the only game in all of major league history to begin with consecutive home runs and end with consecutive home runs.

HR allowed in 8th and 9th innings

This historic loss highlights a somewhat worrisome early trend – all the more worrisome as this was a concern since the end of last year.  Once Trevor Rosenthal was lost – first to arm surgery and then to release – I had concerns about the eighth and ninth innings.  Seventeen games into the season, the Cards have served up 17 home runs – seven of those coming in the eighth or ninth innings.  Through all of last year, St Louis allowed 183 home runs – just 40 of them in the eighth or ninth innings.

Newcomers

The seventh of these late homeruns came last night, when new Cardinal Greg Holland entered the eighth inning of a comfortable 5-1 Cardinal lead and immediately made a game of it by issuing a walk and serving up a two-run homer.

Acquired to be the ninth-inning answer, Holland has had a shaky debut wearing the birds-on-the-bat.  Unsigned throughout spring training, Holland inked his contract on opening day, rushed down to Florida, threw in two extended spring training games, and was rushed to the big-league club.  He has now faced 15 major league hitters, retiring just 6 of them.  Of the others, 7 have walked, 1 has a single, and Javier Baez has a home run.

Greg has clearly missed spring training.  But the Holland mystery extends even beyond that. Greg lasted until opening day because all of baseball shied away from giving him the long-term contract he was seeking.  This was largely due to an epic second half collapse that saw Greg stagger to the finish line with a 6.38 ERA and 5 homeruns allowed in 24 innings after the All-Star break.

So, the question hangs before us.  Is Holland struggling just because he missed spring training?  Or is this the continuation of his brutal second half of 2017?  Greg will certainly get his chance to answer.  The Cards will give him every opportunity to work his way through his difficulties.

Holland headlines a few “highlight” acquisitions the Cards made over the off-season – none of them exactly setting the baseball world on its ear right now.  The big “get” was Marcell Ozuna.  Coming off an excellent season during which he had hit .312 with 37 home runs and 124 runs batted in, Marcell’s opening act in St Louis has been comparatively muted.  He will await tomorrow’s game against the Cubs holding a .271/.288/.386 slash line.

The already discussed Leone was another off-season addition to the pitching staff – his early days in St Louis have been more eventful than desired.  The Cards also added Miles Mikolas – who had been pitching in Japan for the last three seasons (and with considerable success).  Miles had been 31-13 with a 2.18 ERA across those seasons.  His 2018 starts have been hit and miss so far.  After two fairly average games against Milwaukee, he landed on the struggling Cincinnati team his last time out, allowing them just 1 run over 7 innings.

All of these new Cardinals will be hoping for better things over the course of the season’s last 145 games.  There have been no appearances yet for Luke Gregerson – another much praised off-season acquisition who began the season on the disabled list.  Now healthy, his Cardinal debut is imminent.

Of the new additions, the only one who is opening eyes is former Cardinal tormentor Bud Norris.  A former anchor of the Houston rotation and one-time 15-game winner with Baltimore, Norris has been morphing into a bullpen role over the last several season – mostly with un-remarkable results.  In his first 9 Cardinal games, Bud has 4 saves and a 1.93 ERA.  Encouraging.

On the other side of the new-comer coin is the hyper-impressive rookie Jordan Hicks.  Over recent seasons, the big league team has regularly benefitted from the ready arms and bats of their deep minor league system.  Hicks is the first to make his mark this season.  Regularly topping 101 mph with his devastating sinker, Jordan has allowed no runs through his first 9.1 major league innings.

Rumor has it that elite hitting prospect Tyler O’Neill will be with the team before tomorrow’s series finale.  Tyler is one of many impressive outfield bats that the Cards are challenged to find opportunities for.

Pitching in Tight Games

While the pitching, in general, has been one of the early season bright spots, there have been significant issues while the games are tight.  In particular, through their first 48.2 innings pitching with the game tied or with St Louis holding a one-run lead, the Cardinal pitching has been a little buffeted with a 5.36 ERA.  In those innings (slightly more than 5 games worth) Cardinal pitchers have walked 29 batters, hit 4 others, and served up 7 home runs.

This disturbing trend seems to cut across almost the entire staff.  Among the starters, only Luke Weaver has been up to this particular task.  Of the 17.1 innings Luke has pitched so far this year, 14.1 of them have come with the score either tied, or with the Cards holding a one-run lead.  Weaver has responded with a 1.26 ERA, allowing just 7 singles in 47 at bats (a .149 batting average and slugging percentage).  Elsewhere, the numbers are less rosy.

Adam Wainwright has been better than average – although still with a 4.05 ERA in 6.2 such innings.  Carlos Martinez has pitched 5.2 innings so far with no more than a one-run lead.  The 34 batters he has faced in those moments hold a .320/.500/.520 slash line against him – leading to a 7.94 ERA.  Mikolas is at 9.00 through 6 such innings, and Michael Wacha is scuffling along with a 9.53 ERA in 5.2 innings.

Some of the members of the bullpen have also struggled – albeit in fewer innings.  Matthew Bowman, Holland, Leone and Norris have combined for a 10.50 ERA and a .370/.500/.741 slash line in six innings while trying to hold a one-run lead or less.

The results of this struggle are more-or-less predictable.  Eleven times this season, so far, St Louis has managed to push to a lead of two runs or more.  They are 10-1 in those games.  In three other games, they have held leads, but never of more than one run.  They have lost all three of those games.

Batting when Trailing by More than 1 Run

On the other hand, in 6 of the team’s first 17 games they have fallen behind by two runs or more.  They have lost all six.  There have been 5 other games that they have trailed in, but by no more than one run.  They have come back to win 4 of the 5.

In 101 at bats so far in the young season where this team has trailed by two runs or more, they are hitting a fairly anemic .168 (17 for 101).

Surprising Pitching

But by far the biggest (and most pleasant) early season surprise has been the pitching.  An area of concern before the season started – and of greater concern after the first two games – the Cardinals have recovered to show one of the better pitching staffs through the first half of April.  With Martinez (1.75 ERA) and Weaver (2.08) leading the way, St Louis will open the day tomorrow with a 3.22 team ERA.  They have been particularly effective in a few key situations.

When pitching with runners in scoring position, they have held opposing batsmen to just 28 hits (24 singles and 4 doubles) in 142 at bats – an impressive .197 average combined with a .225 slugging percentage.  Also – faced with that runner at third and less than two outs, they have surrendered that run in only 10 of 30 such opportunities.  So far, only 6 of 33 inherited runners (18.2%) have scored against them.

Which all leads to my favorite obscure statistic of the Cardinal’s early season.  Seventeen games into the season, opposing hitters are just 2 for 16 (.125) against Cardinal pitching with the bases loaded.  This becomes my favorite because 2 for 16 is also exactly what the Cardinal batsmen are when they have been up with the bases loaded so far this season.  In that sense, it presents a kind of microcosm of the year so far.  While the Cards have done their fair share of run scoring, it has been a rather inconsistent effort, marked by many missed opportunities.  Their record has been primarily achieved as a result of the unexpected success of the pitching staff.

A Long Way from Done

As heady as this early success is, the truth is that nothing is yet proven.  Of the hold-over pitchers, all have had stretches of excellent pitching.  The question isn’t – and never was – could they look good in April.  All of the hold-over pitchers faded noticeably in September last year – fueling the team’s slide from contention.  I am also unconvinced that this team has done anything to materially address the character gap that was evident all year between them and the league’s better team.

All of these question marks will hang over their heads until September.

But for now, 10-7 is nothing to complain about.