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.

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