After a fairly tepid start, the Cardinals burst back into contention with an 8-1 run (April 12-22). At that point, they were, in fact, tied for the division lead. This was, of course, encouraging – said encouragement tempered by the fact that 7 of the 8 wins had come at the expense of the struggling Cincinnati Reds. With series against contending teams in New York and Pittsburgh coming up (the Mets series at home and the Pirates on the road), it was anticipated that this stretch would be a better measuring stick than the games against Cincinnati.
For those of us less sold on this team as contenders, the results mostly supported the hypothesis – with St Louis losing 4 of the 6 games. The most telling of these games were the three losses in Pittsburgh.
In their 16-12 start, the brightest and most consistent aspect of the club has been the pitching staff. After last night’s 3-2 win (box score), the Cards rank fourth in the NL with a 3.37 team ERA. As the pitching was an area of primary concern (at least for me) entering the season, this would seem to be good news indeed. Inside the numbers, though (and especially during the sweep in Pittsburgh) there seems to be cause for continued concern.
With early season temperatures in St Louis averaging less than 60 degrees (59.4 to be exact), this pitching staff has been prospering at home (remembering that under the best of conditions, Busch Stadium plays strongly in the pitcher’s favor). After last night’s win, the Cards are 8-5 at home with a 2.74 team ERA. Opponents are hitting .220 against the Cardinal pitching staff at home, with just 7 home runs in 125 innings. Perhaps most stunning, only 2 of 21 inherited runners at home have come around to score (an amazing 9.5%).
The numbers on the road have been less encouraging.
The Pirate Sweep
During the three games in Pittsburgh (in temperatures that averaged a frosty 50.3 degrees) the Pirates took full advantage of the still-suspect Cardinal pitching staff. They ended the 3-game series with 17 runs scored (15 earned for a 5.06 ERA) and a .286 batting average against Cardinal pitchers.
Most under the microscope was the piecemeal bullpen. Their numbers in the sweep are most telling. In 9.1 innings of work, the Pirates compiled 8 runs (6 of them earned – a 5.79 ERA) on 14 hits (a .333 batting average against). There were also 8 walks (6 unintentional) in those innings and two batters hit by pitches (a .444 on base percentage). Of the 13 runners the pen inherited, 6 scored (46.2%).
And, of course, both leads that they inherited were surrendered.
Of course, too much can be made of any one series. Every pitching staff will endure at least one such series during the season. In the Cardinals case, though, the Pittsburgh series continued a pronounced early season trend.
Now 8-7 on the road (4-7 not counting the games in Cincinnati), the team ERA is almost one and a quarter runs higher there (3.97). While the innings count is close (125 innings at home and 131.1 innings on the road), the team has served up more than twice as many home runs on the road (15) than they have in the comfy confines of Busch (7).
And the pen?
Soberingly, it has been the arms most depended on. It has been Matthew Bowman (6.1 innings, 5 runs on 9 hits), Tyler Lyons (4.2 innings, 4 runs on 7 hits), and Greg Holland – who has only managed 3 innings in 5 road appearances. During those 3 eventful innings, Holland (brought in to be the ninth-inning answer) has faced 21 batters, giving 6 runs (5 earned) on 8 hits and 3 walks.
I highlight the word concern used in the previous paragraphs. In baseball, it is always early until it isn’t. All of these troubled pitchers have ample opportunity to reverse the narrative. But as I wondered openly at the outset of the season whether this team could trust its bullpen, the early results have not allayed my fears.
While the Cardinals as a whole have hit only .207 as a team since Cincinnati left town, Tommy Pham headlines a very short list of Cardinals who haven’t missed the pliant Red pitching staff. With last night’s home run, Pham is hitting .385 (10 for 26) with 5 of the hits for extra bases (3 doubles and 2 home runs) good for a .731 slugging percentage over the last 7 games. This includes going 7 for 10 against the Mets. Tommy begins the day leading the National League (narrowly) in batting average. He is clearly following up strongly after his break-through 2017 season.
If this weren’t encouraging enough, last night’s home run was already his third at home this season. Last season 17 of his 23 home runs were hit on the road, leading to a concern that Busch may be a bit too spacious for Tommy (as, indeed it seems to be for many hitters). Last season, Pham hit .340/.431/.611 on the road – superstar numbers. At home, he was a much more pedestrian .265/.388/.410. So far this early season, Tommy’s batting splits slightly favor his home field (.333/.441/.611 vs .339/.448/.482).
Also heating up in the post-Cincinnati era is second-baseman Kolten Wong. One of the Cards who started off the season ice cold, Kolten has had some hits start to fall in lately. With yesterday’s 1-for-2, Wong is hitting .333 over the last 7 games (7 for 21).
On the other end of the ledger is 2017’s other break-out star – Jose Martinez. After a torrid start to the season, Jose is only 5 for 26 (.192) in the wake of the Reds’ series. In the early going, frosty Busch seems to have gotten the best of Jose. Hitless in 4 at bats last night, Jose has now had 19 plate appearances at home over the last two series (Mets and White Sox). He has contributed 2 singles, 1 double, 1 walk and one double play in those appearances (a slash line of .167/.211/.222). In 13 home games so far in 2018, Jose is hitting .224 (11 for 49) with 1 home run and 7 runs batted in.
Hitting into a bunch of bad luck so far this year (see this story), Matt Carpenter (who went 0 for 8 in the Pirate series) broke out a little last night with a double and a game-tying, ninth-inning home run. Carpenter is still just 3 for 19 (.158) since Cincinnati left town, and just .170 still for the season. Perhaps last night was the beginning of a turn-around.
To the list of players glad to be back home, you can add the name of Yadier Molina. His 1-for-12 series in Pittsburgh dropped him to just .246 on the road this season (14 for 57) albeit with 5 home runs. He had two hits last night – including the game winner, raising him to a .298 average at home this season.
Since the last Cincinnati series (last night notwithstanding) Molina has managed 4 singles and 5 strikeouts in his last 28 plate appearances – a .143/.143/.143 slash line. His would be another welcome turnaround.
Still Waiting for Dexter
Dexter Fowler hit the big walk-off single that gave the Cards a series win against the Mets (box score). He hasn’t had a hit since, following an 0-for-9, 4 strikeout Pittsburgh series with an 0-for-3 last night. Unlike Carpenter, Wong and Molina, Dexter’s recent at bats don’t show much sign of a turnaround. His season average sits still at .165.
While I’m sure some are anxious over the slow start, I will remind the ready reader that Dexter started slowly last year, too. But at the end of the year, he was one of the few Cardinal hitters still getting big hits in important games.
UPDATE: While I was writing this, Dexter’s two-run home run in St Louis’ afternoon game against the White Sox proved decisive – so perhaps Fowler is beginning to find the range now, too.
A quiet hero last night was starting pitcher Michael Wacha. After five solid innings, he left the game trailing 2-1, the victim of a two-run double off the bat of uber-prospect Yoan Moncada. An inning shy of a quality start, Wacha is one of the critical pieces to the 2017 puzzle. There were moments last season (and there have been a few already this season) when Michael looked like he was again becoming the pitching phenom he was in his rookie season. He also faded notably down the stretch.
Over his last two starts, Wacha has allowed just 3 runs in 11 innings (2.45 ERA) with 11 strikeouts. Both of these starts were at home. Of his first 6 starts this season, he has made 4 at home, going 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA allowing no home runs. He has lasted just 9.2 innings combined in his two road starts. During these innings, he has allowed 8 runs (7 earned) on 10 hits – 2 of them home runs.
Wacha will be a pitcher to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Their offseason actions indicated that management believes that Luke Weaver is ready to take his regular turn in the major league rotation. Three starts into the season, this was looking like a good decision. Luke was 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA. He finished April 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA over his last three starts. He has walked 9 batters and has given 14 runs on 17 hits over his last 14 innings. Again, very, very early. But it will be very damaging if the club is wrong about Luke.
Bud Norris – an acquisition I was dubious of over the off-season – has been as steady as we could have hoped for. Earning his first Cardinal win last night, Bud’s ERA is now down to 1.88. As opposed to many of the Cardinal pitchers, Bud has actually been better on the road (1.17 ERA v 2.70 at home).
Another off-season bullpen acquisition – Dominic Leone – is starting to find his footing. After serving up 3 home runs in his first 4.2 Cardinal innings, Leon has served up none (allowing just 1 run) over his last 8 innings. He pitched the eighth last night, giving a hit but no runs.
Even as I was composing this missive, the Cardinals won their afternoon game against the White Sox (by the same 3-2 score), meaning they will open their series against the Cubs with a little momentum. Still, the White Sox are now 8-20 on the year. It would do a lot for my confidence if St Louis could do some of this winning against contending ball clubs.