Category Archives: Baseball

Ozuna Turning it On

The moment was pregnant with opportunity.

The Cardinals had just recovered from their second deficit of the game, and finally – on an RBI double by Matt Carpenter – had taken their first lead of the afternoon in the seventh inning of their May 19 game against Philadelphia.  It was now a 6-5 Cardinal lead.  A groundball had pushed Carpenter to third.  He was there with one out representing a critical insurance run.  And to the plate came Marcell Ozuna.  This would be his moment. 

Phillie reliever Tommy Hunter could have put him on, but with Jedd Gyorko on deck, he decided to come right at Ozuna.  Before the crowd could even get into the at bat, it was over.  Marcell topped Hunter’s second pitch to short, and Carpenter was dead at the plate.  More than 44,000 sat quietly as Gyorko ended the inning with a fly-ball.

True to form, Philadelphia scored two in the eighth off of struggling reliever Greg Holland.  Ozuna never came to the plate again, and St Louis lost 6-7 (box score).

The ground ball capped another 0-for-4 night for Ozuna – stretching his hitless streak to twenty-two at bats going back more than five games.  At this point Ozuna – a 37-home run man the season before when he slashed .312/.376/.548 – was skidding through his first season as a Cardinal.  His line fell to .234/.275/.316 with only 3 home runs through 171 at bats.

Where – Cardinal Nation wondered – was the real Ozuna?

After sitting out the finale of the Philly series, Marcel was back in there on Monday, May 21 against Kansas City and Ian Kennedy.  After drawing a walk his first time up, Marcell ended his hitless streak with a sharp grounder into right field.  The hit drove in a run – Carpenter, as it turned out – and sent the Cards on their way to a 6-0 victory (box score).  Marcell also singled his next time up.

He hasn’t stopped hitting since.

There were few Cardinal highlights in last night’s humbling 4-2 loss to San Diego (box score), but Ozuna was one of the few.  He finished the night with two more hits – including the two-run home run that accounted for all of St Louis’ scoring.  The hits pushed his current hitting streak to seven games – three of which have been multi-hit games.  The home run was his third during the streak, and he has now driven in 8 runs over his last 7 games.

He has now also hit safely in 11 of his 12 June games – starting the month as a potential player of the month candidate.  He is now 18 for 45 (.400) in June with 5 home runs and a triple – a .778 slugging percentage.  He has 14 runs batted in in his 12 June games.

Stretching back to that game against Kansas City, Marcel has hits in 17 of his last 19 starts. He is 29 of his last 70 – a .414 batting average

Since this is the first time we’ve ever seen Ozuna really hot, I thought we might compare some of the “under the radar” numbers from his early season struggles against those same numbers now that things are going better for him.  The attempt here is to try to get a kind of statistical signature for Marcell.

In his first 182 Cardinal plate appearances, Marcell appeared over-ready for that first pitch.  While the entire team swings at the first pitch of an at bat just 28.1% of the time, Ozuna was cresting at an aggressive 38.5%.  Beginning with the Kansas City series, Marcell has chased that first pitch a more normal 30.8% of the time.  This little bit of discipline has given Ozuna a significant advantage in his recent at bats.  Before, he was getting first-pitch strikes 65.4% of the time.  Of late, though, only 51.3% of the first pitches thrown to him are strikes, putting him in early hitter’s counts more frequently.

The numbers also suggest that Ozuna is commanding the strike zone exponentially better as the season wears on.  Since the Kansas City series, only 22.6% of the pitches that Ozuna has taken have been called strikes, while 44.1% of all pitches thrown him have been balls.  The team-wide benchmark for those numbers are 32.8% of pitches taken called strikes and 37.3 % of all pitches thrown being balls.  What this means, simply, is that Ozuna is not letting strikes go by, while not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.

Most remarkable, though, has been Marcell’s recent ability to put the ball in play.  Through his first 182 plate appearances, he missed entirely on 25.3% of his swings, fouling off another 36.8% of his swings, and putting the ball in play just 37.9% of the time.  The team averages are 23.8% missed, 37.8% fouled, and 38.3% put in play.  Over his last 78 plate appearances, Ozuna has swung at 117 pitches.  He has missed with only 19 swings (16.2%), while producing just 32 fouls (27.4%).  This means that on 66 of those swings, Marcell has put the ball in play – an impressive 56.4%.  By comparison, Jose Martinez leads the team, putting the ball in play 45.3% of the time that he swings.

This portrays Ozuna as an aggressive-in-the-strike-zone hitter, who infrequently chases balls and has excellent enough bat control that he puts the ball in play most of the time.  And he can do this with power.

The down-the-line results of this approach include shorter at bats.  Even though he more frequently takes the first pitch, his pitches per at bat have dropped from 3.82 early in the season to just 3.49 over his more recent at bats.

The other side-effect of this efficiency is fewer strikeouts in general, and fewer times caught looking.  Marcell struck out 40 times in his first 182 plate appearances – with 13 of those coming on called third strikes.  Over his last 78 trips to the plate, Marcell has just 5 strike outs – being called out just once.

It’s been an impressive run.  Now, the question is how long we can keep him in this zone.

Little Help for Ozuna

While Ozuna kept up his heroics, he had few supporters.  The team managed just 6 other hits (all singles) and no other runs.  Over the first 12 games in June, the offense still shows no signs of sustaining anything.  They are now scoring 3.67 runs per game this month, and hitting .244.

Yadier Molina

The team has, of course, missed the leadership of its captain Yadier Molina – who missed a chunk of time recovering from surgery.    He hasn’t returned to the lineup as sharp as he left it.  Hitless in three at bats last night, Molina has had 32 plate appearances this month.  He’s managed 5 singles, 1 double, 1 walk, 6 strikeouts, one hit by pitch, and one sacrifice fly.  This works out to a disappointing .207/.250/.241 batting line.  Yadi’s is one of the bats that the Cards are hoping will get well soon.

Yairo Munoz

Provider of a big lift to the offense when he first took over for the injured Paul DeJong, Yairo Munoz has hit the skids as the calendar has turned to June.  He has been to the plate 41 times in 11 games so far this month, supplying 5 singles, 1 home run, 2 walks (1 intentional), 10 strikeouts, and 1 sacrifice fly – a .158/.195/.237 June batting line.

Yairo’s free-swinging ways served him fairly well earlier. Lately, though, not so much.  He swung at 6 of the 11 pitches thrown him last night, missing on two of the swings.  For the season, Munoz hacks at 56.9% of the pitches thrown to him (the highest ratio of anyone on the team with at least 90 plate appearances).  He misses on 30.7% of those swings – second on the team only to DeJong among players with at least 70 plate appearances.

Kolten Wong

Hitless in three at bats, Kolten Wong’s season just cannot gain any kind of traction.  Down to .182 for the season, Kolten is now at .192 (5 for 26) for the month and struggling to get chances in the lineup. 

The numbers suggest that Wong is really pressing now.  Last year, when he had it working, Kolten took pitches, worked counts, and didn’t swing and miss very often.  Through the first two months of this season, Wong saw 3.78 pitches per plate appearances, and only missed on 17.4% of his swings.  This month, he is missing 28.9% of the time when he swings, and is only seeing 3.47 pitches per appearance.

Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver suffered through his third shaky outing in his last four.  He took the loss, lasting just 5.1 innings while giving all 4 runs on 9 hits.  He hasn’t made it through six innings in any of those last four games, and has a 5.12 ERA and a .304 batting average against over the last 19.1 innings that he has pitched. 

Clean innings have been few and far between for Mr. Weaver.  Last night, of the six innings he started, only one was a three-up, three-down inning.  Through his three starts this month, he is averaging 4.57 batters faced per nine innings, the most by any member of the staff that has pitched at least ten innings in June.  This month he has been throwing 18.26 pitches per inning.  This has raised his season average to 17.33 pitches per inning – the most by any pitcher on the staff with at least 19 innings pitched.

John Brebbia

With the Cardinal offense already shut down for the day, all that was left for John Brebbia to do was to hold the game close.  He did so with two perfect innings, striking out three.  In a bullpen that has been struggling, Brebbia has to start getting noticed.  Over his last 4.2 innings he has struck out 8.  In his 6 June appearances, he has allowed no runs on just 2 hits over 6.2 innings, and he has now thrown 8 consecutive scoreless outings – totaling 8.1 innings.  Twenty-one of the last 62 swings taken against him have missed – an impressive 33.9%.

John threw strikes with 16 of his 19 pitches last night (84.2%).  He has now thrown strikes with 68.2% of his pitches this month.  Of all pitchers with at least 5 innings pitched this month, only Miles Mikolas (71.9%) and Jordan Hicks (70.2%) are throwing more strikes.

NoteBook

The San Diego series was only the eighth of St Louis’ first 22 series that went to a rubber game.  The Cards start the season just 3-5 in rubber games.  They are also just 2-5-1 in series against teams that had won their previous series.

The Cardinals drew no walks over the last two games of the series.

Time for Some Lineup Analysis

Quickly the baseball season has crossed the one third mark.  After a late-April/Early-May eruption had thrust the Cardinals into the thick of the division race, they have been mostly hovering for the last month or so.  As Mike Matheny’s lineup continuously evolves, here are a few observations, 58 games into the season.

Greg Garcia carries a modest slash line of .254/.325/.388.  He has made only 12 starts through the first 58 games.  The Cards are 8-4 when Greg starts.  They are 24-22 (.522) when he doesn’t.

Yadier Molina was back in the lineup last night for the first time in about a month.  He made his thirtieth start of the season.  St Louis is 18-12 (.600) when Yadi starts, scoring 4.70 runs per game.  When Yadi is out of the lineup, the Cards are a 14-14 team, scoring 3.86 runs per game.

Speaking of injured Cardinals, Paul DeJong has been out of the lineup since he broke his hand back on May 17.  Tonight, Miami will start lefthander Wei-Yin Chen against the Cards.  Chen will be only the second left-hander to face St Louis since DeJong’s injury, 17 games ago (they lost to lefty Brent Suter back on May 28).  Suter has been the only lefty to start against St Louis over their last 20 games.

The “Who Should Hit Leadoff” debate swings undecided into its third consecutive season.  To this point, Tommy Pham earns a slight edge.  He has hit there slightly more often (22 games) than the other contenders (Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter have both led off 17 times).  The team is 13-9 with Pham at leadoff (.591), while scoring 4.55 runs per game.  They are 9-8 with both Fowler and Carpenter hitting there, scoring 4.53 runs per game with Fowler, and 3.88 runs per game with Carp.

Pham also leads the team in hitting second.  He has been second in the lineup 19 times, with Carpenter trailing him with 15 games batting in that spot.  Offensively, the team has done better with Pham (4.32 runs per game to just 3.93 with Carp), but the winning percentage has been better with Carpenter.  The team is 9-6 when he bats second, and just 10-9 (.526) with Pham hitting there.

Jose Martinez has found himself batting third in the lineup slightly more than half of the time (30 of the 58 games).  This makes third the second most solidified spot in the Cardinal lineup.  St Louis is 17-13 (.567) when Martinez hits third – albeit scoring just 4.20 runs per game.  They have averaged 4.59 runs per game in the 17 games that Carpenter has hit third, but they are only 9-8 in those games.

The most solidified spot in the Cardinal lineup is cleanup, where Marcell Ozuna has hit 51 times in the season’s first 58 games.  St Louis is 28-23 (.549) in those games, scoring 4.22 runs per game.

When Martinez isn’t batting third, he is usually batting fifth.  His 15 appearances in this spot of the batting order also leads the team.  Molina has hit here on 14 occasions, and Jedd Gyorko has hit fifth 12 times.  Record-wise, Yadi has the clear edge.  The team is 9-5 when he hits fifth.  They are just 7-8 with Martinez there and 5-7 with Gyorko.  They, however, do more scoring when Martinez hits fifth (4.67 runs per game, vs 4.29 with Molina and 3.83 with Gyorko).

The sixth spot in the order is such a grab bag, that two of the only three Cardinals that have hit there at least ten times have spent considerable stretches of the season on the disabled list.  Molina – who has hit there the most (14 times) has just returned from an extended absence, and Paul DeJong (out for 17 games, now) has hit there 10 times.  In between these two is Fowler, who was dropped to sixth to help him work his way out of his slump.  DeJong’s presence in the lineup has been missed.  The team was 6-4 in his games there.  They have gone 7-6 with Fowler and 7-7 with Molina – although the offense has been perkier with Molina (4.86 runs per game) than the other two (4.10 with DeJong, and 3.92 with Fowler).

With the lefty starting (and because he is hitting just .183 on the season), Kolten Wong won’t be in the lineup tonight.  In spite of his season-long offensive struggles, the team is still 9-2 when Wong hits seventh – and scoring a healthy 4.45 runs per game in those games.  The only Cardinal who has hit there more often is DeJong. The team is 9-8 when Paul bats seventh, scoring 4.65 runs per game.  They are 14-16 (.467) with everyone else there, scoring just 4.03 runs per game.

Wong is the most frequent eighth-place hitter.  In his 23 games batting eighth, the team is just 11-12 (.478), albeit scoring 4.57 runs per game.  Recently catcher Francisco Pena has made inroads here.  He has hit eighth 16 times now, leading the team to a 9-7 record.  In the 19 games that neither has hit eighth, St Louis is scoring just 3.89 runs per game – but has won 12 of the games (.632 winning percentage).

Fifty-eight games is enough to make these number interesting – but there is still far too much baseball ahead.  As the season rolls on, we will keep an eye on these trends.

More Chances Elude Cards

Suddenly trailing 3-2 in the eighth inning, and now facing the electric stuff of Milwaukee left-hander Josh Hader, Jose Martinez fanned the Cardinal hopes with a leadoff walk.  He thus became the fifth Cardinal to reach base in yesterday’s 3-2 loss (box score) with no one out.

Last year, Cardinal runners who reached base with no one out scored 51.5% of the time.  So far this year, that number has been similar – 50.8%.  But during the general offensive brown-out that has characterized this month, even though St Louis hitters are reaching base at a .369 clip with no one out, only 45.8% are scoring.  And true to form, while Martinez made it to second in that inning, he watched from there as Yairo Munoz struck out to end the inning.  Seven of the Cardinals’ nine offensive innings ended with a strikeout.

With one game left in May, the Cards are managing a halting 3.88 runs per game this month with a disappointing .244 team batting average.  They have been one of baseball’s best teams with no one out.  They are hitting .287/.369/.489 this month before the first out.  But after the first out, the succeeding hitters are hitting just .219/.280/.338.  Over the last eight games, as the offense has ground to 3.13 rpg halt while managing just a .298 team on base percentage, this team has still hit .317/.361/.525 with no one out, but only .211/.261/.283 once that first out has been recorded.

While Wednesday’s game was notable for the return of top prospect Alex Reyes (who did well in his four innings), by the end of the day, this game looked like so many others the Cards have lost this season – late inning bullpen collapses and unrealized offensive opportunities.  St Louis went 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position, and left 10 runners on base – 6 of them in scoring position.  Of the last 90 Cardinals to bat with two outs, 31 have struck out.

The team with the shaky bullpen can’t afford to miss too many scoring chances.

Jose Martinez

The game ended with Martinez striking out with runners at first and third.  It was Jose’s only opportunity to hit with runners in scoring position all day.  His has been one of the most important missing bats (along with Tommy Pham’s) as the offensive troubles have lately returned.  Martinez is 0 for 9 over the last three games, and is hitting just .222 (6 for 27) over the last 8 games.  He has one extra-base hit (a double) over his last 30 plate appearances.

Tyler O’Neill

The Cardinal’s other top prospect in the lineup – Tyler O’Neill – was their other 0 for 4. Batting right behind Martinez, it gave the Cards an 0-for-8 day from their three and four hitters.  Tyler provided an offensive jolt upon returning from Memphis – hitting home runs in three consecutive games at one point.  Over his last four games, Tyler is 0-for-11 with 8 strikeouts.  He has 2 singles in his last 19 at bats (.105) with 13 strikeouts.

Yairo Munoz

If there is no shortage of bad Cardinal offensive news, there have also been a few bright spots.  One of these is Yairo Munoz.  The star of spring training, Munoz began the season on the roster but was returned to Memphis as he struggled out of the gate.  Returning about the same time O’Neill did, Yairo has returned to his spring form.  With 2 hits yesterday, Munoz now has a five-game hitting streak, during which he is hitting .412 (7-for-17).  He has also hit safely in all of his last 7 starts, hitting an impressive .480 (12-for-25) in those games.

This production has entrenched him at shortstop for the moment.  When Paul DeJong returns, this could set up another difficult lineup decision.  The athletic Munoz can also play second, so if Kolten Wong’s production doesn’t pick up, Yairo could see some time there.

Alex Reyes

For all of this, the headline yesterday was the removal of starting pitcher Alex Reyes after four innings and 73 pitches.  There was a momentary loss of velocity, which sent a ripple of concern through the Cardinal dugout.  Alex certainly didn’t breeze through the Brewers the way he did through the minor leagues, but some of this was to be expected.  After the long absence and the unusual hype connected to his return, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex didn’t quite feel like himself on the mound.

I’m pretty sure he will be OK.

The larger story is that his solid four innings (no runs on 3 hits) continues the excellent month of May this team has received from its starters.  With one game left in the month, St Louis’ rotation holds a 2.72 ERA and has surrendered only 10 home runs in 149 innings (0.6 per 9 innings) while holding opposing batters to just a .220 batting average and a .308 slugging percentage.  Of the now eight pitchers who have started games for the Cards this month, five of them have ERAs below 2.25.  These pitchers (who seem to be the front-runners in the rotation discussion once everyone is back and healthy) are Reyes (0.00), Jack Flaherty (1.40), Miles Mikolas (1.89), Michael Wacha (2.02) and Carlos Martinez (2.19).

All of this gives one a sense of why the Cardinals are so excited about the prospects of their rotation – now and for a long time to come.

The Bullpen

The worst part of Alex’ early exit was it left five full innings to be covered by the Cardinal bullpen.  This is not usually a formula for success.  After Reyes left, the bullpen combined to allow 3 runs on 7 hits and 4 walks in what only proved to be four total innings (since Milwaukee wasn’t required to bat in the ninth).  Cardinal relievers have now pitched 90 innings this month with a 5.10 ERA.  They have now served up 12 home runs in those innings – a 1.20 per nine-inning pace that is exactly double the rate of the starters this month.

Fifty-three games into the season, and the bullpen mess is no closer to being solved.

Tyler Lyons

Last year, Tyler Lyons gained increasingly more important roles in the Cardinal bullpen as he finally seemed to have moved past his early career tendency of serving up home runs.  After getting dinged for 12 in just 60 innings in 2015, and 9 more in 48 innings the next year, Tyler worked through 54 innings last year, serving up just 3 home runs.

When Christian Yelich unloaded on the only pitch that Lyons threw yesterday – the long home run to center that tied the game at 2 – it marked the third home run that Tyler has allowed already this year (in just 12 innings).

In the tribute to Murphy’s Law that has been the Cardinal bullpen this year, Tyler Lyons has been as snake-bit as any of them.  Management clings to the fact that all of these pitchers have much better track records than they’ve shown so far.  They believe that there is a top-notch bullpen in there somewhere.

But as the division starts to tilt away from them, the urgency to find answers increases.

When Weaver Can Pitch Ahead

Gordon may have been looking for the four-seamer.

Batting with one out in the second inning, Alex Gordon would have seen young Cardinal right-hander Luke Weaver start three of the four batters who faced him in the first inning with that four-seam fastball.

Whether he was, in fact, expecting it, Alex jumped Luke’s first-pitch four-seamer and lofted it into the grass over the center field wall.  That tied the game at one, and spurred Kansas City on to their 5-1 decision over St Louis (box score) last night.

It was about the only time all night that Weaver fell into a somewhat discernable pattern.  For the game, he threw about the same number of changes, fastballs and cutters – and threw them confidently in all counts.  Of the 28 batters he faced, 10 of them saw first-pitch fastballs, 7 each saw change-ups and cutters as the first pitch.  The other four saw first-pitch curves – still a growing pitch for Luke.

In all, Weaver threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of the 28 he faced in a game where he pitched better than the record showed.  As Luke settles into his first full season in the rotation, the numbers suggest how important it is for him to pitch ahead in the count.

Luke finished his evening ahead in the count to 16 of the 28 batters he faced.  Those batters managed just 3 singles (.188) and struck out 6 times.  It is these batters – the ones backed up in the count – that are most susceptible to his excellent change.

In fact, in a game where Weaver struck out 8 in 7 innings, his best inning may well have been his third-inning – an inning where he threw only 6 pitches (no fastballs) and registered no strikeouts.  That inning began with Jon Jay taking a curve for a strike and then grounding out on that change.  It continued with Ryan Goins also taking a curve for a strike and then lining out on another curve.  The inning ended with another first-pitch curve to Mike Moustakas, who fouled it off before flying out on a change-up. Three very short, mostly uncomfortable at bats by the top of the line-up.

The problems for Luke come when he can’t get consistently get ahead of batters.  In 4 mostly good starts this month (and Luke holds a 3.13 ERA in 23 innings in May) batters are just 5 for 29 (.172 – all singles) when batting behind in the count.  When batting ahead in the count, they are hitting .353/.476/.647.

Luke’s reaching his potential as a top-of-the-rotation starter will hinge on his developing ability to consistently throw first-pitch strikes with his secondary pitches.

Greg Holland

The disintegration of Greg Holland continued last night.  Brought into the ninth-inning, trailing just 3-1, Greg faced four batters. He fell behind all four, and ended his night allowing 2 runs on 3 singles and a walk.  Holland has given multiple runs in 3 straight games. Eleven of the last 14 batters he has faced have reached, and he has walked at least one batter in 5 straight appearances.  Only 46 of his last 86 pitches have gone for strikes.  The 29 batters that Greg has been behind this season are slashing .538/.786/.846 against him.  Last night they were sitting on that once-dominant slider that has lost almost all of its bite.

The Cardinals remain convinced that Holland (whose season ERA is now back up to 8.76) will yet be a positive force in the Cardinal bullpen – even though this is precisely how he ended last season with Colorado.  Greg, of course, has flatly rejected the idea of working through his problems in the minors.  This is a hard thing for a decorated veteran to accept.  It is unfortunate, in that Holland needs to pitch, and Mike Matheny can no longer afford to bring him into important situations.

A footnote – through 19 games in May, the Cardinal rotation has a 2.53 ERA.  The bullpen – which has served up more home runs (10) in 67.2 innings than the starters have surrendered (7) in 110.1 innings – carries a 4.92 ERA this month.

Dexter Fowler

Things still not getting any better for Dexter Fowler.  Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, he is down to .155 through 148 at bats this year.  In May, Dex is down to .130 (7 for 54) – although with 10 walks.

Matt Carpenter

In the Cardinal’s unusual 11-hit 0-RBI game (all 11 hits were singles, and the team was 0-6 with runners in scoring position), one of the casualties was Matt Carpenter’s very loud six-game hitting streak.  Struggling at-bat for at-bat with Fowler for most of the season, Carpenter has erupted recently.

In the six games prior to last night’s 0-4, Carpenter amassed 13 hits in 24 at bats (.542 average).  His streak included 3 three-hit games, and another two-hit game.  Eight of the 13 hits were for extra-bases (one of them a home run) leading to a .958 slugging percentage for the streak.

Going Forward

The recent buzz around town is the return of Alex Reyes (and to the rotation, no less).  This latest wave of young talent is a hint of the team that this will be in just a few years – if management can resist the urge to give all of them away.  It is already hard to find room in the Cardinal’s crowded rotation.  While Carlos Martinez is still out, it would seem that Reyes will take his spot (currently held by John Gant), but after Carlos comes back some very talented starter will either be back in Memphis or bolstering the sagging bullpen.

A similar thing is happening in the lineup, where Matheny is working hard to find enough at bats for all of his outfielders and Jedd Gyorko.

And there is more talent out there on the way.  If one of them can be a late-inning asset in the bullpen, this team could be very hard to head.

NoteBook

Last night’s crowd of 39,545 was a little disappointing by St Louis standards under any circumstance – much less with the cross-state Royals visiting.  It, nonetheless, pushed St Louis’ home attendance to 1,023,464 in 25 home dates – an average of 40,938.6.  This would put them on pace to draw 3,356,962 for the season.  If that happens, it will be their fifteenth straight three-million season and the twentieth in the last twenty-one years.  However, it will also be the lowest attendance figure since the 2012 team drew in 3,262,109.  Much of the early season was atypically cold, and may have held down attendance figures.  We will see what the heat of summer brings.

Of the 16 series they have played so far, the Cards have won the first game 8 times.  Even after last night’s loss, they are 18-5 in the games of those series.  They have won 5 of the first 7 series, splitting the other 2.

And An Off-Season Football Note

Earlier today the NFL announced its National Anthem policy.  Already the aftermath is brewing.  Since this is still mostly two sides shouting at each other, I will link again to the piece I wrote about this last year.

Early Concerns on the Road

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.

Continuing Trends

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.

Tommy Pham

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).

Kolten Wong

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).

Jose Martinez

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.

Matt Carpenter

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.

Yadier Molina

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.

Michael Wacha

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.

Luke Weaver

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

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).

Dominic Leone

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.

Up Next

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.

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.

Fixing the Brand

As the 2017 playoffs begin to crank up in earnest, the St Louis Cardinals will be relegated to watching.  A proud franchise who – not too long ago played in four consecutive Championship Series –  will be bristling over their second straight exclusion from the post-season dance.

All over Cardinal Nation, a host of voices will be raised to give guidance and counsel to the St Louis management.  I understand that mine will be a lonely voice, lost – no doubt – amidst the throngs clamoring for truckloads of money to be thrown at some high profile free agent or other.  I am not terribly concerned about these voices, because (usually) Cardinal management has a much clearer grasp on the needs of their team than the common fan.

This year, however, from their early comments I am concerned that John Mozeliak and his councilors may have missed the many loud messages that his team has been sending him.  So, as I acknowledge the fact that my singular plea for reason is liable to vanish into the great void of the blogosphere, I will nonetheless send forth my diagnosis of the club’s current issues and – as far as I am able – to at least hint at some sensible prescriptions.

It is important to note that none of this is as cut and dried as most fans (and bloggers) seem to think.  Contrary to many opinions, giving Miami whatever they want for Giancarlo Stanton is not really a prescription for success, either in 2018 or beyond.

This is, in fact, both a critical and challenging offseason.  St Louis has a handful of gifted players who must be added to the 40-man roster or be lost.  They, therefore, will be challenged with making critical decisions about the futures of the players already on that roster.  In many of these cases, the cases for and against these players is anything but clear.  The organizational challenge is to be right in deciding which young talents to embrace and which to part with.

None of this will be easy at all, as I will attempt to point out.

First Off, This is a Team in Transition

Most followers of the Cardinals are already aware that this team is transitioning from the veterans of the teams that went to all of those championship series.  For years, the organization has been stockpiling talent throughout its minor league system.  Now, that rich resource is beginning to re-shape the major league team.

Twenty-three percent of all plate appearances taken by the 2017 Cardinals belonged to players who opened the season in Memphis.  That percentage rose to 34% in the second half.  The pitching staff was less influenced, but still 16% of the innings pitched came from Memphis arms.  That figure also rose to 25% in the second half.

Make no mistake.  The youth movement is underway.  There had been similar displacement the year before, with the emergences of Aledmys Diaz and Alex Reyes.  St Louis is clearly rebuilding, and trying to remain competitive while doing so.

The answer to getting this team back into the playoffs – for all of the rebuilding – is actually comparatively simple.  They need to guess correctly on a closer.

Get Thyself a Closer

For as uneven as the Cardinals have been the last two years, they would have made the playoffs both years if they could have successfully filled one position – the closer.  With more stability in the ninth inning, this teams could easily have made up the one game they lacked in 2016 and the four they fell short of this year.  Cardinal pitchers appearing as closers finished 2017 with a 3.75 ERA – the worst showing for Cardinal closers since the fourth-place 2008 team finished with a 6.27 ERA from its closers.

It has become axiomatic throughout baseball – probably on all levels.  If you don’t pitch the ninth, you will not succeed.  This organization believed it had the ninth inning covered at the start of both of the last two seasons.  They had no reasons to anticipate the struggles Trevor Rosenthal would have in 2016 or the problems that Seung-hwan Oh would run into this year.

Swing the net out to include the eighth inning, and the story becomes even more compelling.  They lost 6 games this year when leading after 7 innings.  Even more telling, in games the Cards were tied after 7 innings, they were only 3-12 – by percentage the worst performance by a Cardinal team in this century

But the Cardinals already know they have bullpen issues.  And solving the eighth and ninth innings may well get them back into the playoffs, but won’t address the issues that will keep them from advancing once there.

It’s from this point on that I don’t think the organization is seeing clearly.

The Magical Impact Bat?

Among the primary targets this offseason, an “impact bat” seems to be high on the list.  Really?  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I wouldn’t mind seeing an established bat in the middle of the lineup.  But who?  And at what cost.

The least intrusive path would be free agency.  But who would that be?  J.D. Martinez is probably the most established of the free-agents to be.  Would he come to St Louis?  Given the Cardinals’ track record of wooing elite free agents (not to mention the spacious ballpark), I’ll have to remain skeptical on this one.

What concerns me most is that they will go out and trade a whole bunch of promising players for a slightly upgraded version of Brandon Moss.  Is Josh Donaldson, for example, really worth surrendering the future of an Alex Reyes or a Sandy Alcantara?  Are you really sure we don’t already have that impact bat?  Can you say for certainty that the three-four-five spots in the Cardinal order come next July (or perhaps even June) won’t be Paul DeJong, Patrick Wisdom and Tyler O’Neill?  Look at some of the players on the team this year that got less than full-time at bats.

DeJong hit 25 home runs in 417 at bats.  Give him 500 at bats (around the norm for a starter) and Paul would have been a 30 home run man with a .285/.325/.532 batting line.  And he was a rookie this year.  There is a fairly good chance we haven’t seen the best of Paul yet.

Tommy Pham only made 128 starts, but finished with 23 home runs and a .306/.411/.520 batting line.  A .931 OPS sounds pretty “impact” to me.

Jose Martinez got only 272 at bats, but hit 14 home runs.  That would project to 26 home runs in a 500 at bat season to go along with his .309/.379/.518 batting line.  Are we really, truly sure that Jose couldn’t be a fulltime player.

Moreover, I think the “impact bat” is an over-rated concept, unless you’re running a Whitey-ball offense and your lineup is 7 jack-rabbits and one bopper.  Far more important is the depth of the lineup.

Consider:  in the offensively unimpressive first half, four of the eight Cardinal batsmen with the most plate appearances hit below .250.  Dexter Fowler finished at .248, Stephen Piscotty hit .240, Matt Carpenter scuffled in at .237, and Randal Grichuk hit the break at .215.  That’s a lot of outs sprinkled regularly through the lineup.  A “bopper” in the middle would certainly help, but with that many struggling bats, one “impact bat” won’t cure the problem.

Now consider: for the 44 games from August 6 through September 23, St Louis averaged 5.77 runs per game – an adequate offensive production, by anyone’s standard.  During that span – of the eight players getting the most plate appearances – only Carpenter (.244) was under .250 – and that just barely.  Nobody hit more than the 9 home runs that came off the bat of DeJong, but almost everybody hit some.  Most importantly, they weren’t making outs.  In almost all cases, a deep lineup is better for your offense than a concentrated one.

There is considerable pressure in the team to do something dramatic to push the team back into the playoffs.  Again, I am just one voice.  But if I had one of the best farm systems in baseball, I would trust it more.  I would give this system every opportunity to prove to me that the pieces I need are already at my disposal.  I’m not saying never trade from any of this surplus.  But I am saying don’t trade the future for a mess of pottage (no offense, Josh).

Wither Lance Lynn

In this post, I made most of my case for keeping Lance Lynn.  Since one of the comments made by the brain trust had something to do with shoring up the rotation (a goal I approve of), I have to wonder where they think they will get better value than Lance?  Remembering that he was in his first year coming off elbow reconstruction (the infamous Tommy John surgery), Lance’s 33 starts, 17 quality starts, 186.1 innings pitched and 3.43 ERA are quite impressive.

More than the numbers, though, Lance was a bulldog.  He even got hit in the head with a line drive and kept on pitching.  As the next generation of pitchers graduate to the majors, Lance would be a terrific mentor.

Yes, he faded at the end – which was disappointing.  Still, I am not at all convinced that, for the money and the years it would take to sign Lynn, they will find a better bargain out there.

Here’s a final note.  In a down year for free-agent pitchers, Lance will be a likely target for a certain division rival who is always scrambling for pitching.  He would be just what the doctor ordered for them.

My prediction here is that if they let Lance walk, they will regret it.

These are all important considerations, but the single most important failing of the 2017 team is one that I don’t think they are even aware of.

A Matter of Character

Throughout the course of the entire season, manager Mike Matheny would intone sentiments similar to this: time and time again, this team has shown me its character and its toughness; one thing I will never ever doubt is the toughness and character of this team.

The character of the team and its much-envied clubhouse was the foundation upon which the belief in the Cardinals’ eventual triumph was forged.  It is organizational bedrock.  The foundational doctrine upon which all decisions are based.

And it’s complete mythology.

In every way possible, the 2017 Cardinals tried to send this message to their manager’s office – and to their front office, too for that matter.  Character wins were almost non-existent in 2017.

They were 4-7 in walk-off victories, 5-9 in extra-innings, 24-29 in one-run games.  And two measures that I am fond of as revealers of character: they were 39-39 after losing their previous game, and 27-44 against teams with winning records – including losing 6 of their last 7 must-win games against Chicago.

As a point of reference, the 39-39 in games after a loss is the worst record for a Cardinal team in this century.  The 2007 team that finished 78-84 was 43-41 after a loss.  The 2006 team that snuck into the playoffs and won the whole thing after an 83-78 regular season was 43-40 after a loss (counting the playoffs).

By contrast, the 100-win 2005 team went 50-15 after a loss (counting the playoffs).  In fact, the three 100-win versions in this century (2004, 2005, 2015) combined to go 128-65 (.663) after losing their previous game.  There have been seven 90-win teams in this century so far.  After losing their previous game, those teams have combined to go 301-209 (.591).  There have also been seven 80-win teams in St Louis in this century.  Even they have managed to go 294-251 (.539) in games after a loss.

The utility of this metric is that it reveals precisely one of the principle failings of this year’s club – a frustrating inability to break out of losing streaks.  In my season wrap-up post, I documented several extended losing spells.  In most of them, St Louis needed to wait for a series against a pretty bad team (like Philadelphia) before they could pull themselves out of their tailspin.

As to the record against winning teams, think about 27-44.  That is a .380 winning percentage.  If you took a fairly good AAA team and had them play 71 games against average major league teams, this is about the record you would expect them to compile.  In fact, this winning percentage is also the lowest of any Cardinal team in this century, breaking the one-year-old record of the 2016 team that floundered along at 24-35 (.407) against teams that won at least as many as they lost.

I promise you that the talent gap isn’t that great between the Cardinals and the other winning teams in the league.  This points strictly to toughness.

Over the course of the entire century, St Louis is 766-566 (.575) after a loss, and 713-688 (.509) against winning teams.

So, who are the players who have routinely fallen short in these character games?  It’s time, I suppose, to name names.

Stephen Piscotty

Enduring the worst season of his career, Piscotty also routinely came up short in tough situations.  He hit .213 against winning teams (29 for 136) with 3 home runs.  This included a .179 average (5 for 28 – all singles) after the All-Star Break.  During the season’s second half he was also 10 for 57 (.175) in games after a loss, and just 3 for 24 with runners in scoring position.  Renowned for his prowess with runners in scoring position through the first two seasons of his career, Piscotty hit just .125 in the second half this year with ducks on the pond.

I don’t think anyone in the organization believes that 2017 will be a representative year in the career of Stephen Piscotty.  A combination of things conspired to derail his season early, and he never found his way back.  But, with talented outfielders rising through the system, the organization will now be forced to re-evaluate their commitment to Piscotty.  Further complicating the issue is that, should they decide to trade Stephen, they are unlikely to get full trade value.

Piscotty is a very cerebral player, and very likely to figure things out.  Whatever his future with the organization, Stephen is one player who could profit greatly by hitting the ground running next season.

Luke Weaver

This, I suppose, should be expected.  Rookie right-hander Luke Weaver was mostly a revelation during the last part of the second half.  But the young man still has some lessons to learn that the league’s better clubs are all too willing to teach.

Luke made 5 starts against winning teams, culling just 1 quality start.  He served up 6 home runs in 24.2 innings, compiling a 2-2 record with an 8.03 ERA and a .321/.381/.547 batting line against.  It will be interesting to see how quickly he learns and adapts.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman was a bit exposed – especially late in the season – by the better teams.  In 35 games (26.2 innings) against higher quality opponents, Matthew was pushed around a bit to the tune of a 5.06 ERA and a .284 batting average against.

Not So Cut and Dried

A few of the players on the team, though, defy an easy label.  In this difficult off-season, these will be the hardest decisions the organization will have to make, as guessing wrong will come with consequences.

Randal Grichuk

For the last two seasons, Randal has been the almost-emergent superstar.  In each of the last two seasons, his final numbers have disappointed.  But in both seasons he has shown enough hint of promise to earn another chance.

Grichuk finished 2017 with much the same totals as 2016.  The batting average fell a couple of notches to .238 (from .240) and the home runs dipped from 24 to 22.  He ended 2017 slugging .473 after slugging .480 the year before.  Overall, less than compelling.

But, he did hit .265/.303/.550 with 13 of his home runs in 189 at bats after the break.  So now, the organization has to decide if that was just a tease?  Or is it real progress?

He ended the year at just .218 (43 of 197) against winning teams, but hit 11 of his 22 home runs against them.  In the second half, he was 20 of 83 (.241) when playing winning teams, but with a .542 slugging percentage as half of those 20 hits went for extra bases – including 7 home runs.

In games after a loss, Randal checked in with a disappointing .201 average (36 of 179), including just .188 (15 for 80) in the second half – but again, with a .438 slugging percentage.

Randal mostly split right field with Piscotty in the season’s second half.  In Grichuk’s 34 starts the team was 22-12.  They were 13-18 in Piscotty’s 31 starts.

There is no question that Randal was productive in the second half.  His 13 home runs were only 3 behind team-leader Paul DeJong in 100 fewer at bats.  If the Grichuk of the second half had had a 500 at bat season he would have hit 34 home runs with his .265 batting average and .550 slugging percentage.

With Randal’s potential, you would hope for more than that.  But, if the Randal they saw in the second half is the Randal that they can count on seeing all of next year, I think they could accept that.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter’s entire season is tough to get a handle on.  On the one hand, he drew a career high 109 walks, leading to the second-highest on-base percentage of his career (.384).  On the other hand, his batting average continued to sink – down to .241 (30 points lower than his previous worst average).  On the other hand, he was apparently battling shoulder issues all season – perhaps accounting for much of that loss of production.  On the other hand, after playing in at least 154 games a year from 2013 through 2015, Matt has followed with two injury plagued seasons.  He also hit 23 home runs (his third consecutive 20-homer season) and slugged a solid .451.  His final OPS of .835 is still well above league average, but below either of his previous two seasons.

In his games against winning teams, Matt hit just .221 (49 of 222), but drew 38 walks, helping him to a .341 on base percentage.  He made 141 starts this year, with the team going 70-71 (.496) when he was in the lineup, and 13-8 (.619) when he wasn’t.

So did Matt have a good year or not? With the home runs and the on base, I suppose that I would have to call it good, but troubling.  By degrees, Matt is becoming more valuable for his ability to walk than for his ability to hit the ball.  And, by degrees, the team is starting to feel the loss of that big hit.

Carpenter is one of the team’s core members, and he will be on the field somewhere on opening day (barring another injury).  But a lot of elements in his career trajectory concern me.

Michael Wacha

While this was – in many ways – a triumphal season for Michael Wacha, he is still coming up short in these character games.  After suffering through three injury plagued seasons, an offseason workout regimen kept Michael on the field for 30 starts and 165.2 innings.  The anticipation is that his 12-9 record and 4.13 ERA will be marks to build on going forward.

It may, indeed, play out that way.  It is, nonetheless, true, that Wacha (who excelled against good teams and in stopper situations early in his career) continues to trend down in these games.

From 2013 through 2015, Wacha pitched in 40 games (35 starts) against teams that boasted winning records for the season.  He was 15-9 in those games with a 3.08 ERA and a .217 batting average against.

In 2013 and 2014, Wacha pitched in 12 games (10 starts) after a Cardinal loss.  He was 5-3 with a 2.88 ERA in those situations, holding batters to a .195 batting average.

In 2017, Wacha was only 2-6 in 12 starts against winning teams.  His 5.90 ERA was accompanied by a .296/.365/.502 batting line against.  He was 5-4 in 13 starts following a Cardinal loss, but with a 4.76 ERA.  Since 2015, Wacha is 4-10 against winning teams with a 5.70 ERA, and since 2014 he is 15-9, but with a 4.64 ERA in games after a loss.

Wacha is yet another enigma on this team.  Beyond the physical issues, there has been a palpable loss of mojo.  The spectacular hero of the 2013 playoffs has lost that big game feel.  Wacha is one of the players who could make a huge difference next year if he can channel his earlier self.

Carlos Martinez

In spite of the fact that he tossed his first two complete-game shutouts and crossed over both the 200-inning and 200-strikeout plateaus for the first time in his career, Carlos Martinez regressed noticeably in 2017.  After going 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA in 2015 (his first year in the rotation), and 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA last year, Carlos saw those numbers sink to 12-11 with a 3.64 ERA.  And the core difficulty that he had was with winning teams.

In his first two seasons in the rotation, Martinez had gone 12-9 with a 3.35 ERA against winning teams.  He had put together quality starts in 17 of his 26 starts against them.

He made 15 starts against winning teams this year.  Only 7 of those fulfilled the standards for a quality start.  Even though he has “stuff” the equal of any pitcher in the game, he was only 4-7 with a 4.28 ERA in those games.  He was just 1-3 with a 6.12 ERA with a .301 batting average against them in the second half of the season.  After allowing just 12 home runs in 166.2 innings against winning teams his first two years in the rotation, he served up 11 in 90.1 innings against them last year.

In all likelihood, this is just a bump in the road for Carlos.  But there were a couple of concerning developments that I noticed that need to be solved somehow, or Martinez will never realize his potential.

For one thing, Martinez continually tries to do too much.  His anointing as the ace of the staff this year may have fed into this tendency.  Especially in big games, he tries too much to give extra effort.  In a game that rewards players that learn to play within themselves, this will usually be counterproductive.

It was noted that Carlos complicated three consecutive late-season starts by throwing away routine double-play balls.  More than this, though, Martinez’ need to do too much affected his fielding for much of the season.  He dove, scrambled, and lunged for every near-by ground ball.  He probably caused nearly a dozen infield hits by deflecting grounders that would have been right to his infielders.

On several occasions, he even kicked at ground balls to his right, like a hockey goalie trying to make a skate save.  Now, I ask you, what good could come of that?  Who in the world could make a play on a ball that Carlos has deflected with his foot?

It’s all part and parcel of a young pitcher losing control of himself.

The other issue is even more concerning.  There sometimes – especially in big games – seems to be an emotional fragility to Martinez.  Something in his confidence seems to drain if the opposing team has early success against him.  He hasn’t fully mastered the ability to gather himself after bad things happen and continue to pitch within himself.

There is no better example of this than the game that sent the Cardinal season spinning toward its final destination (box score).

For ten batters on a beautiful Friday afternoon in Wrigley, Carlos Martinez was untouchable.  His 100-mph fast ball jumped and ran like a thing alive, and his slider was about eleven different flavors of filthy.  The defending champion Cubs – possessors of one of the most potent lineups in baseball – couldn’t touch him.  Five of the ten batters struck out, and four of the others hit groundouts.  Of his first 43 pitches, 30 were strikes.

Then Kris Bryant – the eleventh batter to face him – looped a fly ball to right on a 2-0 pitch.  It wasn’t hit terribly well or terribly far.  If this incident had happened at Busch, Piscotty would have probably been about a step on the track as he made the catch.  But in Wrigley it was just far enough to creep over that overhanging basket for a game-tying home run.

And with that, the air went out of Carlos Martinez.

The first 10 batters he faced got no hits.  Six of the last 16 he faced got hits.  After striking out 5 of the first 10, he didn’t strike out another batter.  While 30 of his first 43 pitches were strikes, only 31 of his final 57 made it to the strike zone.  None of the first 10 batters walked.  Carlos walked 3 of the last 16 and hit another as his once dominating slider flew wildly all over the place.

Carlos ended the affair lasting just 5.1 innings.  On a day that he started with devastating stuff, he ended serving up 7 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks.

Being “the man” requires uncommon mental and emotional discipline.  The next level for Martinez lies just beyond that barrier.

Let it be noted that in three years in the rotation, Carlos is 17-8 with a 2.96 ERA in games after a loss.  That includes his 4-3, 2.61 mark this year in those situations.

Better Than the Numbers Suggest

One player deserves mention in a better category.  His contribution was greater than his numbers might suggest.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler was the big free agent acquisition after being one of the drivers of Chicago’s championship the year before.  His final numbers were sort of ordinary (.264 batting average with 18 home runs).  He also hit just .225 (42 for 187) against winning teams, and .237 (52 of 219) in games following a loss.  Not overly impressive.

But Fowler’s season was a story of two halves.  Hobbled by a variety of injuries in the first half (mostly his feet), Dexter limped to a .248 average (albeit with 14 home runs).  He had hit .199 (27 of 136) against winning teams, and .201 (28 of 139) in games after a loss.

As his health improved, Fowler became a decided force for good throughout the second half.  He hit .288/.400/.488 after the break, including .294 with a .400 on base percentage against winning teams, and .300 with a .402 on base percentage in games after a loss.

The guy I saw at the end of the season is the guy I’m excited to see all year next year.

Setting the Bar

The Cardinals did have a few players who consistently rose to the challenge of the games against the better teams.  They should get a notice as well.

Tommy Pham

Tommy’s break-through season wasn’t limited to beating up on lesser teams.  Tommy hit .287 against over .500 teams with a .391 on base percentage.  He also hit .330/.451/.558 in games after a loss.  He also hit .305/.420/.514 with runners in scoring position.  Tommy had himself a year.

Lance Lynn

It’s probably fitting that I spend the last few paragraphs that I am likely to devote to the 2017 baseball season to Lance Lynn.  While the Cardinals repeatedly fell short against winning teams, Lance was 4-3 against them, with 4 other potential wins lost in the bullpen.  He posted a 3.09 ERA against these teams in 78.2 innings, with a .196 batting average against him.

Are we really, really sure we want to cut ties with him?

Final Word

Again, I am just one voice.  But the message clearly sent from the 2017 season is that this team’s greatest need is not some aging slugger to bat fourth.  The greatest gap between the Cards and the Cubs – and the other good teams in the majors – is the character gap.  If this were my team, this is the area that I would focus on first.

The Cardinals’ 2017 Season in Review

The story of the 2017 St Louis Cardinals season was very much like a drowning man continually fighting his way to the surface for, perhaps, one quick breath before sinking back down again.  At the end of the story – and the season – he finally goes down and doesn’t come back up.

In spite of a thrilling opening night win against Chicago (box score), the Cardinals began the season in a free-fall, cobbling together three straight three-game losing streaks.

On Sunday, April 16, the New York Yankees completed their three-game sweep of the Cardinals with a 9-3 victory (box score).  At this point, St Louis was 3-9 and quickly 4.5 games back (at that point behind the surprising Cincinnati team that was 8-5).

At this point, there weren’t many positives to hold on to.  The team was hitting .212 and scoring 3.50 runs per game.  Of the regulars, only Stephen Piscotty (.258) was hitting above .250 (although Jose Martinez, in limited playing time, had started off 6 for 12).  Among the scarier batting averages at this point, Randal Grichuk had started off at .182 (8 for 44), Kolten Wong was at .148 (4 for 27), Dexter Fowler started at .143 (7 for 49), and Jhonny Peralta was already on his way out.  The cleanup hitter on opening night, Peralta had started just 8 of the first 12, going 3 for 25 (.120).

(Peralta would hang on the Cardinal roster until June 13 when he would be released with a .204 batting average.  Later that month, Boston would sign him to a minor league contract.  He would play 10 games with Pawtucket in the International League, where he would hit .200 and be released again.)

The starting pitching – ironically enough – was the one aspect of the team that wasn’t terrible.  They contributed a 3.80 ERA at that point, led by Mike Leake, who allowed only 1 run through his first two starts.  Michael Wacha (3.00) and Carlos Martinez (3.57) had also pitched well, with Lance Lynn (5.23) and Adam Wainwright (7.24) struggling out of the gate.

The stunning development of this opening salvo was the failing of the bullpen.  Twelve games into the season, closer Seung-hwan Oh had one blown save and carried a 9.64 ERA.  He had served up 2 home runs in his first 4.2 innings.  The bullpen as a whole hit mid-April with a 7.34 ERA in 34.1 innings.

The First Bounce Back

But, beginning with three straight 2-1 victories against Pittsburgh from April 17-19, the drowning Cardinals pulled themselves back to the surface.  They would go 18-6 over their next 24 games, pulling into first place in their division for the only time all season.  After a 5-0 conquest of the Cubs on May 14 (box score), the Cards stood 21-15 and 1 whole game in first place. The run included a perfect 6-0 road trip through Atlanta and Miami.

During the streak, the Cardinals showed the first glimpse of the team we thought we would see most of the season.  They scored 5.13 runs per game during that stretch, hitting .285 as a team.

This run featured the last hot streak that Matt Adams would have as a member of the Cards.  He played in 18 of the 24 games, hitting .435 (10 for 23) and slugging .652 (2 doubles and 1 home run). Adams, of course, was later given to Atlanta, where – finally getting consistent playing time – Matt finished the season hitting 19 home runs and hitting .271 in 100 games as a Brave.

At about this point of the season, the first two contributors from Memphis arrived in the majors and began having an impact.

Exciting rookie, Magneuris Sierra played in his first 6 major league games, hitting .375 (9 for 24).  This was also the beginning of the Summer of Pham.

Cut from the big league roster in favor of Jose Martinez at the start of the season, Tommy Pham arrived from Memphis sending the clear signal that he would not be returning.  In his first 9 game back, Tommy hit a scorching .371 (13 for 35) that included 4 doubles and 3 home runs.  In those first 9 games, Tommy scored 8 runs, drove in 8 runs, and slugged .743.

This was also the beginning of a surprising transformation in Jedd Gyorko.  Having taken over at third base, and showing a surprising willingness to drive the ball to right field, Gyorko hit .363 (29 for 80) while playing 22 of the 24 games.  Thirteen of the 29 hits went for extra-bases (five of them home runs) leading to a .663 slugging percentage during this stretch.

Other hot hitters during this 24-game surge included Fowler, who slashed .295/.405/.623; Wong, who rebounded from his slow start to hit .294 and cement his place as the starting second baseman; Yadier Molina, who hit .288; and Grichuk, who showed some life with a .279 batting average and 2 home runs.

Of the prominent Cardinal hitters, the only one who really struggled during this stretch of games, was Piscotty.  Stephen, whose season was just beginning to unravel, hit .229 (11 for 48) during these games.

On the pitching side, the resurgence was led by Lance Lynn.  Four of his five starts in that stretch were quality starts, as he went 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA.  Leake’s hot start was still continuing.  He was 3-1, 2.59 while throwing 5 consecutive quality starts.  Wacha continued to do well (1-0, 3.28), and Martinez did okay (3-1, 4.06).  Adam Wainwright was still lagging at this point of the season.  Only 1 of his 5 starts was a quality start, and while his record was 3-0, his ERA sat at 4.40.

But the biggest change – and the one causing the greatest sigh of relief – came from the bullpen.  Disastrous through the first 12 games, the pen crafted a 2.58 ERA over these 24 games.  Front and center were the two lynchpins who handled the end-game responsibilities.

Shrugging off his early struggles, Seung-hwan Oh allowed just 1 run over his next 14 innings (0.64 ERA) and rattled off 10 consecutive saves.  Trevor Rosenthal added 3 saves and 4 holds with a 1.38 ERA while striking out 21 batters in 13 innings.

And Then Boston Came to Town

But, having finally broken the surface, the drowning man immediately went back down.  Into town came the Boston Red Sox.  While St Louis played some games against Milwaukee and Chicago during their surge, they primarily took advantage of lesser teams.  In a pattern that would repeat itself several times during the 2017 season, the surging ceased as the better teams showed up on the schedule.

Boston threw a first dash of cold water on the Cardinal flames.  They swept the two game series, with the second game serving as a template for a season full of agonizing defeats.

While Mike Leake was throwing 6 outstanding innings, the Cardinals were ready for Rick Porcello.  Porcello – who would end the season leading the majors in losses – served a leadoff home run to Fowler, and then 3 more runs in the second – the biggest hit being an RBI double from Wong.

But that would be it.  After two productive innings, the Cardinals would be done scoring, leaving the pitching staff to twist in the wind.  Boston finally broke through for a couple of runs against Leake in the seventh, but Mike still walked off the mound after 7 handing off a 4-2 lead to his red-hot bullpen.

Up to that point, the Cards had had multiple opportunities to administer the knock-out blow.  Wong had a runner at second with two-out in the third, but he struck out.  Leake, himself, led off the fourth with a double, and Fowler walked.  But Pham took the wind out of the sails by bouncing into a double play and Matt Carpenter struck out.  After Boston closed the gap in the top of the seventh, Molina had yet another opportunity to return the momentum to the Cardinal sideline with two-on and two-out.  He grounded out.

In another repeated development, the eighth inning would prove toxic to the bullpen.  This time it was Rosenthal – so hot recently – serving up the tying runs, and the game went into extra-innings.  Deep into extra-inning.

From the ninth inning through the twelfth, St Louis went 0 for 11 with one walk – Pham, who was promptly thrown out stealing.  Boston finally scored the winning run in the top of the thirteenth.  The Cards followed by putting one runner on base – Aledmys Diaz’ two out walk – in the bottom of the inning.  He was stranded as St Louis concluded the game without a hit over their last five innings and without a run over their final 11 innings.

This was only one loss (box score), but all of these elements would recur again and again.  The early lead not added onto.  The multiple opportunities for the knockout hit that would never come.  The late inning bullpen implosion – these were all the building blocks of the disappointing season ahead.

Beginning with this sweep, and continuing through a season-defining 0-7 road trip through Chicago and Cincinnati that ended on June 8, St Louis lost 17 of 22 games.  The losses included two more 13-inning losses against San Francisco and Los Angeles.  The San Francisco game was another signature loss (box score).  Matched against Jeff Samardzija (who would end the season tied for the National League lead in losses with 15), Carlos Martinez would throw one of the best games of his career, walking off the mound after 9 innings having given only 2 hits and no runs.  Unfortunately, the Cards never solved Samardzija either.  They wouldn’t score until the bottom of the thirteenth, when, already trailing 3-0, Stephen Piscotty would drive in a run with a two-out single, bringing Matt Carpenter to the plate as the tying run.  Seven pitches later, he would end the game with a fly-out.

Over the 22 games, the Cardinal offense disappeared again, hitting .226 and scoring just 3.05 runs per game.  Kolten Wong had just begun an offensive explosion that might have made a difference – he hit .381 over 8 games – but an injury sent him to the sidelines.  The disappearing bats though these games included Fowler (.214), Carpenter (.165), Jose Martinez – for the first time this season (.158), and Grichuk (.135).

On the pitching end, a lot of excellent starting pitching was wasted by the enfeebled offense and collapsing bullpen.  Carlos Martinez compiled a 2.35 ERA through 4 starts, but was just 1-2.  Lynn was 0-2 in spite of a 3.07 ERA in his 5 starts.  Leake took on some water for the first time this season, but still managed a respectable 3.74 ERA.  That, unfortunately, was good for only a 1-3 record.  Adam Wainwright’s ERA improved to 3.91 during his 4 starts – and even led to a 3-1 record.  Wacha hit the roughest patch from the rotation.  He was 0-2, 7.79 in 4 starts.

And then, of course, the bullpen.  Everyone but Oh (2.16 ERA in 8.1 innings) regressed during this stretch.  Rosenthal (4.91), Brett Cecil (5.40), Kevin Siegrist (5.68), Matthew Bowman (7.20), Tyler Lyons (7.50), and Jonathan Broxton (9.64) all had prominent hands in the 6.30 bullpen ERA that helped define that stretch of games.  Siegrist and Broxton would both finish the season out of the picture.  Broxton would be released on May 31 with a 6.89 ERA in 15.2 innings.  Once an elite late inning pitcher, Siegrist was never able to overcome recent injuries.  Philadelphia claimed him off of waivers on September 2.  Kevin held a 4.98 ERA with St Louis in 34.1 innings.  He pitched 5 innings with Philly, allowing 2 runs on 4 hits.

For all the good of the earlier 18-6 stretch, the Cards could never pull themselves out of their dive – another pattern that would repeat all season.  Fifty-eight games into the season, this team was 26-32, and back to 4.5 games behind.

Things brightened for a moment, as a visit from a bad Philadelphia team sparked a four game winning streak that narrowed the gap back to just 1.5 games, but that was just a pause.  St Louis went on to lose 8 of their next 11.  On the morning of June 25, they sat 33-40, 5 games behind in the division.

Not Dead Yet

Beginning with an 8-4 victory over Pittsburgh on June 25 (box score), the Cardinals began the most encouraging section of their season.  Over the next 44 games, this flawed and unbalanced team went 28-16 (a .636 clip).  If they could have sustained that pace through the whole season (and I am not implying that 44 games means that they could have sustained this pace through the whole season) they would have been a 103-win team.

Forty-four games is more than a quarter of the season.  It is a substantial chunk of the games played, and clarifies what this team needs to looks like for it to win.

The offense hit .272 and scored 5.30 runs per game over that long stretch of the season.

Tommy Pham played in all 44 of the games, hitting .338 with a .435 on-base percentage.  He scored 35 runs in those 44 games.  Kolten Wong chipped in with a .310 average – although, once again a variety of injuries held him to just 29 games.  Molina hit .299.  Jose Martinez was still limited to just fourth outfielder status, but in his 75 plate appearances he slashed .295/.413/.508.

Important to this run of offensive production were the contributions of Matt Carpenter and Randal Grichuk.  Mired in the worst season of his career, so far, Carpenter enjoyed his one sustained burst of offensive production during these games.  He only hit 1 home run during the 41 games he played, but he hit .284 and drew 30 walks (remember this was just 41 games) for a .418 on base percentage.

Grichuk didn’t awe anyone with his batting average (.263), but he hit 11 home runs and drove in 25 runs in the 37 games he played.  His .579 slugging percentage was second on the team during this stretch of games.  Second to a middle infielder who wasn’t even on the club when they broke camp.

In the middle of all of this offense was promising rookie Paul DeJong.  The best part of the Cardinal season corresponded almost exactly to that point in the proceedings when Aledmys Diaz was dispatched to Memphis and DeJong was implanted at shortstop.  During this 44-game run, DeJong played in 43 of them, hitting .304 with 12 home runs, 30 runs batted in, and a .589 slugging percentage.  In fact from the date that DeJong took over at short, St Louis went 48-39 to the end of the season – a .552 winning percentage that would have been good enough for a playoff berth could that have been sustained for the whole season.

Fading during this stretch of games were third baseman Jedd Gyorko (.232) and Piscotty (.178).  Stephen played in only 22 of the games before being sent to Memphis.

But the offense was only half of the story.  The team that would finish the season with a 4.01 overall earned run average, saw its beleaguered pitching staff rise to the occasion with a 3.17 ERA over these 44 games.  The team that would end the season without a quality start in any of its last 16 games, fashioned 26 during these games.

As the Cards hit their peak, the anchor of the rotation was Lance Lynn.  With 8 quality starts in 9 games, Lance was 5-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 54.2 innings during this run.  Right behind him was Michael Wacha.  Wacha’s season was very uneven, but very encouraging in spots.  This was one of those.  He threw 5 quality starts in 8 games, fashioning a 6-1 record and a 2.22 ERA.

This was also the part of the season where Adam Wainwright gave way to Luke Weaver in the rotation.  Adam went 5-0 with a 3.89 ERA over his last 7 starts.

Starting to seriously fade at this juncture of the season was April star Mike Leake.  While the rest of the team was jelling, Leake scuffled along with a 2-4 record and a 4.34 ERA.  Leake, at this point, was also not far removed from his trade to Seattle.  After a 9-12, 4.69 season in 2016, Mike was 7-12, 4.21 in 2017 – even after his strong start.  He finished up his season going 3-1 with a 2.53 ERA in 5 starts for the Mariners.

Most surprising were the continued struggles of presumptive ace Carlos Martinez.  During his 9 starts during this run, Carlos was just 3-3 with a 4.83 ERA.

Still, with the starters shouldering 255.2 innings over those games, the bullpen picked up only 133.1, and prospered to the tune of a 2.57 ERA.  Only 9 of 44 inherited runners (20.5%) ended up scoring.

Topping the list of achievers were John Brebbia and Tyler Lyons (both with 1.53 ERAs in 17.2 innings), and Matthew Bowman (1.80 in 15 innings).  Seung-hwan Oh did well (3.18 in 17 innings) but was already starting to fade.

Critical to this run of victories was Trever Rosenthal, who regained his ninth-inning job at this point of the season.  He ran off 8 consecutive saves, posting a 2.21 ERA over 20.1 innings.  Not, I think, coincidentally, Rosenthal’s season ended with the last game of this run.  After searching all season to find their ninth-inning guy, the Cards – who had finally clambered back into a first place tie at 61-56 on August 12 – would now have to go the last 45 games of their season without him.

The 28-16 run finished off with the Cardinals’ longest winning streak of the year – an 8-game run from August 5 through August 12.  In the second game of that streak, the Cards would erupt for 9 runs in the fourth inning, breaking open what had been a narrow 4-3 lead and sending them onto a comfortable 13-4 victory in Cincinnati.  Through the previous 110 games, St Louis had scored in double figures just 7 times.  Beginning with that game (box score), they would score in double figures 8 times over their last 52 games.  St Louis scored at least 5 runs in only 48 of their first 110 games (44%).  From August 6 on, they scored at least 5 runs in half of their games.

But it Wouldn’t Last

Of course, as soon as St Louis fought its way back into a first-place tie, they immediately hit the skids again.  Ten losses over the next 16 games pushed them back down to .500 at 66-66.  A couple of weeks before, they had been tied for first.  Now they were back to 6 games out.  The losses included two more to Boston, one of them won by Porcello.

For the season, the Cardinals – who always seemed to climbing out of holes – ended 152 games of the season trailing in the division.  They spent 59% of the season trailing by at least 3.5 games, and were 5 or more games out for almost a quarter of the season (23.5%).  Out of 162 games, they ended 2 tied for first, ended 5 others a half-game ahead, and 3 glorious games leading the division by one whole game.

Trailing again by six games, the Cards weren’t done yet.  Heading to San Francisco with 30 games left, the Cards put on one last furious spurt.  They would win 10 of the next 13 bringing them one last time to within reach of the division lead.  On the morning of Wednesday, September 13, they sat 76-68, just 2 games behind Chicago.

That last game – a 13-4 battering of Cincinnati (box score) – completed a 71-game stretch going back to late June during which the Cards had gone 43-28 (a .606 clip) – even including the 6-10 swoon just after tying for first.  Over this extended streak of games (nearly half a season) they had averaged 5.31 runs per game with a 3.56 team ERA.  They hit .283 with runners in scoring position.  They had gone 23-11 at home, and 20-17 on the road.  They were 20-9 in games after a loss.  They were 14-9 in opening games of series, and 18-4 in the second games of those series.  They were 11-5 when facing a left-handed starter.  They scored in double figures 12 times, and five or more runs 34 times, while allowing ten runs or more only 3 times and 5 or more just 26 times.

The stretch even included the Cards going 12-11 against winning teams.

While the final analysis of this team will focus on their very significant shortcomings, it should be remembered that this team played .600 ball for almost half of the season.  This was all after they had re-invented themselves with the additions of Pham, DeJong and Weaver.  And this is without, yet, fully realizing the impact Jose Martinez would have down the stretch.

Down One Final Time

After struggling for so long and so hard to make it back to the surface, the drowning man went down for the final time in the waning weeks of September.  A slight stumble in the second game of the Cincinnati series sent them into Chicago 3 games down with 16 to play.  Seven of those 16 would be against the Cubs, so everything was on the table.

But, beginning with that Friday afternoon contest in Chicago (box score), the Cardinals began the collapse that would leave them playing out the string at the end of the season.  They would lose 10 of their last 16 games – including 6 of the 7 against Chicago.  After all the ups and downs, they finished 83-79, 9 games behind.

The season ending collapse saw the sometimes dynamic offense putt to the finish.  They hit just .231 down the stretch.  Battling injuries all season, Dexter Fowler did what he could to lead this team.  He hit .333, driving in 12 runs over his last 12 games with a .625 slugging percentage.  Tommy Pham also finished strong – hitting .309/.424/.527.

But too many of the major players faded badly at the end.  Stephen Piscotty finished the season as the primary right fielder, but limped to the end with a .184 average.  Yadier Molina was hitting just .167 in 9 games until his season ended with him in concussion protocol.  Carson Kelly took over and hit .172 the rest of the way.  Kolten Wong ended his best-ever season hobbled by back issues.  He played in only 9 of the last 16 games, and struggled to a .138 average when he did play.

But the struggles of the hitters paled in comparison to the melt-down going on in the rotation.

Without a quality start over the last 16 games of the season, the starting rotation pitched only 70 of the last 142 innings.  The best of the lot ended up being Wacha, but at 0-2 with a 5.40 ERA over his last three starts his performance was a bit south of excellent.  Behind him, Jack Flaherty was 0-1, 6.75 in 2 starts and one relief appearance; John Gant was 0-1 with a 7.00 ERA, also in 2 starts and 1 relief appearance.  Carlos Martinez finished 1-1, 7.31 over his last 3 starts.  And the worst of the group were the two pitchers who had been revelations for most of the year.  Lance Lynn managed just 9.2 innings over his last 3 starts.  He was 0-1 with an 11.17 ERA.  Impressive rookie Luke Weaver – who fashioned the team’s very last quality start – finished 1-1 with an 11.37 ERA over his last 3 outings.

The last 16 Cardinal starters of the season compiled a 7.97 ERA with a .306 batting average against.

Behind them, the expanded bullpen did well enough, although Bowman gave up clutch runs in some important games.  They held a 3.00 ERA over their last 72 innings of the season, but were charged with 3 of the last 10 losses.  The late addition of Juan Nicasio added stability.  For too many of the last 16 games, though, the issue was already decided before the bullpen could have an impact.

Although the final image was of a team almost no hit on the last day of the season – on its way to finishing 9 games behind, the truth is that the gulf wasn’t that great.  In fact, if the youth movement had started a little earlier and some critical pieces of the puzzle had had just a little better luck with injuries (Wong, Fowler, Carpenter, Molina, Gyorko, Wainwright, Rosenthal, even Jose Martinez was slowed at the end by a bad thumb) this team – warts and all – would probably have made it to Arizona for the wildcard game.

Seeing them advance much farther, though, is difficult.  But the issues to address are things we’ll leave for the next installment.