While victories haven’t been plentiful in the month that cost the Cardinals the services of their manager, there has been plenty of excitement. The Cards have scored 68 runs during July’s first 13 games (5.23 per), and they have surrendered 64 runs in those games (4.92 runs per game).
During these mostly offensive contests, there have been many moments of fine pitching. The difference lately has been pitchers on both sides handling the stress of having multiple runners on base.
In the last game before the All-Star break, Cardinal pitchers held Cincinnati batters to a .188/.350/.250 batting line with no one on base. For the month so far, Cardinal pitchers are performing well with the bases empty – a .215/.280/.297 batting line.
Similarly, the Cardinal hitters did little against the Cincinnati pitchers with no one on base – the .217/.217/.478 batting line was improved by the two solo home runs. This month, so far, Cardinal hitters have been less than dominant with the bases empty – .237/.295/.381.
But when the heat was on, both pitching staffs struggled under the added stress.
With two or more runners on, Cincinnati went 4-for-7 in Sunday’s game – including Adam Duvall’s two-run single and Jose Peraza’s RBI single, both with the bases loaded in the fourth. Opposing batters are hitting .368/.417/.513 this month with multiple runners on base. This includes 8-for-21 (.381) with the bases loaded.
For their part, the Cardinal hitters have returned the favor. They only had 5 at bats on Sunday with multiple runners on base, but came through with two very clutch hits – Tommy Pham’s two-run single with the bases loaded, and Yadier Molina’s RBI single with runners at first and second in the decisive four-run Cardinal fourth. They are hitting .368/.413/.632 this month with more than one runner on base.
Stress – as they say – can be a killer.
On Sunday, it was just enough heroics to give the Cards a squeaky 6-4 victory in Mike Shildt’s managerial debut (box score). Even with the win, the Cards begin the second half of the season tomorrow night just 48-46 and 6-7 for July.
One of the casualties of the managerial change was the end of Paul DeJong’s hitting streak. Stretching back to before his injury, Paul was riding a nine-game hitting streak. Granted, it wasn’t the world’s most destructive hitting streak. He hit only .286 during the streak (10 for 35), with only 2 doubles and 1 run batted in. Paul has only one extra-base hit since returning from his broken wrist – so his power stroke hasn’t completely returned just yet. But he does look like he’s getting closer.
Before his injury, DeJong was a better ignitor than he has been since his return. Presented with bases empty situations, Paul was 24 for his first 86 – a .279 batting average. He was 0-for-3 with the bases empty on Sunday, leaving him 4-for-18 (.222) with the bases empty after his injury. Not only are all the hits singles, but two of those hits were infield hits. Paul has only walked once in his last 19 plate appearances with the bases empty. Through all of this, I have gotten the distinct impression that Paul just isn’t comfortable yet. It will come.
Paul did have an opportunity to put the game out of reach in the fourth. He was up with runners at first and second and two out – Cards holding a 6-3 lead. He lined out to end the inning. Throughout the beginning of his young career, Paul has done a lot of impressive things. Hitting with multiple runners on base has not yet been an area of excellence. He is only 6 of 32 so far this season (.188) with two or more runners on – although three of those hits have been three-run home runs. Last year, he had 65 plate appearances with ducks (plural) on the pond. He responded with 10 singles (2 of the infield variety), 5 doubles, 2 walks (1 intentional), 17 strikeouts, one hit-by-pitch, and one sacrifice fly – a .246/.277/.328 batting line. He is now 21 for 93 (.226) in these situations for his young career.
Inheriting a spot in the every-day lineup due to Jose Martinez’ defensive inconsistencies (or, perhaps consistencies), Jedd Gyorko limped to the end of the first half. Hitless in 3 at bats on Sunday, Gyorko is 1 for 14 (.071) over his last 4 games.
Nobody responds to multiple baserunners better than Jedd. His hitless at bats on Sunday all came with less than two runners on. He is now hitting .218 (41 for 188) this season in those situations. He is a .524 hitter (11 for 21) when he gets to hit with multiple runners on base.
Also limping to the end of the first half was Kolten Wong. Torrid through most of the month, Wong finished 0-for-3 on Sunday and finished the half 1 for 13 over his last 4 games (.077).
Speaking of bases-empty situations, Wong – who has re-invented himself as an ignitor – has never warmed this year to these opportunities. All of his at bats Sunday were in bases empty situations. He is now a .176 hitter this year (23 for 131) in his opportunities to get things started.
Miles Mikolas finished a very strong first half on a less than spectacular note. He finished only 4 innings, giving 3 runs on 6 hits. He had produced quality starts in 7 of his previous 8 starts, going 4-3 in those games. His 2.76 ERA over those starts was complimented by a .224/.273/.301 batting line.
All of Cincinnati’s opportunities with multiple base-runners on Sunday came during Miles abbreviated start. This has been something of an enduring problem for Mikolas. In those high-stress situations, Miles has allowed 15 hits in 44 at bats – a .341 batting average.
Perhaps earning a larger role in the season’s second half is John Gant. He got the win in Shildt’s first game with 4 scoreless innings of relief. He has pitched in 5 games since his last recall from AAA – three starts and two relief appearances. In the combined 24.1 innings represented by those games, John holds a 2.22 ERA and a .149 opponent’s batting average (he has surrendered just 13 hits in those innings).
Is it the innings? The Cardinal’s talented 21-year-old rookie ended the first half with 48 innings pitched. Has the league adjusted on him? Is the fact that his command has never been stellar finally catching up with him?
Whatever the reason, the formerly untouchable Mr. Hicks is now one of the team’s most hittable relievers. Trying to reel in Sunday’s win, Jordan Hicks held on for the save – but not until he surrendered another run on 2 more hits. This is now four consecutive games in which Jordan has surrendered runs – a total of 7 runs over his last 3.1 innings. In addition, he has allowed 4 of his last 5 inherited runners to cross the plate. The last 21 batters he has faced are hitting .474 against the flame-throwing Hicks. He has thrown strikes with just 59% of his last 80 pitches.
On the Dismissal of Mike Matheny
Speaking of performance under stress, one game before the end of the first half, the Cardinal front office announced that manager Mike Matheny (and two of his coaches) would serve as scapegoats for the team’s struggling start.
This happens all the time in baseball, and no one should be too surprised when it shakes out this way. Clearly, though, this is just a cosmetic move on the part of what has become a questionable Cardinal management group.
Far from being the problem, Matheny’s performance under the stress of the 2018 season has been – I think – admirable.
Let’s begin with the injuries. First and foremost, the bullpen. A suspect area from the beginning of the season, such arms as Matheny was given to face an increasingly challenging division went down in droves. Matthew Bowman, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Greg Holland, Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons and Ryan Sherriff – all of whom were counted on to play prominent roles in the Cardinal pen – have missed significant time due to injuries.
If that weren’t bad enough, many of these pitchers have tried to compete in spite of their compromised health – resulting in more than a few damaging performances.
In addition, Matheny had to battle with most of his anticipated starting rotation missing much of the first half. Alex Reyes and Adam Wainwright have missed virtually the entire season, while Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha have each missed substantial parts.
He also had to deal with the loss of perhaps the most indispensable Cardinal – Yadier Molina – for about a month.
But this was only the tip of the adversity of the first half.
In addition to the loss of the guts of his pitching staff, Matheny’s Cardinals endured horrific slumps from most of his most needed bats. Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong all spent most of the first half hitting below .200. After a torrid start, Tommy Pham joined the slumping hitters. Marcell Ozuna has never settled in – he hit the All-Star break with a very pedestrian .268/.309/.385 batting line, and promising shortstop DeJong joined most of the pitching staff and Molina on the disabled list for about half of the first half.
And in spite of all of this, Matheny’s Cards hung in the race at 47-46. In my mind an impressive feat in and of itself. Even more impressive to me is that his team never gave in to the adversity. At no point did they blame injuries. At no time did they divide. The pitchers never pointed at the hitters, the starters never faulted the bullpen. To a man, every player on that team – through the end of Matheny’s tenure – believed that they would overcome all of this and make the playoffs. In spite of mounds of statistical evidence that paints this team as a mediocre collection, the team itself never bought into that.
In fact, Matheny stayed with his struggling hitters until all of them (except Fowler) eventually worked their way out of their slumps. Against the outside pressure on him to give up on these players – especially Fowler and Wong – Mike maintained his belief in them. That is a hard thing to do.
In fact, if anyone’s feet should be held to the fire over the Cardinals’ tepid start this season, it should be that management group. They are, essentially, coming off three or four pretty bad off seasons in a row. Over the last couple in particular, these guys have brought Fowler, Ozuna and Holland to the team with great fanfare. To this point, it is clear that all of these big “gets” were significantly over-rated by the front office – which also truly failed to fix the bullpen problem that they knew they would enter the season with. In the case of Marcell Ozuna, his acquisition cost the Cardinals the career of the electric Sandy Alcantara – a decision I fear the franchise will regret for quite a few years to come.
Interestingly, another of the big “gets” over the last winter was pitching coach Mike Maddux. While Matheny paid with his head for the team-wide struggles, hitting coaches John Mabry and Bill Mueller suffered similar fates for the team hitting struggles. But although the tepid bullpen (they finished the first half with a woeful 4.48 ERA) is as responsible for the team’s stagnant start as the inconsistent hitting, apparently Mr. Maddux gets a pass. In the end, Mike Matheny pays for the consistent failures on John Mozeliak and the management group.
The upshot here is not devastating for the Cardinals. There are other very fine managers out there – and Mike Shildt may prove to be one of those. In temperament he seems similar to Matheny. (Matheny – by the way – becomes the first Cardinal manager to be dismissed during the season since Joe Torre in 1995. Things worked out well enough for Mr. Torre, and I have no doubt that if Mike Matheny wants to continue managing, he will enjoy great success elsewhere.) I hope that – if this management group can find another fine manager, they will support him with a better cast of players.
The thing, ultimately, that I find most disturbing about this is that the Cardinals have now become “that” organization. A team whose recent past has been governed by long-term value, has now become that franchise that reacts – and even over-reacts – to short term pressures. With one of the most promising farm systems in baseball about to send a great many exciting players to the majors, I am increasingly concerned that management will continue to give them away in their insatiable lust for that “impact bat” for the middle of the lineup.
It is here hoped that the ownership group will keep a close eye on them and make some kind of intervention before this would be allowed to happen.
That would go a long way to reducing my stress.