Tag Archives: Mikolas

Carlos Martinez as Closer?

It was not quite a week ago that the Cardinals wrapped up one of the most successful months in their storied history.  With last Friday’s 12-5 conquest of Cincinnati, St Louis put the cherry on a 22-6 month.  The surprise feature of the historic month was the emergence of the bullpen.

An early-season disaster area, the relief corps contributed a 2.82 ERA to the August effort. Opposing hitters managed just a .214 average against these talented but young arms.  In 92.2 innings the bullpen allowed just 6 home runs, 13 doubles and no triples – a .307 slugging percentage against.

And then the calendar flipped to September.

Through the first four games of the season’s ultimate month, the bullpen suffered at least a hiccup, if not a major regression.  Through the first 21 bullpen innings of September, the relief corps surrendered 13 runs (12 earned) on 21 hits and 14 walks.  The hits included 4 home runs – three off the fingertips of presumptive closer Bud Norris – in just 1.1 innings.

Looking for just their second win in five games this month, the Cardinals thought they might breathe a little.  A 3-run first (courtesy of Matt Adams’ first Cardinal home run in a couple of years) – followed by 2 more runs in the second – gave them an early cushion.  A fifth-inning run (courtesy of Adams’ second home run of the night) made it 6-0 Cardinals.

But then, leading 7-2 in the seventh, starter Miles Mikolas ran into a spot of two-out trouble.  A Bryce Harper single and a double off the bat of Anthony Rendon brought Juan Soto to the plate with two runners in scoring position.  With 107 pitches thrown and 12 hits given up, Mikolas was certainly a candidate for relief.  Whatever misgivings manager Mike Shildt may have had toward his bullpen, they were not in evidence here.  Into the game came the usually reliable Dakota Hudson.

Dakota did get that final out of the inning – seventeen pitches later when Pedro Severino slashed a sharp line drive into right-center that the ever-quick Harrison Bader caught up to.  In between, a walk, a double, a single and a wild pitch had turned an early laugher into a tense 7-6 games.

What now?

The usual eighth- and ninth inning duo has been Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris.  But Hicks had pitched in both of the previous games (and warmed up several times).  With his work-load already approaching 70 innings (with a month left in the season), the 22-year-old (as of today) fire-baller has increasingly shown the strain of the season.  And Norris – of course – had suddenly sprung a leak.

At this point, the September bullpen had pitched to a 5.91 ERA.  They had thrown only 57% of their pitches for strikes – walking 15 batters in 21.1 innings – with a distressing opponent’s batting line of .288/.392/.588.

The ending tonight would be different.

On this night, the hero of the bullpen would be erstwhile starter Carlos Martinez.  The last six outs would belong to him.  He would get them, but – as has been true for most of this early month – it would not be easy.  After 40 more pitches – which included two singles, a runner reaching on an error, and 4 strikeouts, Carlos finally got Michael Taylor to chase a slider running out of the strike zone for the last out in a tenser-than-desired 7-6 victory (box score).

Carlos the Closer?

The two innings and 40 pitches preclude Martinez from being used again anytime soon, but does raise the intriguing concept of Carlos Martinez as Cardinal closer.  Norris has done an admirable job through most of the season, and a couple of bad outings in a row doesn’t necessarily mean that he is collapsing.  So any continued faith that Shildt has in him would not be unjustified.

At the same time, Bud has never been a closer in September for a team in the hunt.  This is unknown territory for him.  It is also so for Martinez, who did pitch out of the bullpen in September and the playoffs during his first two years (2013-2014) – but not as closer.

Since the All-Star Break, Norris is 6-for-6 in save opportunities when entering with a 3-run lead, allowing no runs and just 2 singles in 6 innings in those games.  He is only 5-for-8 when he has less than those three runs.  In the 6.2 innings he’s lasted in these contests, Bud holds an 8.10 ERA, with a .355/.487/.581 batting line against.

For the season, Norris is 14-of-14 with a 1.84 ERA and a .152/.200/.152 batting line against in save opportunities of 3-or-more runs.  When brought in to protect a 1- or 2-run lead, he is a much more pedestrian 14-of-19, with a 4.82 ERA and a .286 batting average against.  He has walked 9 batters and hit another in those 18.2 innings.

Carlos has only made 7 relief appearances – only once as the closer – but so far so good.  He has allowed just 1 run in 8.1 relief innings.

Should Martinez get more of these late-game opportunities, it raises an intriguing possibility.  Carlos was the team’s opening day starter in New York, where he threw the first pitch of the Cardinal season.  The Cardinal second half began on the road in Chicago, where Martinez again threw the first pitch of the second half.  St Louis’ season will end in Chicago, giving Carlos the opportunity to throw the last pitch of the Cardinal season.  I’m sure it’s been done before, but that would be a curious trifecta.

Miles Mikolas

Having already surpassed his career-high in innings (at least at the major league level – he threw 188 in Japan last year) Mikolas has struggled some, recently.  Although he missed by one out last night, Miles has only 1 quality start in his last 5 outings, while pitching to a 4.60 ERA over 29.1 innings.

This was the second time in three starts that Miles has served up 12 hits (Colorado had that many in 4.2 innings on August 24).  Over the 16.1 innings covered by those last three starts, Mikolas has served up 32 hits, with a .421 batting average against.

That being said, Miles hasn’t shown much signs of prospering on extra-rest.  He was pitching on six-days rest last night.  Since the break, he has pitched on extra rest 5 times.  In those games, he has worked 29.1 innings with a 4.91 ERA and a .336 batting average against.  His ERA is just 2.16 in the 4 games this half he has pitched on four-days of rest.

He has a 2.35 ERA this season when starting on four-days.

Fireworks from the Offense

After driving 40 home runs and averaging 5.29 runs per game in 28 games through that exciting August, the offense took a little breather during the first three games of September – all loses.  In those games, they totaled 7 runs and 1 home run.

Frankly, the only reason St Louis isn’t off to an 0-5 start this month is the return the last two games of the August offense.  Over their last 18 innings, Cardinal batsmen have smacked 8 home runs and piled up 18 runs – in both cases, barely enough to survive short starts and shaky bullpen efforts.

Marcell Ozuna

One of the things the offense could really use is a return to 2017 form for Marcell Ozuna.  Hitless in his first 8 at bats after a short DL stint, Ozuna has been one of the heroes of the last two games.  Marcell drilled two home runs on Tuesday night, and followed with 4 singles last night.

Ozuna – whose second-half average is up to .298 (45 for 151) with 8 home runs – was starting to turn things around noticeably in August before his injury.  In 20 August games, he hit .321 (26 for 81).

Jose Martinez

After leading the team with a .389 batting average in August, Jose Martinez began September in a mini-swoon (one single in his first 15 at bats).  He looked more like the old Jose last night, as he contributed 3 singles.  Martinez is now hitting .336 (48 for 143) in the second half.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter didn’t contribute as loudly as he usually does in a Cardinal victory, but he still added a single, a double, a run batted in and 2 runs scored.  Since the break, Matt is a .290/.418/.639 hitter with 16 home runs, 36 runs scored, and 33 runs batted in in 46 games (and those kind of RBIs are tough to achieve when you hit leadoff).  Matt has also been intentionally walked 13 times over his last 46 games.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong hit one of the home runs in Tuesday’s game, but can’t seem to keep anything sustained.  After his 0-for-5 last night, Paul is still hitting just .200 in the second half (34 for 170) – albeit, now, with 8 home runs.

NoteBook

Up next is a three-game set in Detroit.  After that St Louis plays 13 of its next 16 at home.  If this team can figure out its own home park (they are 37-31 at home) they could have an opportunity to open up some ground in the wild-card race.  And, since they then close the season with three games in Wrigley, if they can pick up a couple of games on Chicago in the process (they are currently 4.5 games behind), that could make for a very interesting closing series.

First, though, they will have to resolve – again – that bullpen.

Pitchers and Front Offices Under Stress

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.

Paul DeJong

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.

Jedd Gyorko

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.

Kolten Wong

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

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.

John Gant

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).

Jordan Hicks

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.