It actually could have been any of the 75 other losses. When the playoffs are missed by one win, any single one of the missteps over the course of the season could have made the difference. And yet the one that sticks in everyone’s memory is the last one – September 28 against Cincinnati.
A looping third-inning single by Adam Duvall that dropped just beyond the reach of Cardinal shortstop Aldemys Diaz brought in the only two Cincinnati runs of the night. The Cards then proceeded to waste RBI opportunities in the fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth. Now it’s the ninth. St Louis trails 2-1. Pinch hitter Kolten Wong misses a game tying home run by a couple of feet as he lines a leadoff triple off the right field wall. Eight pitches later, Cincinnati walked off with a 2-1 victory. Wong never moved off of third.
The game Cardinals won their last four games, but – to their credit – the San Francisco Giants made it all meaningless as they also won out against a Dodger team that, I think, may come to lament the fact that they didn’t eliminated San Fran when they had the chance.
While memorable, this was hardly an isolated incident. The Cards lost 23 one-run games this season. They hit .173 (30 for 173) with runners in scoring position in those games. In those games, they were presented 35 times with a runner at third and less than two outs. They brought that runner home only 15 times.
You can’t – by any stretch of the imagination – claim that this edition of the St Louis Cardinals was playoff worthy. But, of course, you could have said the same thing about both the 2006 and 2011 teams. Forever unanswered will be this particular what-if.
So, the baseball season rushes on with the Cardinals no longer a relevant factor. Left for us is the dissection of what went right – and more significantly what went wrong.
Every discussion of the 2016 Cardinals will have to begin with the pitching staff. Scary good in 2015, the Cardinal pitching – particularly the rotation – was seen as its primary strength entering into the season. The rotation frayed early struggling to a 4.34 ERA at the end of May. Through the first 53 games, the vaunted rotation had managed just 26 quality starts. They rebounded in July with a 3.63 ERA and 17 quality starts in 25 games. But instead of turning a corner, things just imploded from there. Over the season’s last 84 games, the Cardinal rotation provided just 37 quality starts and a 4.55 ERA coupled with a .285 batting average against.
Throughout the season, every time this team would start to rouse itself and look like it was about to make a run, the rotation was almost always prominent in stifling the momentum. Coming down the stretch in September, the Cardinals allowed first inning runs in 13 of their last 25 games. During the last 25 games of the season, the team suffered through a 7.56 first-inning ERA and a .340 batting average against in that inning. During the season’s first half, Cardinal batsmen came to the plate trailing in only 32% of their at bats. Over the final 25 games, they trailed 42.5% of the time.
The news from the pitching staff wasn’t all bad. Carlos Martinez (16-9, 3.04 ERA) continued to develop into a top of the rotation starter, and Alex Reyes – although walking 4.30 batters per game – won 4 of 5 decisions with a 1.57 ERA.
Thereafter, the results were mixed at best.
Adam Wainwright ended the season with 6 strong innings against Pittsburgh in a game the Cards eventually won 10-4. This provided an apt counterpoint to the season’s first game – also started by Wainwright, also a quality start (3 runs in 6 innings), also against Pittsburgh – but that one a loss.
In between Adam struggled to an inconsistent 13-9 season with a 4.62 ERA. His season, though, wasn’t as dismal as it appears on first glance. After three rough starts to begin the season (Adam gave up 15 runs in his first 16.1 innings), Wainwright put together a streak of 17 starts in which he achieved 13 quality starts, a 9-3 record (with two other leads lost by his bullpen) and a 3.47 ERA. Hardly the performance of a washed-up pitcher.
This streak ended with a July 27 game in New York against the Mets. In that game, after walking off the mound after six innings with a 3-1 lead, Mike Matheny left him to twist in a 31-pitch, 3-run seventh. He was never the same after that.
When you are 35-years-old (as Adam is now) and you are coming off a struggling season, there are going to be questions. But there are reasons to suspect that Adam will be capable of better next season.
Mike Leake finished a disappointing 9-12 with a 4.69 ERA. Luke Weaver was promoted after just one AAA start. He finished just 1-4 with a 5.70 ERA in 8 starts and one lamentable relief performance.
Michael Wacha suffered through another injury plagued season, going 7-7 with a 4.62 ERA (as a starter). Lest anyone forget how good he was, I invite you to remember that at the end of August of last year, after 25 starts, Wacha had 17 quality starts, a 15-4 record, and a 2.69 ERA in 157.1 innings. Since that date, Michael has made 30 starts and 3 relief appearances with a 9-11 record and a 5.57 ERA. His loss as a starting pitcher is a significant blow to the organization.
Of all of the starters, the most disappointing was Jaime Garcia. He disappointed me the most, because he had me convinced after what was really a brilliant 2015 season. He had games where there were no runs scored for him, games where defensive plays weren’t made behind him, games where umpires made brutal calls against him. These were all the types of things that would cause Jaime to unravel in previous seasons. But last year, he shrugged all of these things off and just made his next pitch. He made 14 quality starts out of his 20 total starts with a 10-6 record, a 2.43 ERA and a .225/.274/.299 batting line against. You couldn’t have asked for a better showing.
His 2016 season was marked with front to end inconsistency. He never managed more than 2 quality starts in a row, and finished with only 10 in 30 starts on his way to a 10-13, 4.67 campaign that deteriorated as the season went on and the games became more important.
The most maddening thing about Jaime is that it seems that neither he nor anyone else understands why his good games are good and his bad games are bad. When Wainwright struggled during the season, he searched, he looked at film, he figured out an answer. With Garcia, it’s as though we don’t even know the question to ask.
Out of the carnage of the season, there emerged – by the end, anyway – an entirely capable bullpen. In Korean-import Seung-hwan Oh (1.92 ERA), Zach Duke (1.93 ERA as a Cardinal), Kevin Siegrist (2.77), and Matt Bowman (3.46) they developed a quartet of late game pitchers they could rely on in pressure situations. Bowman inherited four bases-loaded situations, allowing only 1 of the 12 inherited runners to score.
Furthering the promise of the 2017 bullpen is the potential return of a healthy Tyler Lyons (3.38) who seemed to be finally coming into his own before his season ended with another injury; and the return to form of Trevor Rosenthal (who allowed 1 run in 7 healthy innings over his last 5 games). If Wacha ends up in the bullpen, too, this could be one of the most formidable bullpens in baseball.
In discussions of the deficiencies of the 2016 Cardinals, the offense is usually given a pass. St Louis finished the season hitting 225 home runs and scoring 4.81 runs per game. These totals are impressive by themselves, and even more so when compared with the totals of the offensively challenged 2015 team (they hit 137 home runs and scored 3.99 runs per game). Still, the construction of the offense, I think, lent itself too much to the feast and famine sort of results that we got.
The offseason focus was on home runs. They succeeded spectacularly, but, perhaps at the expense of some necessary offensive balance.
In Jedd Gyorko, Brandon Moss, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Tommy Pham, Matt Adams, Randal Grichuk and Matt Holliday, the Cardinals had 7 players who averaged less than 20 at bats per home run – all of whom hit less than .250. The seven players combined to hit 139 home runs in just 2,297 at bats (one every 16.5 at bats). But they also combined to hit just .239 and strikeout 665 times (29% of their at bats). These 7 players represented 41% of the team’s total at bats this season and hit 62% of their home runs but only accounted for 48% of the team’s RBIs.
What this meant was that this largely became a team that was a threat to any fastball pitcher, but struggled routinely with anyone who could throw that baffling pitch known as a change-up.
In what I consider to be the single most telling stretch of games in the season, the Cardinals returned to Busch on June 14 having won 5 in a row for the first time this season. The record now stood at 35-28, the .556 winning percentage was the highest it had been since they were 12-9 (.571) after 21 games.
It would never get that high again. After their most inspired five games of the season, St Louis promptly came home and was swept in a five-game home stand by Houston and Texas. In those games, it wasn’t the pitching staff that let the club down. The five starters pitched 34 of the 45 innings of those series with a 1.59 ERA.
But the offense could only pony up 10 runs in the five games, hitting just .210 during the games. Holliday, Moss and Adams did each hit home runs in those games, but the seven players named before combined to hit .132 (7 for 53) in that home stand. Much of the reason was the fact that for the most part starting pitchers Doug Fister, Colin McHugh, Cole Hamels, Nick Martinez and Martin Perez didn’t challenge them with fastballs. They showed them fastballs but got them out with curves and that elusive change.
This wasn’t an isolated moment. Guys who throw the change-up for a living (like Zach Davies and Kyle Hendricks) owned this team pretty much every time they faced them.
Not Hungry Enough?
On August 8, the Cardinals ran into the immortal Cody Reed. The Cincinnati lefty came into the game with a perfect 0-6 record and a lofty 7.30 ERA. But the home standing Cards (riding a three-game losing streak at that point) couldn’t lay a glove on him. He left after throwing 100 pitches over six innings, turning over a 4-0 lead to his bullpen. With Jumbo Diaz and Blake Wood handling the eighth and ninth innings, Tony Cingrani came on to finish up and send the mostly apathetic crowd of 40,616 home to finish their nap.
After Yadier Molina led off with a seemingly harmless single, Jhonny Peralta and Jedd Gyorko both flied out. St Louis was down to its last out, still trailing by four runs, with the bottom of the order up, and with just one runner on base.
But a funny thing happened on the way to St Louis’ fourth consecutive loss. A walk to Tommy Pham put a second runner on, and Cingrani loaded the bases when he hit pinch-hitter Kolten Wong.
Matt Carpenter didn’t hesitate to cash in. He singled home two (hitting the first pitch) and Stephen Piscotty singled home a third. A four-pitch walk to Holliday re-loaded the bases and sent Cingrani to the showers in favor of Ross Ohlendorf.
With the aroused crowd in full throat, and the Cards now down to their last strike, Brandon Moss walked on a 3-2 pitch to tie the game. Up for the second time in the inning, Molina took Ohlendorf’s second pitch off his hip, and St Louis had an improbable 5-4 victory (box score). The crowd cheered so hard that the ground shook. The rest of the team poured out of the dugout to mob Molina as he slid into first.
The next day – almost as if no one had told them that they had to go out and play another game the next day – these same Cardinals bowed without a whimper to Brandon Finnegan, 7-0 as they would go on to lose six of the first nine games after that emotional victory.
Again, this was not an isolated incident.
After Matt Adam’s walk-off home run in the sixteenth inning gave the Cards a second five-game winning streak, they promptly lost three of the next four. Their last five-game winning streak included two wins in Wrigley, two wins in Houston, and an 11-inning win (on an RBI double from Grichuk) in Philadelphia. They lost 8 of the next 13.
At every turning point moment of the season, it always felt like the games were more important to the team we were playing – that they played with an intensity that we couldn’t match. Even against teams that were long out of contention.
From August 2 through September 29 the Cards played 29 games against also-rans Cincinnati, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Oakland and Milwaukee who were only playing for pride at that point of the season. They lost 15 of those 29, being outscored 134-106 and outhit .279-.235. Fourteen times in those 29 games they scored fewer than four runs. Five other times they scored at least four runs but still lost the game. Eleven times in those 29 games against teams playing out the string they surrendered 5 runs or more – three times yielding more than ten runs. Five other times they held the opposing offense to fewer than four runs, but lost the game anyway.
With the season on the line, in 29 games against “lesser” opponents, the Cards hit .162 with runners in scoring position (32 for 198). Forty-four times in those games they had that runner at third and less than two outs. They scored that run just 19 times. It wasn’t until the last three games against Pittsburgh that it felt like they really wanted the game more than the team they were lining up against.
Over the last five years, this team played 61 post-season games – more than an extra third of a season. If it seemed like the teams lining up against then were hungrier than they Cardinals, maybe they were. I won’t charge them with complacency, but the entire season they just assumed that their hot streak would be there and that they would be fine. And they may even have been right (about the hot streak, not about being fine). The last three games looked like those playoff teams. They just flipped the switch too late.
All of which makes for a puzzling read on this team as we look ahead to 2017. On the one hand, a jolt like this could be just the medicine the team needs to get a little passion flowing. On the other hand, this is a team in transition.
Matt Holliday is 36 years old and is already as good as gone. Behind him, Adam Wainwright is 35, Jhonny Peralta, Yadier Molina and Seung-hwan Oh are 34, Zach Duke and Brandon Moss are 33. Coming swiftly onward are Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, Harrison Bader and other talented young players.
This is a transition that has already started and will continue through the next several seasons. How they can manage to make this transition and still compete for a playoff spot will be the next great challenge for this proud organization.
The Cardinals were held to fewer than 4 runs 15 times over their last 30 games. They lost 13 of those games.
From the All-Star Break on, St Louis was 27-13 (.675) in games started by Wacha (5-1), Wainwright (10-5), Martinez (9-5) and Reyes (3-2). They were 13-21 (.382) behind Leake (5-7), Garcia (5-8), Weaver (3-5) and Mike Mayers (0-1).
The 2016 Cardinals scored 10 or more runs 19 times. They allowed 10 or more runs 13 times. They lost 14 games this season when scoring at least 5 runs. They lost 15 games in which they allowed fewer than four runs.
They were 3-0 in games when Mark Carlson, Angel Hernandez, Jerry Meals, Bill Miller or Tim Timmons worked the plate. They were 0-3 with CB Buckner calling balls and strikes. All time, they are 23-20 with Carlson (.535), 26-23 (.531) with Hernandez, 26-11 (.703) with Meals, 22-18 (.550) with Miller, 29-10 (.744) with Timmons, and 25-15 (.625) with Bucknor.
In the final series’ tally, St Louis finished winning 23 series, losing 21 and splitting 8. They were in position to sweep 12 of those series, achieving the sweep 8 times. They were in position to be swept 11 times, suffering that indignity on 5 occasions. They were 10-11 in rubber games.
At home, they won only 9 series all year, losing 15 and splitting 2. Of the 26 home series, they were only in position to sweep 3 of them – which they did all 3 times. They were in position to be swept at home 6 different times, succumbing to the sweep 4 times. They were 5-9 in rubber games at home.
St Louis won the first game of 23 different series, going on to win 18 of those series, losing just 4, and splitting only 1. When extended to a rubber game after winning the first game of the season, St Louis was 5-4. After winning the first game, the Cards were 28-20 in the subsequent games of those series.
They finished 10-7-4 in series against teams that had lost their previous series, going 36-27 in those games. They had a chance to sweep 7 of those series, pulling off the sweep 5 times. Six other times, teams that had lost their previous series had a chance to sweep the Cardinals – a fate they avoided 4 times. St Louis was 3-2 in rubbers games against teams that had lost their previous series.