Young but Surprisingly Patient

So, clearly, these are not your father’s Washington Nationals.  Famously, Bryce Harper abandoned the club over the off-season.  Familiar names like Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon are still Nationals. But haven’t played recently due to injuries.

Prominent in the new Washington lineup are three prospects under 23 years of age.  Carter Kieboom (what a great name for a baseball player) is just 21 – he started at shortstop.  Victor Robles is the 22-year-old centerfielder.  And, of course, the future face of the franchise, 20-year-old Juan Soto is the left fielder.

For the kids and the rest of the Nats (and the rest of the lineup was all over 30), it was another day of what might have been.  A three-run second gave them an early lead, but a six-run Cardinal fifth flipped the narrative, and St Louis carried home a 6-3 victory in the series opener (box score).

In many ways, the game followed the desired Cardinal script.  The resilient lineup finally broke through after the pitching staff – especially the bullpen – kept the opponent within range.  Washington finished with just the 3 runs on only 4 hits.  The kid starters finished the evening 0-for-10.  But they also drew a couple of walks and saw an aggregate 61 pitches.

By game’s end, the Nationals (old as well as young) exacted 177 pitches and 6 walks from the Cardinal pitching staff.  The three-run second was aided notably by a couple of walks, and Washington manufactured an eighth-inning rally against John Brebbia as they walked the bases loaded – including a ten-pitch walk nursed by Soto.

I have only seen Washington for one game, but patience seems to be the organizational meme this year.  Thirty-seven National batters stood in at the plate last night.  Thirty-one of them took the first pitch – 15 of them taking first-pitch strikes.

Things didn’t quite work out for them last night, but sometimes process proceeds production.  It was a little uncommon to see such young players committed to patient at bats.  It will be something to keep an eye on as the series – and their season – progresses.

Cardinal Bullpen Nearly Unhittable

Washington’s patient approach took its toll on the St Louis bullpen, as well.  Cardinal relievers – forced to cover 4 innings after starter Michael Wacha could only give them five – ended up throwing 76 pitches over those four innings.  Still, when all was said and done, the Nationals finished 0-for-12 against the St Louis pen.  The batting average against Cardinal relievers drops now to .180 – the lowest in the majors (Houston’s bullpen is a fairly distant second at .202).

The pen does have some issues – walks and home runs.  But nobody is putting together strings of hits against these guys.

Offensive Consistency Amazing

While none of the offensive numbers from last night’s game are particularly newsworthy, at the end of the day the Cards had put up six more runs.  Twenty-eight games into the season, St Louis has scored at least four runs in 24 of them.  They currently sit tied for third in the major leagues (with the Yankees) for most runs per game – 5.54.

While the Nats were hesitant to swing at the first pitch, the Cards did so 12 times.  St Louis is actually one of baseball’s best hitting teams when they swing at the first pitch.  They were 6 of 12 last night in at bats that began with a swing at the first pitch, and are hitting .292 on the season in those at bats.

Marcell Ozuna

In the middle of the rally – again – was Marcell Ozuna.  His was the two-run single that put the Cards ahead.  Ozuna has now driven in 10 runs over his last 5 games – including 3 game-winning hits.  Marcell has now driven in the winning run a team-leading 4 times (Paul Goldschmidt is second with 3).

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez added two more hits, including a double, and another run batted in last night.  Jose has been in the starting lineup for 12 straight games.  He is hitting .409 (18 for 44) in those games.

Jose collected the first Cardinal hit of the game – his line single in the fourth. Martinez, I think, gives the impression of being an impatient hitter, but in that at bat he took the first three pitches before jumping on the fourth pitch.  For the season, Jose actually takes the first pitch of an at bat 84.6% of the time.  That figure actually leads the team (Matt Carpenter is only taking the first pitch 77.5% of the time).

And when he takes that first pitch, he ends up hitting .365 in those at bats.

Harrison Bader

Gone for ten days earlier this month nursing a slight hamstring pull, Harrison Bader’s opportunities have been somewhat sparse since his return.  To this point, Bader doesn’t seem to have suffered from his relative inactivity.  He had 2 hits last night in his first start since his return (including the home run that put St Louis on the board) and has been 3 for 6 since his return with a walk and a hit by pitch.

He also hasn’t lost his touch in the outfield.

Matt Carpenter

Speaking of Carpenter, the only time he put a ball in play last night he tried going again to left field – a fly out.  His other plate appearances ended in a walk and three strikeouts.

Things still haven’t been falling Matt’s way.  He has gone 8 games without an extra-base hit, hitting .192 (5 for 26) in that span.

Jedd Gyorko

Playing time has been sparse for Jedd Gyorko as well.  A major contributor the last couple of seasons, Jedd has yet to make much of an impact.  Twenty-eight games into the season, Gyorko has 20 at bats.

Last night, getting a rare start, he took the first pitch in all 3 plate appearances, going 0-for-3 with a strikeout.  The season is very young, but to date, Jedd has taken the first pitch 14 times, going 0-for-13 in those at bats with 1 walk and 6 strikeouts.  Jedd is 2-for-7 the times he has swung at the first pitch.

NoteBook

Last night was only the fourth time in ten series that St Louis won the opening game of the series.  They went on to sweep the other three series (two games against Pittsburgh, four against the Dodgers, and three against the Brewers).

Conquest of Reds Closes Out 7-2 Home Stand

Home has not always been where the heart is for the St Louis Cardinals over recent seasons.  In fact, during their three-year playoff absence, one of the galling factors has been their struggles at home.

Through the first 16 years of this century (2000-2015), the Cardinals were 835-519 (.617) at home (counting playoffs).  During that same span (including playoffs) they were only 694-668 (.510) on the road.

Over the last three seasons, though, that home field advantage has all but completely disappeared.  Between 2016 and 2018, your Cardinals have played just .514 ball at home (125-118).  This number includes the only season in this century when the Cards finished with a losing record at home (38-43 in 2016).  During those same seasons, they are 132-111 (.543) on the road.

The most apparent reason for the home issues seems to be the largeness of the ballpark.  Busch has always played large – especially as far as getting baseballs to sail over the wall.  As the Cardinals have become more and more reliant on the home run ball over the last few years, they have – at times – seemed out of place in their own ballpark.

From 2000-2015, St Louis averaged 4.75 runs per game at home and 4.73 runs per game on the road.  Home runs still came easier on the road (1 for every 31.93 at bats, vs 1 per 34.11 at bats at home), but a more diversified Cardinal offense was capable of finding other ways to score.  Over those 16 seasons, they hit 173 more home runs on the road (1492) than at home (1319) – an average of 10.8 more home runs on the road than at home per season.

Since 2015, The Cards have averaged 4.38 runs per game at home, against 5.08 runs per game on the road.  While they have improved to 1 home run per 28.92 at bats at home, those blasts are still significantly easier away from Busch – where St Louis managed a home run every 24.37 at bats.  Over the last three years they hit 72 more home runs on the road (349) than they did at home (243) – an average of 24 more road homers than home runs in their home park each year.

So, one of the most encouraging notes of the very early season has been the Cardinals prowess at home.  Sunday’s 5-2 conquest of Cincinnati (box score) concluded a 7-2 home stand that pushed the Cards to 12-4 at home so far this season.

The early results shows no more success hitting the ball out of their home park than in any past season.  In fact – if anything – the home runs at home have regressed a bit so far in 2019.  In the first 16 home games, the Cards have managed just 16 home runs – 1 every 32.44 at bats.  They have been home run machines on the road.  In 11 road games they have driven 23 balls over the wall – 1 every 17.17 at bats.

But – as a team – the Cards are hitting .277 at home, scoring 5.69 runs per game.  During the just-completed home stand, St Louis collected 90 hits and scored 54 runs while hitting just 9 home runs during the 9 games.  But they managed 6 runs per game on the strength of their .302 team batting average.

In spite of the home runs, St. Louis is hitting just .258 on the road, scoring a still-impressive 5.27 runs per game.

Yes, the season is still very, very young, and this is a trend that could completely disappear as the season rolls on.  The early read on this team is that they will certainly hit their share of home runs.  But this edition of the Cardinals may not be as dependent on the long ball as some of their predecessors.  That would be a huge step in the right direction for this franchise.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter – bedeviled for most of the season by the shifts that he has been trying to hit against – has picked up a few hits to the other side in recent games – some on bunts and some on floaters into short left.  This part remains a work in progress (Carpenter doesn’t have an extra-base hit in his last 7 games).  But the on-base part of his game is definitely coming back.  He has drawn 6 walks (and scored 6 runs) over his last 5 games – a span during which he holds a .455 on base percentage.  He was 2 for 5 against the Reds with 3 walks – reaching base in 5 of his 8 plate appearances.

In his first 61 plate appearances at home, Matt holds a .393 on base percentage.  All of his first three home runs this season have come on the road.

Dexter Fowler

The Dexter Fowler resurgence continued over the weekend against the Reds.  Dexter went 3 for 8 with 3 walks – a .583 on base percentage during the series.  Dexter basically tore things up during the home stand.  In his 32 plate appearances, Fowler contributed 7 singles, 3 doubles, 1 home run, 5 runs scored, 6 runs batted in, 5 walks and a hit-by-pitch.  This translates to a .423/.531/.654 batting line – a 1.185 OPS.

Dexter has hit in 13 of his last 15 games, batting .396 (21 for 53) with 6 multi-hit games.  He is also now hitting .333 at home (15 for 45) so far this year.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez wrapped up a 3-for-9 series against Cincinnati with 2 hits and the game-winning RBI on Sunday.  Finding his way back into the starting lineup, Jose has now started 11 consecutive games, and is hitting .400 (16 for 40) in that span.  In the 9 games of the home stand, Jose hit .438 (14 for 32).

Martinez is now the Cardinals’ leading hitter at home.  He is a .435 hitter (20 for 46) at his home ballpark.  Up next for Jose is a road trip into Washington and Chicago.  His early season struggles mostly came on the road.  In his first 24 road plate appearances, Jose has managed just 3 singles and 1 double, while striking out 9 times and grounding into 2 double plays.  Martinez carries 3 runs batted in and a road batting line of .167/.167/.208 into tonight’s contest against the Nationals.

Paul DeJong

Going 4 for 12 against the Reds, Paul DeJong has now pushed his hitting streak to 8 games.  Paul is hitting .382 (13 for 34) during the streak, with 6 of those hits going for extra-bases (5 doubles and a home run) – a .618 slugging percentage.

DeJong now carries a .397 batting average at home (25 of 63) with 13 extra-base hits (10 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs) – a .683 slugging percentage.  In just 48 road at bats, DeJong has 3 road home runs.

Kolten Wong

Not everyone prospered during the Cincinnati series.  After a very hot start, Kolten Wong continued to regress to his norms.  Wong finished the series just 2 for 11.  It has been 9 games since his last multi-hit game.  In that span, Kolten is hitting just .167 (5 for 30).  Only one of those hits (yesterday’s double) was for extra-bases.

Wong might be one of the few Cardinals looking forward to the road trip.  Almost all of his early success came away from Busch.  After this last home stand, Wong is now a .154 hitter in his home park (8 for 52).  His 8 hits include only 2 for extra-bases (both doubles), for a .192 slugging percentage.

On the road (through 11 games) it has been a different story for Kolten.  In his 44 plate appearances away from home, Wong has achieved 8 singles, 2 doubles, 1 triple, all 4 of his home runs, 7 walks (1 intentional) 2 hit-by-pitches, and 3 stolen bases.  Kolten has driven in 10 runs while grounding into no double plays in his 11 road games.  His batting line there is an impressive .429/.545/.886.

Pitching Better than the Numbers Suggest

In the conquest of the Reds, the Cardinal pitching numbers continued to suffer.  Cincinnati finished the set hitting 5 more home runs and scoring 17 runs – leaving the Birds with a 5.67 team ERA for the series.  The numbers – of course – are skewed by the beating the team took on Friday night – a 12-1 shellacking (box score) that featured all five of the home runs Cincy hit this weekend. 

In truth, the series showcased some of the finest Cardinal pitching to date.  Subtract three pitchers who struggled (Miles Mikolas, Dominic Leone and Tyler Webb) and the rest of the pitching staff posted a 1.33 ERA over 20.1 innings.

The 73 batters who faced the rest of the staff managed just 12 singles, 1 double, 3 walks, 1 sacrifice hit and 1 sacrifice fly – a .188/.219/.203 batting line.

Over the course of the home stand, the starters (3.73 ERA) out-performed the bullpen (4.75 ERA) for one of the few times this season.  During the upcoming road trip, the starters will be very much under the microscope.  In the early days of the season, they have been very much Jekyll and Hyde.  They are 9-2 with a 3.49 ERA and a .240 opponent batting average at home.  They are 1-4 on the road (for a 5-6 Cardinal road team).  They have served up 17 home runs in 52 road innings while struggling to a 6.58 ERA, a .307 batting average against, and a .628 slugging percentage against.

This will be a big opportunity for them.

Jack Flaherty

The clear pitching highlight for the weekend was the effort of Sunday’s starter – right-hander Jack Flaherty.  A revelation last year, Jack has been as inconsistent as most of the Cardinal rotation.  But on Sunday he shut out Cincinnati on 4 hits over his 7 innings, walking just 1.

Flaherty is now 3-0 at home with a 1.88 ERA.  He has walked just 4 batters in his 24 home innings, holding the rest to a .184 batting average.

Jordan Hicks

Closer Jordan Hicks came in to a 2-0 game in the eighth inning – ostensibly to record a four-out save.  After St Louis added three runs in the bottom of the eighth, Hicks was removed – as the game seemed well under control (it would get more interesting at the end).

Nonetheless, Jordan finished the series pitching in both the Saturday and Sunday games, retiring all four batters faced (with two strikeouts) and claiming a save (on Saturday) and a hold (on Sunday).  Hicks has been good all year long – but especially at home where he is 6-for-6 in save opportunities and has surrendered just one run in 6 innings.  Batters are hitting just .105 against him at home.

Dominic Leone

Dominic Leone, with a second chance to make a first impression, was really having a terrific year.  Having lost almost his entire first season in St Louis to injury, Dominic’s first 11 appearances of 2019 hinted at the pitcher the Cardinals believed they were signing.  After 11 innings, Leone held a 1.64 ERA and a .111 batting average against.

He appeared in two of the weekend games against the Reds and was batted around.  He entered the ninth inning of the first game, trailing 6-1.  Thirty-four pitches later, he left the mound trailing 12-1 with still only two outs in the inning.

He returned for Sunday’s ninth inning, this time holding a 5-0 lead.  Again, he couldn’t finish the inning as he gave hits to 3 of the 5 batters he faced and turned the game over to John Gant with the Cards still holding a 5-2 lead.  In all, he faced 14 batters over the two games who hit .692 against him and slugged 1.154.

It is hoped that these two nights against Cincinnati were a blip.  But his next trip out of the pen will certainly be worth noting.

Lots of Winning Teams Early

Tonight the Cardinals – ok, the first-place Cardinals – will open the last series of their season’s second homestand.  As homestand’s go, this one has been quite productive (St Louis has won five of the first six).  They will be welcoming the Reds of Cincinnati for their first visit of the season, and will be laying their gaudy 15-9 record on the line.

With so much baseball left to be played, it’s a little treacherous to draw any serious conclusions from anything witnessed so far.  That being said, it is usually about this time of the season that I start to separate out the games played against winning teams – or at least against .500 teams. These games serve as a litmus test of sorts, giving a general idea of who rises to the level of the better competition and who does not.

For the first 24 games of the season, that separation won’t show very much.  That is because, going into tonight’s contest against the 10-14 Reds, the Cards have played only two games all year against teams that have lost more than they have won.

All of the interest in the early-season schedule involved all of the early games against Milwaukee – and 10 of these first 24 have been against the Brewers.  But the Brewers are only part of the early season gauntlet run by the Cardinals.  To this point, they have only lined up against one team that currently sports a losing record.  That team would be the Reds who they played a couple of times in Mexico.

In fact, when considered against the records of their opponents in games against other teams, St Louis’ early success becomes even more impressive:

Cardinal OpponentRecord against everyone else
TeamWLW-L% TeamWLW-L% 
LAD401.000 LAD167.696 
MIL55.500 MIL88.500 
NYM21.667 NYM129.571 
PIT201.000 PIT129.571 
SDP12.333 SDP1210.545 
          
 148.636  6043.583 

 

Against everyone except Cincinnati, the Cards are 14-8 (a .636 winning percentage).  Those teams – as the chart indicates – are playing .583 ball against everyone else.

Of course, there is no promise that everyone over .500 right now will still be over .500 even by this time next month.  The Dodgers and Brewers, of course were division champs last year, and the last two teams standing in the National League.  The Pirates won 82 games last year and seem to be better.

The Mets and Padres, of course, both had losing records last year, but both look much different in 2019.  San Diego has added Manny Machado to go along with the rise of 20-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr.  Meanwhile, the Mets have seen the emergence of their own young superstar in Pete Alonso.

It is, of course, impossible at this early stage of the season to tell for sure who is legit and who will fade.  But right now all of these teams are playing quite well. And the Cardinals are beating them.

In fact, the high concentration of winning teams on the early schedule presents a unique challenge to this blog.  Here, we poke inside of the numbers to pull out their secrets.  But the level of competition at the moment is so skewed that seemingly significant statistical trends could just be anomalies.

For example, through 24 games and 213 innings, the Cardinal pitching staff has already surrendered a surprising 46 home runs.  They allowed only 144 all of last season.  The rotation’s ERA of 4.80 ranks twenty-first out of 30 major league teams.

But, St Louis has played 10 games against a Milwaukee team that is second in baseball with 51 home runs, and the Dodgers (against whom they have played four times) are next in baseball with 46.  Those two teams alone have accounted for 30 of the 46 home runs off of St Louis.

As the season goes forward, these numbers will normalize.  Until that time, some of this will have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Up next is Cincinnati and Washington (11-12) before St Louis plays its next team that currently holds a winning record – that would be the 12-11 Cubs.  They will be followed by another string of teams that currently are at least at .500 – Philadelphia (13-12), Pittsburgh, Atlanta (12-12) and Texas12-12).

It is way too early to predict that any of these records will hold up.  If they do, however, the Cardinals will find themselves battling .500 or better teams in 38 of their first 47 games.  Along the way, we should get a pretty good of what this team is made of.

Scoring Changes So Far – For Those of you Scoring at Home

There have only been two early scoring changes to be aware of – if you follow this sort of thing.

In the second game of the season – in the fourth inning – a pitch from Jack Flaherty eluded catcher Yadier Molina.  At the time it was ruled a passed ball, but has been subsequently changed to a wild pitch.

Last Monday (April 22), the Cards carried a 5-4 lead into the seventh inning against Milwaukee.  Matt Carpenter opened the inning with a flare over third base.  By the time the Brewers got the ball back in, Matt was on second.  Originally ruled a double, that call has been changed to an error charged to Ryan Braun.  The hit/error set the stage for the 7-run inning that would push that game out of reach.

Carpenter loses both the hit and the double.  Milwaukee pitcher Jacob Barnes is spared a hit and an earned run, and the Brewer pitching staff gets another of those runs flipped from earned to unearned.