How the homestand got away

It began in the very first inning of the homestand.

After 17 days in quarantine, the St Louis Cardinals re-started their season with 8 games in 5 days in Chicago (playing the White Sox and Cubs). Now they were finally coming back home, for what would be nearly half of their home games for the whole season.  They had played three home games in July before the shutdown.  They will play 12 more games at home over two homestands later on this month.  But on that August 20 evening they took the field to begin a 12-game homestand, hoping for the things one usually hopes for at home – to find a little rhythm and make up some ground.

And then, five pitches into the first game, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto reached on a throwing error.  It would be a harbinger.  Before that very first inning was in the books, the Cards had committed two throwing errors (one on a should-have-been double-play ball that would have ended the inning) and before they would come to bat for the first time – before the cardboard fans had settled into their seats – Cincinnati had two unearned runs on the board.

As heroic as Adam Wainwright was in salvaging the final game of the homestand, he was just as heroic in game one.  Shrugging off the shaky first inning, Waino went seven innings that first night and the Birds (not for the last time on the homestand) profited from some shaky relief pitching to eke out a 5-4 win (boxscore).

And the errors, at that point, were easy enough to overlook.  It was one shaky inning.  No big deal.

This evening, the Birds will begin an eight-game road trip.  During the 12 games spent at home – even figuring in a 14-2 pounding they received at the hands of the Indians on Saturday – the Cardinal pitching staff concluded its homestand with a 3.00 ERA – including a 2.59 mark from the starters, who tossed 5 quality starts during the 12 games.  The offense was up and down, but at the end of the stand, they had put 48 runs on the board (4 per game).  Not an outstanding number, but good enough, considering the quality of the pitching they got – enough to have given them, say, an 8-4 record over the stand.

Yesterday – on this 39th birthday – Adam Wainwright authored his first complete game since 2016 as the Cardinals claimed the final game of the homestand, 7-2 over the Indians (boxscore).  That win salvaged a 6-6 homestand.

How did it get away?  As much as anything else, it was the defense and the bizarre rules that govern this COVID season of 2020.  Between defensive hiccups and free runners to start extra innings, St Louis allowed 11 unearned runs over the course of the 12 games.  Unearned runs figured prominently in half of the losses.

The next night against the Reds, St Louis took a 2-0 lead into the sixth inning, when with two outs, two errors put a runner at third.  The fourth out of the inning proved elusive, as the errors were followed by a walk, a hit batsman, and a grand slam home run by Matt Davidson that flipped the 2-0 lead into a 4-2 loss (boxscore).

On August 27, Pittsburgh was in town for a double-header.  Game one was still scoreless as it headed into the fourth, but Pittsburgh broke on top after leadoff hitter Cole Tucker reached second on another throwing error by third-baseman Bill Miller.  That would be Pittsburgh’s only run during the 7 innings of regulation.  The Cards, themselves, could only muster a single run, so the game proceeded into the eighth under extra-inning rules, and free runner Jarrod Dyson was the first of three Pittsburgh runs scored that inning.  One of the others scored on another Miller throwing error.  The Pirates won the game 4-3 (boxscore), with only one of the runs being earned. (Miller, by the way, hasn’t played third since).

The final unearned run to score against St Louis was another free runner – the Indians’ Mike Freeman started the twelfth inning on Second base Saturday night.  An excuse me swing from Tyler Naquin produced the run and the 2-1 victory (boxscore).

DeJong

The Cards were very glad to get shortstop Paul DeJong back among the actives.  He had a big series against the Indians (6 for 13), and has hit in 5 of his last 7 games.  Paul has 3, three-hit games during that streak, and is hitting .407 (11 for 27) during the seven games.

Yadi

The other regular who missed time with the virus is Yadier Molina – who has also bounced back strongly.  He has hits in 7 of his last 9 games, getting multiple hits in three of them.  Over the nine games, Yadi is hitting .364 (12 for 33).

NoteBook

At 4:06, Saturday’s game was the second longest of the season so far.  It took 4:09 for the Cards to lose a 6-3 game in Chicago on August 18.  Even though the final game was quick at 2:24, the series itself averaged 3:27 per game – the longest series by average time this season.  St Louis’ previous long was the three games against KC that averaged 3:18.

The twelve runs they lost by on Friday constituted the Cardinals deepest deficit of the season.  They had previously trailed the White Sox by 7 runs on August 16, on their way to a 7-2 loss.

With Cleveland scoring first in all three games, St Louis’ opponents have put up the first run in 7 consecutive games.  The Cards have scored first only 6 times in their last 22 games.

My Designated Hitter Rant

As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably).  If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH.  Here is the link.  If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.

One of those days, right?

After the Pirates provided him with the lead with two runs in the top of the third inning, starting pitcher Cody Ponce – making the first start of his major league career – toyed with the idea of giving it back in the bottom of that inning.  With one out, he walked Tommy Edman just ahead of the power part of the Cardinal lineup – Paul DeJong and Paul Goldschmidt, who would both be getting their second look at the young Pirate right-hander.

St Louis had lost the first game of the doubleheader to the clever Chad Kuhl.  Kuhl had baffled them with a steady mix of hard and soft stuff that he consistently located on the corners of the zone.  Ponce would also pitch very well on this night, but with considerably less cleverness.

With DeJong at bat, Cody threw him the fastball he was looking for – 92.5 miles per hour and right down the heart of the plate.  But Paul didn’t really square it up, sending a soft flare into short right.  Right fielder Jose Osuna didn’t get an exquisite jump on the ball but came closing on it fast, only to see it hit the turf just before he got there.

For about a second there, Cardinal fans had a vision of Goldschmidt at the plate representing the lead run.  The problem was that the pop fly put base-runner Edman in no man’s land.  With Osuna closing on the ball, there was no way Tommy could stray too far from first.  As soon as the ball hit, Osuna was there to gobble it up and fire it to second, barely forcing Edman for the second out.

That might be the microcosm moment as the Cardinals surrendered a couple of games to the beleaguered Pirates, 4-3 (boxscore) and 2-0 (boxscore) as well as a game in the standings to the idle Cubs.

The Birds had some opportunities.  They put runners in scoring position in 4 of Cody’s 5.2 innings.  But they were 0-for-7 in those opportunities and left 5 while being shutout.

A young man without a rocket arm, Ponce seemed more than willing to challenge the Cardinals.  They had their pitches to hit.  But, as sometimes happens, they just couldn’t square them up.

A two-out double by Goldschmidt in the first gave Brad Miller the first RBI opportunity of the nightcap.  Cody came right after Brad with a 93.4 mph fastball right down the chute.  Miller fouled it off.  Two pitches later, Brad got a curveball sitting over the middle but flied out to left.

The next inning found Max Schrock at the plate with a runner at third and two outs.  Max jumped on a 90.4 mph first pitch fastball that had much-too-much of the plate.  And grounded it to second.

There was no one on base for Tyler O’Neill when he hit with one out in the fourth.  Ponce threw him a four-seamer at 92.7 right up in his wheelhouse.  Tyler hit it pretty well, but right at Osuna.

The game’s pivotal moment came in the home fifth.  Dylan Carlson led off with a double into the right-field corner.  Shrock got the first shot.  He watched Cody pour a fastball right over the middle of the plate, and then popped out on a cutter that jammed him.  Next came Harrison Bader.

Ponce kept challenging.  Bader got a cut fastball at 88.9 right in the hitting zone.  He fouled it off.  Two pitches later he got another just like it.  And fouled out.

Edman ended the inning with a strikeout.

Leading off the seventh (which was the last inning of the double-header game) Yadier Molina almost halved the lead against reliever Nik Turley.  But his long drive to right-center wasn’t quite tagged enough and Cole Tucker ran it down.

After Carlson struck out, the last hope of the day belonged to Dexter Fowler off the bench.  As if to prove that he had been watching from the bullpen, Turley came right after Dexter with a fastball down the middle.  Fouled off.  Two pitches later Fowler got another just like it that he skied into right for the final out.

All across baseball, batters are hitting .336/.350/.589 on that first pitch.  The Cards were 0-for-3 on that pitch in the second game.  They had also been 0-for-3 on that first pitch in game one.  For 15 innings yesterday, St Louis was 0-for-6 on the first pitch, and 0-for-13 in all at bats in which they offered at the first pitch.  DeJong’s flair would have been their only hit in those at bats.  One of those days.

And sometimes that’s how it happens in baseball.  You don’t square up every fastball.  Somedays it’s not your day.  But it’s understandable that the Cardinal faithful might be getting a little antsy.

When Will They Hit?

Since they restarted the season after the COVID interruption, the Cardinal offense has profited from an abundance of walks and hit batsmen – two elements that were instrumental in the ninth-inning rally against KC the night before.

On Thursday against Pittsburgh, those gifts went away.  Over 15 innings yesterday they were granted just 6 walks and no hit batsmen.  Without those aides, the offense once again looked halting.

The abbreviated season is now more than a third passed, and the lineup is littered with hitters that we had higher hopes for.  Edman – who hit .300 last year and carried the team’s best OPS is hitting .253 with a disappointing .693 OPS.  For all of his talk about fixing his swing, Matt Carpenter is hitting .200.  O’Neill is down to .180.  Kolten Wong is off to a .231 start.  Top prospect Carlson is hitting .196 with a .566 OPS.

Of the 15 National League teams (numbers provided by baseball reference), St Louis ranks eleventh in batting average (.241), twelfth in slugging percentage (.376), eleventh in OPS (.717), and twelfth in runs per game (4.09).

With the season’s final month just around the corner, you can understand if the fans start to feel a little bit of panic.  But just because baseball has shortened its season, that doesn’t change the laws of baseball.  Nobody on the team has more than the 75 at bats that Edman has so far.  O’Neill has 61 at bats.  Carpenter 60.  Carlson just 56 – a little more than a tenth of a normal season’s worth of at bats.

Agonizing as it is to say this, baseball is still a marathon – even when it’s a sprint.  It would be soothing to see some of these players putting up solid numbers – especially guys like O’Neil and Carlson who are trying to establish themselves.  But sometimes baseball isn’t that accommodating.

With the trade deadline creeping up, the front office will be under varying degrees of pressure to address the lagging offense.  But the only sensible course of action is to believe that all of these players are better than we’ve seen so far.

And as for yesterday, you just have to shrug.  It was just one of those days.  Right?

Speaking of Edman

Tommy’s season can still be called a bit of a disappointment so far, but over recent games Edman has started to resemble the Tommy Edman of last year.  He was 3 for 6 in the doubleheader, and has now hit safely in 6 straight games.  Edman is 8 for 23 (.348) in those games.  He has also hit safely in 8 of his last 9, hitting .353 on 12 of 34 swinging.

Yadi

As inspiring as any of the Cards so far is the rebound of St Louis icon Yadier Molina.  After missing 8 games due to the pandemic, Yadi has stepped back into the lineup hitting as though he had never left.  Molina had hits in both games – including a home run in the first game, and gave Turley quite a ride in the seventh inning of the last game.  Molina is a .391 hitter (9 for 23) over his last 6 games, driving in 4 runs.  In the 9 games since his return, Yadi has driven in 7 runs while hitting .343 (12 for 35).

It’s still surprising to see Yadi do this.  In the second inning of the second inning, he took the first pitch curve ball from Ponce.  The next pitch was a fastball that he slapped up the middle for a single.

Always one of baseball’s most aggressive hitters, Yadi is one of the few you can count on to chase after that first pitch.  While all of baseball only swings at the first pitch 25.4% of the time, Yadi goes after 50.9% of those pitches.

What is beginning to be surprising is how productive he’s becoming when he does take that first pitch.  Across the majors, batters are only hitting .237 when they take the first pitch of an at bat.  Both of Yadi’s hits yesterday came after he took a first-pitch curve.

Since his return to the lineup, Molina is now 6 for 16 (.375) with a double and a home run (.625 slugging percentage) after he takes that first pitch.

Carlson

After going through considerable struggles when first recalled, things are looking like they are starting to fall in a little bit for Dylan.  With hits in both games yesterday, Carlson has a little six-game hitting streak of his own going.  He is hitting .333 (7-for-21) during the streak with a .571 slugging percentage (2 doubles and a home run).

Up 6 times in the doubleheader, Dylan took the first pitch 5 times.  So far in his young career, Carlson is taking that first pitch 86.9% of the time – a ratio that leads the club.

Goldy

After drawing a walk in 12 straight games, Paul Goldschmidt saw that streak end in the second game yesterday.  He was, nonetheless, 2-for-6 in the doubleheader.  Since the team came out of quarantine Paul is hitting .340 (17 for 50) with a .507 on base percentage (courtesy of 18 walks).

Paul took the first pitch all six times yesterday.  Always a patient hitter, Goldy has been even more so after the restart.  Over his last 69 plate appearances, Paul has taken the first pitch 56 times (81.2%).  Those at bats have worked out for him quite well, as he’s hitting .400/.571/.625.

For the season, Goldy is taking that first pitch 78.9% of the time, and hitting .370 (20 of 54) when he does.  Seventeen of his 20 walks this season have come in those at bats, giving him a .521 on base percentage when he takes that first pitch.

How Solid is the Rotation!

The fact that the Cards are only 9-8 over the last 17 games isn’t really the fault of the starting rotation.  With few exceptions, the Cardinal starters have given the team a chance to win almost every game since the re-start.  Yesterday was no exception.  Kwang Hyun Kim (6 innings, 0 earned runs, 3 hits) and Johan Oviedo (5 innings, 2 runs, 4 hits) combined for 11 innings of 1.64 ERA and a .171 batting average against.  All hits were singles.

Since the season re-boot, the Cardinal rotation has chipped in with a 2.42 ERA and a .164 batting average against.

Kim

Kwang Hyun has gone six innings without allowing an earned run in back to back games.  In 15.2 innings since his return to the rotation, Kim holds a 0.57 ERA, a .161 batting average against, and a .250 slugging percentage allowed.

Oviedo

One of the interesting numbers from Oviedo’s first two starts is the reluctance of hitters to swing at his first pitch.  Perhaps it’s his somewhat imposing presence on the mound.  Or perhaps his reputation for occasional wildness.  Or perhaps just because he’s a rookie and no one has faced him before.  Whatever the reason, only 3 of the 21 batters he faced yesterday offered at his first pitch.  In his first game, only one Cub (Javier Baez on his way to a first inning strikeout) swung at his first pitch.  That’s 4 out of 39, just barely more than 10%.

NoteBook

In the 4-3 first game loss, the Cards never held a lead.  In each of their previous seven games they had held at least a one-run lead at some point of the game.  The last game that they never led in was Johan Oviedo’s first start, a 4-2 loss to Chicago on August 19 (second game).

Paul Goldschmidt had made 8 consecutive starts at first base until Matt Carpenter started there in the first game of the double-header (Goldschmidt started that game at DH).  Yadier Molina – who has now made 9 consecutive starts behind the plate (including both games of the double-header) now holds the team’s longest streak for consecutive starts at one position.

The Pirates scored first in both games of the doubleheader, continuing a season-long pattern for the Cards.  They have now allowed the first run in four straight.  After scoring the first run in the first three games of the season, the Cards have only managed that feat 6 times in the last 19 games.

The 2:02 second game was – by one minute – the season’s quickest game.  The first game of the August 17 game in Chicago (also a 7-inning game) took 2:03.  The two games of the DH averaged 2:25, making this the quickest series (by average time) of the season so far.  The three games they played against the White Sox coming out of quarantine averaged 2:33.7.

The 3 runs scored in the series is tied for the fewest runs the Cards have scored in a series so far this year.  In the final series before the COVID interruption they scored just 3 runs (also a two game series) in Minnesota.  They lost both of those games, too.  The 6 runs they allowed are the fewest given up in any series so far this year.  They gave 9 to the Twins in late July.

My Designated Hitter Rant

As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably).  If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH.  Here is the link.  If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.

Wild, Indeed

The situation looked grim, indeed.  And Mike Matheny’s desperation move seemed like it would pay off.

Just off the injury list, and not having pitched for almost three weeks, Kansas City brought Jakob Junis back into the rotation for what they knew would eventually be a bullpen game.  Junis gave them 69 pitches that brought KC into the fourth.  It was to be the second consecutive abbreviated start for the Royals, as Matt Harvey hadn’t made it out of the third inning the night before.

So now, one night after his bullpen accounted for 6.1 scoreless innings – albeit at the cost of 105 pitches, Mike’s bullpen was front and center again.  And they were almost good enough again.

Four relievers (three of them working on consecutive days) bought him 3.1 more scoreless innings, and the game went tied 2-2 into the eighth.  That was the inning a pinch home run from Ryan McBroom put the Royals up 3-2 with six desperate outs to get.

St Louis wouldn’t score in their half of the eighth, but they would nonetheless deliver a kidney punch to Kansas City’s tenuous bullpen set-up.  Also pitching on consecutive days was KC’s eighth-inning guy, Josh Staumont – a flame-throwing right-hander who entered the game with an 0.73 ERA.  He had pitched his scoreless inning the night before, but not without effort – he walked 2 and struck out 2 while tossing 23 pitches.

Josh was still throwing in the upper 90’s, but his command was lacking.  Paul DeJong led off the inning dumping a single into right, and Matt Carpenter ground out a 7-pitch walk.  A ground ball and a 5-pitch walk issued to Tyler O’Neil loaded the bases and brought closer Trevor Rosenthal into the action for what looked to be a 5-out save.  Trevor had saved the Tuesday game at the cost of 16 pitches.  Whether he would have enough in the tank for five more outs would be the question.

As far as the first two outs went, the answer was an emphatic “yes.”  It took Trevor only six blazing fastballs to strike out the two Cardinal batters he faced, ending the inning and leaving the bases loaded.

The complexion of the bottom of the ninth changed measurably in the top of the ninth when a two-run double off the bat of Whit Merrifield pushed the KC lead to 5-2.  It was enough cushion to give Matheny pause about sending Trevor back out for the ninth.  With a 3-run lead, perhaps someone else could close the game out?

But after Trevor there was only a mostly un-tested rookie (Kyle Zimmer) and a journeyman (Randy Rosario).  So Mike crossed his fingers and sent Rosenthal out for what he hoped would be three very quick outs.  Things unraveled almost immediately.

Trevor began the inning with his third consecutive strikeout, but Tommy Edman drained him of 7 more pitches before going down. Then it was Paul Goldschmidt who would grind out a 7-pitch walk.  A ground-rule double off the bat of Brad Miller and a 6-pitch walk to DeJong loaded up the bases with only one out and brought Rosenthal nearly to his limit.

Trevor would get one more out – one more strikeout, this time of rookie pinch-hitter Max Schrock.  But Max battled him for 7 more pitches.  Rosenthal was now at 34 for the night, and 50 over the last two games.  He was done.  The bases were still loaded, but now with two outs.  It was decision time.  Zimmer or Rosario?

Zimmer was the right-hander, and the next two Cardinal hitters were righties (Yadier Molina and Tyler O’Neil) so Zimmer made sense.  But Kyle had thrown 30 pitches in the first game of the series and needed more than the one day off.  So Rosario, the lefty, was the answer.

Randy came right after the Cardinal legend, throwing four straight strikes – with Yadi fouling off the last three.  Kansas City was one strike away from taking two-of-three from their cross-state rivals.  And then the weirdness took over.  After his 0-2 slider dropped into the dirt, his 1-2 slider ran into Molina.  It bounced off Yadi’s foot – the third Cardinal batter hit in the game and the seventh Cardinal hit in the three-game series.

And that opened the floodgates.

After throwing strikes with his first four pitches, Rosario would only manage 5 more strikes from his last 15 pitches.  O’Neil tied the game with a smash that bounced off third-baseman Maikel Franco.  And the rest were walks – 7 pitches to Dylan Carlson and 5 to Kolten Wong giving the Cardinals a four-run ninth and an improbable 6-5 walk off (literally this time) win (boxscore).

The Free-Runner Cardinals

Through the first seven innings of the game, the Cardinals – on a crazy run of getting free baserunners – had drawn only two walks (albeit Carpenter had already been hit twice).  Over the last two innings, Kansas City’s bullpen walked six Cardinals and hit another, bringing the total for the game to 11 free runners.  Add in their 9 hits, and St Louis finished the game with a .435 on base percentage.

With the win, St Louis has now won 6 of their last 9 games.  During this run, the Cards have now scored 46 runs (5.11 runs per).  They hold an unremarkable .259 team batting average over those games with 21 extra-base hits during that span – just 5 of them home runs.  But they have now drawn 50 walks in those games and had 11 other batters hit.  Their on base percentage over the last nine games (.389) is fifteen points higher than their aggregate slugging percentage (.374) over those same games.  They loaded the bases 7 times in three games against the Royals.  Most of that with significant help.

Goldschmidt

The walkingest of the walking Cardinals is first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.  He walked 4 times in the KC series, and has 14 walks in the last 9 games (giving him a .538 on base percentage during those games).  He has drawn at least one walk in 11 straight games – totaling 16 walks.  Since the Cardinal season re-started, Goldy has 17 walks in 15 games.  He is hitting .341 in those games with a .516 on base percentage.

There is a sense to this that pitchers are pitching around Goldschmidt.  I don’t know that that is entirely accurate.  But they are certainly unwilling to give into him.  In three of last night’s plate appearances Goldy saw a first pitch strike.  He went 0-for-2 with a sacrifice fly in those at bats.  His other two appearances started with ball one.  He walked in both of those PAs.

For the season, when Goldschmidt’s plate appearance begins with ball one, he ends up walking 32.5% of the time – almost exactly double the league-wide rate of 16.3%.

What this suggests is that once pitchers fall behind Paul they aren’t all that concerned if they walk him.  It’s better than trying to come to him in those situations.  In his at bats that begin with a ball, Goldy is slashing .370/.575/.630.  If he sees strike one, his numbers are still good (.306/.395/.417) but more manageable.

This will no doubt continue until Miller or Carpenter or DeJong or someone else makes someone suffer for continually walking Goldy.  The Cards were 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position last night after being 3 for 11 the night before.  They had 20 base-runners last night but managed to score 6 only with the help of the hit batsman and the walk both with the bases loaded.  The night before they had 15 base-runners, scoring just 4.  Until someone starts clearing the bases on a dependable basis, pitchers will be largely unbothered by walking Goldschmidt.

Speaking of that First Pitch

Going into today’s games, there have been 33,147 plate appearances in the major leagues.  In about 60% of them (19,985) the first pitch of the at bat has been a strike.  Last night, 84 batters came to the plate combined from both teams.  Only 40 of them (47.6%) saw first pitch strikes.  Both teams fell behind more hitters than they got ahead of.  The 46 Cardinal batters who came to the plate saw 24 first-pitch balls and only 22 first pitch strikes.  Conversely, the 38 batters that Cardinal pitchers faced saw 20 first pitch balls and only 18 first pitch strikes.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen that before.

Anyway, the type of game played would be fairly predictable from that statistic.  The teams combined for 11 runs on 16 hits, 13 walks and 3 hit batters.  The teams’ combined on base percentage was .381 – even though they only combined to hit .239.

Wild, indeed.

Hudson

Long removed from the game before the contest was decided, Dakota Hudson is rounding into form.  Stretched out enough, now, that he can go deeper into games, Hudson recorded his first quality start of the season last night.  Shaky early, Dakota finished going 6 innings allowing just 2 runs on 3 hits.  He walked 3, but 1 was intentional. 

Hudson has now made 3 starts since the team came out of quarantine.  Those starts have only totaled 14.2 innings as his initial pitch-count was low.  But, during those 14.2 innings, Dak gave just 3 runs on only 6 hits.  His post-COVID ERA is just 1.84 with batters hitting just .122 against him.  The home run he gave last night is the only extra-base hit he’s allowed over those starts.

Cabrera

That first pitch has been an ongoing issue for Genesis Cabrera.  Genesis is one of the teams’ top prospects with a high octane arm.  But of the 5 batters he faced last night, only one saw a first-pitch strike.  For the season, he has thrown ball one to 19 of the 31 batters he has faced (61.3%)

Reyes

Those same issues beset Alex Reyes as well.  He threw ball one to six of the ten he faced last night, walking 2 of them.  Sixteen of the 30 batters that Alex has faced (53.3%) this season have started their at bat with ball one.  Seven of those 16 have gone on to walk.

NoteBook

With all three games taking more than three hours – and last night’s finale enduring for 3:37 – the just concluded series against the Royals turns out to be the longest by average length of any series so far this season.  The three games averaged 3:18.  The previous 4-game set against Cincinnati had been the longest at 2:55.

My Designated Hitter Rant

As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably).  If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH.  Here is the link.  If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.

O’Hearn Drives Royals to Victory

As Cardinal starter Adam Wainwright stood on the mound to begin the sixth inning, he found Kansas City’s first baseman Ryan O’Hearn standing there waiting to face him for a third time.  The first two times had gone Ryan’s way.

The game was still scoreless when Ryan led off the second inning.  Adam’s first pitch to the Royal lefty was the cutter – a pitch that misbehaved all evening.  This one took off, running well inside, but Ryan flinched on it and fell behind in the count, 0-1.  Waino tried to find the outside corner with his next two offerings – a sinker, followed by a curve – but both missed, putting O’Hearn up in the count 2-1.

During this struggling evening, 12 of the 28 batters who would face Wainwright would get into a two-ball count.  Only 4 of those would see ball three, as even on a day when he battled his command, Adam was still able to stay – mostly – out of three-ball counts.

Over the course of the season, Wainwright has been the most disciplined of the Cardinal starters in keeping out of deep counts.  Counting last night, Waino has gone to three balls only 15 times against the 40 batters who have gotten themselves into two-ball counts against him.  For the season only 15.2% of all batters make it to three balls against Adam – the lowest percentage of any of the Cardinal starters.

Ryan, batting here in the second, wouldn’t see ball three either.  Even though his command of the curve was spotty at best, Wainwright never hesitates to throw it – even in two ball counts.  That’s what O’Hearn got – a hanging curve that sat over the middle of the plate until Ryan cuffed it into right for a single.  From there, he would eventually score the first run of the game on a ground-out.

There are times when it seems that – perhaps – Adam’s pitches in two-ball counts are too inviting.  O’Hearn’s second inning single was one of 4 hits (in 8 at bats) against Adam when he was in two-ball counts.

Their paths next crossed in the third.  The score was still 1-0, KC, but the Royals had threat brewing after back-to-back, two out walks.

From the little known facts department comes this gem.  The Cardinals are baseball’s best pitching staff on the first pitch of an at bat.  For the most part, major league hitters live to hit that first pitch.  Across the league (numbers found in baseball reference), batters slash .335/.350/.589 on that first pitch.  But when it’s a Cardinal on the mound, your slash line will be much humbler at .219/.231/.406 – a .637 OPS that is nearly 100 points lower than baseball’s next lowest (the .734 posted by the Texas staff).

The bulk of that success belongs to the man that O’Hearn was facing.  Adam routinely employs his cutter or his sinker to challenge the hitter with that first pitch, knowing that his curveball is that much more challenging if he is ahead in the count.  For their part, batters are fairly willing to jump on that fastball, knowing that the curveballs will come next.  Normally, only 10.4% of batters actually hit the first pitch in a plate appearance.  Ninety-nine batters into his 2020 season, Waino already has had 16 batters hit his first pitch – a rate roughly 50% higher than normal.

Usually, though, Adam successfully spots this pitch on the fringe of the strike zone, so the contact is met with minimal success.  As O’Hearn stood in the box in this third inning, three other Royals had already hit Waino’s first pitch and had a collective 0-for-3 to show for it.  In fact, as O’Hearn stood in, the first 15 batters to hit Adam’s first pitch in 2020 were just 1-for-15.

The first pitch to Ryan was that cutter, but up and not quite far in enough.  Whether O’Hearn was intentionally trying to beat the shift, or whether he was a little tied up by the pitch is unclear.  What is clear that his somewhat inside-out swing produced a ground ball that skipped cleanly through the left side of the infield (not terribly far from where a shortstop would normally be placed) for the single that pushed the KC lead to 2-0.

In between that hit and his sixth-inning plate appearance, much had changed.  The Cardinals had an uprising of their own, knocking KC starter Matt Harvey out of the game and pushing across four runs in the bottom of the third.  The Royals had scrapped to get one of those runs back in the fifth, but the Royals still trailed 4-3 as Ryan looked to go 3-for-3 against Wainwright.

Again, Adam fell behind 2-0 as his sinker dropped too low and a changeup floated wide of the plate.  This time, however, Wainwright was unable to stay out of a three-ball count as his 2-0 curveball stayed high.  Down in the count 3-0, Waino spotted a fastball perfectly on the lower outside corner.  Now at 3-1, Adam went back to the cutter, throwing one not too much different from the one he had thrown Ryan in the third inning – this one, perhaps a bit lower and a tad more over the plate.  It came in at 84.3 miles-per-hour.  It went out quite a bit faster.  And higher.  And deeper, as Ryan soared it deep into the right-field stands to tie the game.

O’Hearn would get one more at bat in the game, but he wouldn’t be facing Wainwright.  He struck out against John Gant in the eighth.

As for Adam, even in an outing in which he struggled from the beginning he was able to guile his way through seven innings.  While the results weren’t as comely as his first three starts of the season, they weren’t terrible.  After 98 pitches, Wainwright retired for the evening having allowed 7 hits (including the home run) and 2 walks.  He left a 4-4 tie in a game that his team would have several more opportunities to scratch out a victory.  Most of the time, this team finds a way to win this kind of game.  Most of the time.

The Incredible Walking Offense

Over the last week or so, I have made repeated references to the number of batters walked and hit by the Cardinal pitching staff.  The opposite has also been true.  Last night, St Louis was on the receiving end of 6 more walks and another hit batter. Their on base percentage last night was .385.  Since the season re-boot, Cardinal pitchers have walked 56 batters and hit 7 others.  Cardinal batters have answered with 59 walks of their own, while 12 other Cardinals have been hit.

Over the last 14 games, St Louis is hitting an uninspiring .249, but with a .356 on base percentage.

Getting the runners on, though, is only part of the battle.  Getting them home has proved to be much tougher.  Last night, only 2 of the 7 free runners crossed the plate.  Royal reliever Jake Newberry began the fourth by walking the first two batters, but a double-play took the steam out of the inning.  The Cards also got back-to-back walks with two out in the seventh, but nothing came of that, either.

In the ninth, with a runner already at third, ex-Cardinal reliever Trevor Rosenthal hit Kolten Wong to put the winning run on base with one out.  Neither runner moved as Trevor ended the game with a strikeout and a ground ball.

St Louis finished 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position.  They left 8 runners and lost another at the plate.

DeJong

One of the important pieces absent from the Cardinal lineup due to the virus was starting shortstop Paul DeJong.  In one of yesterday’s most encouraging developments, Paul slapped 3 hits.  In 3 games since his return to activity, DeJong is 4 for 11 (.364).

Wong

Kolten walked in addition to getting hit in the ninth inning, but got no hits, bringing to a close a seven-game hitting streak.  During the streak, Kolten hit .360 (9-for-25) and fashioned a .467 on base percentage with 4 walks and another hit by pitch.

Another Loss for the Pen

As the season was planned out, the Cardinal bullpen was supposed to be one of the team’s great strengths.  The COVID interruption has turned that bullpen into a kind of Chinese Fire Drill.  The last week and a half has been a constant tightrope act as Mike Shildt and Mike Maddox have labored to find enough arms to cover all the innings left them by a compromised rotation.

As the starters have begun to stretch out some, and some predictability has returned to the bullpen roles, the entire organization is hopeful that something resembling normalcy will return to the pitching staff – at least until the next wave of double-headers brings the next dose of chaos.

Last night, Wainwright turned in his second consecutive seven inning start and left a tie game to a reasonably rested bullpen – that promptly lost the game.

Gant – the first man out – had been nearly flawless so far this year.  So naturally, the Royals were able to wrap a couple of groundball singles around one of those ubiquitous walks to produce the run that decided the contest, 5-4 (boxscore).  The Cards have now lost 6 games since their season re-started – 4 of the losses coming from the pen.  In 14 games, St Louis has surrendered 48 runs – 28 of them by the pen.  Much of that because the pen has pitched nearly half the innings since the quarantine ended (51 of the 112).  Over those games, the starters hold a 2.51 ERA.  The pen is now at 4.06.

My Designated Hitter Rant

As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably).  If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH.  Here is the link.  If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.

Miller Milks the Middle

The scene played out as it has frequently during Bill Miller’s first 40 Cardinal plate appearances.  It was the third inning of last night’s game, Cards up 1-0, with a struggling Brad Keller on the hill for Kansas City.

Keller did throw a first-pitch slider for a strike, but as Miller patiently waited, Keller missed with the next three pitches.  The 3-1 pitch was a sinker, about thigh high, that Miller slapped into center for another hit.

The process reversed itself in the sixth against Chance Adams, but the result was the same.  Adam got ahead of Miller 0-2 with three fastballs, before missing with a change and a curve.  Now 2-2, Chance went back to the change – actually a good pitch that dropped over the outside corner.  But Brad lined it again into center for a single (this one more to right center than the first one).

His fifth inning single was pulled to right, but that’s been the anomaly this year.  A .242 lifetime hitter, Brad’s three-hit game last night pushed his 2020 average to .367.  Again, it’s only 40 plate appearances, but there are two things notably different about Brad in his early tenure in a Cardinal uniform.

The first has been the middle of the field.  A full 58.3% of the balls that Brad has put into play have gone to the middle of the diamond.  For his career, Brad pulls the ball 37.1% of the time, as opposed to hitting it up the middle just 35.9%.

He is 8 for 15 (.533) with 2 doubles and a home run (an .867 slugging percentage) this season when he works the middle.

The other big difference with Brad so far in 2020 is more, perhaps, a matter of luck.  As with his third inning at bat against Keller, pitchers have struggled to throw strikes when Miller is at the plate.  To this point, only 36.5% of the pitches thrown to him have been in the zone.

So, through his first 11 games as a Cardinal, Brad has only ended an at bat trailing in the count 8 times.  He has finished 16 others ahead in the count.  In those plate appearances, Miller has walked half the time and gone 4-for-8 the other half – a .750 on base percentage.

The weight of his career – all 2715 plate appearances of it – does suggest that by the end of the season, Brad’s numbers will fall more in line with the rest of his career.  Creeping up on your thirty-first birthday, it’s usually a little late to re-invent yourself.  But even a modest adjustment in approach could make a significant difference.  Both for Brad and his team.  Stay tuned.

Goldy, again

Paul Goldschmidt was another of the productive bats that drove the Cards to a 9-3 win last night (boxscore).  He also had three hits and a walk – one of his hits being a home run.  Exactly what Goldschmidt did during the quarantine is not known, but he returned to action un-impacted by the layoff.  Over the last 13 games, Paul has had 52 plate appearances with the following results: 11 singles, 2 doubles, 2 home runs and 14 walks.  Paul has driven in 7 runs and scored 8 while slashing .395/.558/.605 over those 13 games.

Being behind in the count hasn’t been a concern for Goldschmidt, either.  His 2 singles came on 0-1 and 1-2 counts.  Paul has pushed his season average up to .368 going 7 for his last 15 (.467) when behind in the count.

Edman

A revelation last year as a rookie, Tommy Edman has struggled off the mark so far this season.  Recently, though, he has shown signs of turning things around.  Over his last 6 games, Edman is 7 for 19 – a .368 average.

Carpenter

Before last night’s game ended, the Cards had been gifted 7 walks and 3 other hit batsmen.  Matt Carpenter received one of each, but didn’t contribute any of the 12 hits.  Over his last 5 games, Matt has walked 6 times, but is just 2 for 14 at the plate (.143).  After talking all spring about his re-vamped, opposite field stroke, Matt is, thus far, pulling the ball more than he ever has in his career.  He is currently right at 60% pulling the ball.  Over his previous four seasons – when he began to be pull-happy – he only pulled the ball 47.6% of the time.

Matt has worked himself ahead in the count 24 times so far this year – eventually drawing 9 walks.  But in his 15 at bats, Carp only has 1 hit – the grand slam in Chicago.

Flaherty

Back in the seventh inning of the season opener, Jack Flaherty went to a full count on Pirate slugger Josh Bell before Bell beat out an infield single.  That is the only hit Jack has allowed all year when he has been behind in the count.   The Royals were 0-for-7 against him when they were ahead in the count, and the league is 1 for 13 (.077) even when they have the count in their favor.

Gomber

Austin Gomber finished up the fifth inning and then went on to pitch the sixth last night.  Austin is now unscored on in 6.1 innings so far this year – but he has made a struggle out of it.  He pitched behind to 4 of the 7 he faced.  For the season, Austin has finished the at bat behind 13 of the 25 he has faced so far.  Four of them have walked, and another has been hit by a pitch.  The other 8 are 0-for-7 with a sacrifice fly.

NoteBook

Game time temperature was 95, by 3 degrees the hottest game of the year so far.  Back on July 26 (also at home) they played against Pittsburgh in 92 degree heat.

Kolten Wong had started seven consecutive games at second before he was given a breather last night (Tommy Edman started in his place).  Paul Goldschmidt, with six consecutive starts at first, now holds the Cards longest current streak for consecutive starts at one position.

My Designated Hitter Rant

As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably).  If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH.  Here is the link.  If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.

Pitchers Hold Reds at Bay

On their way to 91 wins and the NL Central title, last year’s St Louis Cardinals rode its young and talented pitching staff to a 3.80 season ERA – the fifth best in all of baseball, and second in the National League only to the Dodgers.  Meanwhile – at 4.18 – the Cincinnati Reds also boasted a top ten pitching staff (they ranked ninth overall and fourth in the NL).  The Reds, by comparison, never really challenged – finishing with 87 losses.

In spite of the divergent records, these two teams were more than a little similar in that they made a common practice of wasting excellent pitching.  They average major league team scored 4.83 runs per game.  The Cards finished nineteenth, averaging 4.72 runs per game – Cincinnati scored 4.33 runs per game, ranking twenty-fifth.  The major league average OPS last year was .758.  St Louis finished at .737 (21st) while the Reds OPSed .736 (22nd).  These numbers, by the way, courtesy of baseball reference.

Thus, both teams went into last offseason looking at ways to boost run production.  The Reds took a fistful of money and clambered into the free agent market.  They came home with Mike Moustakas – a 35 home run man for Milwaukee last year – for 64 million over four years, and Nicholas Castellanos (also for four years and 64 million) who had hit 58 doubles to go with 27 home runs and a .289 batting average with Detroit and the Cubs.  The beauty of these coups was not only the addition of a couple of impact bats to their own lineup, but their subtraction would serve to bring division rivals in Milwaukee and Chicago back to the pack.

The Cardinals took the exact opposite approach.  The acquired Bill Miller to strengthen the bench, but beyond that they looked to development and improvement from within.

Last weekend, these two teams assembled in St Louis for the first time this season to take each other’s measure.  How have the divergent approaches played out?

Twenty-two games into their season, Cincy’s 4.11 ERA ranked third in the NL.  But their 96 runs scored ranked eleventh in the 15 team league.  At 4.36 runs per game, the offensive output was almost identical so far to last year.  The Cards had only played 13 games to that point, but their results were similar.  They came in with a strong 4.19 team ERA, but scoring just 4.00 runs per contest – a figure that ranked among the worst in all of baseball.

So, the question as the series began was, would either team be able to score a run, and if both of these pitching staffs dominated each other’s offense, would that say more about the talented pitching staffs or the struggling lineups?  (It is worth noting that both teams are playing with full-time designated hitters this season – so that alone should be expected to increase the offense).

The series – which the Cards took, three games to one – played out much as advertised.  St Louis fared against the Reds about as well as they have against everyone else.  They scored 16 runs during the series (4 per game) and hit .234 (29 of 124).  They are hitting .232 over the whole season.

The eye-catching numbers were recorded by the Cardinal pitching staff.  Over the four games, they allowed just 10 runs – and only 4 of those were earned.  The team-wide 1.00 ERA was accompanied by a .138 batting average against (the Reds managed just 17 hits over the series.  Cincinnati – in fact – didn’t score an earned run in either of the middle two games, but – in a scenario that is the Cardinal season so far in microcosm – still managed to win one of them.

In the Friday game, the Cards put runners in scoring position in the third, fourth and fifth innings – loading the bases in the third and fifth – but never produced a hit in those situations.  They finished 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position, managing just two runs (on a bases loaded walk and a ground ball).  Even so, the Birds carried a 2-0 lead into the sixth inning, as starter Dakota Hudson had allowed just 1 hit over the first 4.2 innings before turning the game over to the bullpen.

Genesis Cabrera, on the mound in that pivotal inning, retired the first two batters on a groundball and a strikeout.  When Eugenio Suarez lofted a high fly ball to deep center field, the inning seemed to be over.  But Harrison Bader – a defensive standout – had the ball bounce off the heel of his glove, and suddenly Suarez was at third.  In short order, a walk and a hit batsman loaded the bases.  When Tyler Webb came out of the pen to face lefty Josh VanMeter, Cincy countered with right-handed slugger Matt Davidson.

Matt shocked the cardboard faithful, drilling Tyler’s third pitch deep over the fence in left-center.  It was Cincinnati’s second (and final) hit of the day.  The Cards would finish with only 3 hits of their own and a 4-2 loss (boxscore).

Hits have been hard to come by against the Cardinal pitching staff.  After the Cincinnati series, St Louis holds the majors lowest batting average against (at .177 they are nearly 30 points lower than the next best staff).  But – at 3.94 walks per nine innings – they are walking the tenth most batters in the majors.  Toss in the 9 batters they’ve hit, and St Louis is surrendering over 4.5 free baserunners per game.

Things have, of course, been worse since the season restart – especially from the bullpen as they struggle to regain command of their breaking pitches.  In the 12 games since St Louis re-took the field, they have turned to their bullpen for 45 innings, watching them unintentionally walk 27 batters (5.40 walks per 9 innings), hit 4 others and serve up 9 home runs (1.80 per 9 innings).

In the 13.2 innings they pitched against the Reds, the bullpen was touched for only 4 hits – an .095 batting average against.  But they walked 10 batters in those innings.  This is the early story of the Cardinal’s second season.

As to the starters – especially the ones who worked in the Cincinnati series – their early-season reverse platoon splits have been nothing short of phenomenal.  Reverse platoon splits refer to the ability of right-handed pitchers to retire left-handed batters and of the lefties to get the righties out.  We will consider them individually.

Wainwright

Pitching on normal rest for the first time this season, Adam Wainwright struggled early in the first game, falling behind 3-0 in the second.  He rebounded to keep the game close enough for the Birds to pull out a 5-4 win (boxscore).  He finished 7 innings allowing 6 hits.

He was most effective against Cincy’s left-handed hitters, who were just 5-for-21 (.238) against him with no walks.  So far in 2020, left-handers are just 7 for 40 (.175) against Waino with 1 walk – good for a .190 on base percentage against him.

This is in sharp contrast to his performance against lefties in the most recent seasons.  From 2016 through 2019, the 1109 left-handed batters to face Adam were hitting a healthy .289 with 36 home runs.  If he can sustain his early effectiveness against these guys, it will go a long way towards returning Adam to the elite pitcher he has been in seasons past.

Hudson

Dak started the second game (already discussed).  In three starts so far this season, Hudson has yet to eclipse 4.2 innings, but has been largely effective since the re-start.  In the two starts he’s made since the quarantine, Dak has lasted a total of 8.2 innings, allowing just 1 run on 3 hits while striking out 9.

The left-handers he faced against Cincy finished 0-for-12 with 5 strikeouts.  They are 0-for-17 against him over his last 2 starts, and 2-for-27 (.074) against Hudson this season.

Through his first two major league seasons, Hudson didn’t present much mystery to lefties – the first 161 he faced hit .261 against him with 67 walks – a .374 on base percentage.  Needless to say his new-found dominance against lefties (if it lasts) is a most exciting development in his career.

Kim

Game three of the series belonged to Kwang Hyun Kim, who gained his first major league victory with six scoreless innings of an eventual 3-0 shutout (boxscore).

Of the 21 batters KK faced, 16 were right-handed.  But the Korean lefty was unfazed, allowing them just 2 hits – one an infield hit.  For the season so far, right-handers have solved Kim for only 5 hits and 1 walk (intentional).  They are hitting .152 with an on base percentage of .176.  His splits from Korean baseball are not readily available, but as a 136-game winner there over 12 seasons, Kwang must certainly have developed the ability to handle right-handers.

Ponce de Leon

Daniel Ponce de Leon was hurt early in the Sunday game, serving up a two-run homer to Suarez in the first inning.  But Daniel held it together after that, allowing no more runs during his 4.2 innings – although he walked 4 while giving 3 hits.

He did walk 3 lefties and hit another, but also held them to just 1-for-12 in the game.  For the season, left-handers are hitting just .179 against Ponce (5 for 28), but that does come with a bit of an asterisk, as he has walked 7, hit 2 more and allowed 3 extra-base hits (a triple and two home runs) to lefties.

For the most part throughout his young career, and in spite of the fact that he has walked a few of them, Ponce de Leon has had admirable success against left-handers, holding them to a .156 average (24 for 154) thus far.

Gant

In the first game of the first double-header after the quarantine, John Gant served up a double to White Sox youngster Luis Robert.  It is the only hit off of Johnny so far this season.  Batters are 0-for-13 since then against him with 1 walk and 6 strikeouts.

A Miller

Pitching in the Saturday game, Andrew Miller came in with a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning, inheriting a runner at first and no outs.  Switch-hitting Freddy Galvis grounded the first pitch thrown to him into a double play, mostly diffusing the inning.  But Andrew stirred up some more trouble surrendering a single to right-handed hitting Kyle Farmer and then walking the left-hander, Joey Votto.  He then left the game as Giovanny Gallegos ended the inning with a strikeout of Castellanos.

Right-handers have been an issue thus far for Andrew.  They are now 6 for 15 (.400) early, although in fairness only one of those hits has been for extra-bases (a double) and he has only walked 1 right-hander.

Some Signs of Stability

While there has been significant struggle as the pitching staff – and in particular the bullpen – has tried to right itself, there are a few signs of normalcy.  In the four games of the Cincinnati series, no Cardinal made his major league debut – a first since the quarantine.  Also, when Alex Reyes came into the Thursday game, he was the first reliever to work with two full days of rest since the season re-started.  Baby steps, I guess.

Bader

The mostly struggling offense started to find a little life over the last two games against the Reds – mostly in the person of Harrison Bader, whose hitting struggles had threatened his place in the lineup.  With his average fading to .125, Bader went 4-for-6 over the last two games, with 2 doubles and 2 home runs – hitting one off a slider.

Yadi

The other significant offensive force during the series was Yadier Molina.  Coming off the disabled list in time to play the series, Cincinnati’s favorite Cardinal (Yadi) was 7 for 17 during the series with 5 runs batted in.  He had two multi-hit games, getting four in the Sunday final – a 6-2 Cardinal win (boxscore).  Molina has played in 9 games this season, and has hits in 7 of them.

Goldy

Paul Goldschmidt keeps on keeping on.  He was 3-for-10 during the series with 7 walks.  Since the Cards have gotten back on the field, Paul is 12 for 34 (.353) with 13 walks – a .532 on base percentage.

O’Neil

Perhaps the toughest series belonged to Tyler O’Neil – 1 for 15 in the set, and just 2 for his last 30.  Tyler is also 0-for-9 this season against lefties.

NoteBook

At 2:15, Saturday’s game was the quickest 9-inning game of the young season.  The previous shortest game was the 2:03 7-inning contest against the Cubs on August 17.  The starters in that game were Kim for the Cardinals and Kyle Hendricks for the Cubs.

To no one’s surprise, the hot weather was waiting for the Cards when they returned home.  Sunday’s game was played in 90 degree heat – their first 90 degree game since before the COVID shutdown.  Back on July 26 they lost a 5-1 game to Pittsburgh in 92 degree heat.

With the Sunday game checking in at 3:03, (and in spite of the brevity of the Saturday game) the four Cincinnati games averaged 2:55, making this the longest series by average time so far this season.  The opening three-game series against the Pirates averaged 2:54.3.

A Classic One-Run Game

There are a few categories of wins and losses that I look to for particular insight.  They are the games that reveal character.  Games against winning teams is one.  Games after a loss is another.  And then there are the one-run games.  They tell a special story, as victory or defeat is always just a matter of one pitch, one play, or one decision.

Last night’s 5-4, walk-off win over Cincinnati (boxscore) was, perhaps, the quintessential one-run game.  The twists and turns of that contest allowed both teams ample opportunity to get the win – and, like all of these games, the deciding factors were part talent and part character with a dash of good (or bad) luck tossed in.

The game began as a Cincinnati rout.  A couple of Cardinal errors led to two unearned first-inning runs, and the Reds increased their lead to 3-0 on Freddy Galvis’ second inning home run. 

But the Reds weren’t done in the second.  Tucker Barnhart and Joey Votto followed the home run with singles.  If Votto’s single was just placed well enough that Barnhart could have made it to third, he would almost certainly have scored on Nicholas Castellanos’ fly ball, and that might have changed the course of the game.  Perhaps Cardinal starter Adam Wainwright doesn’t survive the third if he allows any more runs in the second.  But Barnhart had to hold at second, Wainwright rebounded to retire both Castellanos and Jesse Winker, and the Reds stranded two.  Still, they had an early 3-0 lead with Sonny Gray – one of baseball’s nastiest pitchers – on the mound.

The Cards had their first opportunity to dig into that lead in the bottom of the second when they loaded the bases with one out.  At the plate, recently returned Yadier Molina was facing a live pitcher for the first time in over three weeks, and for the first two pitches looked overmatched by Gray.  But Sonny missed with the 1-2 pitch – a slider that he left up.  Yadi flicked it into right, and St Louis trimmed the lead to 3-2.  Without that hit, St Louis almost certainly loses this game.

Cincy pushed the lead back up to 4-2 in the top of the third, as an infield hit off the bat of Eugenio Suarez preceded Mike Moustakas’ double into the right-field gap.  At that point, Waino had only recorded 6 outs, while serving up 4 runs on 6 hits – including a homer.

But Moustakas would be the last Red to reach base against Adam, who set down the last 15 batters he faced, becoming the first Cardinal pitcher to complete 7 innings in this strange season.  But Gray was nearly as good, muffling the Cardinal bats as the game went to the bullpens in the bottom of the seventh, Cincinnati still holding a 4-2 lead.

The Reds had opportunities in the eighth and especially in the ninth to pad their lead.  But Alex Reyes struck out Josh VanMeter to end the eighth with runners at first and third.  Seth Elledge invited more trouble in the ninth when he walked Galvis leading off.  But on the second pitch to Barnhart, Molina gunned Galvis out at second trying to steal.  If Freddy makes it, the Reds probably win.  If Freddy had just stayed at first, the Reds would probably have won.  Seth then proceeded to load the bases on a double and two walk before finally striking out Suarez on the 32nd pitch of the inning.

All of this left the Cards within striking distance in the ninth, when Raisel Iglesias emerged from the Cincinnati bullpen.  In almost every case, one team’s closer will have a significant impact on the outcome of a one-run game – and this one began to unravel on Iglesias immediately.  A hit batter, a walk, a single and suddenly the bases were loaded with nobody out.

At the plate, of course, was Molina – who once again fell behind quickly, 0-2.  When Molina initially hit the next pitch, it looked like Iglesias had induced the double-play that would gut the rally.  But as the ball hopped over the mound, Iglesias leapt to glove it.  He succeeded only in batting the ball away from the shortstop and toward third.  The Reds had no play anywhere.  The bases were still loaded, still no one out, the lead now trimmed to 4-3.

At this point, it must have been apparent to all parties how this one would end.  A balk brought home the tying run, and one out later Kolten Wong greeted Nate Jones with a drive into the gap in right-center to end the nip-and-tuck affair in the Cardinal’s favor.

As is often the case in one-run games, the heroes at the end of the game were not necessarily the ones who were having the best game early on.  Wainwright was on the ropes early before he settled in to become the pitching hero of the game.  Seth Elledge saw four of the six batters he faced reached base – three of them on walks.  But he made the pitch he needed to make to get out of the ninth and was awarded his first major league win.  Prior to his game-winning hit, Kolten Wong had been 0-for-4 with 3 strikeouts.

In his eight-year career in St Louis, Wong has now delivered 12 game-winning hits and 15 late, game-changing hits in one-run games. (For the record, Albert Pujols has delivered the most Cardinal game-winning hits in one-run games this century with 42 and is tied with Molina for most late, game-changing hits in one-run games with 37.)

St Louis is now 2-1 this season in one-run games.  They were 25-22 during the regular season last year, and won both one-run games in the Division Series against Atlanta.  During the century, they are 481-467 (counting playoffs) in these contests.

It is hardly surprising that the comeback came at the expense of the Reds.  Almost every season, it seems that St Louis fashions some kind of highlight-reel comeback against Cincinnati.  This was the 161st time this century that St Louis has come from at least three runs behind to win.  Twenty-seven of those have come at the expense of the Reds – including the Cards two biggest comebacks this century.  On May 12, 2002 they came from 8 runs down to win 10-8.  Just last year (on July 19) they turned a 7-run deficit into a 12-11 win.  They have won 62 games this century when trailing after 8 innings.  Seven of those have come at Cincinnati’s expense – including this game in May of 2005 when the Cards won 10-9 after trailing by six runs headed into the ninth.

If the comeback last night seemed eerily familiar, that might be the reason.

NoteBook

Cincinnati’s two-run first marked the eighth time in the last 11 games that St Louis has allowed the first run of the game.

My Designated Hitter Rant

As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably).  If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH.  Here is the link.  If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.

Just Finding the Plate

With the fifth pitch of the first game, Chicago starter Alec Mills plunked Cardinal leadoff hitter Kolten Wong with the pitch.  It would be an auspicious beginning to another 14 inning afternoon of baseball in Chicago.

Wong would be the first of four batters hit by pitches on the afternoon.  Two batters later, Paul Goldschmidt would draw the first of 16 combined walks between the two teams.  Both would score moments later on Matt Carpenter’s grand slam.

The Cub starter would walk another before he left the game after 3.2 innings, and two relievers would walk 3 more.  One of those walks (Wong, again) would come home to score one of the final runs in St Louis’ opening game 9-3 victory (boxscore).  For their part, Cardinal pitchers Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber and Ricardo Sanchez would combine to walk 6 and hit two others (remember, this was a 7 inning game).  Remarkably, only one of those free runners scored.

There were 5 more combined walks and another hit batsman in the second game – a 4-2 Chicago win (boxscore). The Cubs – who totaled just 6 hits in the night-cap – managed to bunch 4 of them together in the seventh to produce the winning rally, but their first two runs in the second were set up by back to back walks and a wild pitch to open the inning.  Of the three Cardinals to walk, only Dylan Carlson scored (at the time it was the tying run in the sixth), although the other Cardinal run of the game reached on an error and scored on a fly ball.  After bouncing out 11 hits in game one, St Louis managed just 3 singles in game two.

For the pitching staff, this has become a recurring theme.  Restarting their season from a standing start after a 17-day layoff, nearly the entire staff has struggled to regain its pre-COVID command.  The eight games just played in Chicago saw Cardinal hurlers issue 35 walks (2 intentional) while hitting 4 other batters in just 58 innings – a figure that works out to 5.43 unintentional walks per nine innings.

The Cubs and White Sox only combined to hit .183 against the St Louis staff, but with the free baserunners maintained a .314 on base percentage.

The issue was particularly telling against the Cub lineup, strewn as it is with veteran hitters who are in no rush to help out a scuffling pitcher.  In 36 innings in Wrigley, Cardinal pitchers issued 28 walks.  Four others reached after being hit by pitches.  Of the 19 runners Chicago scored in the 5 games, 7 of them reached base without virtue of a hit.

Starting the second game, Johan Oviedo became the final Cardinal pitcher in the series to make his major league debut.  Johan walked the first two batters in the second.  But in an encouraging sign, that was the last walk surrendered by the Cards in the game.  Oviedo worked through the fifth without allowing anymore free runners.  Thereafter, Genesis Cabrera, Andrew Miller and Giovanny Gallegos faced a total of 9 batters with no walks.

Whether it’s a turning point for this rotation or not remains to be seen.  But 6 essentially walk-less innings is certainly encouraging.

Brad Miller

If there is a small silver lining to come out of the whole COVID thing, it might be that the crush of games and innings has forced Mike Shildt to go to his bench more, I’m sure, than he would like to.  This has provided Brad Miller an opportunity to open some eyes.  After hitting two home runs in the second game on Monday, Brad wrapped up a 6-for-12, 8 RBI series with a 3-for-5 doubleheader that included an RBI double.  Since the season reboot, Miller has earned 22 plate appearances resulting in 3 singles, 2 doubles, 2 home runs, 5 walks and a sacrifice fly.  He is slashing .438/.545/.938 (a 1.483 OPS) in 7 games (6 starts).  His 9 RBIs include 1 game-winning hit and 2 late, game-changing hits.

He is also 3-for-3 when batting with runners in scoring position.

Tyler O’Neill

Tyler O’Neill was one of the big bats in the lineup when the season resumed.  He went 3-for-7 in the first doubleheader against the White Sox with a double and a game-winning home run.  Since then, Tyler, fighting to establish himself as an everyday presence in the lineup, has gone 1-for-15 over the last five games.  His overall average has slipped to .189 and Shildt dropped him from fourth to sixth in the lineup.

Andrew Knizner

During Yadier Molina’s absence, the catching duties were roughly split between prospect Andrew Knizner and veteran Matt Wieters.  Neither took advantage of the opportunity presented (Molina has returned to the roster and will be in tonight’s lineup).  Wieters has begun his season 0-for-12.  Knizner saw his first action of the season in the first game of the White Sox doubleheader – and went 2-for-3 with an RBI.  He is 0-for-10 with 5 strikeouts and a double-play grounder since then.

NoteBook

The Cards have now scored first in a game only 3 times in their last 10 contests.

The five games in Wrigley averaged 77.6 degrees, making it the coolest series of the young season.  The previous low for a series was 81 degrees for two games in Minnesota in July.

Now Pitching for the Cardinals – You?

On August 15, after a 17-day layoff, the St Louis Cardinals picked up their bats and gloves and took to the field against the Chicago White Sox.  The timing of their bounce-back from the COVID outbreak that interrupted their season allowed them no live baseball activities before facing a pretty good team in mid-season form.  Questions abounded – particularly regarding the hitters.

If you’ve not seen live major league pitching in 17 days, how can you not be mismatched against the White Sox’ prize youngster, Lucas Giolito.

To everyone’s great relief, the Birds hung up a four-spot in the very first inning.  Cardinal Nation could exhale.  In retrospect, it wasn’t the achievement that it seemed at the time.  Giolito struggled early with his command.  St Louis loaded the bases early with the help of a walk and a hit batsman.  The first run scored on another hit batsman, and a couple of singles created the early lead.

Thereafter, the bats contributed little, but no more was needed as the Cards paddled along to a 5-1 win (boxscore).  In retrospect, the remarkable aspect of St Louis’ first win out of quarantine came from the mound.

Twenty days after his last start, veteran Adam Wainwright silenced all of the dangerous young Chicago bats.  Adam finished 5 strong innings, giving just the one run on two hits.  He threw 42 of his 67 pitches for strikes.

Considering that Adam doesn’t go after hitters with overpowering heat, his command of his breaking pitches – especially that signature curve – was surprising.  And singular.

It would be the last solid effort the Cards would get from a starting pitcher.

Oh, the Pitching Issues

Of the six starters to follow Waino to the hill – including Jack Flaherty in game one of today’s double-header – none has finished 4 innings.  The collected group has totaled 16.2 innings over 6 starts – slightly more than 8 outs a start.  They have averaged 48 pitches a start, but are only throwing 57% of them for strikes.

Their stuff has been outstanding, in that they have scored 19 strikeouts over those innings.  But their command – the collateral damage of the layoff – has suffered to the tune of 12 walks, 1 hit batsman, and 4 home runs.  Opposing hitters have only hit .172 against the last 6 Cardinal starters, but with a .324 on base percentage and a .431 slugging percentage.  And their failure to make it even four innings has made things harder for a bullpen that has its own share of issues.

The Beleaguered Bullpen

Over the 6 games since Waino conquered the White Sox, the succeeding starters have left 27.1 innings for the bullpen to handle.  Some of that was anticipated, as the second game of the two doubleheaders included in this data were going to be “bullpen” games.  But that only added to the importance of innings from the starters in the other games.

The relievers, you see, were working through the same command and endurance issues that the starters were.  They also hadn’t pitched in 17 days and needed some ramp-up time as well.  During this arduous stretch, the bullpen has been, by turns, dominating and struggling.  In the 22 innings leading up to today’s twin-bill, Cardinal relievers have whiffed an astonishing 35 batters – 14.3 per 9 innings – while allowing just 17 hits.

But, over those 22 innings, those relievers have been taxed to the tune of 407 pitches – more than 81 pitches from the pen per game.  Five of those bullpen arms threw at least 30 pitches during their outings.  Only 242 of those pitches have been strikes (59.5%).  In addition to the 35 strikeouts, Cardinal relievers have walked 14, hit 2 others, and served up 7 home runs (remember, this is just 22 innings).

Their subsequent inability to eat innings, and management’s hesitancy to use them too early in back-to-back games, has led to the most memorable aspect of the early days of St Louis’ post-COVID season.  The last 5 games have been marked by an unending stream of minor league and free agent pitchers that have tried their best to hold the fort until things finally stabilize.

Eleven games into the season, the Cards have seen 12 players make their major league debuts – with 9 of the 12 being pitchers.  Seven of those pitchers have made their debut in the last 4 games, with Johan Oviedo set to make his debut when he starts the second game of today’s twinbill.  Some (like Seth Elledge) were prospects who weren’t expected to be in the majors for another year or so.  Others (like Nabil Crismatt) were street free agents who happened to be available.  Representative of the group is Ricardo Sanchez, the rookie lefty who finished the first game of today’s double-header.  Sanchez found himself pitching in important games against the Cubs after an undistinguished six-year minor league career that saw him assemble a 25-47 record with a 4.52 ERA without ever having pitched as high as AAA.

The result of the daily shuffling of the bullpen has given the Cardinal games in Chicago a kind of spring training feel, as an endless string of pitchers wearing numbers in the 60s, 70s and even 80s have taken their turns on the mound.

In all, since the restart of the season – and not counting the just completed first game of the doubleheader – 36% of all Cardinal innings have been handled by pitchers that management had no intention of using this year.

I don’t believe there is any truth to the rumor that they will try to hide a pitching machine behind a cardboard cutout of a pitcher, but my belief is that they are still looking for available arms who might have an inning or more to give.  So, if you’ve ever hankered for the opportunity to pitch for the Cardinals, and you can make it to the stadium tomorrow, you might be making your major league debut before the weekend is over.

Through all of this, the Birds have remained surprisingly competitive, splitting the first six games in their return against two very good Chicago teams.  A credit to the talent of the young not-quite-ready-for-prime-time relievers and the general pluckiness of a team that has historically embraced adversity.  The expectation is that things will get better.  The pitchers who were sidelined by the disease (Carlos Martinez, Ryan Helsley and Junior Fernandez) should shortly make their way back.  The starters currently in the rotation are expected to eventually regain their command and work deeper into these games.  The relievers should also regain their consistency with more use.

Things should get better.  The question is how long will it take, and where will the team be by the time they start to resemble the club they thought they had in spring training 1.0.  Right now they are 3.5 games out in the division and in more than decent shape for one of the playoff spots, but there is a lot of post-COVID adversity before them.  Even after they get the team re-assembled, they will still have the gauntlet of finishing off 53 games in about 43 days.

I don’t forsee any of this getting much easier.

NoteBook

Last night’s marathon – at 4:09 the longest game played so far this early season – came 27 minutes short of the combined time of the doubleheader played the day before (2:03 & 2:33).  The previous longest game was the third game of the season on July 26.  It lasted just 2:56 (a 5-1 loss to the Pirates).

Last night’s game was also the coolest game played so far, with a game time temperature of 73 degrees.  Twice previously in Chicago they had played in 79 degree weather.

During the doubleheader on August 15, four players made their Cardinal debuts (with three of them making their major league debuts).  The four – Dylan Carlson (Oct 23), Brad Miller (Oct 18), Max Schrock (Oct 12) and Jake Woodford (Oct 28) were all born in October.  For those of you scoring at home, the odds of that are approximately 20,736 to 1.

Pardon my Common Sense

In the aftermath of the recent COVID outbreaks that have affected Miami and St Louis, there has been a great deal of silliness propounded by both the league and the local writers.  Here, a local columnist named Ben Frederickson all but gives up on the season – it’s a classic “sky is falling” article, full of the expected “woe is us” sentiment that usually accompanies a team working its way through a difficult time.

For their part, the league is re-scheduling all of these missed games as double-headers as quickly as the ink dries on the postponement.  The Cards already have 6 scheduled, and will probably have 9 within a couple of days.  Assuming that next week’s Pittsburgh series comes off, the Cards will be faced with the daunting challenge of completing 55 games in 49 days.

Just kill us now.

All of this, mind you, is against the backdrop of the league doing everything it can to coddle the players.  May I remind you that the Universal DH nonsense (here is my rant against that) was implemented so that pitchers wouldn’t have to “fatigue themselves” by actually having to bat.  But three doubleheaders in a week is OK.

The goofy extra-inning rules (ranted upon here) and the seven-inning doubleheaders were all crafted to ease the burden of a suddenly impossibly burdensome season.

All of this foolishness is almost certain to continue, and my small interjection of common sense will almost certainly vanish unheeded into the void.  Nonetheless, if anyone out there – especially MLB – would like to know the right way to proceed, I will commend to them the sage counsel of those renowned British philosophers, the Beatles:

 When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom – let it be.

All of the angst that is building over these difficulties comes from the ridiculous imperative to cling to the full 60 games.  Let it go.  Let it be.

Some stories suggested that MLB was about to flush the whole season.  Why?  Because a couple teams have had temporary issues with the virus while 28 other teams have executed their protocols perfectly (at least so far)?  Balderdash.

None of this is really rocket science.  Let the teams that are healthy play.  If teams (Miami, St Louis, perhaps some others over the next couple of months) have to drop some games to deal with an outbreak – well, OK, so they miss a few games.  When these teams get back on their feet, they can make up such games as were lost in as sensible fashion as possible.

Here’s what that would look like for the Cardinals:

To this point, St Louis has lost 10 games – 4 against Detroit, 3 against Milwaukee, and 3 against the Cubs.  Flush all of the doubleheaders that the powers that be have imposed.  Give Detroit back its off-days.  Look at the initial schedule, and let’s start over.

The Cards and Tigers (with the doubleheaders wiped) have no more games against each other.  So, for the moment, let’s forget those games.  We will hold them in abeyance, as it were.  But for now, let’s make no effort to reclaim them.

St Louis has two more series this season scheduled with both the Brewers and Cubs.  In each of those series, schedule one – and only one – doubleheader.  That will make up two of the three games lost against each of those division opponents. At the end of the day – assuming that no more games are lost – St Louis would end up with 54 games played (90% of the schedule), all without unduly taxing the team in a breathless race to achieve that magic 60 mark.  As September winds down, if it appears that any of the lost games might carry playoff importance, then plans can be made to accommodate that.  With the schedule ending on September 27, I’m betting that those last few days of September might be available for tying up any loose ends.

I would recommend a similar approach for the Phillies and Marlins.  Let it be.  Make up the games that can be sensibly made up, and let the others go.

Now, this system will likely cost some home games.  Both remaining series against Chicago will be in Wrigley, so – under my proposal – all 9 contests against the Cubs in this strange season would be in Chicago.  Well, first of all, some of that was going to happen anyway.  Among all the doubleheaders proposed by MLB, one had the Cards and Brewers making up a game that was supposed to take place in Milwaukee in St Louis.  Additionally, the original schedule was fairly tilted, anyway.  Of the 20 scheduled games against the Cardinals’ chief opponents in Chicago and Milwaukee, St Louis was going to be the road team in 13 of them.

Everyone’s main problem in trying to pick up the pieces here is that they want to make everything pretty and even.  All of that needs to be secondary to just getting through all of this.  With wacky rules and uneven schedules, this season is going to end with a giant asterisk behind it, regardless of how smoothly it does or doesn’t proceed.  Let’s not make the whole thing an exercise in stupidity as well.

As for the Cards, yes, they have dug themselves into a bit of a hole.  They weren’t playing exceptionally well when their season was halted, and now they will be coming off a nearly two week layoff on Monday (if, in fact, they are allowed to play on Monday).  When they do play, they will have to hit the ground running without several key pieces of the club for an indeterminate time – and the losses of Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, Carlos Martinez and the others will be felt.

But the Cards have better depth than people may realize, and have a history of playing their best under adverse conditions.  It would help a lot if they also didn’t have to overcome the mindlessness of the powers that be.