In 2019 – the last “regular” regular season – the St Louis Cardinals broke their long playoff drought, won 91 games, and re-captured the division title from the usurpers from the North. The heroes of the resurgence were a young and dynamic pitching staff that finished the season ranked second in the league in team ERA (3.80), with only the 106 win Dodger team doing better (3.37).
That team fought its way all the way to the league championship series – MLB’s version of the final four. But once there, an old nemesis caught up to them – their own offense. They scored only 2 total runs through the first three games – losing all of them – and ended with just 6 total runs scored in a four-game sweep at the hands of the soon-to-be World Champion Washington Nationals. For the series the team slashed an embarrassing .130/.195/.179 – a humbling .374 OPS.
This had been a frequent problem during the regular season, when they scored just 4.72 runs per game (ranking tenth in the 15 team National League). Their 210 home runs ranked twelfth in the league, their .245 team batting average ranked them eleventh, their .415 slugging percentage was twelfth, and their .737 OPS finished eleventh.
As the last offseason arrived, team offense was clearly one of the peak areas of concern.
Finishing out of the playoffs that year – and by a considerable amount – were the Cincinnati Reds (possessors of a disappointing 75-87 record.
Apart from the records, though, the two teams were very similar in many respects. The Cincinnati pitching staff was only a whit behind the Cardinal staff. They finished fourth in the league in ERA, and their ERA+ (which makes ballpark adjustments) was actually higher than St Louis’ (112-111).
But, like the Cardinals, the Reds struggled to score runs. At 4.33 runs per game, they ranked twelfth. They were also bottom third in batting average (.244), OBP (.315), and OPS (.736 – 1 point below the Cardinals).
Over the winter of 2019-20, these two teams approached their common deficiency in very different ways. The Reds filled their purse with coin (as much as they could) and went to gamble on free-agent roulette. They eventually (and at the cost of significant treasure) came away with two of the more highly regarded bats on the market – Nicholas Castellanos and Mike Moustakas. Castellanos was coming off a year in which he had hit .289 and slugged .525 on the strength of 27 home runs and a remarkable 58 doubles. Moustakas was coming off a 35 homer season. As both players had ended 2019 playing for division rivals (Castellanos in Chicago and Moustakas in Milwaukee), the moves had the extra benefit of depriving two of the Reds main competitors of important offensive pieces.
The storied Cardinal franchise took a totally opposite approach. Their situation was this: the great offensive lag came mostly from the outfield, and their farm system was teeming with young promising outfielders. They could either follow Cincinnati into the marketplace and join in the scrum to sign established – if aging – hitters (to the detriment of developing their young stars). Or, they could initiate a youth movement and open up opportunities for these young and promising hitters.
They went so far down the youth-movement road that they even declined the opportunity to re-sign Marcell Ozuna (a 29 home run man in 2019) because he was seeking a two-year deal and the Cardinals didn’t want to tie up one of the outfield positions for the next two years.
(Ozuna subsequently signed in Atlanta, where he had a terrific 2020. Parting ways with him is much more understandable when you remember that his two years in St Louis were less than compelling. His OPSs were above average [.758 and .800] but not seemingly irreplaceable.)
Into the breach, the Cardinals had high hopes for Tyler O’Neil (a minor league power guy who had shown flashes in limited major league action the previous two years), Harrison Bader (a gifted defender in center field who had hit well in the minors, but had struggled against breaking pitches in St Louis), and Lane Thomas (who exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2019 with 4 home runs and a .316/.409/.684 slash line in 38 at bats before a broken hand ended his season).
Additionally, the Cards were leveraging a trio of outfield talents who had yet to make their St Louis debuts, but were having their ways in the minors – Austin Dean, Justin Williams, and top prospect Dylan Carlson. St Louis declined to foray into the market, deciding to play the hand they had been dealt.
So Who Was Right?
For the Cards, things could hardly have panned out worse in this frustrating COVID season. This team, you of course remember, had the compounding difficulty of overcoming a 17-day, mid-season interruption due to a virus outbreak, and spent the rest of the short-long season trying to catch up – the infamous 53 games in 44 days gauntlet. During the whole of the extravaganza, they never did hit.
They dropped to twelfth in the league in runs per game (4.14). They also finished dead last in home runs (51). Those numbers may be artificially low as more than a third of their schedule was comprised of 7-inning games. But nothing mitigates the rest of the numbers.
The team batting average slid to .234 (eleventh), the team slugging percentage dipped to .371 (next to last). The team OPS was also next to last (.694).
And the young outfielders? Mostly dismal. O’Neill – in spite of getting regular playing time – slashed .173/.244/.286. Bader also started regularly and hit .226 – albeit with some on base (.336) and some slugging (.443). Thomas got a small window of opportunity to make an impression. He did, but not the kind he or the Cardinals were hoping for as he slashed .111/.200/.250 in about the same number of at bats (36) that he had had the year before. Dean only had 4 at bats, and Williams just 5 – so they are still unknowns. (Dean and Williams, while in “camp” didn’t have the advantage of having actual minor league games to develop in.)
And Carlson – in 35 games and 110 at bats – hit .200/.252/.364 with 3 home runs.
As a team, the club slipped a bit and hovered around the .500 mark all season. Considering the challenges they faced, though, that they managed that and still made the playoffs is a noteworthy achievement (I talk about that here).
One game away from advancing to the Divisional Round, though, St Louis lost a 4-0 game to San Diego (boxscore), a game in which nine separate Padre relievers took turns dominating the Cardinal lineup. The pitching staff slipped a bit in 2020 (they finished fourth) – and they let a potential series win in Game Two slip through their fingers. But in the season’s final opportunity, it was the offense that let them down one final time.
This team that unofficially led the league in tipping its cap to the opposing hurler, had the uncommon occasion to tip its cap to nine separate pitchers on the same day. Without misrepresenting in the least, offense remains a question in St Louis.
But if the Cardinal approach didn’t work, then neither, really, did the Reds.’ While neither was a colossal disappointment, both of the big free agent bats regressed in their first seasons in Cincy. Castellanos hit only .225 and his OPS fell to .784. Moustakas slipped to .230, with his OPS fading to .799. He hit inly one more home run (8) than O’Neill (who hit 7).
As for the team, they fell to fourteenth in the league in runs scored (just 4.05 per game), last in team batting average (a surprising .212), and thirteenth in on base (.312).
A pitching staff that rose to second in the league in ERA, along with a minor offensive resurgence during the last week of the season carried the Reds into the playoffs. But once there . . . .
Well, first of all, let’s point out that being swept in a playoff series is nothing new to Cincinnati. In this century, the Reds have qualified for the playoffs only four times. Not only have they lost all four of the series, but they have been swept in three of them – including this year. But this year’s sweep reached historic proportions.
In 77 at bats over 22 innings against Atlanta, the Reds managed only 13 hits – just one for extra-bases – while striking out 28 times. And scoring no runs. That’s right, twenty-two consecutive innings of zero on offense for the Reds.
And the free-agent bats?
Well, Moustakas was 0-for-8 In the series. Castellanos was OK. He hit .300 (3 for 10) with the team’s only extra base hit (a double). But while he didn’t disappear, he didn’t carry the team, either.
A Tale of Four Cities?
As it turns out, I could actually have titled this piece a tale of four cities. In a symmetry as perfect as it is improbable, all of the top four teams in the NL Central qualified for the playoffs – exactly half of the NL’s participants came from this division. Although there was no structure in place to prevent or repress it, none of the four faced each other. The Cards and Brewers played the two team from the West, while the Cubs and the Reds played the entrants from the East. All of the Central teams not only lost their series, but all four were shutout in their final game.
In fact, the Cardinals were the only team to so much as win one playoff game this postseason. Apart from St Louis’ surprising 16-run eruption over the first two games, all of the NL Central’s offenses honked out – as they had all season. The Cubs scored 1 run over their two playoff games, and Milwaukee scored 2. The St Louis Cardinals alone accounted for 84.2% of all the runs scored by their division in the playoffs – something I wouldn’t have bet on.
The Central clubs (now tossing Pittsburgh in the mix), occupied 5 of the 6 bottom spots in the league in runs scored, filled all five bottom spots in team batting average, and filled five of the bottom seven spots in slugging percentage. In this division – among other things – 2020 brought a pandemic of zeros.
So, What Happens Next?
The Cubs – or so it seems – will be tearing down and starting over. Who knows what to expect from them. How the Brewers will approach their issues is also an unknown.
The Reds and the Cards, now in year two of their troubling offensive brown-outs, are faced with the intriguing choice of continuing their process from last year, or trying something different. Does Cincinnati go out and lavish tens of millions of dollars on more hired bats – even knowing that there is no guarantee that these hitters won’t disappoint them as the last group had? Will the Cardinals continue to stand pat, believing that 2021 will see more delivered from Carlson, Bader Thomas, et al? Faith and patience isn’t always rewarding – but chasing after hired bats doesn’t always work, either.
Another offseason dawns before these two teams. Both will have a lot of soul searching to do between now and next April.
If these haven’t exactly been the worst of times, they certainly haven’t been the best of times either.
Starting every game of the Cardinals’ brief playoff run, Paul Goldschmidt ended up starting the last 13 consecutive games of the season at first base. At season’s end, he held the longest streak on the team of consecutive starts at one position. Goldy actually started every game of the season, but served as the designated hitter in a few of them.
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.