Tag Archives: Carlson

In the Playoffs, You ride Your Bullpen

Kwang Hyun wasn’t terribly pleased with his outing.

A revelation during the season, Korean legend Kwang Hyun Kim struggled all afternoon to find that inside corner against the right handers that San Diego slotted in against him.  When, with two out in the fourth inning, Kwang Hyun walked Trent Grisham, bringing up San Diego’s wunderkind Fernando Tatis Jr., Kwang Hyun’s afternoon was over – in spite of the fact that St Louis still had a 3-run lead when Kim left.

Whether it was nerves, the mound, the strike zone, an unfamiliar opponent – or just one of those days that befall all pitchers from time to time, Kim’s inaugural major league playoff appearance yielded a disappointing line of 3.2 innings, 3 runs on 5 hits (including a triple that could have been caught) and 2 walks.  Only 44 of his 76 pitches found the strike zone (57.9%).  Until such a time as he gets another opportunity (whether it’s this year or some other time), Kwang Hyun’s playoff ERA will sit a 7.36.

It certainly could have been worse.  Spacious Petco yielded 2 sacrifice flies, but no big flies – not to the Padres at least.

Had this been an April or May game (of course, no one was playing baseball in April and May), Mike Shildt would almost certainly have given him a longer leash to let him find himself – especially a decorated veteran with a three-run lead.  But now, suddenly, it’s the playoffs.  And in the playoffs, you ride your bullpen.

Of course, we remember (those of us who have been around a while) Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson for Arizona in 2001 – and, for that matter Chris Carpenter in 2011, pitching a complete game shutout against Philadelphia and firing six excellent innings against Texas in Game Seven of that year’s World Series.  But that is, by far, the exception.

Even in St Louis’ 2011 championship year, the bullpen was the unsung hero.  Eight times in 18 playoff games, the Cardinal starter failed to last 5 innings.  Toss out Carpenter’s starts, and 7 of the other 12 starters left the bulk of the game to the pen.  For the playoffs that year, Cardinal starters accounted for 92 innings.  The bullpen threw 68.  Chris Carpenter notwithstanding, the bullpen covered 42.5% of the playoff innings.

Like it or not, in the playoffs you live or die with your relief corps.

That being the case, the St Louis bullpen took their first step forward yesterday afternoon as they covered the last 5.1 innings of St Louis’ 7-4 Game One victory (boxscore).  They allowed 1 run (unearned) on just 3 hits.  The hard-hitting Padres only hit .176 against the Cardinal bullpen – although that number comes with a few caveats.

First – as has been their pattern – the Cardinal bullpen came out throwing the ball very, very hard, but with varying degrees of control.  In their 5.1 innings they walked 2 and hit 2 others.  Putting runners on base in front of the Padre’s big bats is a concerning trend – which brings me to the other caveat.

The Padres can hit the fastball.  Alex Reyes picked up the save in his very first playoff game, retiring all 4 batters he faced.  But all four jumped on his high octane fastballs and returned them with more exit velocity than they came in with.  They were all hit at someone, but they were all well hit.

As to the bullpen, yesterday’s victory brought the reliever’s ERA down to 1.58 in 40 innings over their last 13 games.  The Cards have won 9 of the 13.

A Bit of Déjà vu

And with that, St Louis begins its latest playoff journey with a 1-0 record.  I am not even beginning to predict that this team will “go all the way.”  But I will acknowledge that this whole scenario has a very familiar feel.

The sneaking into the playoffs on the very last day evokes warm memories of both the 2006 and 2011 teams – champions both who were listed (as this team is listed) as underdogs in every series.  In 2006 St Louis lost its primary closer (Jason Isringhausen) to a hip problem in September.  Into the breach stepped Adam Wainwright (then just a rookie prospect) to stabilize the closer’s role – beginning in San Diego that year.  The 2011 team sifted through several closers before deciding on Jason Motte – a hard-throwing setup guy, who had all of 3 career saves through his first 3 seasons and 136 appearances.  This year, the closer spot has been a revolving door, again.  But – as of the last day of the regular season – it looks like the ninth-inning will belong to Reyes.  Both Reyes and Wainwright earned their first playoff saves in San Diego.

The unique adversity faced by this year’s team is reminiscent of the hardships thrust upon the 2011 team – not just the injuries, slumps, bad luck and a seemingly insurmountable 10-game deficit of the early part of the season, either.  People often forget that 2011 was the year that manager Tony LaRussa suffered through a nearly disabling bout with shingles.  It was also the year that Jeannie Duncan – pitching coach Dave Duncan’s wife – was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.  Few teams have overcome so much.  Truly a season of triumph and tragedy.

If the tragedies are fewer for this team, the struggles and hardships have a familiar ring to them.  This franchise has been in this exact position before, eking its way into the playoffs where they will be facing an array of teams that they aren’t supposed to beat.  Not to make any bold predictions, but team history suggests that anything can happen.

Helsley

Taking over for Kim in the fourth, Ryan Helsley got out of trouble in that inning, and then tossed a 1-2-3 fifth.  Sent out again to start the sixth, Ryan surrendered the double to Tommy Pham that led to the unearned run.  It was the first hit off of Helsley in his last 6 innings.

Two of the 5 batters that Ryan faced found themselves in two-strike counts.  Manny Machado popped out on a 2-2 pitch and Wil Myers struck out on a 2-2.  Over his last 6 games, Ryan has backed 15 batters into two-strike counts.  They are 0-for-13 with 2 walks and 7 strikeouts.

During the season, batters are just 2 for 23 (.087) when Helsley puts them in two-strike counts.

Gallegos

It’s quite a small sample size (20 batters faced) but since Giovanny Gallegos has returned to the team after recovering from his groin strain, he has been plenty sharp.  He walked 1 of the 5 batters he faced yesterday, but otherwise had no issues, striking out 2.  Three of the batters found themselves in two-strike counts.  Tatis and Eric Hosmer both fanned, and Pham grounded out.

Batters are always in two-strike counts against Gio.  The two yesterday make 13 of the 20 he’s faced since he’s been back (65%).  Those batters are 0-12 with 1 walk and 9 strikeouts.  For the season, 68.4% of the batters that face Gallegos (39 of 57) find themselves in two-strike counts.

Reyes

Alex gave up some line drives, but finished another fine outing.  He appeared 8 times in September (11.1 innings), picking up a win and a save while posting a 2.38 ERA and a .209 batting average against.  Alex allowed just 1 extra-base hit (a double) to the 49 batters he faced in September.

Kim

Kwang Hyun continues a recent pattern of struggles from the rotation.  Even while St Louis has won 9 of 13, the starters have only a 4.16 ERA in those games.  Kim has made 3 of the starts, lasting just 14 innings with a 5.14 ERA and a .291 batting average against.

Over those games, Kim has suddenly developed difficulty in putting hitters away.  San Diego was 4-for-7 against Kwang Hyun when they had two strikes on them.  Over those last three games, batters in two-strike counts are hitting .343 (12 for 35) against Kim.

Molina

If its playoff time, that must mean that Yadier Molina is heating up.  Yadi had 3 hits yesterday, and is hitting .381 (8 for 21) over his last 6 games.

Yadi helped put the finishing touches on Padre starter Chris Paddack when he slapped a 2-2 pitch down the left-field line for a double.  When Yadi is hot he is just as dangerous with two-strikes on him as he is with none.  Over his last 11 games, Molina is 6 for 20 (.300) with a home run to go along with that double (.500 slugging percentage) in two-strike counts.

For the season, Yadi is a .221 hitter with two strikes on him – well above the major league average of .167.

Carlson

Rookie outfielder Dylan Carlson has been a vital part of the turn-around.  After his 2-for-3 with a double and 2 walk performance yesterday, Carlson is hitting .308 over the last 13 games.  He is slugging .641 in those games with 8 extra-base hit (5 doubles, a triple, and 2 home runs), and has driven in 11 runs.

Dylan saw 24 pitches during his 5 plate appearances yesterday – more than anyone else on the team – and ended the day in two-strike counts in every at bat.  With his two hits, Carlson is 6 for 23 (.261) with two strikes on him over the last 13 games.

DeJong

After a seemingly endless slump, Paul DeJong is turning the corner.  With his 2 hits last night, DeJong has now hit safely in 5 of his last 6, hitting .333 (6 for 18) over that span.  He also walked twice and was hit by a pitch yesterday, bringing his on base percentage to .455 over those games.

Fowler

With his fifth-inning single, Dexter Fowler snapped an 0-for-15 skid.  He went on to add another single that drove in a run in the ninth.

Dexter’s two hits came on a 0-0 pitch from Pierce Johnson and a 2-1 pitch from Trevor Rosenthal.  Fowler hit .406 (13 for 32) during the regular season when hitting before strike two.

NoteBook

Paul Goldschmidt’s two-run first inning home run marked the sixth time in the last 9 games that the Cardinals had scored the first run of the game.

Partially as a result, they have not trailed in 5 of their last 8 games.

At 3:53, the first playoff game was the longest game played by the Cardinals since their 12-inning loss to Cleveland on August 29.  It was the longest 9-inning game since August 18 when they lost a 4:09 game in Chicago.

At 91 degrees, this was also the warmest game played by the Cardinals since August 24, when they beat Kansas City 9-3 in 95 degree heat.  The hottest road game played by the Cards this season was against the White Sox on August 15.  The first game of that doubleheader was played in 86 degree heat.

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.

Carlson Finding His Calm

The first 3-2 pitch that Dylan Carlson saw in the big leagues was a fastball from the White Sox’ Lucas Giolito.  There were two out in the fifth inning, and Giolito brought it at 94 miles an hour.  The pitch was up, but a bit away, and Carlson skied it to fairly deep right-center field, where it was easily caught.

The most recent 3-2 pitch that Dylan saw came in last night’s sixth inning, with Dexter Fowler on first base and the Cards up 3-1.  This, too, was a fastball (delivered this time by Milwaukee’s Cory Knebel).  It was virtually in the same spot as Giolito’s fastball – and a little faster at 96-mph.  But this time Carlson wasn’t of the disposition to pull the ball.

With the relaxed, confident swing that Cards have been waiting all summer to see, Dylan sent a scorching line drive off the left-center field wall for an RBI double.

I’m not sure that there are any two swings that more dramatically show the difference between Dylan Carlson before he went back to camp and after.

The difference is clear in the numbers.  Dylan limped back to camp carrying a .162/.215/.243 batting line.  Since his return – and after driving in 3 runs last night with a home run and that double – Dylan is succeeding to the tune of .320/.333/.760.  Not coincidentally, the Cards have won 6 of the 8 games since Carlson has been back.

But the difference has been in more than the numbers.

The Dylan of summer quickly became pull-conscious, and shortly thereafter became prone to chasing pitches.  His swings became increasingly tentative and off-balanced.

The Dylan of fall has found his calm.  He is much less given to chasing breaking balls (he seems to be seeing them very well right now) and is comfortable in driving outside pitches the other way – and doing so with authority.

Even hitting late in the count doesn’t ripple his calm.  All of his at bats last night lasted at least 4 pitches, and he saw at least 2 balls each time up.

In his 27 plate appearances since returning, Dylan has hit in two- or three-ball counts 59.3% of the time (16 of the 27).  He is 6 for 15 (.400) with a walk in those at bats, with 4 extra-base hits (including both of his home runs since his return).  He is slugging .933 in deep counts since his resurrection.  He is 2 for his last 4 in full count at bats.  The major leagues as a whole hit .223/.391/.391 after ball two is thrown, and .188/.448/.326 once the count goes full.

It’s a small sample size, but the prospect who returned looks so decidedly different from the one who went down that it is almost difficult to believe that they are the same individual.

St Louis has waited through about 50 of their scheduled 60 games to find one of their young outfielders who would lay claim to a job.  They have been, effectively, waiting for a hero.

Even though the season has dwindled to the final few games, it is not too late.  Improbably – given the adversity set before them – the playoffs are still within grasp.  If Dylan Carlson has an extended hot streak in him, now is not a bad time.  He just needs to keep his calm.

Edman

Tommy Edman contributed a couple of singles to the attack, hitting a 1-0 pitch from Corbin Burnes in the third, and a 1-1 pitch from Ray Black in the eighth.  The Tommy Edman from 2019 is still very much alive and well – but only when he hits early in the count.  Before the count reaches ball two, Tommy is hitting .357 with all 4 of his home runs (and 10 of his 12 extra-base hits).  He is a .108 hitter with a .135 slugging percentage once the count reaches ball two.

Yadi

Yadier Molina rode his recent hot streak to his 2000th career hit, a clean, line-drive single off a 98-mph fastball from Justin Topa.  Yadi has 4 multi-hit games over his last 7, and is hitting .375 (9 for 24) in those games.

The landmark single came after an uncharacteristically long at bat for Yadi – a 7-pitch duel.  The fastball came on a 2-2 pitch.  Of Molina’s four plate appearances, that was the only one that reached a two-ball count.  For the season, 38.4% of Yadi’s at bats are over before the pitcher throws ball one – the highest percentage of anyone on the team with more than 40 plate appearances; and 69.2% of his at bats don’t make it until ball two.  That is also the highest percentage on the team for anyone with at least 20 plate appearances.

Fowler

Just back off the DL, Dexter Fowler looks OK at the plate, but things haven’t quite fallen in place yet for him.  He is 2 for 11 (.182) in his early at bats back.  He has, however, drawn 3 walks.

Dexter extended three of his four at bats to a ball three count.  For the season, Dex ends up in three-ball counts 31.5% of the time – tied with Brad Miller for most on the team.

Kim

Kwang Hyun Kim was the starter and winner with another solid start.  After allowing 1 run over 5 innings, Kim finishes September with a 2-0 record and a 2.01 ERA.

Cabrera

Genesis Cabrera is starting to string together fine outings.  He retired 4 of the 5 to face him last night, and over his last 6 consecutive scoreless innings, Genesis has allowed just 3 hits – all singles.  He has struck out 9.  He has a 1.42 ERA in 12.2 innings this month.

A Miller

When Eric Sogard poked his opposite field single against Andrew Miller, he interrupted quite a hitless streak against him.  The previous 26 batters to face Miller had gone 0-for-21 – albeit with 3 hit batters and 2 walks.  Miller has a 1.35 ERA for the month of September in 6.2 innings.

NoteBook

At 3:43, last night’s game was the longest contest the Cardinals have participated in since August 29, when it took them 4:06 to lose a 2-1 game to Cleveland.  That, of course, was a 12-inning game.  The previous longest 9-inning game came the night before – a 14-2 pounding they received at the hands of those Indians that took 3:51.

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.

Pulling a ‘Waino’

If the frustrating thing about being “tethered to the .500 mark” (as the Cardinals have been all year) is that they have consistently failed to sustain any kind of momentum and take charge of their season; then the comforting aspect of being tethered to the .500 mark is that the season has never spun out of control on them.

If it’s true that they have never won more than four in a row, then it’s also true that they have never lost more than four in a row.  While the inconsistent offense has cost this team many opportunities to turn the corner (if you will), the frequently brilliant pitching staff keeps creating more opportunities.

For so many years an anchor on the pitching side, Adam Wainwright may have never been more valuable to his team than he has this year.  Whether it’s leading his team out of quarantine, or coming up with complete games when the bullpen really needed the break, or allowing early runs in the game, but then shutting the door while the offense makes a comeback – Wainwright has been the guts of this team in all of those situations.

This has especially been true – this year and throughout his career – when pitching the game after a Cardinal loss.  Six of his 9 starts this season have followed a loss the game before.  He is 4-1 in those games, with a 2.68 ERA.

Last night, the Cardinals could have used a Wainwright start.  Coming off the 4-1 loss that broke their longest winning streak of the year, with the final games of the season slipping past them, with their final flurry of six games in five days looming just ahead, and with Dakota Hudson (and all the innings that he might have given them) now sidelined for the rest of the season, the time was ripe for a hero to step up.

The previous loss had allowed Cincinnati to tie them for the final assured playoff spot in the division, and St Louis was, perhaps, a loss away from squandering a 13-game road trip against losing teams (they were 6-5 on the trip at the time).  October was in the air, and with it came a whiff of “must-win” to the remaining games of the Kansas City series.

Yes, they certainly could have used a Wainwright game.  The problem was that Adam had just pitched the night before.  Someone from the bullpen would have to step into Hudson’s shoes and pull a “Waino.”

In spite of the fact that he hadn’t lasted more than 3 innings or thrown more than 63 pitches in any game this season, that pitcher was Austin Gomber.

Looking at times a little like a left-handed Wainwright, Gomber aggressively attacked the corners of the zone with a running 92-mph fastball, and then buckled a few knees with a looping 75-mph curve.  When his evening finally came to a close, Austin had given the Cards 6 innings of 4-hit, walk-less, shutout ball (on 76 economic pitches).  He delivered a 5-0 lead to the suddenly resurgent bullpen, and watched them carry home the much needed victory (boxscore).

The Cards are now 14-11 this year after a loss (.560), including 7-5 this month (.583).  An achievement that – in its own way – bears effective testimony to the resilience of a team that will not allow themselves to be tipped over by the currents of adversity.

It should be further pointed out that they have achieved this will minimal support from the offense.  In the 25 games after a loss, St Louis is scoring just 3.56 runs per game (hitting just .213).  In the 12 such September games, they are averaging just 3.50 runs per game, while hitting .193.  But the pitching staff – anticipated as a strength all season – has fought back admirably after most of their loses this year, to the tune of a 3.45 ERA and a .211 batting average allowed.

They have been especially effective in the games pitched this month after a loss.  Gomber’s quality start was the seventh among the 12 games in support of a 3.04 ERA.

The playoff chase boils down to one more game against Kansas City and then five against Milwaukee.  But, if this team has to bounce back after many more losses this season, how well they bounce back will hardly matter.

Sizzling Bullpen

The games have all been against Pittsburgh and Kansas City, but St Louis has, nonetheless, won 5 of their last 6, led by a nearly bulletproof bullpen.  In his first game off the injury list the night before last, Giovanny Gallegos was touched for a run – the only run allowed by the bullpen over its last 6 games and 17.1 innings (0.52 ERA).  They have given just 6 hits in those innings, only 1 of them (the double allowed by Gallegos) for extra-bases.

They couldn’t have picked a better time to catch their second wind.

Cabrera

Out to handle the eighth, Genesis Cabrera turned in yet another strong outing.  In 11 September games (11.1 innings) Genesis holds a 1.59 ERA.

Cabrera has also been among the very effective pitchers after a loss.  He has now thrown 6 innings in those 25 games, allowing just 1 run on 4 hits.

Woodford

His streak of six consecutive games allowing a home run now broken, Jake Woodford has made significant contributions this month – especially in games after a loss.  He pitched the ninth last night, but is usually asked for multiple innings.  He has pitched in 3 of the 12 September games after a loss, allowing just 2 runs in 6.1 total innings.

Carlson

With the first 3-hit game of his career, Dylan Carlson flipped his narrative, a bit, from struggling prospect to a kid starting to put some things together.  He now has multiple hits in 2 of his last 5 games, going 6 for 17 (.353) in those games.  Four of the six hits have been for extra-bases (2 doubles, a triple and a home run).

Wong

With two hits last night, Kolten Wong pushed his average up to .300 for the month of September (24 for 80).  He’s hitting .297 (11 for 37) this month in games after a loss.

Edman

With last night’s 0-for-3, Tommy Edman’s nine-game hitting streak came to an end.  It was a fairly quiet streak, as he managed multiple hits only once.  Still, he hit .313 (10 for 32) during the 9 games.

Carpenter

Matt Carpenter did end his 22-at-bat hitless streak with a single in the last game against Pittsburgh – and followed that up with a home run in the next game.  But Matt still hasn’t really turned the corner.  Hitless in 3 at bats last night, Matt is just 2 for his last 29 (.069), and is back down to .186 (11 for 59) for the month.

Carpenter is just 11 for 62 (.177) in games after a loss this year.

NoteBook

Dating back to the first game of the September 10 doubleheader against Detroit (a 12-2 victory), the Cardinals had trailed at some point in 15 consecutive games until last night.

After making 30 consecutive starts at shortstop, Paul DeJong sat out last night’s game.  His streak had been (by far) the longest of any Cardinal at the same position.  The new longest streak is just 4 games, shared by Yadier Molina at catcher and Paul Goldschmidt at first.  To be clear about this, Goldy has, indeed, started every game this season, but has been the DH for a couple 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.

Where Has All the “Slug” Gone?

Of course, the 1-0 fastball is not assured.  1-0 is still early enough in the count that most pitchers aren’t afraid to come back with a breaking pitch.  That being said, if you’re a pitcher who has a mid-nineties fast ball and you’re behind in the count 1-0, you’re probably a little more likely to come back with that fastball.  If you opt for the curve or the change, then it’s possible that you might try to be a little too perfect with it, trying not to go behind 2-0.

Whatever the approach, the 1-0 pitch is one of those that major league hitters generally look forward to.  Across all of baseball (numbers found in baseball reference), batters are hitting .352/.357/.641/.998 on that 1-0 pitch.

Would it surprise you to learn that of all major league teams, your St Louis Cardinals have baseball’s worst OPS on this particular pitch?  If you’ve been watching this team, I suspect that this wouldn’t surprise you at all.  At .731, they are more than 200 points below the league average on this count, and 30 points behind the next-worst team (Arizona at .761).  They are also last in slugging percentage (.434) on that pitch.  Anytime a hitter is ahead in the count, the major league average slugging percentage sits at .508.  Cardinals ahead in the count slug .426 (fourth worst in the majors).

What does this mean?  Let me answer that with two pitches from last night’s game.

Leading off in the first inning, Kolten Wong took the first pitch of the game for a ball.  Kansas City starter Carlos Hernandez came back with the 1-0 fastball, up a little and over the outside part of the strike zone.  Wong took it the other way, but didn’t really drive it, hitting a looping little fly to left.

Now, it’s the eighth inning.  Paul DeJong is up with two outs.  This time the count is 2-1, but the concept is the same.  A fastball count, and looking – one might assume – for something to drive.  Jesse Hahn – now on the mound for the Royals – gives Paul the fastball at about 94 mph on the upper, outside corner of the zone.  DeJong also goes the other way, but with no authority, his lazy fly ball to right closing out the inning.

It’s a trend you almost can’t help but notice.  As a team, these guys can turn reasonably well on the inside fastball.  But that outside fastball – especially in a fastball count – has been repeatedly frustrating.

Addressing the media after last night’s 4-1 loss (boxscore), manager Mike Shildt talked about the offense and it’s missing “slug.”  As of this morning, St Louis’ season-long slugging percentage sits at .374, the fourth worst in baseball.  Only Pittsburgh’s 46 home runs are fewer than St Louis’ 48.

As far as approach goes, there’s nothing wrong with the opposite field strategy.  Baseball’s elite sluggers can effectively pull the outside fastball, but even they will – more often than not – take it the other way – and to good effect.

Across all of baseball, batters hitting the ball to the opposite field are slashing .318/.314/.501/.815.  When the Cardinals hit the ball the other way, they slash .253/.243/.398/.640.  They have 4 opposite field home runs all year.

I hope you are understanding that I don’t present this as “the answer.”  The season-long hitting issues that have plagued this team are a complex question involving a lot of moving parts.

But if you’re wondering where the “slug” has gone, this is one place that it is definitely missing.

Fading Offense

After finishing with just 6 hits last night, the Cardinal team batting average sinks to .229 for the month of September.

Molina

Yadier Molina was the only Cardinal with multiple hits last night – he had 2.  Things may be starting to turn a bit for Yadi, who has two hits in two of his last 4 games – a span in which he is 5 for 13 (.385) with a home run.

Yadi got his hits in spite of being behind in the count both times.  As the most aggressive swinger on the team, Yadi as almost always behind in the count (as he was in 3 of his 4 at bats last night).  For the season, Molina ends an at bat behind In the count 40.3% of the time – the highest of any Cardinal regular.

Wong

Kolten Wong has recently been playing through a muscle issue in his side.  How much that injury is affecting his game is difficult to divine with any accuracy, but his production at the plate has fallen off.  He is 1 for 12 (.083) over his last 4 games.

DeJong

Hitless in 4 at bats last night, Paul DeJong is now riding an 0-for-11 streak, part of a larger .077 streak (2 for 26) over his last 8 games.  Both hits were singles.  Back in the second inning of the September 11 game against Cincinnati, DeJong lined a double against Luis Castillo.  That was his last extra-base hit – 44 at bats ago.

Paul is now at .215 for the month (17 for 79).  He has 2 extra-base hits this month, that double and a home run (off the Cubs Colin Rea), that was 64 at bats ago.

Paul made his thirtieth consecutive start at shortstop last night – thirty games that have accrued over the last 26 days.  When you see a guy whose bat is starting to look slow, and you notice that he plays every day, it’s hard not to wonder if fatigue is part of the issue.

O’Neill

The struggles continued for left-fielder Tyler O’Neill.  Hitless in 2 at bats before being lifted for a pinch-hitter, Tyler is hitting .135 (5 for 37) over his last 15 games.  He is down to .197 (13 for 66) for the month.

Carlson

Recently returned to the big-league scene, top prospect Dylan Carlson has had some encouraging moments.  But mostly, the struggles have continued.  Dylan was 0-for-3 last night, and is 1-for-10 over the last 3 games (with 5 strikeouts).  He is 3 for 14 (.214) since his recall, and 3 for 20 (.150) this month.

Webb

Last night’s contest did feature another excellent performance from Tyler Webb, who came in with the bases loaded and extinguished that threat in the sixth.  He then added a perfect seventh.

Over his last 12 games (13 innings) Tyler has surrendered 1 run on only 11 hits (10 singles and 1 double), while walking 3 and striking out 12.  He has an 0.69 ERA over those games, with a .229/.269/.250 batting line against.  His ERA for September is down to 0.84 (10.2 innings).  He has stranded all of the last 9 runners he has inherited.

During his outing, Webb struck out Bubba Starling on an 0-2 pitch, and then retired Nicky Lopez on an 0-1 pitch.  Tyler may not seem imposing on the mound, but he is nasty to deal with if you fall behind in the count.  Twenty-four batters have now hit against him from behind.  They have two singles to show for their efforts.

Gallegos

Erstwhile closer Giovanny Gallegos came off the injured list and got roughed up for a run in his two-thirds of an inning.  It’s been a tough September for Gallegos, who has allowed, now, 6 runs in 4 innings.  The 23 batters he’s faced in September are celebrating to a .316/.435/.526 batting line.

Even though he’s been away for awhile, true to form, Giovanny did not pitch from behind.  Only one of the five batters he faced worked his way ahead in the count (Maikel Franco managed a 7-pitch walk).  For the season, Gallegos has faced 47 batters.  Only 9 have hit ahead in the count against him.

Elledge

Seth Elledge came in to retire the last batter.  Seth is up to 6.2 innings this month, with a 1.35 ERA.  Batters only have 4 hits against Seth, and are hitting .182 against him this month.

NoteBook

With another opening game loss, the Cards have lost the first game of four straight series, six of the last seven, and eight of the last ten.

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.

Masters of the Two-Strike Count

Joey Votto took Dakota Hudson’s first three pitches of the game.  Dak got strikes on the first two before missing with the slider.  With the count now 1-2, Hudson came back with a fastball.  This pitch would serve him well on this evening, but this particular fastball was up and out over the plate.  Joey chopped it over the mound and over the second base bag.  Shortstop Paul DeJong got to it, but had no play – infield hit for Votto.

By game’s end, this would be a mere footnote in the Cards 7-5 victory (boxscore), but in a sense, they almost should have stopped the game and given Joey the ball.  That hit snapped an 0-for-27 streak that batters had against Hudson when in two-strike counts.  The streak stretched back to the first inning of the August 16 game against the White Sox when Tim Anderson bounced a 3-2 pitch through into right for a single.

Votto’s single would also be the last two-strike hit the Reds would get last night.  Thirteen more would go down against Hudson, and six more against the bullpen.

During his two-strike no-hitter (of sorts), Dak struck out 12 of the 27.  Ten others grounded out.  Of the five that managed to get the ball in the air against Dakota, two were infield pop-outs.  The last 13 Cincy batters to face Hudson with two strikes on them either struck out (7) or grounded out (6).

Clearly two-strikes is a bad place to be with Hudson on the mound.  Especially since the season re-started for the Cardinals, Dakota has employed that slider/heavy sinker combination to deadly effect.  Over his last 4 starts, batters are 2 for 42 (.048) against him in two-strike counts.

The Cardinal pitchers, who (at .133) have baseball’s third lowest batting average once they get to two strikes (according to baseball reference), have four other prominent pitchers holding batters under .100 in these counts.  Hudson’s is the lowest – the others being Alex Reyes (.063), Giovanny Gallegos (.067), Kwang Hyun Kim (.080), and Jack Flaherty (.091). 

For their part, the offense was only 3 for 19 (.158) with two strikes on them.  Yet two of those were two of the most important hits of the game – both coming with two outs as well.

With the game tied at one in the second inning, Kolten Wong fell behind Cincinnati starter Anthony DeSclafani 0-2 with runners on first and third (and two outs).  Kolten poked a fastball the other way through the left side for the single that gave the team the lead it never relinquished.

Two innings later, St. Louis loaded the bases (with two outs) for DeJong.  Paul capped a six-pitch at bat by jumping on a 3-2 slider that hung down the middle of the plate, launching it over the centerfield wall for his first career grand slam.

Few things in baseball are more deflating than surrendering important hits with two strikes and two outs.

Starters Still Flexing

For the evening, Hudson finished 7 innings allowing just 1 earned run on only 4 hits.  Hudson has tossed consecutive quality starts, and over his last 4 starts, Dak holds a 1.66 ERA.  He has surrendered just 10 hits over those innings, only 2 for extra-bases.  Opposing batters are hitting just .137 against Hudson with a .192 slugging percentage since the re-start.

Over their last 21 games, Cardinal starters hold a 2.62 ERA with a .166 batting average against.

Gallegos

Picking up where he left off last year, Giovanny Gallegos picked up last night’s save.  He has allowed no runs so far through 8 innings, and barely any hits.  Both batters Giovanny faced last night were quickly forced into two-strike counts and both struck out.  So far Gallegos has faced 24 batters this season – with 16 facing a two-strike count.  His ratio of 66.7% is the highest of any Cardinal pitcher who has faced at least 20 batters.  Of those, nearly two-third (10) strike out.  That percentage (62.5) is the highest on the staff of any pitcher who has faced at least 10 batters.

He may prove difficult to remove from the closer’s role – even after Jordan Hicks comes back next year.

Goldy

While the big hit and the due accolades will go to the other Paul in the lineup, Paul Goldschmidt was 3-3 with a walk and a hit-by-pitch last night, picking up where he left off at the end of the homestand.  Goldy is now 6 for his last 12, and is hitting .359 (23 for 64) since the team came out of quarantine.

Goldy drove in a first inning run with a double on an 0-1 pitch.  The count on him was 2-1 leading off the third when he was hit by a pitch.  He walked on a 3-1 pitch ahead of DeJong’s grand-slam in the fourth. The count was 2-1 in the sixth when he singled.  He finished in the eighth with an infield hit on a 1-1 pitch.

This seems to have become Goldschmidt’s comfort zone during a plate appearance.  He rarely offers at the first strike, but doesn’t want the pitcher to get the advantage that comes with that second strike.  So he is – especially after the re-start – sitting on that second strike.  He is 13 for his last 25 (.520) with a .760 slugging percentage in one-strike counts over the last 21 games.

Wong

Kolten’s RBI single snapped an 0-for-15 skid.  His average had dwindled to .202 before he finished with 2 hits in his last 4 at bats.

Edman

Tommy Edman continued his resurgence from a sluggish start to the season.  Edman had his second consecutive two-hit game last night, and has now hit safely in 7 of his last 8.  He is hitting .344 (11 for 32) in those games.

Much like Goldschmidt, Edman has been thriving on that one-strike pitch since the end of the quarantine.  Both of last night’s hit came on one-strike pitches, and Edman is 9-for-20 (.450) over the last 21 games on those pitches.

DeJong

About the same time that Edman started to figure things out, Paul DeJong, playing in his second game since the quarantine, also started to click in.  One game after he contributed three hits in the finale against the Indians, Paul slapped out two more hits (including the big home run) against the Reds.  DeJong has hits in 6 of his last 8 games – with four of those being multi-hit games.  He was 0-for-4 in his first game back on the field.  Since then, he is a .406 hitter (13-for-32).

B Miller

After settling into the everyday designated hitter role, Brad Miller has hit his first little dry spell of the season.  Hitless in 4 at bats last night (with 3 strikeouts), Brad is now 0 for his last 10.

Carpenter Draws a Walk

Matt Carpenter did, indeed, draw a walk (two, actually) and came around to score a run after one of them.  Matt has drawn at least one in 9 of his last 11 games, for a total of 11.  And while that certainly has value, actual hits off of Carpenter’s bat have been notably rare.  Over his last 7 games he is 1 for 18 (.056) and over the last 11, Carp is a .100 hitter (3 for 30) with only one extra-base hit.  Carpenter is down to .181 for the season.

But he is walking a lot.

Carlson

After a brief surge, Dylan Carlson’s average has plunged back below the .180 mark (he’s at .176).  Hitless in 4 at bats last night, Carlson is now 1 for his last 12 (.083).

NoteBook

Paul Goldschmidt’s first-inning RBI double drove in the first run of the game.  The Cards had gone eight games (since their August 24 game against Kansas City) without scoring the first run of a 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.

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.

Doing the Right Thing Can Be So Hard

With summer camp winding down and the abbreviated regular season looming on the horizon (COVID permitting), there is all kinds of chatter among Cardinal fans about what this team will look like when and if it takes the field. But, for all of the chatter, there seems to be very little uncertainty regarding how Mike Shildt will deploy his forces. 

If you are going to bet on the outcomes of the “position battles,” this is how it is going to shake out. The outfield will begin as Tyler O’Neill in left, Harrison Bader in center and Dexter Fowler in right.  Top prospect Dylan Carlson will begin in the minor league camp.  Matt Carpenter will be the starting third baseman.  Tommy Edman will scrounge for at bats where he can find them.  And Carlos Martinez will be the closer.  Nobody expects anything different from Shildt.  Is this the right thing to do?  No.  But sometimes doing the right thing is really hard.

Let’s take third base.

Now 34 years old, Matt Carpenter has been the quintessential Cardinal.  He has played at least 114 games a season for the last 8 seasons, with an .835 lifetime OPS – all in St Louis, where he has been a three-time All Star and twice a top-ten finisher in the MVP race – most recently in 2018 when he hit 36 of his 148 career home runs.  He has also started at least 200 games at three different infield positions (3B, 2B and 1B) and even made 14 starts in the outfield.  Of all the decisions that I am about to question, this one is easy enough to justify.  At his best, Matt Carpenter is an elite offensive force.

However, Carpenter begins the 2020 season on the short end of three circumstances that must force Mike to re-evaluate his situation.  First, now 34 he is entering what is usually the declining phase of a player’s career.  Additionally, he is coming off the worst season of his career (.226 average, 15 home runs, .726 OPS).  Finally, his position was taken from him last year by the spectacular Tommy Edman, whose .304 batting average and .850 OPS led all Cardinals with at least 100 at bats last year.

The short and blunt of it is that Edman needs to play, and Carpenter’s age and recent decline make him vulnerable.  Matt may very well end the season back in the starting lineup.  Edman’s sophomore season may not live up to the promise of his 2019, or Carpenter may absolutely explode when he gets his opportunities and force his way back into the lineup.  But Matt needs to at least begin the season second on the depth chart.  After his stellar 2019, third base has to be Edman’s job to lose.

The outfield problem is Dexter Fowler – now also 34 and – if we are being honest – in clear decline.  Over the last two seasons, Fowler is a .216/.321/.367 hitter – a .688 OPS.  That figure includes a .183 average (17 for 93) last September.  He then went 2 for 33 in the playoffs – not that anyone hit much in the playoffs.

The Fowler problem is two-fold.  First, for some reason Shildt is enamored with him.  Second, the Cards are trying to graduate a whole bunch of high-ceiling outfielders.  In more-or-less pecking order they are:

  • Tyler O’Neill. Tyler has made kind of extended cameos at the big league level over the last two seasons.  His early career has been plagued by lack of contact (110 strikeouts in 293 at bats), but he has maintained a better-than-Fowler average of .258 and has 14 big league home runs.  Tyler has also been a two-time 30 home run guy in the minors and has 140 minor league home runs in about four seasons worth of at bats.  He carries a .271/.343/.529/.872 batting line over 2418 minor league plate appearances.  In 996 PA at the AAA level, O’Neill has 68 home runs and a .267/.339/.554/.894 line.  He needs only a sustained opportunity to see if that minor league success can translate into major league production.
  • Lane Thomas. It’s hard to say the impact that Thomas might have had on the team as it headed into the playoffs last year.  In 38 at bats before a broken hand ended his season, Lane hit .316/.409/.684/1.093 with 4 home runs.  That’s a bit out of synch with what Lane has done throughout 480 games and 2027 minor league plate appearances, during which he has hit 55 home runs with a .252/.329/.421/.750 batting line.  He has, though, gotten better against higher competition.  In 444 AAA at bats, Thomas carries an .815 OPS.
  • Dylan Carson. Dylan is the team’s top-rated prospect and number 16 in all of baseball.  Just 21 years old, Dylan hit .292/.372/.542/.914 with 26 home runs and 20 stolen bases across the two highest levels of minor league baseball in 2019.  He was hitting .313/.436/.469/.905 in spring training before camp shut down.
  • Austin Dean. Dean had two uninspiring partial seasons in Miami, hitting .223 in 291 at bats for the fish.  But Austin is a monster in AAA.  In 568 at bats over two AAA seasons, Dean has whacked 27 home runs and hit .331/.398/.546/.944.  Even though the PCL is known as a hitter’s league, these are still eye-opening numbers.
  • Justin Williams. After a modest minor league career, Justin – whose season was delayed by a broken hand – exploded at the AAA level last year.  In a small sample size (36 games and 119 plate appearances) Justin punished PCL pitchers to the tune of .353/.437/.608/.1.045 – numbers not easy to ignore.

The exit of Marcell Ozuna to the Braves opens up left field for one of these hitters.  The incumbent in center, Harrison Bader, deserves to begin the season as the starter based on his elite defense and his record of hitting in the minors. 

And then there is Fowler in right.  In all honesty, it will be a bit frustrating to see Fowler take at bats better given to one of the developing young talents.

What should happen here seems a bit over-obvious.  Like Carpenter, Fowler should start the season as, say, the fifth outfielder.  Some combination of Bader, O’Neill, Thomas and Carlson should man the outfield spots and the designated hitter, with Dean and Williams ready for whatever changeups the very strange 2020 season might throw.

Carlson is an interesting case.  With no previous major league experience, if the Cards place him on the opening day roster – and if he stays there the entire year – the Cards will lose a year of control over the talented young outfielder.  Whereas, if he spends the first week or so of the season in Springfield, the front office will be able to delay his arbitration years and eventual free agency by another year.  I don’t think that there is anyone connected with the club that does not believe that Dylan is one of their best 30 players right now.  In fact, since there will be no minor league season this year, St Louis is very lucky that their top prospect is close enough to major league ready that they can plug him into the big league scene this year with every expectation that he will hold his own.  Otherwise – like many of their other top prospects – this would be a mostly lost year for Carlson.

No one pretends, though, that this will happen.  At any moment, I expect to see the notice that Dylan has been re-assigned.  It will almost certainly happen.  But it’s the wrong move, and sends two bad messages.

The first bad message is that winning is nice, but pinching pennies is better.  So, we may lose a few early season games that we might have otherwise won – and that may cost us a playoff berth at the end of the season – but it’s OK because we will gain one whole season of financial control over our best prospect.  The other bad message is the one they are sending to Dylan.  That message lets him know that the Cardinals will exploit every advantage the system allows them in order to maintain maximum control over him for as long as possible.

That’s all well and good.  But one day the Cards will need Carlson’s good will.  The day will finally come when he is eligible for arbitration and finally free agency, and Dylan is likely to remember how he is treated in the early part of this season.  Putting Dylan on the opening day roster and giving him a chance to prove that he can stick in the majors might even prove to be the more economical decision in the long run.

Turning to the pitching decision, Korean import Kwang Hyun Kim has taken the team by storm.  With four plus pitches that he can throw at varying speeds and with excellent control – not to mention an unorthodox delivery, Kim is the front-runner to take the open starter’s spot.  This is not to say that Carlos Martinez’ performance in second camp has been any whit behind Kim.  But Martinez has a history as an effective closer – and the guy they were counting on (Jordan Hicks) has opted out of the season.  In the kind of logic that usually governs these kinds of decisions, that makes this an almost done deal. 

But that is only because no one on the team is listening to Carlos.

If assigned to the ninth inning, Martinez will, of course, fulfill that role to the best of his abilities.  But it has to be evident to anyone who is paying attention that being a starter is more important to Carlos than it is to any other starter on the staff.  It was his consuming desire to return to the rotation that kept him tirelessly firing breaking balls all during the break.  This was the carrot that Carlos has been chasing since last season ended.  It is almost his raison de etre.  Martinez – more than anyone else in camp – defines himself as an elite starting pitcher.

So, why in the world don’t the Cardinals exploit that passion?  Knowing that 2020 will be a sixty-game sprint, why don’t they let Martinez’ great passion help fuel that sprint? If it’s true that there isn’t a wealth of closing experience behind Carlos, it’s also true that there is no shortage of dominating arms that are clear candidates to dominate that calling.  Ryan Helsley would be my nomination, but for all of that, imagine how good Kim – a lefty with an strange motion that no one in the majors has faced before – would be in a role where teams aren’t going to get three or four looks at him a night.

Don’t get me wrong.  Kim will do well as a starter, and Martinez will succeed in the ninth.  But it’s not the right move.  The right move – the smart move – is to ride Martinez’ passion.

So often, it’s quite difficult to see what the right moves to make are.  The dawning of this abbreviated season comes with much more clarity than many. But as hard as it sometimes is to see the right thing to do, it can frequently be harder to do those right things. 

Especially since the wrong things will be so much easier.