Tag Archives: Leone

Struggles Against Winning Teams Continues

May began in Washington DC, with the Cards finishing up a series against the Nationals.  They began the month facing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.  St Louis split the two games, and headed off to Chicago with the best record in the National League (20-11) and tied with Tampa Bay for the best record in baseball.  And feeling pretty good about themselves.

That was 13 games ago.  Things have changed a bit.

Last night’s 10-2 beating at the hands of the Atlanta Braves (box score) marked St Louis’ tenth loss since they left the nation’s capital.  They have lost, now, four straight series – the last three of them after winning the first game of the series.

One of the aspects of this recent struggle that maybe hasn’t gotten the attention that it deserves is the schedule itself.  Two of the lost series came against first place teams, and they lost another to a second place team.  The softest opponent (by record) that the Cardinals have encountered since the Nationals was division foe Pittsburgh.  The Pirates are a fourth place team, but still 21-20 on the season.

One of the consequences of playing in what is perhaps baseball’s deepest division (they are the only division at the moment with four winning teams), is an unrelenting schedule.  As they open a series tonight against a struggling Texas team (the Rangers are 19-22) the Cards have played winning teams in 32 of their first 44 games.  They have been – and will continue to be – thoroughly tested, as their schedule offers very few soft touches.

Games against winning teams is one of my litmus tests for a team.  In losing 10 of 13 against the Cubs, Phillies, Pirates and Braves, St Louis doesn’t look – at the moment – like they are ready for higher level competition.  However, they were 12-7 in March/April against winning teams (including Milwaukee and the Dodgers).

As with everything else about this very strange team, it’s a little hard to tell right now what is real and what’s a mirage.

After the Rangers, St Louis will have a couple games against another currently losing team in Kansas City (the Royals are 15-29).

After that, they better be ready for most of these same teams again, as they have three games each against Atlanta, Philadelphia and the Cubs.  They would do well to flip whatever switch as quickly as possible, because this season will not wait for them.

Paul DeJong

Probably the team’s most consistent hitter all year, shortstop Paul DeJong seems to be slowing down for the first time this season.  He is still drawing walks – he drew another last night – but is hitting just .154 over his last 4 games (2-for-13) with no extra-base hits or runs batted in.  He hasn’t hit a home run in 9 games, and has fallen to .245 for the month.

Dexter Fowler

Another of the Cardinals having great seasons who has seen his numbers drop lately, Dexter Fowler went hitless in 3 at bats last night.  He is now without a hit in 3 of his last 4 games and his season averaged has settled at .288.

Dexter is hitting just .226 this month.

Luke Gregerson

Embattled reliever Luke Gregerson came into the game in the sixth inning.  Already trailing 5-1, Luke inherited a runner at first, with one out already recorded.  Gregerson did, in fact, take care of the last two outs of that inning, but not before allowing four singles and 3 more runs.

Following an injury compromised 2018, Luke missed the first 32 games this season with a right shoulder impingement.  He pitched a few minor league inning in a rehab setting, but doesn’t look ready at the moment to face real hitters.  It hasn’t helped that Luke was activated just in time to face the Cubs and all the teams that have followed.

One of the runs he surrendered belonged to Tyler Webb.  He was charged with the other two, and has now allowed 5 in 5.2 major league innings.  The 27 batters he’s faced are hitting .423 against him.

Gregerson – who might still turn into a productive reliever – is in a tight place.  With Carlos Martinez set to be activated soon, Luke is one of those in jeopardy of losing his roster space.  He would truly profit from an extended minor league stay where he could establish some rhythm.  But the mechanics of that would be complicated.

Dominic Leone

Dominic Leone is another reliever whose position is precarious – all the more so after he allowed 2 more runs last night.  After an excellent start (Leone allowed just 2 runs over his first 11 innings), Dominic has become a bit unhinged.  He has now allowed runs in 5 of his last 9 games – a total of 17 runs in 10.1 innings.  The damages include 20 hits (including 4 home runs) and 6 walks.  His ERA over that span is an alarming 14.81 with a .400 batting average against and a .760 slugging percentage allowed.

Jordan Hicks

Inactive for 5 days, closer Jordan Hicks made just his third appearance of the month, as he came on to record the last out.  Between losses and blowout wins, the Cardinals are still looking for their first ninth-inning save opportunity this month.

At this rate, monitoring Hicks’ innings won’t be nearly as difficult as keeping him sharp.

Third Inning Woes Bedevil Flaherty and the Cards

The tone for the weekend was set on Friday afternoon.  To be precise in the third inning.

Jack Flaherty drew the assignment for the first game of the series, and through two innings it looked like the Cubs might be in trouble.  Jack struck out a couple in the first, stranding a runner, and then struck out the first two batters in the second.  After Kyle Schwarber walked, a harmless ground ball off the bat of Jason Heyward ended the inning.  Game scoreless after two.

All season so far, the thorn in the Cardinal side has been the starting pitching.  And the usually critical inning has been that third inning as the top of the order gets its second look at the pitcher.  That happened again to St Louis on Friday afternoon.

After Flaherty struck out opposing pitcher Kyle Hendricks, he walked Daniel Descalso – albeit, yes, one of those balls should have been called a strike.  After a passed ball, another walk put two runners on base for Anthony Rizzo.

Two pitches later, Rizzo was trotting around the bases, the Cubs had a 3-0 lead and would never look back in the game (which they would win 4-0 – box score) and the series (which they would sweep in three games).

Beyond the damaging third, Jack would pitch well.  He would even strike out 9 over his 5.2 innings.  The walks that preceded the home run would also be a theme throughout the series, as Cardinal pitchers would walk 14 Cub batters (2 intentionally) in 24 innings.  It all made for a less-than-competitive series.

The Dangerous Third and Fourth Innings

Throughout recent baseball history, the most dangerous inning has typically been the sixth.  That is the inning that a starter may suddenly tire, and the inning before the back-of-the-bullpen arms usually come into play.  To an extent, that is true again this season.  The league ERA in the sixth is a fairly high 4.63 (according to baseball reference), and the major league batting line in the sixth sits at .248/.326/.432.  By season’s end, the sixth may regain its position as the most offensive inning.

For the moment, though, it only ranks as the third most offensive inning behind the third (4.79 ERA) and the fourth (4.73) as all over baseball offenses are beginning to adjust to that starter the second time through the order.

In few places has the carnage of the third inning been felt more than in St Louis, where Cardinal starters have now served up 11 home runs and 28 runs.  Their season ERA in that inning – after 34 games – is an unsettling 7.15, and the batting line against is an equally distasteful .281/.389/.578.

Most of the Cardinal issue of playing from behind too early in games springs from distinct third-inning difficulties.  In Flaherty’s case, half of his 8 home runs allowed have come in that inning, where he carries a 14.85 ERA.  He has yet to allow a run in either of the first two innings this season.  In those 14 innings (7 first innings and 7 second innings), Jack has surrendered just 10 hits – all singles – while striking out 14.  From the fourth inning on, Jack does well enough, with a 3.38 ERA, a .233 batting average against, and a .266 on base percentage against.  He has struck out 19 in the 16 innings represented by his efforts in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings.

If we could just figure out a way to get him through that nettlesome third.

Questions of Character

Obviously, it is easy enough to make way too much of three games in early May.  In many ways, this situation is not unlike the early season matchups with the Brewers.  As Milwaukee won 5 of the first 7, it would have been easy to say that the Brewers were clearly the better team.  St Louis won the last three games between those teams, and has since evened the series.  A similar thing could happen down the line with the Cubs.

Here’s the thing, though.  Beginning with the playoff series between these teams after the 2015 season, the Cubs have dominated this matchup (see accompanying chart) to the tune of a .609 winning percentage. 

Year Cubs Cards Pct
2015 3 1 .750
2016 10 9 .526
2017 14 5 .737
2018 9 10 .474
2019 3 0 1.000
       
  39 25 .609

This decided advantage has less to do with the talent differential between these two teams than it is a matter of character.  The last 64 games between these two franchises has left the indelible impression that the Cubs are tougher mentally than their St Louis counterparts.  Nowhere was that more evident than in the big September showdown in 2017.

There were 12 games left in the season, and St Louis went into Chicago trailing by just three.  Seven of those final 12 would be between the Cards and the Cubs (the last 4 at home), effectively affording St Louis every opportunity to claim the division.

The Cubs swept the first three in Chicago.  By the time the series returned to St Louis, the Cards were already pretty much out of contention – trailing by 6 with 7 to play.  But Chicago won 3 of those 4 anyway.

The organization has spent the last three off-seasons lusting after that “impact” bat.  But there is no evidence, yet, that they have at all answered the character gap that exists between them and their rivals from the North.

After the Cards were dominated in the opener of this series, President John Mozeliak was quoted as saying, “The good news for baseball is that the Cubs and the Cardinals are good.  That’s good for the game.”

The Cubs clearly are good.  The Cardinals still have a lot to prove in that regard – at least if “good” means good enough to actually compete with the Cubs.  For anyone who saw the Sunday night debacle (box score), it make take a while to convince them of St Louis’ legitimacy.

John Gant

John Gant allowed his first inherited runner of the season to score in the Sunday blowout.  He also struck out another batter, and fanned 4 in his 2 innings over the weekend.  Gant has struck out 9 over his last 5 innings.

Dominic Leone

As it was last Friday against Cincinnati, so it was Sunday night against the Cubs.  It was Dominic Leone on the mound when the game spun out of control.  He surrendered 6 ninth-inning runs to the Reds, to pad a 12-1 loss.  The Cubs stuck him with 6 more in their eighth inning to turn a 7-2 game into a 13-2 laugher.

Through his first 11 games, Dominic held a 1.64 ERA and a .111 opponent’s batting average.  Over his last 4.2 innings he has been bashed to the tune of 14 runs on 14 hits – a 27.00 ERA.  The last 32 batters he has faced hold a .500/.563/.929 batting line against him.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler lost some starts recently to a bout with an illness, but he continues to hit.  He came off the bench to deliver a single on Friday, and added another hit Sunday afternoon.  Over his last 19 games, Dexter is hitting .383 (23 for 60).

Paul Goldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt managed two quiet singles in the Sunday blow-out.  They were his only hits in the series. Paul has not yet reached his comfort level at the plate for his new team.  After a 2-for-13 series in Chicago, Goldschmidt is hitting .211 (4-for-19) for the early part of May.  All his hits have been singles, and he has no walks to go with 8 strikeouts, so his whole batting line for the month so far is .211/.211/.211 (with a double play and a caught stealing).

His hits Sunday came in his first two at bats, in the first and third innings.  For the series, from the fourth inning on, Paul was 0-for-8 with 4 strikeouts.  Paul has not yet been much of a late-inning presence for the Cards.  From the seventh-inning on this season, Goldschmidt is 7 for 40 (.175).

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong’s tailspin continues.  Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, Wong has dropped to .248 for the season.  He was 1-for-9 against the Cubs, and is 2-for-17 (.118) this month so far.

Lack of Two Out Hits Contribute to Loss in Washington

The one everyone remembers came in the eighth inning.  Singles by Jedd Gyorko and Marcell Ozuna, and a walk drawn by Harrison Bader loaded the bases for the Cards with two out in a game they had trailed 2-1 since the fourth inning.

Backup catcher Matt Wieters (who had contributed one of the early hits) was due, but it was the eighth inning and manager Mike Shildt had a bench loaded with regulars who were getting the night off.  The at bat would go Paul Goldschmidt, and he would be hitting against the left-hander.  Washington had brought in closer Sean Doolittle to face the right-handed Bader trying to earn a four-out save.

After losing his 8-pitch battle with Bader, Doolittle would now have to face the slugger Goldschmidt with no place to put him.  But also with two out, so Sean was always just one pitch away from getting out of the mess.

Goldschmidt fouled off the first three pitches, took a ball, and then flinched on a 1-2 inside fastball that was off the plate.  First-base umpire Quinn Wolcott emphatically rung him up.  The replays showed that it was close.

While that will be the one remembered, it was only one of several such late opportunities presented to the Cardinals, all of which slid by the boards.  In fact, from the fourth inning on – the inning they fell behind – St Louis had at least one hit in every inning, and had the tying run in scoring position in three of those innings (including that eighth).  But the lack of that two out hit – compounding the earlier mistakes that had put them in the hole to begin with – were too much for them to overcome, and the five-game winning streak came to an ignominious 2-1 end (box score).

The lone Cardinal run scored in the third, but the inning was greatly defused when Wieters was picked off of second after Dakota Hudson missed on an attempted bunt.  Washington scored their two runs in the fourth on a throwing error and a double play.  So, even though the hitters were mostly dominated for the second straight night by National starters (Stephen Strasburg last night and Max Scherzer the night before), St Louis will head to Chicago knowing they mostly let this one get away.

In the end, they finished 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position, and 0 for 3 in the sixth, seventh and eighth runners in scoring position and two out.  A single by Gyorko and Matt Carpenter’s walk gave Ozuna and Tyler O’Neill the RBI opportunities in the sixth.  Marcell popped out and O’Neill struck out.  The seventh inning opportunity came courtesy of an infield hit from Yairo Munoz and a walk drawn by Jose Martinez.  The inning ended when Kolten Wong’s foul fly decided not to go out of bounds and floated back to where right fielder Victor Robles could gather it in.

St Louis finished the game 2-for-11 (.182) with two out, ending six of their nine innings with strikeouts.  For the season – in spite of the fact that they have been one of baseball’s most consistent offenses – they are hitting just .246 with two outs.  An area I know they expect to be better in.

On the other hand, the Cards were 5 for 13 (.385) with no one out.  They remain one of baseball’s best hitting no-out teams, raising their season average to .293 and their on base percentage to .357 in that situation.  For the season, 56.7% of all Cardinal runners who reach with no outs have come home to score.

MattCarpenter

Given to pronounced slumps over recent years, Matt Carpenter is currently fighting his way through another.  Last year, when his season started slowly, he had the advanced metrics to fall back on that showed he was still hitting the ball hard – just not having any luck.

Recently, though, Matt just isn’t hitting the ball at all.  After last night’s 0-for-3 with 2 strikeouts, Carpenter finished the Washington series just 1 for 16 (.063) with 11 strikeouts.  He is kind of a mess right now.

In his only at bat of the game with two out, Matt flew out fairly deep to center to end the first.  Carpenter is now 2 for 24 (.083) on the season with two out, driving in just 1 run.

Pitching Revival

Even in defeat, the recent improvement in the Cardinal pitching remains evident.  Starting with six very strong innings from Dakota Hudson, Washington ended with just 5 hits (all singles) and 11 strikeouts.  Frankly they were lucky to score at all.

After being fairly battered early, the Cardinal pitching staff seems to have found its footing a bit.  They have now fashioned 5 quality starts over their last 9 games, producing a 3.26 team ERA while holding opposing teams to just a .217 batting average.  The once concerning rotation has contributed 52 innings over those 9 games, with a 2.77 ERA and a .229 batting average against.

This is much more according to the plan.

Better With Two Outs

One of the great improvements over the last 9 games has been in St Louis’ ability to get that third out.  The first 282 batters to face the Cardinals with two out this year drew 35 walks and smacked 28 extra-base hits – including 15 two out home runs.  That batting line translated into .249/.358/.494

Over the last 9 games, 110 batters have faced the Cards with two outs.  They have 13 walks and just 4 extra-base hits – including just 1 home run – a batting line of .240/.336/.302.  Last night, Washington was 2-for-11 with two outs – but also with two more walks.

DominicLeone

After being battered over two games against Cincinnati (allowing 8 runs in 1.1 innings), Dominic Leone returned to form against Washington.  In 1.2 scoreless innings he struck out 4.

One of the Cardinal strengths all year has been pitching with no one out, as opponents have only hit .202 against St Louis in that situation.  Leone has been a solid part of that.  He struck out both of the batters he faced with no outs last night.  Batters are now 2-for-19 (.105) with 8 strikeouts when pitted against Leone with no one out.

Unfortunately, Dominic has also contributed to the two out struggles.  The hit he gave up last night came with two out, bringing opposing hitters to 9 for 19 (.474) against Leone in that situation.

Conquest of Reds Closes Out 7-2 Home Stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Carpenter

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

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

Dexter Fowler

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

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

Jose Martinez

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

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

Paul DeJong

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

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

Kolten Wong

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

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

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

Pitching Better than the Numbers Suggest

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

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

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

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

This will be a big opportunity for them.

Jack Flaherty

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

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

Jordan Hicks

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

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

Dominic Leone

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

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

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

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

Offense, Bullpen Continue to Fade

It was, in many way, the kind of game that Mike Matheny would have felt right at home in.  It was, in fact, a microcosm of the season’s first half.  The blueprint went like this: a more than credible effort from the starting pitcher, undermined by an overmatched offense that spent the game waving at breaking pitches out of the strike zone, with any hope of victory dashed at the end by bullpen shenanigans.

In particular, Jack Flaherty gave the Cardinals – struggling to cling to a playoff spot – all that the team could ask for.  After six excellent innings, Jack left the game having allowed just one run.

It would be more than his offense would manage all night – and almost more hits that his offense would garner in the game.  The close game then slipped away as two more runs scored over the last three innings, and the Dodgers finished erasing St Louis’ wildcard lead with a 3-0 victory (box score).  The game featured two Cardinal singles and 10 Cardinal strikeouts.

Throughout the amazing month of August (during which the bullpen posted a 2.82 ERA and a .214 batting average against), Cardinal relievers worked a total of 92.2 innings, allowing a total of 30 runs and 6 home runs.  The two runs allowed by the pen last night, bring their September total to 31 runs allowed, and the home run launched by Yasiel Puig off of Tyler Webb was the eighth allowed already by the bullpen this month in just 50.1 innings.

The St Louis bullpen now boasts an ERA of 5.01 in September, with a .289/.374/.489 slash line  If you are looking for the biggest difference between the 22-6 Cardinals of August and the 5-8 Cardinals of early September, the bullpen would be where you would start.

Flaherty

The inadequacies of the team, though, cannot dim another excellent performance by young Jack Flaherty.  Not quite to his 23rd birthday, Flaherty, at least, has come down the stretch pitching like a champion.  With 6 more innings of 4-hit, 8-strikeout ball, Jack has reduced his second half ERA to 2.42 over 63.1 innings in 11 starts.  Opponents have hit .167 against him since the break, while he has piled up 81 strikeouts – 11.51 per 9 innings.  While the Cardinals seem to be fading fast, the future is still very bright for this organization – and nowhere more bright than the right arm and competitive nature of Jack Flaherty.

With those strikeouts, it should come as no surprise that Jack has the team’s best swing-and-miss ratio.  Last night, the Dodgers missed on 18 of the 47 swings they took against him (38.3%).  Since the All-Star break, batters miss 32.8% of the time that they swing against him, and 30.3% of the time this season.

A point of improvement for the young right-hander could certainly be pitch efficiency.  As good as Jack has been, he has managed quality starts only 10 times in his 25 starts, mostly because his pitch counts haven’t allowed him to work past the fifth inning in many of these games.  Even as Flaherty finished six last night, he did it at the cost of 103 pitches – a hefty 4.48 per batter faced.  For the season, Jack is throwing 4.22 pitches per batter.  Of Cardinal pitchers who have faced at least 100 batters, only Daniel Poncedeleon (4.37) throws more.  The team average is just 3.88 pitches per batter.

Dominic Leone

When Dominic Leone walked Justin Turner with one out in the eighth inning, Manny Machado came to the plate in a double-play opportunity.  It was the twenty-third time this season that Leone faced a batter with an opportunity to get a double play.  He is still looking for his first – although this one was close.  Dominic got the ground ball he needed, but could only get the out at first.

Leone also threw first-pitch strikes to all four batters he faced – in spite of the fact that he walked two of them.  Walks are a rarity from Dominic, who has walked just 7 (3 intentional) in 21 innings this year.  A lot of this is due to the fact that Leone isn’t afraid to throw strike one.  Since his return from the DL, 63.2% of the batters Dominic has faced have seen first-pitch strikes.

In general, batters have been willing to play along with Leone.  Last night, 2 of the 4 he faced offered at that first pitch.  For the season, 37.6% of the batters that Leone has faced have chased after that first pitch.  It is the highest ratio of any pitcher on the team that has faced at least 50 batters.

Bud Norris

Bud Norris was called on in the eighth to face Yasmani Grandal with a couple runners on.  His first pitch was a fastball – up but just a bit away.  Grandal took it (for a strike).  Increasingly, batters are not offering at Bud’s first pitch.  During the season’s first half, 35.5% of the batters to face Norris chased after his first pitch.  Since the break, that ratio has dropped to 27.4%.

Of the 5 swings he took, Grandal only missed once.  This has been another notable drop-off for Norris as the season has worn along.  In the first half, batters missed connections on 30.4% of their swings.  That number is down to 17.8% swung-and-missed since then. (Only 15.6% in September, as Bud has only 5 swinging strikes all month.)  Since the break – among Cardinal pitchers who have faced at least 20 batters – only Tyson Ross (16.3%) has missed fewer bats.

Tyler Webb

The first 29 batters that Tyler Webb faced as a Cardinal saw 19 first-pitch strikes (65.5%).  This includes 11 who swung at the pitch (37.9%).  Last night, none of the 5 Dodgers he faced offered at his first pitch, and only 2 of the 5 were called strikes.  Through the month of September, so far, Webb has now faced 22 batters, throwing only 10 first-pitch strikes (45.5%) and having only 4 batters swing at them (18.2%).

Did I Mention the Cards Had Only Two Hits?

After pushing all year to get the team batting average up to .250, the Cardinals are working hard to get it to fall from there.  They are still hitting .250 as a team (.249503 to be precise, which is about as narrow as you can still be hitting .250), but have put that mark in jeopardy hitting just .229 (99 for 433) this month.

Matt Carpenter

The league’s leading home run hitter, Matt Carpenter is fighting through a harsh September.  After 4 hitless at bats (during which he struck out 3 times), Carpenter is hitting .208 for the month (10 of 48).  He has just 2 doubles and is still trying for his first September home run.  Carpenter has 2 home runs over his last 29 games.

Matt Adams

In his second tour wearing the birds on the bat, Matt Adams has had some nice moments – most recently a big home run against Pittsburgh.  Overall, though, Matt has been less than torrid in his return.  With his 0-for-4 last night, Adams is hitting .167 (8 for 48) as a Cardinal.

Marcell Ozuna

One of the casualties of last night’s loss was the end of Marcell Ozuna’s impressive 9-game hitting streak.  While this has not been the season envisioned, in Marcell’s previous 9 games he was every bit the offensive force the Cardinals were hoping for.  He had multiple hits in 5 of the 9, hitting .410 (16 for 39) during the streak.  It wasn’t a quiet .410 either, as Ozuna’s 16 hits included 2 doubles and 5 home runs.  He drove in 13 runs during the streak, while slugging .846.

Kolten Wong

Amidst the recent offensive struggles, Kolten Wong has returned to the lineup from the disabled list.  He has yet to re-discover his stroke.  Hitless in 2 at bats last night, Wong is hitting .211 (4 for 19) since his return with 1 run batted in and 1 extra-base hit.

Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina’s September has been interrupted by an elbow injury, and he has yet to find the range either this month.  He was hitless in 3 at bats last night, falling to .235 (4 for 17) for the month.

Lost Opportunity

As I was finishing this up, the Dodgers were wrapping up the Saturday afternoon contest against the Cardinals with a message-sending, 17-4 humiliation of the home-town team.

While starting pitcher John Gant didn’t deliver his best game, the game (once again) got away when manager Mike Shildt went to the bullpen.  St Louis actually held a 4-3 lead at that point (one out in the fifth), but LA had the bases loaded, and Gant was scuffling – having made 75 pitches already.  So Mike played the bullpen card.

In addition to allowing all 3 of Gant’s inherited runners to score, the bullpen outdid themselves the rest of the afternoon, finishing their 4.2 inning adventure allowing 11 runs of their own (7 earned) on 10 hits – including 3 home runs.

September’s bullpen line now reads 11 home runs allowed in 55 innings, a 5.73 ERA, accompanied by a .305/.394/.531 batting line.

This tumble (and the Cards have now lost 4 straight – tying their longest losing streak of the season) represents a sizeable lost opportunity.

Back on September 5, the Cards had just overcome Washington by a 7-6 score.  At that point, they were 78-62.  They were a manageable 4.5 games behind Chicago for the division lead (considering there were 22 games to go).  They held the second wild-card spot over the Dodgers by 2 games, and were only a half-game behind Milwaukee for the top spot.

And the 22 games before them couldn’t set up any better.  They started with 3 in Detroit against a Tiger team that had already lost 83 games and sat 22.5 game out in their division.  Following that, the Cards would play 13 of their next 16 at home, ending the season with 3 in Chicago against the Cubs.  If during the preceding 19 games they could manage to strike a couple of games off the Cubs’ lead, those last three might well be for the division title.

To this point, the Cards have done their best to waste that opportunity.  Including today’s loss, the Cards have lost 6 of the first 9 of those games.  They have lost their entire lead over LA –and in fact now trail them – also losing 2 games to Chicago, and 4 games (at the moment, pending the result of their game) to the Brewers.

Since management removed the “interim” tag from Shidt’s title, the Cards are 8-10 and fading fast – being dragged down by the same flaw that doomed Matheny – an ineffective bullpen.

Early Concerns on the Road

After a fairly tepid start, the Cardinals burst back into contention with an 8-1 run (April 12-22).  At that point, they were, in fact, tied for the division lead.  This was, of course, encouraging – said encouragement tempered by the fact that 7 of the 8 wins had come at the expense of the struggling Cincinnati Reds.  With series against contending teams in New York and Pittsburgh coming up (the Mets series at home and the Pirates on the road), it was anticipated that this stretch would be a better measuring stick than the games against Cincinnati.

For those of us less sold on this team as contenders, the results mostly supported the hypothesis – with St Louis losing 4 of the 6 games.  The most telling of these games were the three losses in Pittsburgh.

In their 16-12 start, the brightest and most consistent aspect of the club has been the pitching staff.  After last night’s 3-2 win (box score), the Cards rank fourth in the NL with a 3.37 team ERA.  As the pitching was an area of primary concern (at least for me) entering the season, this would seem to be good news indeed.  Inside the numbers, though (and especially during the sweep in Pittsburgh) there seems to be cause for continued concern.

With early season temperatures in St Louis averaging less than 60 degrees (59.4 to be exact), this pitching staff has been prospering at home (remembering that under the best of conditions, Busch Stadium plays strongly in the pitcher’s favor).  After last night’s win, the Cards are 8-5 at home with a 2.74 team ERA.  Opponents are hitting .220 against the Cardinal pitching staff at home, with just 7 home runs in 125 innings.  Perhaps most stunning, only 2 of 21 inherited runners at home have come around to score (an amazing 9.5%).

The numbers on the road have been less encouraging.

The Pirate Sweep

During the three games in Pittsburgh (in temperatures that averaged a frosty 50.3 degrees) the Pirates took full advantage of the still-suspect Cardinal pitching staff.  They ended the 3-game series with 17 runs scored (15 earned for a 5.06 ERA) and a .286 batting average against Cardinal pitchers.

Most under the microscope was the piecemeal bullpen.  Their numbers in the sweep are most telling.  In 9.1 innings of work, the Pirates compiled 8 runs (6 of them earned – a 5.79 ERA) on 14 hits (a .333 batting average against).  There were also 8 walks (6 unintentional) in those innings and two batters hit by pitches (a .444 on base percentage).  Of the 13 runners the pen inherited, 6 scored (46.2%).

And, of course, both leads that they inherited were surrendered.

Continuing Trends

Of course, too much can be made of any one series.  Every pitching staff will endure at least one such series during the season.  In the Cardinals case, though, the Pittsburgh series continued a pronounced early season trend.

Now 8-7 on the road (4-7 not counting the games in Cincinnati), the team ERA is almost one and a quarter runs higher there (3.97).  While the innings count is close (125 innings at home and 131.1 innings on the road), the team has served up more than twice as many home runs on the road (15) than they have in the comfy confines of Busch (7).

And the pen?

Soberingly, it has been the arms most depended on.  It has been Matthew Bowman (6.1 innings, 5 runs on 9 hits), Tyler Lyons (4.2 innings, 4 runs on 7 hits), and Greg Holland – who has only managed 3 innings in 5 road appearances.  During those 3 eventful innings, Holland (brought in to be the ninth-inning answer) has faced 21 batters, giving 6 runs (5 earned) on 8 hits and 3 walks.

I highlight the word concern used in the previous paragraphs.  In baseball, it is always early until it isn’t.  All of these troubled pitchers have ample opportunity to reverse the narrative.  But as I wondered openly at the outset of the season whether this team could trust its bullpen, the early results have not allayed my fears.

Tommy Pham

While the Cardinals as a whole have hit only .207 as a team since Cincinnati left town, Tommy Pham headlines a very short list of Cardinals who haven’t missed the pliant Red pitching staff.  With last night’s home run, Pham is hitting .385 (10 for 26) with 5 of the hits for extra bases (3 doubles and 2 home runs) good for a .731 slugging percentage over the last 7 games.  This includes going 7 for 10 against the Mets.  Tommy begins the day leading the National League (narrowly) in batting average.  He is clearly following up strongly after his break-through 2017 season.

If this weren’t encouraging enough, last night’s home run was already his third at home this season.  Last season 17 of his 23 home runs were hit on the road, leading to a concern that Busch may be a bit too spacious for Tommy (as, indeed it seems to be for many hitters).  Last season, Pham hit .340/.431/.611 on the road – superstar numbers.  At home, he was a much more pedestrian .265/.388/.410.  So far this early season, Tommy’s batting splits slightly favor his home field (.333/.441/.611 vs .339/.448/.482).

Kolten Wong

Also heating up in the post-Cincinnati era is second-baseman Kolten Wong.  One of the Cards who started off the season ice cold, Kolten has had some hits start to fall in lately.  With yesterday’s 1-for-2, Wong is hitting .333 over the last 7 games (7 for 21).

Jose Martinez

On the other end of the ledger is 2017’s other break-out star – Jose Martinez.  After a torrid start to the season, Jose is only 5 for 26 (.192) in the wake of the Reds’ series.  In the early going, frosty Busch seems to have gotten the best of Jose.  Hitless in 4 at bats last night, Jose has now had 19 plate appearances at home over the last two series (Mets and White Sox).  He has contributed 2 singles, 1 double, 1 walk and one double play in those appearances (a slash line of .167/.211/.222).  In 13 home games so far in 2018, Jose is hitting .224 (11 for 49) with 1 home run and 7 runs batted in.

Matt Carpenter

Hitting into a bunch of bad luck so far this year (see this story), Matt Carpenter (who went 0 for 8 in the Pirate series) broke out a little last night with a double and a game-tying, ninth-inning home run.  Carpenter is still just 3 for 19 (.158) since Cincinnati left town, and just .170 still for the season.  Perhaps last night was the beginning of a turn-around.

Yadier Molina

To the list of players glad to be back home, you can add the name of Yadier Molina.  His 1-for-12 series in Pittsburgh dropped him to just .246 on the road this season (14 for 57) albeit with 5 home runs.  He had two hits last night – including the game winner, raising him to a .298 average at home this season.

Since the last Cincinnati series (last night notwithstanding) Molina has managed 4 singles and 5 strikeouts in his last 28 plate appearances – a .143/.143/.143 slash line.  His would be another welcome turnaround.

Still Waiting for Dexter

Dexter Fowler hit the big walk-off single that gave the Cards a series win against the Mets (box score).  He hasn’t had a hit since, following an 0-for-9, 4 strikeout Pittsburgh series with an 0-for-3 last night.  Unlike Carpenter, Wong and Molina, Dexter’s recent at bats don’t show much sign of a turnaround.  His season average sits still at .165.

While I’m sure some are anxious over the slow start, I will remind the ready reader that Dexter started slowly last year, too.  But at the end of the year, he was one of the few Cardinal hitters still getting big hits in important games.

UPDATE: While I was writing this, Dexter’s two-run home run in St Louis’ afternoon game against the White Sox proved decisive – so perhaps Fowler is beginning to find the range now, too.

Michael Wacha

A quiet hero last night was starting pitcher Michael Wacha.  After five solid innings, he left the game trailing 2-1, the victim of a two-run double off the bat of uber-prospect Yoan Moncada.  An inning shy of a quality start, Wacha is one of the critical pieces to the 2017 puzzle.  There were moments last season (and there have been a few already this season) when Michael looked like he was again becoming the pitching phenom he was in his rookie season.  He also faded notably down the stretch.

Over his last two starts, Wacha has allowed just 3 runs in 11 innings (2.45 ERA) with 11 strikeouts.  Both of these starts were at home.  Of his first 6 starts this season, he has made 4 at home, going 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA allowing no home runs.  He has lasted just 9.2 innings combined in his two road starts.  During these innings, he has allowed 8 runs (7 earned) on 10 hits – 2 of them home runs.

Wacha will be a pitcher to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Luke Weaver

Their offseason actions indicated that management believes that Luke Weaver is ready to take his regular turn in the major league rotation.  Three starts into the season, this was looking like a good decision.  Luke was 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA.  He finished April 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA over his last three starts.  He has walked 9 batters and has given 14 runs on 17 hits over his last 14 innings.  Again, very, very early.  But it will be very damaging if the club is wrong about Luke.

Bud Norris

Bud Norris – an acquisition I was dubious of over the off-season – has been as steady as we could have hoped for.  Earning his first Cardinal win last night, Bud’s ERA is now down to 1.88.  As opposed to many of the Cardinal pitchers, Bud has actually been better on the road (1.17 ERA v 2.70 at home).

Dominic Leone

Another off-season bullpen acquisition – Dominic Leone – is starting to find his footing.  After serving up 3 home runs in his first 4.2 Cardinal innings, Leon has served up none (allowing just 1 run) over his last 8 innings.  He pitched the eighth last night, giving a hit but no runs.

Up Next

Even as I was composing this missive, the Cardinals won their afternoon game against the White Sox (by the same 3-2 score), meaning they will open their series against the Cubs with a little momentum.  Still, the White Sox are now 8-20 on the year. It would do a lot for my confidence if St Louis could do some of this winning against contending ball clubs.