The start to the Redbirds’ season has been…well, hard to watch. The weather has been the only thing that Cards fans have been able to get excited about this spring in Busch. The team is below .500, Arenado is yet to get to form, the team isn’t driving in runs consistently, the pepper grinders haven’t been as grindy, and the biggest woe of them all has certainly been the Cardinals’ starting pitching. Just watching the team and looking at the stats, most St. Louis supporters would say the offense is fine and will improve. Unfortunately, you can’t say the same about the rotation.
With all this in mind, it is still very early in the season. Let’s look at some numbers and assess where the Cards are at this point. What can we get excited about, and why do the Cardinals pitchers look like the slow pitch machine at a child’s T-ball game?
For the most part, the offense has been what we had hoped it would be. Goldy has been alright, but Arenado is off to a bad start with a .690 OPS. Outside of that, this lineup is deeper than that crack between your driver’s seat and your middle console. This is mostly because the young guys are pulling their weight and then some. Nolan Gorman is doing his best Nolan Arenado impression with the 12th-best OPS in baseball. On top of that, Alec Burleson has been consistently contributing, and Lars Nootbaar has returned and brought the WBC Japanese magic with him. Shoot, even Paul Dejong thinks he’s Aaron Judge! We’ll see how long that lasts…but we’ll take it!
The numbers like the St. Louis offense. They are 6th in wRC+, 11th in HRs, 4th in OBP, 9th in SLG, and 4th in average exit velocity. Part of the Cardinals’ struggle this season is that they need to capitalize on their opportunities because they still only rank 15th in runs scored. The numbers above, though, suggest there should be an uptick in pepper grinding and the Fredbird dances as the Cardinals cross home plate. So keep making baseballs cry, and the offense will figure itself out.
On The Cardinals’ Pitching
So the Cardinals starting pitching sucks. At least it has so far. The Cardinals’ pitching ranks in the bottom half of the league in ERA, WHIP, HRs given up, and BA against. It feels like every game the Cardinals have to score 6+ runs in order to win. This is great for discounted drinks to Mobil but not a great winning recipe. Lately, the starters have taken the lead early but then surrendered the lead soon thereafter. Taking the lead from the Cardinals has been like taking candy from a baby.
What is interesting is that St. Louis has performed well in some advanced stats. I think these will help paint the ugly picture that explains why the starting pitching is horrible. The Redbirds staff ranks 8th in strikeouts, have the 6th lowest zone contact %, the 4th lowest xFIP, but the 4th highest hard hit %. These stats tell you that when the ball is not put in play, the Cardinals’ pitching staff is successful. When the other team is making contact, they have been giving up the 6th highest average exit velocity. The final puzzle piece that explains why the Cards’ pitchers have been bad is that they have the 7th highest edge %.
Okay, all of this gibberish above means that the Cardinals pitchers do not have good pitching arsenals, so they must constantly try to paint the corner of the strike zone or the ball gets smoked. The starters’ batting averages against their fastballs are the most tell-tale sign of this. Montgomery’s 4-seamers have been surrendering a .455 average, Flaherty’s fastball has been hit to the tune of a .250 average, and Mikolas’s fastball has been smoked for a .458 batting average. Matz hasn’t thrown a 4-seamer, but his sinker has been hit for a .237 average. All of their fastballs have a spin rate right around the 50th percentile. Like many of us thought, this staff just doesn’t have much talent. They have to have an excellent command of their stuff, or else it’s going to be a long night because their pitches are easy to barrel up. Have you noticed that the team typically has one really bad inning? That’s probably because it’s difficult to consistently paint the strike zone every single inning unless you’re Greg Maddux. They do well for most of the game, but they have that one inning where they just don’t exactly hit their spots, and the ball goes far.
So What is the Answer, and What Should we Expect?
I think many of us had been asking for the answer all off-season. Hey Mr. Mozeliak, where are the quality starters? The team came into the season without a reliable ace or a pitcher we knew the team could 100% rely on, and it shows. Luckily it’s early in the season. Wainwright should be back soon, and Flaherty is improving with every start. Liberatore is waiting in the minors and has been off to a very nice start. Zack Thompson has also been incredible out of the pen, but it’s not like they are super deep in that department, either.
Also, the Cardinals have built up a plethora of quality hitters that they could move. Specifically in the outfield. It makes too much sense to move on from either O’Neill or Carlson to get some pitching.
The Cardinals still have 140 games left to play. Plenty of teams in the recent past have struggled out of the gate and been just fine. Just last year, the Astros, Phillies, and Braves were at or below .500 at the 22-game mark of the season. The Pirates have no business having the 2nd best record in baseball, and the Brewers and/or Cubs will hit their slumps after their honeymoon phase. So let’s stay calm. If St. Louis is still performing like this at the All-Star Break, then it’s time to panic. However, let’s put a pin in that for now.