August: Dog Days or Good Times?

History and scheduling are on the Cardinals side this month

Let’s be clear right up front. With the moves the Cardinals made and didn’t make at the trading deadline, it’s really hard to see how 2021 ends anyway other than on the first Sunday in October after taking on a depleted Cubs team. At the end of games on August 1, the Cards were nine and 1/2 games behind the Brewers with basically nine weeks left to play. They were 6 1/2 behind the Padres for the wild card, but given the upgrades that Los Angeles and San Diego did, putting the Cardinals in the same sentence as those two teams seems incongruent.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to look forward to or things that can keep you from checking out of the season entirely. We can see if they can pass Cincinnati and finish in second place or at least wind up over .500 for the 14th straight year. The most intriguing thing might be whether the Cardinals can continue what has been a tradition as of late, putting together a remarkable August.

On the Bally Sports Midwest broadcast on Sunday, it was noted that since 2011, the Cardinals have had the second best winning percentage in the majors, with only the Dodgers topping them. Let’s look at what August has looked like over that period:

2020: 11-10, .524
2019: 18-9, .667
2018: 22-6, .786
2017: 15-13, .536
2016: 14-13, .519
2015: 19-9, .679
2014: 16-13, .552
2013: 16-13, .552
2012: 16-13, .552
2011: 15-13, .536

Of course, many of us remember the collapse of 2010, which was the last time they were under .500 for the month, but overall as the season gets into the dog days, it feels like the Cardinals perk up.

When this sort of thing happened under Tony La Russa (and I am not going to dig into it, but it felt like more often than not TLR’s teams had a strong second half), I chalked it up to his ability to rotate lineups and keep people fresh all year long so that they had more in the tank for the second half. Obviously, under Mike Matheny and now Mike Shildt, that sort of creative lineup maneuvering doesn’t happen and yet they are still able to put together some great months that lead to at least contention in September.

The Cardinals do, as we know, start the season away from home so as to maximize their games in Busch when school is out. Maybe you could argue that the St. Louis players get more adjusted to the St. Louis heat and humidity and can play through it better than those teams coming in from Cincinnati or Milwaukee or Pittsburgh. (That logic probably won’t work this week with the Braves coming to town, though.)

If there is some built-in reason that the Redbirds fly higher in August, this year’s schedule will probably aid in that flight. The Cardinals face only one team, the Brewers for three games in Busch in a couple of weeks, that’s a winning team before they go to Cincinnati at the very end of the month. They see the Braves (two games under through Sunday), the Royals (14 games under), the Pirates (25 under), the Royals again, then after the Brewers they see the Pirates again, two against Detroit (6 under) and then the Pirates yet again. There are a lot of wins that would seem to be on the table.

The Cardinals still have their flaws and it’s unlikely they’ll win as many of these as we think they should or as they really need to thrust themselves into the thick of either race. However, they should be able to pile up enough wins to get them out of this .500 orbit they’ve settled into, and that might be good enough.

The Last Time We Met……

When the Cardinals went into Atlanta back in the middle part of June, they had fallen out of first but were still just three games back and two games over .500. Three losses in four tries later, they limped out of Atlanta at the break-even mark and soon tumbled from it, not returning to matching wins and losses until July 19.

The first game saw the Cardinal bats completely shut down by Charlie Morton, as he went 7.2 innings and allowed just three hits while striking out seven. John Gant was not quite as fortunate, but he did get into the fifth before allowing a run on a Guillermo Heredia home run. He got one out in the sixth but gave up an RBI triple to Ozzie Albies, then conceded the floor to Daniel Ponce de Leon who immediately gave up a double that brought in Albies. Ronald Acuna Jr. had a sacrifice fly in the seventh off of Ponce that made the final 4-0 score.

The second game saw more of what the first game had—little offense, little pitching—but while the Cardinals actually were able to score off of Max Fried in the first inning, Carlos Martinez immediately gave it back and then some. The fact that this wasn’t his worse game in June tells you something about Martinez’s month, but he was torched for eight runs in three innings. Most of the damage was done in the second, when William Contreras led off with a homer and Ozzie Albies ended the frame (well, basically) with another. Martinez allowed another run in the fourth when he allowed the first three men to reach, then Jake Woodford came in and allowed both of those inherited runners to score before eventually, with two outs, walking the pitcher Fried with the bases loaded to put a fitting punctuation on a terrible game.

Saturday’s game for the two teams was rained out, so Sunday saw a doubleheader with seven innings instead of the customary nine in each game. Adam Wainwright, pitching in front of friends and family, stopped the losing streak by going the distance and allowing just one run. The offense, which had been dormant for the rest of the series, showed up to support the veteran ace. Nolan Arenado hit a two-run homer in the first, Yadier Molina had an RBI single in the fourth, then Paul Goldschmidt hit a three run bomb in the fifth. A mix of walks and singles, plus a Tyler O’Neill sac fly, put up three runs in the sixth for the 9-1 final.

Unfortunately, the Cards couldn’t bank some of those runs for the nightcap. It was a tightly pitched game on both sides, with Kwang Hyun Kim going up against Drew Smyly. KK allowed only three hits but one of those was a home run to Ronald Acuna Jr., which was the only tally in the game. KK was pulled after four to try to stimulate some offense when his spot in the lineup came up, but it was unsuccessful and another chance at positive momentum was lost.

The Opponent

Atlanta has stayed around 3-5 games behind the division leading Mets for much of the season, as you’d have to go back to before the Cardinals visited to find them closer than that to the top of the NL East. The club was busy at the trade deadline, bringing in Jorge Soler from Kansas City, Richard Rodriguez from Pittsburgh, Adam Duvall from Miami, and Eddie Rosario from Cleveland.

Of course, if the Mets could do what the Brewers are doing, the Braves might have been more sellers than buyers. It’s not that Atlanta is tearing things up—again, they currently have a worse record than the Cardinals—it’s just they are in the right place at the right time.

Over the last 30 days, the Braves have been pretty good offensively. They’ve put up a .762 OPS, good for 11th in the league, and their 33 homers also sits 11th. Austin Riley is leading the way with eight homers to pair with his .330 batting average while Dansby Swanson, the former top prospect that’s always struggled to live up to that billing, has seven homers and a .972 OPS in that span.

Their pitching has been in the middle of the pack as well, as they’ve put up a 4.08 ERA that runs about 13th in baseball since the beginning of July. However, they are 22 of 37 in save opportunities in that span, which necessitated them going out and getting Rodriguez. Charlie Morton has been good (3-1, 3.57 ERA) while Max Fried, Jack Flaherty’s old friend, has been less so (2-3, 4.66 ERA).

With the drastic remake of the team in the last week, it’s hard to know exactly what the Cardinals will see when they face off with the Braves this week. Then again, most fans will probably be focusing on the two new Cardinal hurlers taking the mound.

The Mound Men

Tuesday: Max Fried (7-7, 4.32 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 4.40 xERA) vs. Jon Lester (3-5, 5.02 ERA, 5.41 FIP, 4.90 xERA)

Wednesday: Drew Smyly (7-3, 4.40 ERA, 5.04 FIP, 4.81 xERA) vs. J.A. Happ (5-6, 6.77 ERA, 5.40 FIP, 5.78 xERA)

Thursday: Touki Toussaint (1-2, 4.76 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 4.05 xERA) vs. Wade LeBlanc (0-2, 4.17 ERA, 4.99 FIP, 5.38 xERA)

xERA courtesy of FanGraphs

Usually here we don’t focus that much on the Cardinal pitchers, figuring that you already have a grasp on them. However, we’ve got to talk about the elephant in the room, the two acquisitions at the trading deadline. While others are getting Max Scherzer or Kris Bryant, the Cardinals got two guys that would have been exciting if this was 2012 instead of 2021.

I wrote more about the deals in a post that dealt with a lot of other things, but right now it feels like it’s a coin flip about whether you’d get better results out of Lester and Happ or out of Johan Oviedo, Jake Woodford, and John Gant. The real advantage and the one that probably tipped the scales for John Mozeliak was the fact that you can’t hurt Lester or Happ. They’ve hit their ceiling a long time ago. There’s no potential that is being hindered or possibilities that need to be nourished. You can throw them out there, get through their starts, and let them go at the end of the year.

It’s also fair to note that we kinda thought this would be what we got out of LeBlanc as well. He was a guy left on the trash heap by the Orioles of all teams and we thought that maybe he could provide a few innings in the bullpen. Instead, he’s the third starter on the team and is holding down the role fairly well. Not well enough to keep a starting job when Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty return, but that’s still a couple of weeks down the road. Anyway, if Lester and Happ can use their defense and the pitching enhancements of Busch Stadium, perhaps they can be serviceable additions. It’s unlikely they’ll tap into the fountain of youth, even if (Daniel) Ponce de Leon is on his way, but if they can be league average, it’s something.

As for the Braves hurlers, as we noted Max Fried is having a rough season with its ups and downs. His overall numbers are skewed by a handful of bad outings, including two this month where combined he allowed 10 runs in 10 innings. His last time out was a little more like what his season has been overall (he has been worth 2.1 bWAR this year), two earned runs and nine strikeouts in seven innings against the Mets. Baseball being baseball, of course, he lost that game. As noted above, he was quite good against the Cardinals when they saw him in June.

Drew Smyly, the Arkansas boy who is a fellow Razorback, has been a bit more pedestrian this year. He’s had four starts where he allowed five or more runs, though none since May 26. In fact, starting in June, he’s put up a 3.08 ERA, which is good, but he’s also has four starts where he’s not gone five innings and only one where he’s gone six. His last start was one of the short ones, giving up three runs (and striking out six) in four innings against New York. We pointed out that the Cardinals didn’t get him for any runs in 5.2 innings when they saw him last.

Finally, there is Touki Toussaint. Toussaint only has three starts at the big league level in 2021. The first two were very good as he allowed two runs in 13.2 innings, including striking out 10 Phillies in seven innings in his second outing. Last time, though, not so much. Seven runs in 3.1 innings against the Brewers, which raised his season ERA from 1.32 to 4.76. He faced the Cardinals in a relief appearance in 2019, allowing one run in two innings at the end of a game that Atlanta won 10-2.

The Hot Seat

After the trading deadline, is there enough passion about this team to actually create a hot seat? I don’t know that there is. I’m not sure where you put your ire or your angst about a team that probably isn’t going anywhere. Maybe we’ll come up with something before the next series.

Scoreboard Watching

If and when the Cardinals get seriously in the hunt, we’ll bring this section back. Right now, it doesn’t feel like there’s much point to it.

Assorted Crudités

Since the All-Star Break, Tommy Edman is hitting .265. That’s not really anything out of the ordinary for him, though. What is pretty interesting is that he has walked five times in 54 plate appearances. In the first half, he walked 19 times in 385 PA. I don’t know if that’s a random sample, a function of him being farther down in the lineup, or what, but it’s interesting. We’ll see if he can keep that up at all.

Daniel Ponce de Leon will have to return shortly, I believe, forcing Lars Nootbaar back to Memphis. The more interesting roster decisions may come when Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty return, most likely in time for the Milwaukee series that runs August 17-19. I’m very interested to see how the rotation shakes out—assuming they stay with a five man, one of the new additions would have to go to the bullpen—and it would seem that some parts of the bullpen (Justin Miller and Luis Garcia being the most at risk) would be released to make room. Then again, baseball has a way of working things out, so who knows what will happen in two weeks.

The club has said that while Dakota Hudson might get some September innings at the big league level, it’s less likely that Jordan Hicks will. I’m not sure that I’d push Hudson much, especially since you only get two September callup spots and the minor leagues run through September this season, but we’ll see how it goes. Hicks is starting to tread the Alex Reyes path, as he’ll have 10 innings in the big leagues since he stepped off the mound on June 22, 2019. It’s going to be interesting to see how much weight and expectation the club puts on him for the 2022 bullpen.

Random Links

Currently listening to: Cardinals Off Day Episode 16. As always, the Bens are bringing solid analysis to what happened at the trade deadline. I do pour one out for the fact Ben Humphries doesn’t have John Gant to kick around any more, however.

The Meet Me at Musial from before the trade deadline and the Gateway to Baseball Heaven from after it.

All of you know my Star Wars passion. Many of you probably know that I have, over the years, written devotionals that take that and tie into the Bible. It’s been a while but a new one of those is up.

Philippians 1:27-30