Changing Directions

St. Louis is heading south for the summer. Can they make a U-turn?

The Cardinals are just one and a half games out. The problem is, that’s out of fourth place.

Granted, the Reds aren’t likely to keep rampaging, though if they do slow down it may be more of an indictment of this past weekend than anything else we can say. (It’d be really great if they kept their momentum going, seeing as they have the Brewers next on their list.) And while the Cardinals are technically closer to fourth than first, that’s only by one game. If the Reds can do some favors and the Padres actually do something against the Cubs this week, the Cardinals can go to Wrigley with a shot of retaking their rightful place at the top of the division.

Provided they can keep their own house in order, of course. And that’s been the hardest thing for this team to do over the past month.

Before games of May 8, the Cardinals were 19-14, two games up on Milwaukee and had a run differential of +20. They were the only NL Central team to be positive in that category save the Reds (+3) who went negative that day. Now, the Cardinals are 31-29 and their run differential is -18. Games have gotten away from them late, as the season of Tyler Webb would attest, and they’ve gotten ugly early as Carlos Martinez vs. the Dodgers and John Gant this weekend highlight. (Of course, Gant’s game became competitive, but it was 7-0 early.)

With the removal of Webb and the surprising results of Andrew Miller, it feels like this team might have a chance to get on track if they were healthy. They are far from that, though, and without some sort of infusion of health or talent, these seas are going to be stormy. Hopefully the flaws in the other NL Central teams will keep them from slipping permanently under the waves.

The Last Time We Met…..

The wonkiness of 2020 means it actually hasn’t been that long since we have seen the Cleveland squad but hopefully this series will be much different than last year, when the Tribe came into Busch August 28-30.

You probably remember this series as one that beat up on the pitching staff before the legend came to save it. The first game saw Daniel Ponce de Leon not get out of the first inning, allowing four runs, three off the bat of Framil Reyes, before Jake Woodford bailed him out of the jam he was creating after the homer. Ponce walked four and gave up two hits, an outing that would not be surprising in 2021 by many arms. Woodford eventually got tagged for two runs, Junior Fernandez allowed six in an inning, and Max Schrock made his first appearance on a major league mound. It wouldn’t be his last.

After using five actual pitchers and one position player to cover nine innings, the Cardinals then turned around and played what had to be one of the longer extra-inning games in all of baseball last season. It wasn’t the pitching’s fault, as Jack Flaherty went five innings allowing one run and the bullpen threw six scoreless before Alex Reyes gave up a leadoff double in the 12th, scoring Mike Freeman. (Zombie runners break the game.) Unfortunately, to hold serve, that meant five relievers had to be used and there were not many arms left for Sunday.

It’s a true story but also one that is going to work itself into the legend of Adam Wainwright that he texted Mike Shildt after Saturday’s game and said he was picking up the slack Sunday, that he’d go as long as possible. He was a man of his word, throwing a 122-pitch complete game while quieting the Indians 7-2. Wainwright allowed a two-run homer to Tyler Naquin in the second, but his teammates picked him by scoring four in the bottom of the inning, two on an RBI double from Dexter Fowler, two on an RBI single by Dylan Carlson. Fowler would add a homer later on as Wainwright never really was challenged.

The Opponent

The Indians haven’t played much in June, already having two off days plus a rainout of the end of their series with the White Sox. They are coming off a series loss to the Orioles, of all teams, including getting walloped 18-5 on Sunday.

Which is part of the problem for Cleveland, their mediocre record against sub-.500 teams. They are 15-11 against winning teams but 16-15 against ones that have more losses than wins. That doesn’t necessarily help the Cardinals, who still are on the plus side of the ledger at the moment, but it’s an interesting thing to note. The Indians sit in second place in the AL Central, two ahead of the Royals and four behind the Pale Hose.

Offensively, Cleveland has scuffled. Their .679 OPS puts them 24th in baseball and about 15 points to the less of the Cards. They have one fewer home run than the Cardinals in three fewer games, so they can still sock some, but they have 12 fewer doubles, which probably leads more to the OPS gap between the two teams.

Overall, their 4.16 ERA is just a hair better than St. Louis’s and the two teams are squarely in the middle of the pack. The Indians are better about limiting baserunners, though, with a 1.29 WHIP (14th) vs. 1.37 for the Redbirds (24th). The Cleveland bullpen has a 3.34 ERA and has blown just three saves, so trying to rally in the late innings like the Cardinals did against the Reds might not be the best idea.

The Mound Men

Tuesday: Shane Bieber (6-3, 3.08 ERA, 2.88 FIP, 3.54 xERA) vs. Carlos Martinez (3-5, 5.83 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 5.75 xERA)

Wednesday: Jean Carlos Mejia (1-0, 0.00 ERA, 1.64 FIP, 1.19 xERA) vs. Adam Wainwright (3-5, 4.19 ERA, 4.58 FIP, 3.90 xERA)

xERA courtesy of FanGraphs

Bieber is, of course, one of the best pitchers in the game today. He is the defending AL Cy Young winner and is on his way to being in the conversation yet again this season. He leads the league in strikeouts with 117 in just 79 innings and while his walk rate is up (3.3 per 9, the highest in his career) he’s got enough weapons to offset that. The Cardinals missed him in that series last year, but Bieber has faced them before, back in his rookie season of 2018. It was his fourth career start but there wasn’t any rust to him—six innings, six hits, one walk, one run, five strikeouts. Last time out he gave up two runs in seven innings (with seven strikeouts) to the White Sox and hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any start this season.

Mejia is a rookie making his fifth appearance and his second start of the season, so you hope but don’t necessarily expect St. Louis to do more with him than they did with Bieber back in the day. Mejia’s start was his last time out, where he went three innings (his longest outing in MLB) against the Orioles, allowing just one hit and no runs in that span while striking out two.

As for the Cardinal hurlers, well, you know about what to look for there. Can Carlos Martinez rebound after that terrible inning against the Dodgers? How good can Adam Wainwright continue to be? And can either or both of them go deep enough that the bullpen isn’t overly required?

The Hot Seat

With Tyler Webb now in Memphis after clearing waivers, there’s room for another person in the tank and after a sputtering offensive weekend, it seems to be Jeff Albert. This is year three of the Albert experiment though, to be fair, 2020 shouldn’t count as a full year. The club has put this ambitious plan in place and you can argue it’s just going to take some time for it to click.

You can also argue that offensive numbers have slid even from the disappointing ones seen with John Mabry. In the quiet offensive year of 2015, the Cardinals had an OPS of .716 and sat 19th in the league. Currently, they have a .694 OPS and are 24th, and that’s after adding Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.

I don’t know how much to blame Albert and the staff for all of this but there’s no doubt that eventually results have to be produced. I do wonder if we won’t see them continue to implement some things that Albert has brought even if at the end of the year they part ways with him. After all, the wearable tech, the metrics, all of that seems to be the way baseball is going. For some reason, though, it doesn’t seem to be clicking in St. Louis.

Assorted Crudités

Since the Cardinals started this stretch of games with the White Sox, Matt Carpenter has seemed to find a little bit of himself. He’s hitting .269 in 30 plate appearances over that stretch, with four walks and nine strikeouts. He also has five doubles, which always has been his calling card. The watch to see if he can get his overall average to .200 is on.

I assume Lane Thomas is on this team because there’s nobody else to bring up, because the club obviously has no plans to actually use him. Starting Jose Rondon in the outfield over Thomas on multiple occasions is a clear sign of how his stock has fallen. Thomas last started on May 30 in the last game of the Arizona series, when the lineup looked like a spring getaway day and played as such. Up to that point, he was 2 for 22 in May. Counting that game and his pinch-hitting appearances since, he’s 0-9 with a walk and four strikeouts. If Paul DeJong is activated for this series (or when he’s activated for the weekend in Wrigley), I would guess Thomas gets the demotion.

The team’s current bWAR leader is Tommy Edman (2.4), which is probably not a surprise given his play but also not really what you want when you have Nolan Arenado (second with 2.0) and Paul Goldschmidt (tied for eighth with 0.9) on your roster.

Random Links

Currently listening to: Cardinals Off Day Episode 9. Appreciate the Bens tackling my question and look forward to continuing to listen to the rest of the show. However, I doubt I get it finished before Episode 10 drops.

I will try to have a preview for the Cubs series this weekend, but I leave Saturday morning for a trip to Ohio and so there definitely won’t be one for the Marlins and Braves series next week.