ST. LOUIS — Despite appearances for almost the past two decades, winning is not a birthright in St. Louis. A season that began with top pitching prospect Alex Reyes blowing out his elbow and a hacking scandal costing the Cardinals their first-round pick has grown darker. St. Louis is 35–40, the 49th Cardinals team to lose at least 40 of its first 75 games. None of the previous 39 such teams made the playoffs.
It is no longer early, not even in a National League Central that has made mediocrity a virtue, and one in which the Cubs have real problems. St. Louis’ NL-best streak of nine straight years is in jeopardy. The direction of the season may be determined in the 30 games between tonight and the July 31 trade deadline.
In those 30 games, St. Louis is not suddenly going to become a good baserunning team, nor a good defensive team. Its starting pitching, which has been as healthy any team in baseball, has been decent, but not apt to get better, either.
So on Saturday I presented my theory to St. Louis manager Mike Matheny about how the Cardinals could possibly play their way back into winning baseball: they have to hit their way out of their three-month doldrums. Their offense is the one phase of their game that has the biggest gap between performance and potential.
“I see this team with a lot of fight,” Matheny said. “We’ve been right in the thick of things over the years, and there’s no reason why that can’t happen again. I agree. There’s more there offensively.”
In the next two days the Cardinals promptly scored eight runs in back-to-back games for the first time all year. With the tighter baseball, you have to hit in today’s game. You have to hit home runs to win ballgames. Winning without them is so hard that the winning percentage in games without a home run is just 30%. The Cardinals are 11th in the league in runs per game, as low as they have been ranked in the past two decades. Stephen Piscotty, RandalGrichuk, Yadier Molina and Aledmys Diaz should all be better. Kolten Wong will help when he gets off the DL.
Here’s the problem, though, in thinking that St. Louis will get much better: it’s a bagel of a lineup. There is a hole in the middle. The Cardinals have nobody who ever has driven in 90 runs in a season. It’s a cast of complementary hitters, and too-heavily righthanded. “We can be better, no doubt,” said one team source. “But there’s a reason why we are where we are. Look at the team we were supposed to be. Our third baseman [JhonnyPeralta] is gone, our three hitter from last year [Matt Holliday] is gone, our leftfielder [Grichuk] has been in the minors and our lefthanded bat [Matt Adams] is gone.”
Last Saturday the Cardinals started five players who never have played a full season in the majors. They have been relying on Tommy Pham, who has played 809 minor league games, and Jose Martinez, who three years ago was toiling in independent ball for the Rockford Aviators.
To worsen matters, St. Louis runs into more unnecessary outs on the bases than any team in baseball. They made 62 outs in non-force plays in their first 72 games. Attempting to address the problem, Matheny has his players reading balls off the bat during batting practice as if it were a game situation.
“Same stuff you see in high school and college,” Matheny said. “The guys have taken ownership. I say, ‘Tell me what you guys need to work on.’ And the number one thing I hear is, ‘I need to work at being better on the bases.’ They’re really doing a nice job working on that. What I see are guys putting forth the effort every day.”
Piscotty, for instance, made mistakes due to an over-abundance of caution. So last Friday, in an attempt to be more aggressive, he took off from first base thinking a line drive would fall into rightfield for a hit. It was caught by Pittsburgh rightfielder Gregory Polanco, leading to an easy double play.
“We can be a better defensive team and a better baserunning team,” Matheny said. “But when you’re scoring runs it covers up a lot of the shortcomings. Right now we’re like a lot of teams: we have a lot of young players. Diaz and Pham and [Paul] DeJong and Kolten when he comes back, and even Piscotty is young. When you have young hitters you have some inconsistencies.”
The Cardinals need more games like Sunday, when Grichuk returned from his minor league exile to swat a big home run, and Molina rapped out three hits against Pittsburgh. Grichuk blasted an encore homer the next day. For now Matheny is going with Piscotty and Grichuk or Jedd Gyorko as his three-four hitters. Piscotty is 26 and is hitting .254 with less power than he showed as a rookie. He hasn’t homered at Busch Stadium since last September. Grichuk is 25 and has a career on-base percentage of .298 with too much swing-and-miss in his game.
"Carpenter can hit three, Dexter [Fowler] can hit three,” Matheny said just before Fowler went on the DL, “but right now they look real good at one, two.”
St. Louis’s all-righthanded rotation has been healthy and solid, ranking fifth among all starting staffs in ERA. Carlos Martinez has been terrific and Mike Leake is a rarity who pitches to contact and limits walks and home runs. But Michael Wacha is always under close watch for shoulder strength (he’s thrown 100 pitches in a game only twice all year), 35-year-old Adam Wainwright continues to be more hittable (hitters are slugging higher against him for a third straight year; his ERA is 4.83 over his past 48 starts) and Lance Lynn, having already allowed a career high in homers, may be hitting a post-Tommy John surgery lull (his velocity Saturday was his worst in 165 career games).
So it comes back to the offense, and whether the Cardinals can cover for their shortcomings on defense and on the bases, and potentially in the rotation, by scoring more runs. Right now they are a tired team, with just two off days this month and playing 20 straight days leading to the All-Star break.
Their only path to the postseason will be to win the division. The bar is low, possibly as low as 87 wins, because the Cubs have played poorly, especially on defense, hitting with runners on base, their catching and the pure stuff of their starters. That likely means only a big collapse would have the Cardinals trading pieces such as Lynn before the deadline. Right now they are stuck in the worst place to be: the middle of the road, not good enough to win, not bad enough to bail.
To get to 87 wins, the Cardinals will have to play .598 baseball (52–35). The way there must be lead by their offense.
— How bad is the National League? The Washington Nationals have only nine wins against teams .500 or above all year (9–7). They could threaten the record for the easiest path to a division championship. The 1997 Cleveland Indians went 19–28 against teams .500 or better. Washington is on track to beat losing teams 78 times. Only the 1954 Indians (89) and 1944 Cardinals (81) enjoyed a title path paved with so many such wins .
— The Pirates have their ace back, and it’s all because Gerrit Cole rediscovered what made him great: his fastball. After four disastrous starts (10.71 ERA), Cole realized he had sunk too far down the rabbit hole of analytics. He spent so much time exploring what pitches were getting hit in what locations and what counts—in some cases, in small sample sizes—that he changed his approach on the mound to throw his secondary pitches more often. Cole decided to simplify his approach heading into his June 13 start and just pound the bottom of the strike zone with four- and two-seamers. The result: he is 3–0 with a 1.35 ERA in those starts. His fastball percentage in those starts is 67%, up from just 54% in the previous four.
— How much has baseball changed? The Astros and Cubs do not have a stolen base out of the leadoff spot. Only two teams have gone through an entire season without a stolen base from the leadoff spot: the 1947 Indians (80–74), who primarily used Dale Mitchell there, and the 1952 Cardinals (86–66), who primarily used Solly Hemus. St. Louis player-manager Eddie Stanky also put himself in the leadoff spot off 15 times. Stanky is the reason why we have limits on mound visits. As games neared darkness or curfew, and St. Louis held a lead, Stanky very frequently would walk slowly after pitches from second base to the mound to talk to his pitcher. To stop such shenanigans, baseball adopted the rule that requires the pitcher to be removed after a second mound visit in an inning by a manager or coach. There’s your precedent for putting a limit on catchers traipsing out to the mound as many times as they want.
— Here’s another measure of how the game has changed, with an emphasis on all-or-nothing. The batting average with two strikes is as low as it has ever been in the 30 seasons of such recorded history (.176). But the percentage of two-strike at-bats with home runs is the greatest ever. Less than halfway through the season, there have been more two-strike homers this year than in the entire 1992 season. Your home run leaders on two-strike counts, none of whom look to simply “put the ball in play” with two strikes: Eric Thames, 11; Aaron Judge, 10; Bryce Harper, Cody Bellinger and George Springer, 9.