The St. Louis Cardinals could have been contenders in the National League Central. With the marquee offseason acquisition of Nolan Arenado, the Cards appeared to position themselves well for contention.
Typically a deep ballclub with a plethora of arms and quality defense, St. Louis instead finds itself hovering around .500 and well out of the division race 8 1⁄2 games out of first place.
St. Louis has been a pitching mess this year. Starters Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas each missing significant time, relievers Jordan Hicks, Andrew Miller, and Daniel Ponce de Leon have been injured relievers. Adding to the issues, Carlos Martínez has struggled mightily, and could possibly be done for the year.
The Cardinals have deployed relievers in an attempt to fill rotation slots, and unsurprisingly because numerous players are miscast on the roster, their pitchers have walked more hitters (4.51 per nine) than any other staff in baseball.
Still, they largely sit middle-of-the-pack in just about every statistical pitching category. They don’t give up a lot of homers (0.90 per nine), they get the ball on the ground (43.4 percent), and their defense is top five in baseball. It’s not an especially encouraging group, but the fact that they’ve been even serviceable in the face of the sheer volume of health woes speaks to their competency as an organization.
It’s the anemic offense that is keeping this team mired in fourth place.
Logic says that a lineup with Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and an emerging Tyler O’Neill should be able to piece together enough secondary support and be at least average. Instead, the Cards have been among the league’s worst on that side of the ball, yet they sit at the bottom-of-the-pack in numerous important offensive statistics.
- Team Batting Average: .230 (26th)
- Team On-Base Percentage: .301 (27th)
- Team ISO: .150 (24th)
- Team K%: 21.9 (4th)
- Team BB%: 8.0 (25th)
- Team wRC+: 87 (27th)
The positive is the Cardinals don’t strike out a lot. That’s great news. They rank 15th in the league in Swing% (47.1), but make contact at the league’s third-highest rate (77.3). Their Whiff% is also the sixth-lowest in baseball (10.7). That is absolutely a trend that you love to see. The issues are basically everywhere else.
While St. Louis is clearly putting the ball in play , they’re making hard contact at a rate of just 30.7 percent (which ranks 26th). They’re also hitting the ball in the air to the tune of 38.0 percent (fourth-highest). Additionally, for as much as they are making contact, they’re also not establishing an on-base percentage with it. Part of that is that combination of flyballs and soft contact. Another part is they feature the sixth-highest called-strike percentage (17.0 percent). As admirable as it is to be a team that doesn’t strike out, it essentially becomes useless when you have an inability to make quality contact or draw walks as a supplementary asset.
They’ve also struggled to hit four-seam fastballs. From Viva El Birdos:
In order for the Cardinals’ lineup to be more productive, the outfielders will have to learn how to hit four-seam fastballs. Tyler O’Neill is the exception as he is the best four-seam fastball hitter on the team in terms of wOBA. However, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson have both struggled immensely against four-seam fastballs this season, while Tommy Edman has also not been great. Against the pitch, Bader has a .193 wOBA (.270 xwOBA), Carlson has a .307 wOBA (.287 xwOBA), and Edman has a .302 wOBA (.317 xwOBA).
The article goes on to say that Harrison Bader and Tommy Edman each have a history that indicates they should trend up moving forward, but it’s yet another struggle we can add for this group. Nonetheless, with something like that in mind, it becomes worth wondering if their regression could realistically be this bad, or if it’s a matter of some unfortunate luck spread out over the span of three months.
To date the only above average regulars in the lineup (by wRC+) are O’Neill (137), Goldschmidt (119), and Arenado (113), while both Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson sit at exactly 100. Paul DeJong is at 97, Yadier Molina is at 89, and Tommy Edman is at 84.
Bader has missed much of the year and is typically characterized as a glove-first outfielder. Even so, he’s still failing to make hard contact at his usual rate (about 27 percent).
Carlson’s trend is similar, with a Hard% of just 25.9 and high flyball numbers. DeJong has never been a high on-base guy, but he’s had enough power and linedrive ability to compensate. This year, he’s making hard contact at a rate of 34.6, seven points lower than his last full season in 2019, and hitting the ball on the ground over 40 percent of the time. So it’s no wonder his BABIP sits at .217.
Additionally, Molina has seen his strikeout rate leap up to over 17 percent (the highest of his career), while putting the ball on the ground over 41 percent of the time. Edman has seen the little power he had dissipate almost entirely since his rookie year (.111 ISO) and isn’t reaching base enough for his speed (16 steals) to be utilized effectively.
Those are your supplementary pieces. So even with the above average performers in the lineup—who on their own aren’t necessarily posting elite-level numbers that we’d probably expect from those names (O’Neill notwithstanding)—it’s really not any kind of marvel that the Cardinals are where they are as an offense.
There’s a chance for rebound. DeJong is likely better than this. Bader has shown some promising signs. Carlson’s in his first full Major League season. But at this point in the year, the trends are kind of embedded into what the Cardinals are doing. It’s just too many flyballs, not enough quality contact, and not nearly enough presence on the bases to be effective. And given what has unfolded with the pitching staff, it would likely take a fairly significant turnaround for it to be even realized. With well over half the year behind us, it would be a long climb back into the divisional race.
The Cardinals are likely in the midst of a lost year. With the injuries they’ve withstood, it’s not terribly surprising, but despite their current positioning, the team has said they won’t sell, which is somehow also the right decision.
There are strong offensive players in this lineup. Perhaps this winter you supplement them more effectively and aim to get younger. This is the St. Louis Cardinals after all, and the next wave of prospects you’ve never heard of thriving at the big league level probably can’t be too far away.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.