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How Did We Get Here? (Part One)

After today, there will be no baseball for the Cardinals. The question has to be asked: why?

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

And just like that, it was over.

Every year, when baseball ends for the Cardinals, one way or another, those are the words I think of. We’ve been down this road before in my year-end wrap posts, but it’s always the same for me. Win or lose, a trophy or heartbreak or just go home, regular season or World Series, when there are no more games to watch and our birds on the bat fly away for the winter, the same sentence comes to me.

And just like that, it was over.

Every year it’s like an expected death; an old pet you just can’t bear to put down, or a grandparent who’s been sick long enough it’s hard to remember when they were well. You know the end is coming, you prepare yourself for it, steel yourself as best you can, and maybe you even think you’ve made your peace ahead of time.

But son of a bitch if it doesn’t hurt all the same. Every. Single. Time.

There is one more game to play today, and then we will all go to sit by our windows and wait for spring. I wish Carlos Martinez were pitching today; he began the season, and I would like to see him close it down. I suppose it’s sensible to sit him, though, at the end of a long campaign when the outcome means nothing. I’m sure you all saw the stat, that the Redbirds had not played a meaningless regular-season game in well over 1000 contests; if that doesn’t tell everyone out there just how good we as Cardinal fans have had it for quite a while now, then probably nothing will. Games that don’t mean anything are unfamiliar to us, and the sensible path to the offseason feels so very, very hollow.

And just like that, it was over.

The 2017 season was, to put it lightly, frustrating. The team seemed capable of so much more, showing flashes now and again, here and there, of something great, only to crash right back down into the muck over and over again. The bullpen was fine, except when it wasn’t, and every time it wasn’t it seemed like it cost the Cards a game. The offense was good, but came up just a bit short what seemed like an inordinate number of times. The rotation was occasionally great, putting the team on its back and carrying the Birds of April and May when they couldn’t seem to get out of their own way. But the rotation was also terrible over the last two weeks of the year, as responsible as anything for the collapse in Pittsburgh, for these games being, in fact, meaningless. Every aspect of the team, large and small, from Carlos Martinez’s walk rate to Matt Carpenter’s blind ambition for third base, took a turn playing the goat for this club.

In fact, the 2017 season was so frustrating that I’m actually feeling less sentimental than usual. Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still be wearing a ripped black sweater and listening to A Letter to Elise on repeat the rest of the day. But I think this maddening slog of a season deserves a postmortem more than it does a eulogy, so I shall endeavour to offer up my two cents about what went wrong, and how we got here.

Of course, as I said a few moments ago, virtually every part of the team, every tiny aspect of the 2017 squad, had at least something go wrong at one point or another. In that way, trying to pinpoint what went wrong seems like a fruitless exercise. We could just easily say, “Well, they’re not good enough. Case closed.” And that would, more or less, be true. Ish. But that doesn’t tell us much, does it? Saying nope, just not good enough, or screaming about the humiliating decline of a once-proud franchise to such a pathetic state, is just not very instructive. It’s also not particularly accurate, I don’t think, but that won’t keep people from jumping off bridges and the like.

So what really went wrong this year? Well, for starters, we really do have to begin with the bullpen, which coughed up too many leads this season, and has to shoulder a fair bit of the blame for there being no postseason baseball in St. Louis this year. In the aggregate, the ‘pen was fairly average. In reality, though, it had a few really weak links, which made for a bad situation many nights.

Seung-Hwan Oh fell of a cliff this year. In 2016, he was one of the ten or so best relievers in baseball, and this season he was gasoline on a fire nearly every time he came in. You know what’s strange about Oh? His walk rate in 2017 was virtually identical to what it was in 2016. Last season, he walked 5.8% of the hitters he faced. This year, his walk rate was 5.7%. So, yeah. It was slightly lower. That’s fairly unusual all on its own for a collapse. But more unusual than that is the fact that, while Oh threw basically the same amount of strikes this year, his walk rate dropped by twelve and a half percentage points. In 2016, he struck out 32.9% of the hitters who came to bat against him, an elite rate. This year: 20.5%. Seriously, how does that happen? His home run rate nearly tripled. His FIP exploded from 2.13 to 4.43.

Now, in defense of the organisation, there was absolutely no reason to think Oh was going to collapse so completely. We might have looked at his 2016 line and thought he would probably regress a bit, but his strikeout rate declined by almost 40%. I’m not sure that was really foreseeable.

It certainly didn’t help that the club’s big offseason relief add, Brett Cecil, had some pretty serious issues of his own. Cecil wasn’t really that bad overall, but his timing was, to put it lightly, simply atrocious.

Actually, you know what? Brett Cecil is a pretty decent stand-in for how weird this club’s failures really were. In 2016, Cecil struck out 28.7% of the batters he faced. This year, that number was 23.7%. That’s not as bad a dropoff as Oh, but it’s not great. However, these are Cecil’s walk rates over the past three seasons: 6.1%, 5.1%, 5.8%. So again, like Oh, Brett Cecil didn’t really see a huge uptick in his walk rate. His home run rate actually dropped significantly. All in all, Cecil’s ERA was exactly the same as last year, but his FIP was better, 3.29 vs 3.64. His FIP- in 2016 was 85. This year: 77. So relative to league average, Cecil was a fair bit better this season, at least by fielding-independent numbers, than he was in 2016.

So why does it seem like Cecil was such a dumpster fire? Well, timing, mostly. His strand rate was just 71%, which is low for any pitcher, but especially for a supposedly elite reliever. Worse yet, Cecil had one of the worst reverse platoon splits of any pitcher in baseball this year. He dominated right-handed hitters, allowing just a .208/.233/.336 line. The bad news? Lefties, the hitters he was primarily brought in to neutralise, torched him to the tune of a .337/.400/.545 line. That .945 OPS would be the best on the Cardinals. Brett Cecil, highly-rated lefty reliever, made every left-handed hitter he faced in 2017 better than Tommy Pham. That’s as strange a stat as Seung-Hwan Oh’s disappearing strikeout rate.

So that’s two of your most prominent relievers who simply cannot be counted on to pitch in important situations. And, as far as I’m concerned, two relievers you really couldn’t have been expected to see falling apart.

On the other hand, if we want to go after the front office for bullpen-related problems, then we need look no further than Jonathan Broxton and Kevin Siegrist both being on the roster at the beginning of the year. Neither one was good in 2016; Broxton was below-average by ERA and FIP both relative to all pitchers, not just relievers (meaning he was downright terrible by relief standards), while Siegrist did at least manage to post a quality ERA, but it was based almost entirely on a super low BABIP and super high strand rate. I generally prefer a runs allowed model of WAR for pitchers, but when you look at a pitcher and see his peripherals are all pointing toward an imminent collapse, just get the hell away. Neither Broxton nor Siegrist had any business being put in important roles in the Cardinal bullpen this year, and yet there they both were. Matheny deserves plenty of blame for going to those guys over and over again, trusting in their experience and grit when the reality is they’re just shitty pitchers, but the front office also deserves to be taken behind the woodshed for keeping them both around, period.

So that’s four relievers that you really couldn’t count on to do the job this year, at all. Two of them never should have been on the roster, and two I think we should view as surprises. When you consider the club was basically firing four blanks, though, perhaps Matheny doesn’t deserve quite as much grief as he usually gets for wanting to carry eight relievers. (Then again, considering Broxton and Siegrist were both very much ‘Mike Guys’, maybe he does...) When fully half your bullpen (or even a little over half, depending upon how many total relievers you’re carrying at a given moment), cannot be trusted, it’s not surprising lots of leads are going to be lost.

The injury to Trevor Rosenthal was also, it should be said, a real gut punch. He was fantastic all season, though limited in terms of back to backs, and that was a tough tactical issue to navigate. So that’s five relievers who were either bad or limited in their use. Is it any surprise Matt Bowman started to look like a torture victim midway through the season?

The offense, in general, was solid all year, and better than that down the stretch. But if we go back to the opening day roster, we see quite a bit of, frankly, dead weight. Aledmys Diaz has 300 plate appearances this season, and a .684 OPS. Jhonny Peralta didn’t stick around all that long, but a .462 OPS in about 60 trips to the dish can certainly put a miss in the middle of your offense. Stephen Piscotty has had a terrible season, running a .708 OPS total. Randal Grichuk has been a below average hitter this year, despite getting the Memphis bump on multiple occasions. Eric Fryer I can’t say too much about; he was a fine backup catcher, and really not being paid to hit. (Or play much, for that matter.) Even so, a .474 OPS (29 OPS+), is, um, yeah.

The good news, of course, is that Diaz was replaced by Paul DeJong, Peralta just went away, and Fryer has been replaced by Carson Kelly. Which, tell the truth, hasn’t really been a huge upgrade; the upgrade has been Yadier Molina being replaced by Second Half Yadi, which I’m about half convinced is actually a thing now.

When you base your team-building philosophy on avoiding bad players at all costs, and maintaining a baseline that’s quite high, even if the ceiling of most players is fairly limited, you cannot have 23 of your opening day outfield running below-average batting lines. If it’s a center field guy with an elite glove, okay, sure. But corner outfielders? Grichuk and Piscotty both being below league average (and accumulating 840 plate appearances between them), was a major drain on the offense this year.

Fun fact: if you put Jose Martinez in right field, the only hitter in the Cardinal lineup with an OPS+ below 100 (meaning below league average), is Yadier Molina. And, obviously, that’s a position you live with. Everyone else in the lineup has an OPS+ of at least 109, in fact, with Kolten Wong’s .788 OPS the only sub-.800 mark of the bunch. In other words, the Cardinal offense of the last couple months is, in a word, awesome.

Problem is, you have to swap out four players from the opening day lineup to get there. Now, should the front office take the blame for that? Well, that’s tough to say. Jhonny Peralta 100% should not have been on the team this year. Matt Adams’s roster spot could have been better used, I believe. But Diaz, Piscotty and Grichuk all being below-average was not an outcome I would have bet on. Of those three, RANDAL was the only player I would have placed a wager on being bad, and only if I got fairly strong odds, to be honest. But I don’t think the organisation should have seen those shortfalls coming. None of us did, I don’t think. Regression from Aledmys? Sure. Complete collapse? Definitely not. Hell, the projections still think Diaz is about a league-average hitter. I’m probably taking the under on that at this point, I think.

The ups and downs of the rotation I’m fairly confident saying are not a systemic problem. Adam Wainwright just got old, and got broke. We knew it was going to happen eventually, but what do you do about that? Matheny kept throwing Adam out there way too long, and the front office didn’t force a stop to it nearly soon enough, but it’s not as if coming into 2017 there was a realistic way to simply not have Waino in the rotation. Carlos, despite the inconsistency in certain ways, was still very good this year. Lance Lynn did his job, Wacha stayed healthy and mostly pretty good, and when the kids were called on they did their jobs well enough. Mike Leake was good, then he wasn’t, and now he’s gone. The two worst starters the club had this year are not now in the rotation. Did it take too long? Maybe. Mike Leake lost a lot of games for the Cards this year, for whatever reason. So that one hurts. But beyond that, the rotation is getting better, not worse, so I can’t really throw too much of a fit about it.

The defense was a serious problem early on, when Aledmys was starting at shortstop and Kolten Wong was booting balls left and right, but much less of an issue later, when Paul DeJong was playing solid, consistent defense and Wong had regained his footing. If the middle infield for the Cardinals in 2018 is Wong-DeJong I don’t think we have a problem.

On the other hand, the organisation absolutely has to admit their bet on Dexter Fowler’s defense came up double zero. Whether it was a pure fluke, a positioning thing Fowler doesn’t want to replicate here, or the smaller dimensions of center in Wrigley Field, it looked like perhaps Dexter had discovered something defensively. Whatever that thing was, he’s pretty clearly lost it this year. He needs to move to left, and if it hurts his feelings that’s too goddamned bad. Hopefully a corner spot would be easier for him in terms of range, and maybe help keep his heel healthier as well. The Cards cannot play him in the toughest outfield spot again next year, though. (Fantastic addition to the lineup, though.)

The baserunning I just don’t get. The Cardinals lost more runners on the bases this year than any other team, and that just really doesn’t make any sense to me. You have to know and understand the personnel you’re working with, and that means when you have slow runners like Matt Carpenter, just make sure they aren’t constantly getting thrown out. This did improve a fair bit once Mike Shildt came on board to replace the human windmill that was Chris Maloney, but even so, there were too many guys lost on the bases. In other words, Mike, stop preaching aggressiveness on the bases when you don’t have that kind of team. Pham, Fowler, and Wong should be aggressive. Everyone else, just don’t get thrown out.

So to return to the question of how we got here, I think we can pinpoint a couple things. One, fully half the bullpen that the Cardinals began the season with was essentially dead weight, in terms of being useful in tight situations. Cecil is the one pitcher of that bunch I feel should be better going forward, and actually did have that stretch of being one of the best relievers in baseball back in late May through something like mid-July, if I remember correctly. He has to figure out what went wrong against lefties this year, though, and fix it. I haven’t delved into the pitch data and heat maps, so I don’t know specifically. Something happened, though, that he struggled to throw effective strikes to guys standing in the left hand batter’s box. Let’s just hope it’s not the Y word. When four out of seven or eight guys you’re counting on in the ‘pen are really only good for mopup duty, you’re going to lose leads.

There was too much dead weight on the roster in general early on this season. Those Cardinals of April and May and June that struggled so badly, those Cardinals had too many dead spots in the lineup. Too many non-contributors on the field. Again, when you’re so dedicated to avoiding stars ‘n scrubs, committed to the idea of a high floor across the board, you cannot have Aledmys Diaz and Jhonny Peralta and the first-half version of Randal Grichuk (74 wRC+), all taking the field together. You can’t do much about Yadi; he does too many things that are too important to replace him even when he struggles with the bat, but Piscotty had only one real quality month with the bat this year. Four struggling hitters of eight is a sure loss, just as four of eight relievers fit only for blowouts is a sure way to blow a bunch of leads.

When you combine a bullpen that gives away too many leads, in spite of having numbers roughly average overall, with a lineup that contained at least two and sometimes as many as four dead spots a night in the first half of the season, you don’t leave yourself with much margin for error. The rest of the offense has to be spectacular, which is tough when you’re philosophically dedicated to quality and depth, rather than singular talents. The starters end up staying in games far too long, because the manager doesn’t trust half his bullpen, which exacerbates what is already his worst habit.

In the end, I think the good news is this: the Cardinals have, for the last couple seasons, been a team in transition, even as they tried to deny it, but I believe they’re starting to come out on the far end of that tunnel. It’s possible Paul DeJong is a false positive the same as Aledmys Diaz, but there’s much more to like in his profile that suggests a sustainable player going forward. The outfield has to be sorted through and figured out somehow, and I truly do believe the Cardinals must make a real run at a centerpiece sort of player this offseason, either a bat to hit in the middle of the lineup or a frontline starter to bolster the rotation into a juggernaut, so the work isn’t done yet. But this was a club that played at a 93-94 win pace for most of the second half of the season, and there is a real foundation here upon which to build.

Finally, if we want to talk about what went wrong this year, it has to be acknowledged that perhaps the biggest issue of all is that the Cardinals simply could not beat the Cubs this season. Now, here’s the thing: the Cubs are a very good team, a stronger team than the Cardinals currently, and you can’t expect to put up a .600 winning percentage against a club like that. (The Cards were also terrible against Boston, losing all four games, but going 0-4 is a blip on the radar.)

However, in no rational world should a team that’s going to finish with about 84 wins go 5-14 against anyone. The Cubs’ underlying numbers this year paint them as about a 92-93 win team; the Cards’ fundamentals paint them as an 88 or 89 win club. Two teams roughly four or five wins apart should play each other pretty close to even; give the Cardinals a 9-10 record against the Northsiders and the clubs are exactly one game apart in the standings. That’s not what happened, of course; the Cards actually played the Cubs to a .263 winning percentage, which is probably the biggest single reason they will not be playing this October.

The question, I suppose, is what that tells us about the clubs, if anything. Obviously, there’s a ridiculous amount of narrative being bandied about that the Cardinals are scared of the Cubs, that Chicago has bullied the Redbirds into rolling over for them. Even Bernie Miklasz, who is both much better than pretty much anyone else in this town about avoiding those lazy narratives and makes it a point to toot his own horn about how he’s much better than anyone else about avoiding those lazy narratives, has lambasted the Cardinals for being completely intimidated by the Cubs. Personally, I don’t know that I buy it; the Redbirds have, admittedly, struggled terribly against Chicago the last couple seasons. Is that a psychological thing, though? Or is it one of those weird coincidences of baseball wherein the Cardinals simply do not hit a couple of the Cubs’ starters basically at all? I honestly don’t know. It’s incredibly frustrating, don’t get me wrong, but do I buy that this whole squad of players is scared of another group of 25 guys?

Now, ask me if I think the relative qualities of the two managers in question could lead to a bunch of one-run contests between the clubs consistently going one way. Because that I might buy....

So what went wrong this year? How did we get here? The Cardinals played horrible baseball early on, because the roster was only about half-baked when the season began. A couple of the players they thought would be good were not, and they were not aggressive enough in upgrading other spots that could have been. Complacent? I don’t know. Overly conservative I’ll give you; not sure I can go so far as to accuse the front office of out and out complacency. They played atrocious baseball against their biggest rival, lost an ungodly number of close games, specifically to the Cubs, and took a little bit too long to get the roster turned over to something resembling a playoff team.

In other words, it was a transition year, and the transition was rougher than I think they, or we, expected. The good news is the end of season 2017 Cardinals are a much, much better club than the opening day 2017 Cardinals were, even if the front office were to swing and miss completely on upgrades this offseason.

The bad news is that it is October in St. Louis, and there is no baseball to be played. Or at least none that matters.

You may notice the title of this article includes a ‘part one’. On Wednesday I’ll have part two, in which I will try to track a thread over the past several years which I think helped lead the Cardinals to this season. The decline so many fans are angrily snarling about is hugely overstated, I think, but there is a pattern to the way the organisation has operated for a while now that I believe goes a long way to explaining why 2016 and 2017 had to turn out the way they did.

So I will see you then, when we can officially look around and take stock of the offseason as it begins. It’s going to be an important one for the Redbirds, and while absolutely none of what I or anyone else writes on this site will make a single bit of difference in terms of how the organisation chooses to attack their problems, shouting into the void is just fine sometimes, don’t you think?

Oh, and I very much apologise for the lateness of this post. I’m not going to lie; it was hard to write, and took at least twice as long as a piece of this length would normally take me. As I believe I said earlier, this whole meaningless baseball thing is not familiar to me.

And it’s not much fun.