April Rewind

Now that it's (almost) not April anymore, time to take a step back with this off day and take a look at how the season and team are shaping up. Getting swept by Pittsburgh has taken quite a shine off the start of the season. The Cards are 15-12, which is quite disappointing given their record 4 days ago. Still, it's good for a 90-win pace. Let's start with the good and save the bad for last.

The Rotation

Pretty good stuff so far, eh? 4th in the Majors in ERA, 8th in FIP, 6th in innings, 4th in wins if you're inclined to care- it's been pretty damn good any way you slice it!

Carlos Martinez has been the #1 the Cards need him to be. He's just 26 and is under contract for 6 years! One of the best contracts in baseball, right there.
Stat: Has averaged 4 bWAR the past 3 seasons. Already has 1.6 bWAR this season!

Michael Wacha, despite lingering calls to send him to the bullpen, is productive year after year, making 87 starts the last three seasons. He has only struggled when saddled with defensive alignments that have included Matt Carpenter, Aledmys Diaz, and Randal Grichuk... all playing up the middle. With DeJong, Wong, Yadi, and TPham patrolling the middle of the field there is little reason not to expect a sub-4 ERA.
Stat: Tied for 17th in MLB wins since the start of 2015 with Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, Gerritt Cole, and Jhonny Cueto. Not a bad group to be associated with.

Luke Weaver
is legit. He may not be an ace but he's here to stay. Solidly in the mix for the 2-4 spots in the rotation.
Stat: Has run a cumulative sub-3 FIP across all levels since the start of the 2015 season.

Miles "throws strikes" Mikolas is shaping up to be one of the shrewdest signings of Mo's tenure. Consider that he fills up the strike zone like Mike Leake and also signed for about a fifth of what Leake signed for, that sounds pretty good. Oh wait- also consider that he throws 97 mph! Mike Leake, he is not. Mikolas and Wacha should be good for a combined 700 innings of above-average production the next two years, a welcome sight for a FO trying to limit innings for some of its promising young arms.
Stat: 8th in zone% among 96 qualified pitchers in 2018. (Mike Leake is 41st)

The 5th spot in the order is the only blight on this section, and even it hasn't been so bad. Waino doesn't seem to possess much swing-and-miss anymore, but he's managed to pitch to a 3.45 ERA in 3 starts. Jack Flaherty, while definitely very exciting, had a middling ~4.5 FIP in his last 20 starts of 2017. He's pitched quite well in the early going, though. I think most Cardinal fans would certainly agree that if Waino's DL stint does not return any of his former glory, the team is still in pretty great shape, as a combination of Flaherty and TJ-returnee Alex Reyes should be able to far outpace the #5 production of any other team in the majors (except maybe the Astros. They don't count).
Stat: The Major League average ERA for starting pitchers in 2018 is 4.20. So far, the Cardinals #5 starters (Waino and Flaherty) have combined for a ~3.60 ERA.

What we learned in April: This is a good rotation, top to bottom! Good on the FO for not giving into VEB's demands and signing Yu Darvish and Chris Tillman (you know who you are).

The Lineup

I am 100% bullish on this team's lineup. I won't pretend otherwise. That said, let's take a look at what's actually there. Decidedly middle-of-the-pack so far in terms of wRC+ and runs scored, I think the following 3 are due to improve and push this lineup well into the upper third of baseball.

Matt Carpenter's early-season contact issues are definitely concerning, but his BB/K ratio is not particularly out of whack with his career, and the man currently owns the 2nd lowest soft-hit% percentage in the Majors. The other 4 hitters in the top 5 are all running BABIP's of .370+, while our dearest Marp is scuffling along with a .196 BABIP. This is definitely partially due to all his medium-well struck balls into the shift and the outfield, almost all of which are normally outs, but the guy is well due for positive regression. I don't believe Carp will ever return to regularly running BABIP's above .300 and so he might not be the 140 wRC+ monster he used to be, but at a 120 wRC+ would still likely be in the conversation for best leadoff man in baseball.
Stat: Matt Carpenter has only once in his 6-year career posted an average below .270 or an OPS below .800 (2014 and 2017).

Dexter Fowler is pretty much in the same boat as Carpenter. His contact% is down a little bit, but his K/BB and his batted ball profile are all in line with his career norms except for, you guessed it, his BABIP. Currently sitting at .191, Fowler has never once had a sub-.300 BABIP. He'll be fine too.
Stat: Despite an "oft-injured" label, Fowler actually set a career low in PA's last year with a still-solid 491. He has only once broken 600 PA's, so you can basically pencil him in for one or two short DL trips a year.

Marcell Ozuna I was not too bullish on to start the season. The man has only had one season north of an .800 OPS, after all. To be fair, he absolutely smokes the ball on contact and has been a bit unlucky thus far this season. By reports I've heard, he is quite a smart hitter despite a very aggressive approach. As long as he can break an .800 OPS (which he should) I'll be satisfied.
Stat: Was 16th out of 144 qualified hitters in wRC+ last year. I don't expect this to repeat, but he was above players such as Cody Bellinger, Justin Upton, and Anthony Rizzo. He should be a fine cleanup hitter.

The rest of the guys are not as interesting to me. Kolten Wong has turned it around lately and should settle in as his usual average self. Jedd Gyorko started hot but doesn't have the PA's to make any judgments. Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong had HR-fueled hot starts, but should both settle down as slightly-above average hitters as the year progresses, and that's fine. Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez are awesome, but you knew that already.

I think, in the end, you've got your tiers:
Top-flight hitters: Pham, JMart
Quite good: Carpenter, Ozuna
Above-average: DeJong, Gyorko, DeJong, Fowler
Average: Wong, Yadi

Defensively I don't have much to say. JMart and Carpenter are painful to watch, but probably don't cost the team as much as you'd think. Everyone else is ok except for Yadi and Kolten, who are good, and for that I appreciate them very much.

What we learned in April: DeJong is no Diaz- he has enough power to prop up his floor as a hitter. I was afraid declining power would kill Yadi's BABIP and curse him to a decline phase where he hit .260 with no power, but he seems to have recovered some strength after dealing with thumb injuries for consecutive seasons. This should prop up his floor as well. Carpenter and Fowler are both replaceable in the lineup so even if one of them truly is cooked, the Cardinals would be ok. Finally, Pham and Martinez cementing themselves as studs at the plate makes this lineup a prohibitive favorite to finish top 5 in the NL.

The Bullpen

Starting to regret this whole go-from-good-to-bad thing. The bullpen has defied a bad FIP (7th worst in MLB) with a good ERA (12th best in MLB) but has managed to parlay that decent ERA into a disastrous WPA. The Cardinals rank 27th in WPA from relievers, outpacing only the Tigers, Royals, and Twins. That's... not a good group to be in. Critics will chalk that up to Matheny, but the more pertinent issue is that every regular but Bud Norris has been bad. Let's put it like this: the Cardinals have had 13 players pitch in relief so far. Ranked by FIP, only 4 of those 13 have been better than league average, and that group includes Brebbia, Cecil, and Gant, who have been on the active roster something like one week combined. Tyler Lyons is 5th and people have been calling for his head, so. Matheny has only had 1 and a half good options for most of the season.

So... where do we go from here?

Greg Holland has had a lot of ink spilled about him recently. He's been a dumpster fire, people want him cut, so on and so forth. It's unlikely anything I say will change your mind on him, wherever it may lay. I'll try anyway: Holland has thrown 7 innings this season. 7 innings. Throw out his first game, where something was obviously off, and his zone% and velocity are right where we'd expect them to be. Maybe that's encouraging to you, and maybe it's frightening. Many people will say he's looked terrible, and they're right! But I don't trust my ability to evaluate an MLB pitcher after 7 innings of April baseball and I don't think you should either- Greg Holland has been a good reliever every year of his career, and I expect that to continue until I see 10 gut-wrenching blown saves by the allstar break 20+ innings of crappy production or some red flags involving his velocity or movement. Do all those 20 innings have to come in the 9th with a one-run lead? We'll ask Mike Matheny and get back to you.

Greg Holland, August 2017: 9.1 IP, 13.50 ERA, 9.26 FIP
Greg Holland, April 2018: 7.1 IP, 7.36 ERA, 6.32 FIP
Greg Holland, the rest of 2017: 48 IP, 1.75 ERA, 2.64 FIP
Maybe he was just getting it out the way early?

Bud Norris, man. We all know he's the best relief pitcher ever, so I'll share this snippet from a PD article concerning Bud's unfortunate quote a few years back:

It's a comment, Norris says this past week, that he didn't mean and has "haunted me ever since and I wish, I wish I could take back."

Hm. Well. Not the most contrite-sounding apology, but at the same time, reading too much into one sentence quotes with little to no conversational context is not my favorite activity, so we'll move on.

Matt Bowman is, pretty amazingly, only 4th among Cardinal relievers in both appearance and innings pitched this season. He's been bad, but mostly just due to giving up 2 homers already this season. He only gave up 4 each of the last two seasons, so chalk Bowman up as ok too. He has been a solid relief pitcher for 2 seasons now.
Stat: Matt Bowman has a 41.9% zone rate in his career which seems strangely low for a finesse pitcher. That puts him roughly in the 85th percentile among ML relievers in terms of throwing strikes.

As for the rest, well- let's hope Gregerson can still break 90 mph, Tyler Lyons keeps on keeping on, Brebbia and Mayers keep being support for the "you can make a good reliever out of duct tape" theory, Jordan Hicks figures out how to translate 102 mph to strikeouts, and so forth.

I still believe the Cardinals should have anywhere from 5-7 average or better ML relievers at their disposal at any given time, even accounting for injuries. This SHOULD be a good bullpen. But bullpens are weird.

What we learned in April: Nothing! Judging relievers on 1/6 of their already-small seasons is not a good idea. Don't do it please!

The Manager

Very tempted to skip this section, but alas, I am stuck in an empty office for another 90 minutes and have no busy work to finish, so here we are.

The good: The 4 relievers with the highest average game-leverage index are Tyler Lyons, Bud Norris, Dominic Leone, and Matt Bowman. That seems good.
The bad: Matt Bowman is, of course, on top of that list.

The good: Despite being tops in the NL in starters' ERA, the Cardinals' starters rank only 3rd in innings pitched. I guess this is vaguely indicative of a quick hook? (I'm trying, here)
The bad: Despite an 8-man bullpen, the Cardinals' bullpen ranks 14th in the National League in terms of IP/game.

The good: Didn't bury Wong after a slow start
The bad: Still doesn't know what double-switches are for.

The good: Moved Luke Weaver up to start against the Cubs instead of Michael Wacha.
The bad: Weaver got shelled.

What we learned in April: Mike Matheny is still the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals

I think this team has the very real potential to finish in the upper 3rd in terms of runs scored and runs allowed, so assuming halfway decent luck and some bullpen sequencing closer to 2015 than 2017, that will put them squarely in the playoffs and hopefully, a division-title hunt.