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What is Behind the Cardinals’ Slow Start?

Examining a below .500 team that looks like it should be much better.

Arizona Diamondbacks v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I had a column planned today about potential upgrades to the Cardinal roster, specifically focusing on Seattle and what might happen with them, but I’m going to write that on Wednesday. Instead, I thought I might take a look at how the Cards have played over the first three series of the season. Then we can go into where the roster might use a little goosing on Wednesday. — A

Three series in, and the Cardinals are a below-.500 team. Now, that’s bad news. Anytime your club is below the break-even mark you have to be concerned. It’s also been frustrating to see how the Cards have gotten to this point, from a couple shaky bullpen appearances (poor Dominic Leone and his 50% HR/FB rate might as well just go ahead and leave town now), to extremely shaky bullpen deployment, to a couple shaky outings in the early going from starting pitchers that put the Redbirds into tough spots, to an uneven at best offensive start to the season.

Dexter Fowler is off to his second horrendous start in a row, with an OPS+ of 27 through the first nine games. Matt Carpenter is off to a slow start of his own, with an 89 OPS+ and 98 wRC+ (which should give you some idea of what he’s still doing really well, and what’s gone wrong). He has just two extra-base hits through 37 trips to the plate. Kolten Wong has been absolutely abysmal, yesterday’s slap RBI notwithstanding; anytime a player’s plus stat has a minus in it, you know you’re in trouble. (-8 wRC+ for the Wonger.) When three of your eight lineup stalwarts aren’t producing, it’s tough to overcome.

Even beyond those three, though, the offense in general has sputtered a bit to start the season. Yadier Molina has had a power-fueled hot start, and Jose Martinez has just been awesome at the plate in general, but aside from them it’s been tough sledding. Tommy Pham was bad, then really good, and then okay, and overall he’s hit reasonably well. The strikeouts are a little high, but I’m not overly worried about him. Marcell Ozuna, on the other hand, looks to be pressing. His overall line is fine (105 wRC+), but he’s struck out almost 32% of the time, has yet to take a walk in nearly 40 plate appearances, and while the monster home run he hit in Milwaukee was certainly fun, he’s hit for basically no other power, with a .105 isolated slugging so far. He’s essentially being propped up by a .440 batting average on balls in play right now.

Paul DeJong....oof. It seems weird to look at a player with a 155 wRC+ and feel terror regarding his offense, but that’s where we are with Pauly D. DeJong has done remarkable damage on contact this season, with a line drive near 40%, a HR/FB rate of nearly 40%, and an ISO of .273, but he’s actually been kind of terrible. The strikeout rate is 42.9%, the walk rate 2.9%. There was always a chance the league was going to adjust to Paul DeJong and his abominable plate discipline (though there actually are a couple encouraging signs in there which I want to talk about at some point in the future, when we have a little larger sample), and this is exactly what you would be worried about happening if that were the case. A .467 BABIP and nearly 40% of fly balls going over the wall can cover for a lot of sins, but the early returns on DeJong this year are...worrisome.

You know who else has been really bad? The whole bench. Like, the entire thing. Jedd Gyorko has been hurt, and Francisco Pena literally hasn’t been on the field yet, so they escape criticism here. But the others? Harrison Bader has only come to bat three times and drew a walk. So good on you there, Harry. Yairo Munoz, however, has been...awful. The darling of spring training, it was a surprise when Munoz made the Opening Day roster, and felt maybe a tad rushed. Still, he has tremendous positional flexibility going for him, able to play probably seven positions on the field, and he overhauled his swing with the help of Jose Martinez, so there was certainly reason to believe he had just improved and was close to ready.

Well, so far it looks like Munoz really was rushed, as he has struck out six times in eight plate appearances to begin the season. No walks, no extra-base hits. One single. Am I giving up on Yairo Munoz? Of course not. That would be idiotic. But I think we have to at least consider the idea he wasn’t ready, isn’t ready, and should be back in the minors right now, working on things instead of buried at the end of the major league bench, struggling and not getting enough playing time to work through it.

Greg Garcia has had a bad start to the season as well, going 0-for-6 with three strikeouts. I’m not really concerned about Garcia; he’s been in the big leagues long enough I have a certain level of trust he’s going to be that solid bench player we’ve all come to expect. But in the context of a club fighting to score runs consistently and getting nothing from the bench, Garcia’s ofer to start the season does hurt.

As far as the starting pitching goes, I have two concerns. One, Michael Wacha has looked pretty bad so far, though a weird strike zone and cold weather have certainly both had hands in that perception. Still, it would be really nice to see him come out and go five and two thirds shutout with one walk the next time out.

For me, the bigger concern has to be Adam Wainwright, who has admittedly only made one start, but really did nothing in that start to allay my own fears that he’s just not a major league pitcher anymore, or at least not a major league starter. Don’t get me wrong; Waino navigated his way through the Arizona lineup without getting torched, and maybe that’s good enough. But he failed to complete four innings, walked four hitters, and needed 90 pitches to even get that far. His velocity dropped from 92 to 86 in just those four innings. Jack Flaherty was excellent in his one and only start for the big club so far this season, and spun a gem for Memphis last night, striking out eleven over seven innings of one-run ball. With that kind of rotation option waiting in the wings, how long can the Cardinals continue to run Adam Wainwright out if what we saw in his home opener start is just...all there is now?

Otherwise, the pitching is the least of my concerns. Carlos fought his mechanics on Opening Day, then curb-stomped the Brewers. Not worried. Luke Weaver was a touch shaky in his own first start of the season, but muddled through, and then settled in yesterday to stymie the DBacks into the seventh inning. Not worried. Miles Mikolas was bitten by the home run bug in Milwaukee, but showed swing and miss stuff while avoiding walks. Also not worried. The starting rotation, I believe, will be fine. More than fine, actually. Well, aside from that one really concerning problem of the guy with the big contract and the statue outside the stadium already planned, who might not have what it takes anymore.

The bullpen is hard to talk about, really. The various issues with Matheny’s use and deployment of the ‘pen are, at this point, long-dead horses, beaten so often their corpses don’t even resemble equine forms any longer, but until the Cardinal organisation as a whole comes to the conclusion that Matheny simply isn’t getting any better, and the things about him that are deleterious to the club are not matters of experience, but rather of nature, perhaps even character, this team is going to be swimming with an anchor around its collective neck.

As for the performances, though, it’s hard to find any really startlingly bad ones, aside from Dominic Leone’s previously-mentioned homeritis. Interesting note on Leone: I was looking at his numbers on FanGraphs, trying to parse out if there’s anything weird going on other than some bad luck on fly balls so far, and the two versions of plate discipline numbers FanGraphs uses have Leone as almost completely different pitchers. The standard numbers have him at a 51.3% zone%, meaning he’s thrown 51.3% of his pitches inside the strike zone. The Pitch Info version of those numbers, though, which I believe come from a different company, have him at just 31.3%. So depending on which numbers you use, he’s either thrown over half his pitches in the zone, or less than a third. I assume it’s just a weird bug in the data collection so far, but it keeps me from speculating he’s leaving breaking balls in the zone more than he should, which I thought upon initially seeing his zone% had jumped from just over 41% in 2017 to 51% this season, and which also feels like what’s happened to Leone based on watching him pitch. He’s just thrown a few really bad hangers this year, it looks like to me.

Brett Cecil looked bad, but he’s got a shoulder problem. That contract looks like it may turn out to be a serious misstep for the organisation, but injuries happen, and signing an elite setup reliever to a slightly-larger-than-ideal contract is a misdemeanor, not a felony. It sucks, but it’s not really hurting the org as a whole. Sam Tuivailala’s diminished velocity is definitely a concern, but we’ll have to wait to see how that goes. Don’t forget he was essentially the club’s best pitcher in spring training, so maybe he’s just working through a dead arm period.

The really big question in all this, of course, is whether we should be worried over the long term. And the answer, I think, is no. The rotation looks very strong to me (with that one concern, obviously), and the bullpen looks like it has enough quality arms to be a strength. The offense is probably the side of the ball we need to be more concerned with, but even there I think we find more reasons for optimism than panic.

The slow starts of Fowler and Carpenter are largely BABIP-driven; Fowler hasn’t walked much, which is worrisome, but he’s also running a .143 BABIP. His strikeout rate is roughly what it was last year. Matt Carpenter has also struck out a few more times than is ideal this early in the season, sitting at a 27% K rate through nine games, but we’re essentially talking about like two plate appearances that ended in strikeouts over what we might expect. The .222 BABIP is the bigger driver of his weak hitting line so far, and a 21.6% walk rate says he’s still controlling the strike zone well enough.

Ozuna really does look to be pressing to my eye; he looks jumpy at the plate, desperate to make something happen and get that good impression out of the way. Early-season struggles can create anxiety for a player, but Ozuna has been around long enough I think he’ll be fine once he gets through this initial period. Far more concerning to me is the middle infield, where we’ve seen both the best and worst versions of Paul DeJong come to the fore already this season, and where Kolten Wong looks completely lost at the plate. DeJong I worry about the league catching up and exploiting his weaknesses; Wong I just worry about because he seems to always be dealing with some sort of drama on the field. Matheny hasn’t buried his second baseman yet, but I wonder what would have happened had Jedd Gyorko not gotten hurt.

So for me, the offense is more of a concern than the pitching at this point, and I don’t know if I would have said that before the season began. I still think the Cards will hit this year; there’s a lot of talent in this lineup, and most of their struggles seem to be as much about cold weather and batted-ball luck as anything else. Still, we saw an inconsistent offense that didn’t seem to score run at a rate commensurate with their base-level skills at the beginning of the season last year, and this looks an awful lot like that, truth be told. Last year the Cardinals had struggles early of the sort that nearly buried them, and probably ended up costing them a playoff berth in the end; we have to hope they tread water better this year until things start clicking a bit more offensively.

It is obviously early; nine games is not much of a sample to draw too many conclusions from. Still, you’re talking about roughly 5.5% of the season, and in that five and a half percent of the season the Cards have played below-.500 ball. It’s not nothing, even if it’s nearly nothing.

Going forward, though, where should our concerns be directed? Well, aside from the obvious answer of, “in the dugout,” we have a few spots to really look at. How the bullpen shakes out is going to be a story, of course, but there is enough depth of talent there (and, admittedly, I’m looking forward to Greg Holland joining the club, even if I’m skeptical of the signing), that I think it will be fine. Really, the three big areas of concern for me have to be the rotation spot currently occupied by Adam Wainwright (and, to a lesser extent, Michael Wacha, about whom I am not really worried, but would feel a whole lot better about with a good outing his next turn through the rotation), the middle infield, and the bench. It seems a little strange for an organisation with such incredible depth that they’re currently fielding what looks like potentially the Golden State Warriors of minor league baseball at Triple A to have concerns with the major league bench, but that’s kind of where we are right now.

The Cardinals have gotten a lot of mileage over the years out of having an excellent bench, but so far this season they’ve gotten absolutely nothing from the unit. The middle infield has real collapse potential, I fear, even if there are plenty of reasons to like both of the players involved. And the rotation spot? Well, that all depends on a 36 year old arm, and that curious place where sentimentality and the cold, hard realities of winning baseball games intersect.

In the end, I think the Cardinals look like a very good team this year. Yes, still. We could change one or two things this season and they could easily be 6-3. However, in reality, they’re not. They’re 4-5, and sitting in fourth place in the Central. Getting off to that kind of start hurts the Cardinals just the same as getting off to a 7-2 start helps the Pirates, even if I think the Redbirds are clearly a much better team. Really, though, it’s hard to worry too much about 5.5% of the season. If this were any other nine-game stretch, we might not even notice the club was 4-5, and had looked frustrating in the process. Those small numbers always make the magnitude of things looks much greater than they are.

However, I don’t think it’s too early to identify where the concerns are, and consider whether or not they are real. And in the case of the Cards’ few real areas of concern, I think it’s entirely reasonable to think we might be seeing real issues, rather than just small-sample illusions.