We’re through game 49 of the 2019 season. We’ve seen some different looks from these Cardinals. They were the best team in the majors at one point, and now they sit in fourth place in the NL Central, five games behind the Chicago Cubs.
Some trends have held, others have changed. Some players have emerged with solid seasons, others have been well under expectations. The team has found success in unexpected places while suffering in areas of supposed strength.
Here are five things before tomorrow’s game 50 that are worth noting about this Cardinals team’s season to-date and the remainder of the year.
1) They’re streaky
Look at the Cardinals’ runs per game and you’d think every game has been an offensive showcase.
At 5.08 RS/G, the Cards sit 10th in the majors in terms of raw offensive output. Only the Cubs, Dodgers and Rockies have put up a higher number in the National League.
The problem is that an average is misleading, given the way this team has performed.
The Cardinals have tallied double-digit run totals in six games this season. At this point, that’s more than one-tenth of their games, which is nothing to frown at.
Contrast that with their low-scoring games and it gets a bit less desirable. They’ve scored one run or been shutout in eight games.
That leaves 35 without the extremes, and the average runs per game in those is 4.71. The most common run total in Cardinal games has been four. That’s not terrible, but it’s not top-10 quality. That’s the same as the 16th-ranked Los Angeles Angels.
It’s the same on the pitching side, but with more rough games than solid ones. The Cardinal staff has given up 10 or more runs in six games. They’ve limited offenses to one run or shut them out in four contests.
Obviously those extreme performances (when positive) are still valuable, and they net wins. But the negative ones are almost default losses. And when an average of 5 RS/G is used to talk about this offense’s potential, it doesn’t recognize just how bursty it is.
2) “Underperforming” offense
The lineup has been pretty formidable this season. The Cardinals rank sixth in the majors in the offensive component of fWAR (which lines up with a team that’s scored in dozens like they have).
But still, the above point about an offense that’s streaky implies streaky components. Or, at least pieces that aren’t locking in consistently. That’s hard to reconcile when one sees that, of the nine Cardinal hitters with at least 100 PA, seven of them have wRC+ over 105.
Paul DeJong is an MVP candidate. Dexter Fowler has already erased the negative fWAR he garnered last season and then some, with 1.5 in a season where he’s seen some IL time.
And still, most of those nine players aren’t playing to their expected statistics. Just two are outplaying their xwOBA: DeJong (.407 wOBA, .397 xwOBA) and Kolten Wong (.331, .310).
The rest have negative differentials, looking at wOBA–xwOBA. Two Cardinals rank inside the top 25 in that area: José Martínez (-.054) and Marcell Ozuna (-.041). And neither of them are playing terribly.
On the xwOBA leaderboards, six Cardinals rank inside the top 100.
Expected statistics aren’t predictive metrics. They’re a measure of exactly what the name implies: expected performance of a player based on a combination of exit velocity, launch angle, batted ball types, sprint speed, etc.
If the Cardinals continue to keep the same approach, they may see some improved performance, which would make an offense with many flashes of excitement even more entertaining.
3) The base-running success seems real
This tweet went around quite a bit last season in the little corner of Cardinals Twitter I live in:
Baserunning WAR will not be legitimate until the Cardinals are last in it— Maq (@elmaquino) April 10, 2018
At the time it was tweeted, it was totally fair. It had been for several seasons. The Cardinals of the Mike Matheny era were so inept on the basepaths that it seemed a given that they’d fall in the bottom third by the end of the year.
That’s been totally different since Shildt took over. I wrote about it earlier this season, but the Cardinals were making really solid base-running decisions that went deeper than just stealing bases. It’s about tagging up, taking an extra base, advancing when possible.
We’re more than a quarter of the way through the season and the Cardinals are almost as far from the bottom in the base-running component of fWAR (BsR) as possible. Right now, they’re second with 5.7 BsR, right behind the Dodgers (5.8).
Even looking only at stolen bases, the Cardinals have 27, which is good for ninth in the majors. They had 35 over the entire 2016 season. Their success rate this season is 75%.
4) The pitching is bad, and it’s mainly the rotation
There’s no way (or reason) to sugarcoat it. The Cardinals are tied for 28th in the majors with the Giants in pitcher fWAR (1.1), ahead of only the Orioles.
The staff as a whole has the second-highest HR/FB rate in the league, at 18.3%, again behind only Baltimore. Isolate the starters and it jumps to 19.5%.
The starting rotation has an ERA of 4.72. Their FIP implies they’ve actually been a little lucky, sitting at 5.02. Their walk rate of 9.3% is the fifth-highest in the majors and their strikeout rate of 19.6% is the sixth-lowest.
Perhaps most maddening of all in that respect is that the pride point of the top of the Cardinal farm system is supposed to be the pitching depth. We’ve yet to see a change.
Gio Gonzalez was available for very little risk and the Cardinals passed—he’s now made five starts for the division rival Brewers, pitching to a 2.39 ERA and 3.04 FIP. His 0.7 fWAR is one-tenth short of the entire Cardinal rotation to this point in the year.
And still, Dallas Keuchel remains a free agent. A left-handed pitcher who threw more than 200 innings in three of the past five years and hasn’t posted an fWAR total below 2.3 in that time.
It’s been reported that Keuchel would be open to a one-year deal, if compensated appropriately. Still, silence.
The bright spot amid all of this has been the bullpen, which is a direct reversal of what we’ve seen in previous seasons. They have the second-highest strikeout rate (28.6%) of any bullpen in the majors, behind only the Yankees.
It hasn’t been a case of high K’s–high walks, either; their K-BB% is 18.5%, which is the third-best rate among all MLB bullpens. Consider their league-low BABIP of .244 to be a sign of the limitation of solid contact due to good pitching or negative regression waiting to happen, but right now they’ve been stellar.
5) It’s time to right the ship or watch it sink
Through May 2, the Cardinals were cruising. A 20-11 record through that time. They had 19 wins by the end of April. For a time, the Cardinals owned the best record in the majors.
Enter the Cubs series.
After dropping the final game against the Nationals with a getaway-day lineup that saw many opportunities to come back for a win, the Cardinals were swept by the Cubs at Wrigley. Since the start of that series, they’re 5-13.
Before that series, the Cardinals had three different win streaks of as many games as they’ve won since that early-May series.
They actually haven’t won a series since that sweep, either. That includes going 2-3 against two should-be easier opponents in the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals, two below-.500 teams.
When you look at the Cardinals’ records against teams over and under .500, it makes sense: They’re 15-19 against the winning teams and 9-5 against the losing ones.
But that’s not too great of a stat. The Cardinals want to be a winning team. They are, just barely, at 25-24, but they won’t be any better than middling if they can’t win games against good opponents.
They were doing that really well before the Cubs series. They haven’t been ever since.
Over the next 15 games, the Cardinals will play the Cubs six times: one series at home, one on the road. Two of the other three opponents will be the Phillies and the Braves, two teams sitting at the top of the NL East with pretty solid records and success against the Cards in 2019.
It’s not dramatic to say that these next 15 games will shape the course of the Cardinals’ season. It’s nearly June and they sit one game above .500, fourth in the division, five games behind the Cubs.
The dream situation? Two sweeps of the Northsiders erases that five-game deficit. Either way, this is going to be a chance to gain ground or fall pretty far out of contention, if all else holds constant. Treading water isn’t going to do anything to help their already-dwindling playoff odds.