The Cardinals were flying high on May 1. Miles Mikolas held the Nationals to just one run while Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez led the way offensively en route to a 5-1 victory over Max Scherzer. The win marked five straight, 10 over the last 11 games, and pushed St. Louis’ MLB-best record to 20-10.
Since then? The Cardinals own the worst record (20-27) in the National League as their postseason odds have tumbled more than any other team across baseball from 67.8% to 34.2%. Although the Cardinals remain just 2.5 back of Chicago and a half game out in the wild card hunt entering play today, their recent stagnancy does beg the question: how did we get here?
Much of the optimism that carried into the new year and through April stemmed from what was a nationally acclaimed winter. This past offseason the Cardinals largely kept their 88-win 2018 rendition of the club intact on top of adding Andrew Miller and Paul Goldschmidt. FanGraphs’ depth charts projections pegged the two acquisitions for a combined 5.4 WAR; yet as we approach the halfway point of this season, they fall woefully short at just 0.5 wins between them.
If we prorate the 2018 Birdos’ stats down to 77 games, the number played thus far in 2019, we get 11.2 WAR from position players, 6.9 rotation WAR, and 0.3 bullpen WAR. Ironically, the bullpen–the Achilles heel a year ago–has already accumulated 1.6 WAR in 2019 despite Miller’s lackluster performance (that said, his 3.26 SIERA and 3.57 xFIP are encouraging signs for future improvement given those metrics’ superior predictive power compared to ERA, FIP, etc.). Of course, Jordan Hicks’ torn UCL throws a wrench into the outlook of what has been a fairly successful bullpen. Carlos Martinez, John Gant, Giovanny Gallegos, and John Brebbia will be expected to hold down the fort like they have been doing (all four have been considerably above average by both ERA- and FIP-), but reliever reinforcements could be something the Cardinals explore towards the trade deadline in the wake of losing their closer.
On the position player side, the 2019 Cardinals have only garnered 8.8 WAR as opposed to the aforementioned 11.2 per 77 games last year. It’s not as though there is a single black hole of production to attribute this to, either, making a “magic bullet” solution all the more difficult to attain. Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, and Jose Martinez have tallied 788 plate appearances, but have just 0.9 WAR to show for it. Goldschmidt’s mediocre start to his St. Louis tenure was already referenced above, Harrison Bader and Kolten Wong have both regressed at the plate, and Dexter Fowler has cooled off after a hot start. That’s not to say that all hope is lost for the lineup, however. On balance, Cardinals regulars have been the victims of more poor batted ball luck than benevolent, as shown in the chart below containing wOBA and PHAMwOBA figures.
2019 Cardinals: wOBA vs. PHAMwOBA
Nevertheless, the greatest discrepancy between the 2018 and 2019 Cardinals lies not in the bullpen or offense, but in the starting rotation. The five starting pitchers St. Louis began the season with (Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright) have made 72 of 77 possible starts, but all five possess a FIP- worse than the league average of 100. Further thinning the rotation depth are health concerns surrounding Carlos Martinez, Ryan Helsley, and Alex Reyes, likely leaving Daniel Poncedeleon and Genesis Cabrera as the key contingency arms should a significant vacancy emerge. On paper, the Cardinals had a very solid “assuming X, Y, and Z all go according to plan” rotation. But theory and praxis are two ever-distinguishable concepts: St. Louis’ seemingly well-rounded starting pitching core finds itself 22nd in WAR and 24th in FIP-. In fact, as is so often the case in baseball, X, Y, and Z have not all gone according to plan. For as strange as it may sound to say given their track record, the Cardinals’ lack of reliable pitching depth is catching up to them.
Hicks or no Hicks, this season is far from over for the Cardinals. Even after accounting for their recent skid, they are still three games over .500 and in the thick of the playoff chase. Make no mistake: that isn’t a call for complacency. FanGraphs lists the 25th and 75th percentile outcomes for the 2019 club as 80 and 86 wins, respectively. 86-76 may very well be enough to sneak into the Wild Card Game this year, but to roll with the team in its current shape is to simply hope for good fortune and positive breaks in the back-half of the season. Can the Cardinals as they stand right now make the playoffs? It would be possible, but I would venture to say less than likely given the question marks still pervading the roster.
If the front office aspires to take off and fly instead of floating and treading the proverbial water, some form of noticeable upgrade to this team would go a long way. In the weeks to come you will see much discussion at VEB about these very issues (how aggressive should the Cardinals be at the deadline?, what players/positions should they target?, etc.), but at least by my estimation one thing is clear: if the goal is to return to the postseason for the first time since 2015, the path of least resistance to boosting this team over the hump is to bolster the pitching staff in some capacity. That could be said prior to Hicks going down, and I would assert that it rings especially true now.