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Four Thoughts for the Fourth

MLB: Atlanta Braves at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

However you are spending it, we here at Viva El Birdos hope you have a safe, enjoyable Independence Day. At the midway point in the season, this holiday serves as a good point to reflect back on the last three months of action.

As the Cardinals wrap up the first half of the season this weekend and begin the All-Star break, there are four points that stand out from the 84 games the team has played as of the Fourth of July.

The bullpen is actually pretty good.

Even with their budding closer out for the rest of the season, the group of relievers in St. Louis is actually one of the best in the game. The bullpen’s collective 10.21 K/9 rate is the best in the National League, trailing only the Red Sox for tops in the game. Opponents have hit a combined .207 off the Cardinals bullpen, and that is the best mark in the game by notable margin; the Astros and Dodgers are next with a .223 BAA off their respective bullpens.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at St. Louis Cardinals
After being one of the team’s top starters over the last few seasons, Martinez has been a weapon out of the bullpen this year.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Hicks will be sidelined for the remainder of the 2019 season and a big chunk of 2020 after Tommy John surgery, but what was considered his supporting cast has taken the main stage and has done a fine job. Andrew Miller has whiffed 16 batters in eight innings (13 appearances) dating back to the start of June, and Carlos Martinez has allowed only five runs in his 18 relief innings this year. Giovanny Gallegos has maintained a 2.64 FIP in his first season with a full-time bullpen role, while John Gant has proved to be an effective arm in many relief situations after starting nearly 20 games a year ago and John Brebbia further establishes his reliability each time out. Daniel Ponce de Leon gets the ‘long relief’ label, but Dominic Leone also remains a good choice for multiple-inning outings. Tyler Webb gets lost in the shuffle - even with eight scoreless outings in his last 10 appearances.

This team can steal some bases, especially compared to prior seasons.

Perhaps the most notable difference from the past Mike Matheny-era to the present-Mike Shildt days is the huge increase in aggressiveness on the bases. Through 84 games in 2019, the Cardinals have swiped 57 bases to lead the National League; the Royals, Rangers, Mariners, and Indians are the only clubs with more. And with successful steals in 81.4 percent of chances, St. Louis leads all clubs who have at least 55 steals, besting the Royals by more than five percent.

Last year, the Cardinals stole 63 bases in the entire season after 81 in 2017 and just 35 in 2016. Tommy Pham was a big chunk of that (he had 10), so with Pham now with the Rays, a few others have really expanded their baserunning game to rank the Cardinals so high in the stealing department. Kolten Wong leads the team with 14 stolen bases this season, followed by Marcell Ozuna with eight and Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong with six apiece. Last year, Wong stole only six bases the whole year, while Ozuna, Carpenter, and DeJong combined for just eight.

The defense is much improved, too.

We chalked up the less-than-stellar fieldwork over the past years to inexperience and inconsistency. With several rookies taking turns filling in around the diamond and players rarely stringing together a streak of consecutive starts, it’s not surprising that the Cardinals ranked in the bottom third of the league in several defensive categories in each of the last three seasons. In fact, St. Louis led the league with 133 errors last year and was the only club with more than 125 miscues.

To this point in 2019, the Cardinals have upheld a .987 fielding percentage; that is second-best in the sport. The Royals, Diamondbacks, and Astros all have a .989 fielding percentage to league the league.

Harrison Bader has eight outs above average (OAA), ranking him among Byron Buxton, Kevin Kiermaier, Victor Robles, and Lorenzo Cain - a group that has been praised for their exceptional fielding. Kolten Wong’s 4.80 range factor is his highest since 2015, and it seems like he turns in a web gem every week.

Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt are key to second-half success.

They both got off to slow starts last season and finished as two of the hottest hitters in the National League. The 2019 campaign has started off the same for Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt, and the pair will need to heat up like the weather over the next summer months if the Cardinals want to be successful down the stretch.

Carpenter currently has a .706 OPS in 77 games this season, and that is his lowest since he posted a .750 back in 2014. Just 10-for-53 (.189) in his last 15 games, strikeouts have been a problem all season long for Carpenter. Of Carpenter’s 326 plate appearances this year, nearly 25 percent have ended with a strikeout, up from 19 percent in 2016. Carpenter will enter the break with 10 homers after hitting 36 last season - 20 of those coming in July and August. Carpenter is on the injured list with a lower back strain and is expected to be activated for the first game after the break.

Goldschmidt usually ranks among the league leaders in doubles, so to see him with only eight in early July is shocking to many. This year snaps a streak of six consecutive All-Star seasons. Goldschmidt has averaged over 36 doubles each season for the past seven years, and the first baseman hasn’t finished a season with a batting average below .290 since 2012. Entering play Thursday, Goldschmidt is batting .250 and has gone 0-for-4 or worse 13 times this season and 0-for-5 on six occasions. Goldschmidt does rank second on the team with 14 homers, but St. Louis would love to see some general offensive consistency out of their first baseman. That would definitely bring some late-night fireworks to Busch Stadium, well beyond the Fourth of July.