A lot of digital ink has been spilled here and elsewhere since the trade deadline, excoriating the Cardinals for not making a meaningful move. For letting this playoff shot lay there, allowing it to bear fruit or die on the vine all on its own, without any help or nurturing whatsoever.
I myself have tried to remain more or less neutral on the subject of the Cards’ non-moves at the deadline this year, because I simply don’t have that strong a feeling about it one way or the other, and any strong take would be more about either frustration built up from the last couple years or blatant hot-takery, and I try not to bring either of those things into my columns if I can keep from it. Admittedly, I very much believe the Cards could have, and should have, beaten the package the Mets gave up for Marcus Stroman, but beyond that I simply don’t feel as if the front office’s inaction this July was a crime against humanity. Particularly when we look around the league and see how many players who really should have moved did not.
The thinking at the time of the deadline was basically that the Cardinals had absolutely no shot at a playoff spot if the front office did not do something, anything, to strengthen this nightmarish abomination the organisation has the nerve to call a pitching staff. The bullpen had been a saviour this season, but there were cracks beginning to show there, largely due to the ‘pen being consistently overtaxed and overused due to a starting rotation that couldn’t handle its business most nights, and was continually turning in short outings, forcing more and more work to be shunted over to the relief side of the ledger. Michael Wacha was toast, Miles Mikolas had regressed to torch and pitchfork levels, Adam Wainwright was old and, like many old people, was only comfortable in the most familiar of surroundings, being unable to pitch well anywhere but on his home mound. Carlos Martinez was in the closing role, and unlikely to help ease the innings burden any. Leaving a team with a real chance at October baseball to suffer along with this motley assortment of arms was more than simply unfair; it was negligent, borderline criminal.
A funny thing happened along the way, though. The pitching, so neglected and so brutally broken, was supposed to be the thing that finally indicted this front office and ownership group for their lack of will to win, or at least their lack of ability to execute. Instead, though, it’s been the offense that has let down the club, while the pitching has basically kept the ship afloat.
Since the beginning of August, i.e. the point at which those moves which had to be made were not made, the Cardinals’ starting pitchers rank third in baseball in ERA at 3.18, just ahead of the Mets at 3.20 and behind only the Indians at 3.00 and Dodgers at 2.73. They have the fifth-highest ground ball rate in baseball, and the sixth-highest strikeout rate. Overall, the Cardinal starters have amassed the fourth most WAR in baseball in August, trailing the Dodgers, Mets, and Indians. Not bad for a unit thought to be so bad they would essentially torpedo the club’s playoff chances all by themselves.
The bullpen has been a different story, though not a completely unsuccessful one all the same. In August, the Cardinals’ relievers have combined for the fifth-most WAR in baseball, and they’ve done so in significantly fewer innings than any of the clubs ahead of them. The Cards’ ‘pen has thrown 53.1 innings in August; the club right ahead of them on the WAR leaderboard, the Astros, has seen their relievers work 66 innings over the same timeframe. The ‘pen was being brutally overworked early in the season, but in August they’ve thrown substantially fewer innings than the average relief corps. So again, a point in favour of the starters, who have helped ease some of the burden on the bullpen.
The bullpen has posted the fifth-highest WAR total in August, despite those limited innings, and the fifth-lowest ERA. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the peripherals for the ‘pen are all out of whack, leading to a 5.24 xFIP. The Cardinal relievers are not striking out very many hitters at all of late, and their collective walk rate is fairly middling. The one thing they do better than nearly any other team is avoid home runs, which is largely driven by a 3.1% HR/FB% this month. That doesn’t seem sustainable, and ultimately is very frightening to contemplate. If the ‘pen weren’t running a crazy low home run to fly ball rate, they would be pitching horribly right now.
Andrew Miller has been terrible in August. John Brebbia has been good. Giovanny Gallegos is actually only striking out 20.7% of the batters he’s faced this month, which is kind of shocking to me. Tyler Webb has actually been really good, mostly because he hasn’t walked a batter the whole month. John Gant appears to have used up all his bullets back in May.
Overall, the bullpen in August has not really pitched particularly well, and has definitely not been anywhere near overpowering, as you would hope a bullpen looking to drag a carcass into a deep postseason run might be. Would a trade deadline acquisition have helped? Maybe. The really transformative relief guys weren’t moved, though, so you probably wouldn’t have been looking at a radically different group.
So we have a bullpen that’s struggling a bit, though they do as good a job as any group of pitchers in the game at working away from damage, which is both a skill and a tactic, so credit where it’s due. Still, aggression and success would be more encouraging than the ol’ rope-a-dope. The starters, meanwhile, have not only righted the ship since the early-season struggles, they’ve been a prime strength of the team since the trade deadline passed.
Where we can actually find the big problem with this club is on the other side of the ledger completely. As in the offense. In August, the Cardinal offense ranks fourth-worst in the majors in non-pitcher wRC+, at just 90. They’re in a virtual tie with the lowly Mariners, and only a couple points better than the also-lowly Pirates, whose own offensive woes basically sent them from a .500ish, borderline contending club to an also-ran in the space of just a couple weeks.
The Redbird offense has the seventh-highest strikeout rate in baseball this month at 24.4%. Their 8.1% walk rate is nineteenth best. Worst of all, the club’s .147 isolated slugging percentage is literally the worst in baseball this month. The Cardinals of August do not take many walks, they do not make a lot of contact, and they hit for absolutely zero power. Of course, last night’s offensive outburst helps those numbers some, but they are still rather dire, and damning for a club that has made so many investments in run-producing bats over the past few years.
At the time of the trade deadline, it was seen as an act of pernicious indifference that the front office did not go out and upgrade the starting rotation. A team so close, right in the mix for a playoff spot, deserved better than the thud of nothing the club actually received. Since that time, though, the bullpen has sort of muddled along, while the offense has been one of the very worst in baseball, putting up anemic run totals night after night in an attempt to bolster the club’s record in one-run games by never beating anyone by any margin greater than that. And the starting rotation? The much-maligned group has been basically the only thing keeping the Cardinals moving forward and winning.
Of course, it is of use to acknowledge that the offense would have been significantly harder to upgrade at the deadline than the rotation; an offense simply relies on more hitters, and the workload is distributed more evenly by the rules of the game. Still, it’s funny that of all the things the Cards had going for them this season, it was the rotation that was proving out to be the biggest weakness, the Achilles’ heel which, if unaddressed, was going to prove the fatal flaw in the plan.
Since the calendar flipped to August, it’s been the rotation dragging the carcass of the offense — and to a lesser extent, the bullpen — toward the finish line. The starters are really all the Cardinals have right now; without them, this would not be a race at all.
You know, just like we all expected.