Good morning, El Vivi Birders, and happy Sunday. It is the 22nd of September, and the Cardinals are in first place. That feels good to type, and even better to say out loud. Now, of course, I have the benefit of a quiet house in which to say that aloud, and while the cats may look at me askance, there is no one who can speak to cast aspersions toward me for saying whatever I want, about whatever I want, pretty much whenever I want. Your mileage may vary, of course; I’m sure there are at least some of you reading this right now who are not in situations to talk about baseball aloud to yourself. Maybe you’re on a family outing, or taking confession, or giving confession, or performing spinal surgery or something. In those cases, maybe just think to yourself that the Cardinals are comfortably in first place on this, the 22nd of September. Then again, maybe you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by people who care as much as you do that the Cards are in first place, and you can just talk about baseball all day long.
Except the spinal cord guy. He probably still thinks you should keep your mind on not paralysing him, doctor.
You know, as hard as it is to believe, I can honestly say at this point that the Craig Kimbrel signing has had more disastrous ramifications for the Cubs this year than the Greg Holland signing did for the Cardinals in 2018. It would be easy to generalise at this point and simply say never sign a player, or at least a pitcher, who is coming in late and didn’t have a spring training and may very well be pushing his schedule too fast to try and get ready. It would be easy, that is, if we didn’t have the immediate counterexample of Dallas Keuchel, who has been very solid for the Atlanta Braves this season.
Why it is that Keuchel has mostly succeeded, while Holland and now Kimbrel were both enormous detriments to their signing clubs, is a bit of a mystery to me. But make no mistake; Craig Kimbrel has been a huge problem for the Cubs. Following tonight’s two-homer wipeout, Kimbrel has now thrown 20 2⁄3 innings for Chicago. The good news is he is still striking out a huge number of hitters, to the tune of a ~31% K rate. The bad news is pretty much everything else: Kimbrel’s walk rate is almost five and a quarter per nine innings, and he’s giving up home runs at an appalling rate of nearly four dingers per nine. It all adds up to a 6.53 ERA, 8.01 FIP(!), and nearly a full win of negative value. I do think the strikeout numbers point to a potential rebound next season, and maybe the contract won’t end up as an absolute albatross for the Cubs, but remember Kimbrel is signed for two more seasons after this one. If he is just bad now, or perhaps not healthy, that contract could turn into a major problem for Theo Epstein and Company.
At this moment, the Cardinals are riding about as high as they have at any point this season. There was the 20-10 record at the end of April, of course, and the four game sweep of the Dodgers at home, and that 12-3 run coming out of the all-star break, and that 15-3 run in the second half of August that really put the team in the position to win the division, and plenty of other, smaller moments besides, but this, to me, feels like a real peak to the season so far. A season-high 21 games over .500 and three in a row at Wrigley Field over a desperate, motivated Cubs team is about as good as it gets within the context of the regular season.
On the other hand, this season has seen more than its fair share of brutally disappointing moments as well. In fact, it’s been one of the more schizophrenic clubs that I think I can remember. The May and June Cardinals were not at all the same team we watched in April, and August, and July, and so far in September. This was a club ten games over the break even mark at the end of April, and yet they also managed to fall below .500 multiple times during the long march to the all-star break. Good teams do not often have two-month stretches like the one the Redbirds endured during May and June of this year. My Jack Flaherty as Cy Young runner-up prediction from March turned out to probably be about two months off, as he likely won’t get to quite that level for the season; remember how Jack Flaherty had a 4.90 ERA at the beginning of July?
So here’s the question I have for all of you this morning: how will you remember this 2019 Cardinal team? I hesitate to ask at this moment of rapture, but I do want to ask it before we head into the postseason. (I suppose I should hedge my bets here and say if the Cards reach the postseason; Baseball-Reference has their playoff odds over 99%, but still.) For better or for worse, much of the way we feel about a given team later on hinges on how they end up doing in the dusklight of October, but it’s always important to remember that the marathon of the season tells us more than the sprint of the postseason, as much as that final sprint means to those of us who follow the team for the biggest part of the year.
And so I’ll ask here on the 22nd of September, when the Cardinals have just taken three in a row at Wrigley Field and have a three-game lead in the division over the surging Brewers and have very nearly ended the Cubs’ season and are heading toward October with one of the hottest pitching staffs in the game and things almost all seems beautiful: how do you think of this team? How do you square in your mind the darkness of May and June with the other four months of often inspired baseball? (I guess technically March was a bad month, too; the Cards won just one of four games they played in March.)
In May and June, the Cardinals went 22-31, a .415 winning percentage. In April, July, August, and September (so far), the Cards’ record was 64-33, or a winning percentage of .660. The good version of the club is a 107-win behemoth, while the bad version was a 67-win disaster. You can find good streaks and bad streaks in any clubs’ season, of course, but this season has been so strongly divided, and so sharply defined, that I can’t quite wrap my head around how the Cardinals of August could be the same as the Cardinals of May.
So what do you make of this dichotomy? Early managerial experimentation leading to substandard results? Is the second half just a hot streak, and we should fear the return of the Deadbirds of May? Did the Paul Goldschmidt trade work? Are the Cardinals on an upward trajectory with the emergence of Jack Flaherty as an ace, Paul DeJong’s solidification of his defensive stalwartitude, and the near-term influx of talent the outfield could see? Or are they an aging, poorly-constructed club, with a top-heavy payroll largely tied up in Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt and Yadier Molina headed for a fall? I think the answer to those questions is ‘yes’, and you can decide how strong a yes you want to give to each point individually.
In the end, I really don’t know exactly what to make of this team. The highs have been incredibly high — certainly higher than the consistent good-but-not-great-ness of the past few years— but the lows have been equally dismal. A month from now, what we think and feel about this year’s Cardinal team will almost certainly be quite a bit different, whether they’re going home following some disappointing playoff loss or are in the midst of a thrilling run deep into October. But for now, we have a moment here to enjoy and reflect, and I want to know what you think about this team. It’s a big question, I know, but it seems like an even more interesting question this year than in most others.