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Pitching and Defense Aren’t Enough (And We Lost Bob Gibson)

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The team was built on the foundation of pitching and defense but it has to find power if it wants to go deeper into the playoffs. (That’s when I learned Gibson had passed.)

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game Three Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

This was a Cardinals team built on the foundations of pitching and defense.

Last night, facing a winner-moves-on scenario in the Wild Card round of the expanded playoffs, the Cardinals were set up to win with their strengths.

Jack Flaherty was on the mound, ready to be the ace that he’s supposed to be. He gutted through 100+ pitches over 6 innings. He wasn’t perfect. He didn’t even have his best stuff. But he more than did his job. He struck out eight while giving up 6 hits.

He lost the game and the Cardinals season ended because he made one mistake.

In the bottom of the fifth, Tatis Jr. doubled. Flaherty coaxed a pop up from Machado. He then left a fastball middle away. Hosmer doubled. 1-0 friars.

Ballgame over.

It was that simple, really.

Sure, the defense collapsed behind Alex Reyes in the bottom of the seventh. You can read through the game recap if you want all the gory details of that forgettable inning. I have no interest in parsing them for you.

No, the fifth was enough. Flaherty wasn’t perfect so the Cardinals lost.

That’s been the Cardinals season.

This team was not just built on the foundation of pitching and defense. They were built entirely on pitching and defense. When the pitching was anything less than perfect or the defense stumbled at all, the 2020 Cardinals usually lost. Just as they did Friday night.

The offense was that frustrating.

I use frustrating purposefully because there are statistical arguments that can demonstrate that the offense wasn’t *technically* bad. I have some articles lined up that will address that point in greater detail. As a group, they could get on base. They were top 10 in the league in walks. Their wRC+ was decent. Their runs scored per 9 looks abysmal until you realize that the Cardinals played a bunch of seven-inning games. That ticks the average down more than you would believe.

The Cardinals did some things on offense well. What they lacked is exactly what the Padres had in spades. The fifth inning personified this: two doubles in one inning. One run scored. Ballgame.

That Cardinals couldn’t do that. They couldn’t string together extra-base hits with any kind of regularity.

Sure, walks are good. Working counts is important. Multiple base runners are nice. Speed and putting the ball in play can stress a defense.

But power – extra-base hits – are what gets runs across the plate more often than any other hitting event.

It doesn’t even have to be homerun power. The Padres – like the Dodgers, Braves, Twins, and, well, just go down the list of lineups that finished well above .500 this season – had multiple players who were capable of driving the ball regularly for extra bases.

The Cardinals had three players with a slugging percentage over .400. Three. Paul Goldschmidt, Brad Miller, and Harrison Bader. Of those three, only Goldschmidt was an everyday regular.

Just to put that in perspective, the 1985 Cardinals – another team known for its pitching and defense (and more than a little speed) – had six players with a .400+ slugging percentage. No one would confuse the ’85 Cardinals with the ’20 Padres, but they still had more sluggers than this Cardinals team.

I have some theories on why the team lost its power this season. I do think COVID played a role. Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, Rangel Ravelo, and Lane Thomas all contracted COVID. All four players were expected to provide some level of power to the club. All finished well below their expected slugging percentages. DeJong and Yadi – players with All-Star caliber skillsets – were still able to grind through the season, holding on just enough to stay in the lineup. Ravelo and Thomas, both marginal major leaguers, were completely lost.

One of the less-discussed effects of COVID is persistent fatigue that can hang on weeks after a patient stops displaying other symptoms.

Age was also a factor. Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, Molina, and even Matt Wieters are at an age where power is the first and fastest thing to exit their game. The added wear of a compressed schedule only amplified the debilitating effects of age.

Then there was Wong and Edman, two players that just aren’t going to drive balls into gaps or over the wall very often.

Other hoped-for sources of power fizzled. O’Neill was the biggest disappointment of the season. Carslon wasn’t able to put together an impact rookie season fast enough. The fact that he was counted on to bat cleanup through the playoffs tells us everything we need to know about this lineup.

That put way too much pressure on the strong shoulders of Paul Goldschmidt, who more than held his own in overall production. But even he wasn’t immune to the power drop. He had the lowest slug% of his career.

A pitching and defense roster can reach the playoffs and maybe even challenge for a closely contested division.

It has no real chance to advance deep into the postseason.

If you want to get past the divisional round in the modern game, you have to have a team that can perform at an above-average level in all three facets of the game because every game all three facets of baseball will get challenged.

That’s Mozeliak’s task this offseason. Somehow, they have to add more to their offense without overly sacrificing pitching and defense...

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That’s when I opened Twitter to find out that Bob Gibson had passed away. Please forgive me for immediately abandoning my stream-of-consciousness rant on the Cardinals’ lack of power.

That’s just not the most important thing to me anymore.

This year the Cardinals have lost Bob Gibson. And Lou Brock.

Man…

I am not going to try to add to the words that will be said about Gibson over the next few days. He was phenomenal. He was a legend. He was a true Cardinal. He was a great person.

Linked below, you’ll see Rick Hummel’s obituary. Read it. Cry a little.

I was also struck by this Tweet from Jack Flaherty, who has more than a little Gibson in him.

And this has always been one of my favorite pics of Gibson and Brock, along with a dynamic Javier. Viva el Birdos!

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It’s been a crazy first season for me here at Viva el Birdos. I covered a few things I hoped to cover — like a playoff run, however brief. And a bunch of things I never imagined writing about — COVID and labor strife. In all, it’s been a great pleasure and honor to write about this club for this fanbase with this team of writers in 2020. The year sucked, but I really enjoyed doing this! Thanks for spending your Thursday and Saturday mornings with me. Let’s hope 2021 goes better. I will keep writing, if you will keep reading.

Now, go watch some Gibson highlights on YouTube and try to enjoy your first weekend of the offseason.