The Cardinals are a frustrating team, and that is no better exemplified than in the recent three-game series against the Kansas City Royals. The Cardinals simply needed to win the series to make things easier for the rest of the season. They didn’t. The Cardinals have taken mediocrity to an absurd level. They have never spent a moment of the season any worse than two games under .500 nor two games over .500. If you’re worried about the Milwaukee Brewers series, fear no longer: a 3-2 series win would give them a record of two games over .500.
At the same time, I must point out that yesterday’s 12-3 drubbing did reveal a larger problem with the season, a problem I think most fans are ignoring with their criticisms of the team. Carlos Martinez had given up six runs before recording an out in the 3rd, and in a normal season, I think he would have been taken out soon after. Instead he pitched into the 6th inning, because the Cardinals have a doubleheader in two days. And he only left the game because he was hurt. He was replaced by a guy who would probably be in AAA if this was a normal season and the last inning of the game was pitched by a guy who would definitely be in AAA in a normal season.
If yesterday didn’t perfectly encapsulate the 2020 season, it’s only because they didn’t strand enough runners and there was only one game played instead of two. Now granted, I’m not suggesting the Cardinals would win yesterday’s game in a normal season, just that it’s reflective of the unique problems the Cardinals have had to face. In this post, I will attempt to chronicle the problems contributing to the Cardinals record. I don’t think these problems are being acknowledged or at least if they are, I don’t think they’re realizing the likely effect it has on a team’s record.
Too Many Starters Needed
This is easily the most obvious problem. With perfect team construction, a team will have roughly six MLB caliber starters, a couple depth guys in AAA, and at least one interesting to elite prospect who can take over in the middle of the season if he’s ready. One of the six guys goes down immediately in spring training - annual tradition, and maybe the prospect is ready by the middle of the season. Like I said, with a perfectly constructed team, you will give very few starts to anybody you don’t think is MLB quality.
That hasn’t really been the case for the 2020 Cardinals. Out of the 53 games played, 36 have gone to pitchers who were in the original “six” starters planned at the beginning of the season. Ten others have gone to guys who would be called the “depth” guys I mentioned above. Five starts have gone to that interesting prospect, and one start has gone to Jake Woodford, who I suppose is “depth” and you can only say depth in relation to him with quotation marks I think. The last start is a bullpen start.
I’ll give some context. 36 out of 53 is the equivalent of 110 starts in a normal season. Last year, the Cardinals received a whopping 152 starts from five starters, all a part of the plan at the beginning of the season. In 2018, they received 126 starts from the planned six. In 2017, they received 144 starts from the starting five plus 10 from interesting prospect Luke Weaver. Not only that, but when these starts have needed to go to someone else, it was usually just one guy in the rotation. The other four were still healthy. Here, because we have eight games in five days, you give half your starts to your ideal starter and the other half to depth.
Also, that interesting prospect I’m counting this year is a little misleading. The premise of an interesting starting pitching prospect operates on the assumption that the pitching prospect is at least kind of ready to start at the MLB level. Johan Oviedo has tried his best and has been as good as can be expected, but he is clearly not ready and there’s no reason to think he would be either. He had not particularly impressive stats at AA last season. And suddenly, he’s in the MLB.
On top of that, a good portion of the starts given to starters who you want at the MLB level have not pitched at complete strength for a number of starts. The first week and change back from COVID featured pitchers pitching less than five innings because they reached their pitch count. And the depth guys, Austin Gomber and Daniel Poncedeleon, have had maybe a couple starts combined where they were at complete strength. This leads to my second point...
An Overtaxed and Under Qualified Bullpen
The Cardinals have used 21 relievers this season. Five of them are above replacement level by fWAR. Eight of those relievers are below replacement level. Five of the eight have thrown at least 10 innings this season. This admittedly does include Austin Gomber and Genesis Cabrera, two guys whose ERA results do not suggest they’ve pitched as bad as they have. (Gomber has a 4.90 FIP and 6.09 xFIP in the bullpen; Cabrera has a 4.96 FIP and 4.64 xFIP).
The Cardinals bullpen since they returned from COVID has had to pitch 157.2 innings in relief. They have pitched this in the span of 40 days. This means the Cardinals bullpen has to pitch an average of 3.94 innings per day. By comparison, the 2019 Cardinals pitched an average of 3.02 innings per day. Off-days matter. The Cardinals have received exactly two, one of which was sandwiched between doubleheaders. Imagine if the doubleheaders weren’t 7 innings.
So the Cardinals aren’t throwing their best relievers and they’re also required to throw nearly 4 innings of baseball every day.
Fatigue is Probably Affecting the Hitters
John Mozeliak said this in a recent interview and he got roasted on Twitter about it and it confused the hell out of me. Of course, hitters are being affected by playing literally every day, sometimes multiple times in a day! But I guess I need evidence for this, and luckily longtime Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carlton thought this same thing, so he went digging back in 2013. Here’s the relevant point:
The effect came from hits that were turning into outs in play. Fly balls that used to go over the wall ending up in the right fielder’s glove. Ground balls that used to be smacked hard enough to get past the shortstop now end up in a simple 6-3 putout. Baseball is a game where a small fraction of a second can make a huge difference on a ball. Miss on timing that swing by a little bit, and you’ll roll the ball over to the second baseman.
He found that playing seven games in seven days in comparison to five games in seven days cost a player 3 points of OBP. There is no data set upon which to know how much the Cardinals are affected by playing 53 games in 45 days. It’s never happened. The effect is likely largely than 3 points of OBP I’d venture. He also said:
You can’t expect that the next day, he’ll improve by leaps and bounds. Fatigue is a cumulative effect. A day off is more akin to recharging a battery than a reset button. The good news is that the extra battery life appears to be available for several days down the road.
There is no extra battery life, because there are no off days. The Cardinals had a team wRC+ of 100 (not including pitchers) last season. This season, the team wRC+ is 95. You think maybe that difference could have something to do with fatigue? Cause I gotta say that sounds exactly like the difference I’d pull out of a hat.
There are two effects of COVID: missing the actual player during games played and potential issues recovering from COVID when playing the game. In the case of the former, the Cardinals lost their starting shortstop (Paul DeJong), their starting catcher (Yadier Molina), three potentially important contributors to the bullpen (Kodi Whitley, Junior Fernandez and Ryan Helsley), and a starting pitcher (Carlos), plus a few bench players (Rangel Ravelo, Lane Thomas, Austin Dean.)
The interesting thing about this group is that, maybe aside from DeJong and the one game from Dean, nobody in this group has played well upon their return, although Molina is more or less where I would expect him so you can exclude him. But even DeJong seems to be fading fast right now. Carlos, Thomas, and Helsley have pretty much been horrible. Helsley has basically looked like a different pitcher, with a 10.09, yes 10.09 FIP since returning. Lane Thomas has a 25 wRC+. Ravelo has a 52 wRC+. I don’t need to remind you of Carlos, since we were reminded last night.
Now, some of this may very well be that the players simply aren’t good, but I have to think it’s affecting them a little or I’m going to have to drastically change my opinion of Helsley. He’s walked more than he’s struck out since he’s come back. And Carlos, well he actually had to go to the hospital. And I’m not the biggest Lane Thomas fan, but it’s hard to deny that he looked unusually helpless at the plate.
And as far as the replacements to these players, Max Shrock received 17 plate apperances in part because DeJong was hurt. He struck out in 35.3% of his plate appearances. While Yadi hasn’t been great, the combination of Andrew Knizner and Matt Wieters makes him look like JT Realmuto. And the relievers, oh god the relievers. Truly a list of names that most of us have already forgot: Jesus Cruz, Ryan Meisinger, Roel Ramirez, Max Shrock.
Take all these factors into account, and if you think the Cardinals truly were going to be a mediocre team before the season, then you must think it’s amazing that they’re one game over .500 right now. It seems like a very basic ask to accept that these problems outlined above have actually affected the Cardinals record. I mean the Cardinals are literally 1-9 in games started by Oviedo and Martinez, just as a starting point here.
And if you think their record is being affected, you should think they’re a better team than the record shows. Because they probably are. Let’s say all of these problems have cost the Cardinals two wins. That’s not a lot. Remember in the second game of the doubleheader against the Cubs when Tyler Webb gave up a three-run homer because literally nobody else was left? There’s one win right there. That was easy. Two wins, and the Cardinals are at an 88 win pace. And who’s to say it’s just two wins? It’s genuinely hard to know! I just know there are win(s) left off the table thanks to moves that wouldn’t have to be made in a normal season.
Anyway, the Cards have five games left on the season, maybe, probably seven games and a lot will be decided in those games. Those games will either lead them to the playoffs or not. I just fear they don’t have enough left in the tank to pull this off. I wouldn’t really blame them if they didn’t and I fear the discourse if they don’t, because there will be a lot of “But..” after acknowledging the above problems and I am just not looking forward to it, because to my mind, they are clearly affected by the schedule right now in a way where I can’t even think I can judge them if they do fall apart.
So essence, I don’t want to be the one to make excuses for the Cardinals, but well they got a pretty damn good one if you ask me.