Starting Tuesday, June 8 at 7:15 pm CT through Wednesday June 9 at 7:15 pm CT the St. Louis Cardinals will host Cleveland for a two-game series. No sugar-coating it: Cardinals have had a terrible June so far. They have fallen back into third place in the National League Central behind the second-place Chicago Cubs and 2.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. In the month of June the Cardinals have gone 1-5 so far, dropping five-straight games and were swept in four games by the Cincinnati Reds. In their last ten games they are 3-7. Cleveland sits at second place in the American League Central, four games behind the leading Chicago White Sox. Cleveland has had mixed results against the NL Central so far; they defeated the Cubs in both games of their matchup, but are 2-3 against the Reds. In their last ten games they went 5-5, but are coming off a series loss to the Baltimore Orioles. Both teams are hoping to chase down the teams in front of them and will be looking to bounce back after some recent struggles. Should be fun!
Not a lot went right for the Cardinals in their series against the Reds, but one of the lone bright spots was leftfielder Tyler O’Neill. In the four-game series he went just 4-17, but hit two doubles, one home run, and walked once. His slash line of .250/.294/.563 over that time is good for a 132 wRC+. Since returning from the Injured List on May 27 he has hit .341/.356/.795 for a 211 wRC+. He has also made some great plays in the field.
Looking at Cleveland’s depth chart one person stands out above the rest. That partially has to do with the rest of the team playing pretty underwhelming baseball so far, but a big part of it is because José Ramírez is playing really well. It does not come as much of a surprise. When I look at the names on this roster there are not many I recognize, which kind of makes sense considering Cleveland has the lowest payroll in the league in 2021.
Ramírez is in the last year of his current contract with Cleveland, though there are team options for 2022 and 2023. He debuted back in 2013 and has spent a solid nine-year career with Cleveland rewarding their decision to sign him to an extension with the best season of his career in 2018 where he hit for a 147 wRC+ and amassed 8.1 fWAR. After a bit of a decline in 2019 he played well in the shortened 2020 season and was the runner up in the MVP voting and won a Silver Slugger award.
Along with designated hitter Franmil Reyes, José Ramírez has been one of the more consistently reliable hitters for Cleveland. He is behind Franmil with a 135 wRC+ for the second-highest on the team and leads the team in fWAR with 2.2, which is also good for the twelfth highest in baseball. For hitting the ball as hard as he does, Ramírez rarely strikes out. His strikeout percentage is 13.7% to a .262 ISO. Both are among the best in the league. A good comparison to Ramírez, at least by the numbers, might be none other than Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado. In a recent article by David Adler of MLB.com Arenado and Ramírez were first (26) and second (24), respectively in most pulled extra-base hits in 2021. All 13 of the home runs Ramírez has hit have been pulled. His pull % is currently the highest of his career at 52.6%.
José Ramírez is a tough out, but he is susceptible to the slider, whether he is batting from the left or the right. Overall he is batting .167 against the pitch in 2021 and is slugging .306 with 11 strikeouts and 1 home run. This also makes a lot of sense considering what we learned about how often he pulls the ball for power.
The Cardinals have been fortunate to miss several teams’ best pitchers, but not this time. Whether you check Fangraphs or Baseball Reference Shane Bieber has been far and away Cleveland’s best pitcher. Since his debut in 2018 he has been one of the more solid pitchers in the game. There is not much of a secret to how: he strikes out a lot of a batters (35.6%), walks relatively few (8.8%), and goes deep into games (in 12 starts this season Bieber has pitched 79 innings which is almost 7 innings/game). His biggest weakness might be giving up a few too many home runs. Among the other top pitchers in baseball he by far has the highest HR/9 at 1.03.
Bieber will throw a changeup or cutter on occasion, but primarily throws a 4-seamer, curveball, and a slider. In the past it has been his curveball that has been his best pitch and it is his second most commonly-thrown pitch at 32.1% after his fastball at 34%, but this year it has been his slider that has really done the heavy lifting. Per Baseball Savant’s Run Value it is his most valuable pitch this season. He has thrown it 340 times and it has a .182 batting average against with a .273 slugging and 48.1 Wiff %.
As mentioned above Cleveland's two best hitters are Ramírez and Reyes. After them the depth runs a little shallow — and Franmil Reyes is on the 10-day Injured List (which was why I did not discuss him earlier). By wRC+ the offense as a whole is 25th with an 87. By batting average they rank 27th with .221 and by OBP they are 29th in baseball with .291. Among players with over 100 plate appearances only four have a wRC+ above 100: Reyes (10-day IL), José Ramírez, Harold Ramírez, and Jordan Luplow (also on the 10-day IL).
Part of the reason for the poor results at the plate might be a low batting average on balls in play. Cleveland does not strikeout any more than the rest of the league, in fact they are 10th in baseball in team K% at 23.3% (the Cardinals are 8th at 23.1%). They also don’t walk a whole lot, though it is not anything drastically low at 8.2%. Cleveland is putting a lot of balls in play, though, and batting .260 on them. That is 28th in league, just behind the Cardinals at 27th.
Injuries to the Cardinals rotation
The Cardinals are down to just two starters that were expected to be in the rotation at the start of this season: Carlos Martínez and Adam Wainwright. Both happen to be the starters for this series, so the rotation dropping like flies will not have much of an impact on this series directly. Indirectly though, it is hurting the bullpen as the middle of the game relivers like Johan Oviedo and John Gant have to step in to start. All of this trickles down to the bullpen being stretched thin and players that were not expected to take major roles having to step in. This is likely a big part of the team’s struggles in the middle of the game.
The Cardinals even after all their recent struggles are not in bad shape, but they need to put together a win in this series. A two-game sweep would really be nice heading into the weekend series against the Cubs, but with the game on Tuesday being against one of the best pitchers in the league right now in Shane Bieber, a split is a more reasonable expectation. My matchup to watch will be the switch hitters against the right-handed Bieber. Bieber does not throw his slider very often to lefties, relying more on his curveball. I would like to see Dylan Carlson have some good plate appearances against Bieber. I expect Tyler O’Neill to struggle against the slider (and not just because I jinxed him above).
Game 1 — Tuesday, June 8 at 7:15 pm CT — Shane Bieber vs. Carlos Martínez
Game 2 — Wednesday, June 9 at 7:15 pm CT — Jean Carlos Mejia vs. Adam Wainwright