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The Cardinals Have Had a Weird Start to the Season

Unexpected players have carried the team so far. It’s been fun to watch, but the anchors of the team will need to step up soon to keep the team humming along.

St. Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Well guys, the St. Louis Cardinals are 9-4 and sit in first place in the NL Central. Most of the team can’t hit, but while guys like Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, and Dylan Carlson are slumping, the pitching staff is carrying the team. This is just about the most unsustainable scenario possible. Do we expect a mediocre starting rotation to carry an above average offense for the full season? I sure hope not. Eventually the pitching staff is going to falter and the Cardinals’ mashers will need to wake up. For now, though, the team is winning.

It’s tough to really analyze a player in-depth after just 13 games, so this article is going to focus on the state of the team as a whole. I also didn’t have as much time to spend on this article as I usually would since I’m in the middle of hell week at school (the week before finals) and putting the finishing touches on wedding preparation at the same time.

I’ll get back to some more in-depth analysis soon, but for now, this is a more general piece. I promise I’ll still make it interesting, though.

Let’s start with the lineup because it’s been really weird. Dylan Carlson has a .226 wOBA, Paul Goldschmidt has a .260 wOBA, Harrison Bader is at .262 and Tyler O’Neill is at .268. If you knew before the season these players would be hitting like this through 12 games, would you have predicted that the team would be 8-4? I certainly wouldn’t have.

Even crazier is that the team has actually been an above average offensive team overall with a .319 wOBA (11th in MLB) and a 111 wRC+. Who would have expected Albert Pujols (.474 wOBA), Tommy Edman (.459 wOBA), and Andrew Knizner (.344 wOBA) to be carrying the offense with Arenado?

I won’t lie, it’s been fun watching Knizner, Pujols, and Edman start the year hot. Is it frustrating to watch the team’s best hitters struggle? Sure. But watching Pujols rake, Tommy Two Bags turn into Tommy Four Bags, and Knizner show some life after last season has been a blast. This can’t last, but why not enjoy it while it does? Honestly, I’m not too worried about the offense. Goldy and O’Neill are bound to start raking at some point and Carlson and Bader will heat up eventually.

These players have a strong track record of success at the plate. Carlson and Bader less than Goldy and O’Neill, but both of the outfielders are solid hitters. Where I do have concerns are at shortstop and catcher. We all know that Molina doesn’t have much left at the plate. It’s great to see him in a Cardinals uniform still, but he had an 83 wRC+ last year and a sub-.300 wOBA. In fact, since posting a 105 wRC+ in 2018, he hasn’t seen that figure rise above 90.

If the Cardinals want offense from their backstop, it’s going to have to come from Knizner. This is why his start is extra encouraging. The problem is that his start may not be sustainable. He’s striking out a lot and not making hard contact, but he has a .462 BABIP. There’s approximately a 0% chance that he runs that high of a BABIP this season.

Last year, Knizner had a .274 xwOBA. So far this season, he has a .275 xwOBA. Practically the same. Last year, Knizner’s exit velocity average 87.5 mph. This season, he’s at 87.1.

This is a super small sample size so far, but Knizner’s underlying numbers don’t look much different than they did last year. I’m glad Kninzer has been successful to start the year, and the Cardinals have certainly needed him, but someone else will need to step up soon, especially if Knizner’s performances start to drop.

At shortstop, you have to wonder, how long is DeJong’s leash? I won’t have a ton of faith in him until he proves that I should, but I still hold out hope that he can return to the form he showed at the beginning of his career.

He had a great spring and a great early career but he hasn’t been the same since then, he needs to show growth and he simply hasn’t done so yet. It doesn’t mean that he won’t, it just means that he hasn’t. If he is still struggling in May, Edmundo Sosa may be the beneficiary. He probably a better defender than DeJong (and DeJong is pretty good himself), but DeJong brings more power to the table. If he’s batting under the Mendoza line, though, then it doesn’t matter.

If DeJong keeps struggling into May, then I would expect Edmundo Sosa to start seeing the field more. It appears that the Cardinals want to give DeJong a real chance at claiming the starting role, but he hasn’t really done yet.

It’s crazy that a lineup in which nearly every starter is struggling to hit has actually been an above average unit as a whole. Something has to give soon. The meat of the order will need to heat up before Knizner, Arenado, Pujols, and Edman remember that they’re human.

Let’s talk about pitching now. Who would have expected this staff to be where it is through 13 games.

The Brewers have improved since I tweeted this on April 20, but the order in still the same. The Cardinals are on top. The best starter on the team so far has been Miles Mikolas, who is tied for 16th in fWAR among pitchers (0.5). That’s unexpected and it will certainly change when pitchers have made more than 3 starts.

The Cardinals starting rotation is currently third in the league in fWAR, one spot ahead of the Dodgers. The bullpen, on the other hand, is 17th with a still solid 3.51 FIP. At the beginning of the year, I think everyone expected the bullpen to perform better than the rotation, but again, it’s been a weird start to the year.

I would expect this to flip over the course of the year, especially since Ryan Helsley appears primed to break out this year and Kodi Whitley is still really good. It’s gotta be tough for teams to score runs when Helsley, Whitley, Genesis Cabrera, and Giovanny Gallegos come into the game. Andre Pallante looks really good too, and Nick Wittgren has been solid so far.

Really the only concern with the bullpen is long relief since Drew VerHagen just got hurt and Aaron Brooks has been pretty bad. Jake Woodford looked good in only appearance of the year, but he hasn’t pitched in about 50 years, so who knows what the team has planned for him. I would expect Woodford’s role to increase with VerHagen out and Brooks struggling, which is great because I want to see if he can build on his success last season.

The Cardinals also need to drop two relievers to Triple-A once May starts, and right now Aaron Brooks appears to be one of those pitchers. I think a lot of people have assumed that Andre Pallante will be the other one, but I don’t know if that’s the case. Packy Naughton would probably go back down if he’s still on the roster at the beginning of May. Also, with how little Woodford has been used, it’s possible that he goes down to Triple-A and Pallante takes a multi-inning role.

Either Woodford gets used more because of the VerHagen injury or he goes down in May.

This pitching staff is not going to keep pitching this well all year. It’s been an encouraging start and I have a lot of confidence in the bullpen, but this rotation isn’t the third best rotation in baseball. I think it’s probably around average with the potential for a little bit more, but it will start struggling at some point.

It’s been boosted by the fact that the Cardinals haven’t played any good offenses. Every team the Cardinals have played this year has a 100 wRC+ or less so far this season. Yes, they haven’t played a single above average offense, and they’ve played only one average offense — the Marlins.

This will change soon, though, since the Cards are about to open a series with the Mets (3rd in wRC+ at 125). The rotation isn’t going to keep this up, so enjoy it while it lasts.

For the record, I am not super concerned about players like Goldy and O’Neill, and the outfield in general. They are all good players and they aren’t going to struggle like this for a full season.

The Cardinals have won 9 of their first 13 games on the backs of a rotation that everyone complained about in the offseason and a trio of hitters that most people probably expected below average production from. It’s been a weird start to the year and something is going to give soon. The Cardinals have done well to claim the top spot in the NL Central to open the year but if they want to maintain it, then the team’s best players will need to find their form soon.