The Cardinals have had better weeks. When I first noticed the schedule to begin the 2023 season, I had one reaction: oh no. This was a gauntlet and I would be delighted to go 6-6 in that span. They can still do that, technically. But sweeping at Coors Field would be... unexpected. You legitimately could not have constructed a better schedule if your goal was to make the pitching look as bad as possible.
They faced the #2 offense in all of baseball last year, and the #7 offense in the Atlanta Braves (lower than I thought, but their outfield was kind of a disaster outside of Michael Harris II), then ran into a hotter than hot Milwaukee offense (who was 11th in wRC+ last year and likely improved), plus now they get to go to Coors Field. I don’t think their numbers were ever going to look good with this schedule, though obviously I would have hoped for better.
But not all has been negative, which is maybe something I would have assumed had you told me they’d be 3-6 in their first 9 games. The tricky thing about the beginning of the season is that it’s not hidden by the season stats. If they Cardinals had this exact same stretch in August, there would be some panic, but you could point to Mikolas’ season stats and say “well just a bad start.” And actually that is what we did last year when he got rocked at... Coors Field. Oh boy hope it goes better this time.
So in the interest of trying to combat the negativity, let’s try to focus on the positives.
Jordan Montgomery has been as advertised
Coming into the season, it was essentially accurate to say all five pitchers were basically the same and that the Cardinals had no ace. But well, if one were to call any pitcher on the Cardinals an ace, it would be Montgomery easily. He is the safest bet to be the best pitcher on the Cardinals and by far. And so far, he’s been the best pitcher. By far.
He had an okay start against the Blue Jays, and then a fantastic one against the Brewers. Pitching wins are not a great stat, but he has two in a season where the Cardinals have three wins. He’s already been worth 0.6 fWAR in this short season (due to some home run “luck” admittedly), and while I don’t think rest of season stats are super useful at this point in time, in five less projected innings, he has a higher WAR by ZiPS than his pre-season ZiPS predicted. Factoring in that, ZiPS now thinks he’ll finish with 3.3 fWAR.
This would not be unprecedented. He had 3.2 fWAR as a Yankee in 2021 in 30 starts and 157.1 IP. So you don’t have to be that optimistic to think the Cards have a 3+ fWAR pitcher in Montgomery. And considering he did that in just 157.1 IP, he can do better. If he averaged 5.5 innings per start over 32 starts, he’d reach 176 innings this season, which would be 3.5 fWAR. And this is the pitcher he is, if he is able to make improvements, he might not necessarily fit a strict definition of ace, but he’d be a top 20 pitcher easily (21 pitchers had 3.5 fWAR or more last season).
Matz and Mikolas
Wait, these guys are on the positives? Okay hear me out. To the extent that one can have a “good” bad start, Mikolas and Matz had the best possible version of a bad start. This is where I lose a lot of the people who don’t love advanced stats. Both Mikolas and Matz, if they pitched the way they did in their three combined starts every start, at least from a K/BB perspective, they will have unbelievable seasons. In all likelihood, they’ll have a start that FIP won’t love, but where they induce a lot of weak contact and this kind of thing will even out.
Mikolas has been, by any reasonable definition of the word luck, extraordinary unlucky. Has he been hit hard at times? Yes. Is there a world where a .529 BABIP against is deserved? 34 balls in play have been hit against Mikolas and a whopping 18 of them have found holes. This is absurd. He’s allowed one home run too. That’s it. He actually has positive fWAR, though I won’t dare suggest he’s been good.
It’s a simple fact though that if Mikolas is striking out 12 batters to one walk and one HBP over a period of 49 batters faced, he will be a very good pitcher. His 24.5 K% would beat his career high by a lot and his 2% BB rate would also be a career best. What he’s not doing is getting grounders. But what will likely happen is that hitters will make more contact off him, but the strikeouts he got are going to turn into grounders. So I’m not worried about that.
Matz is perhaps a tougher case. Well sort of. He had a .533 BABIP against and 40% of the flyballs he allowed exited the park. I know people say he leaves meatballs and that’s the reason, but that’s an argument I would buy for like a 16.5 HR/FB% (his career rate) and a .320 BABIP (he actually has a .307 BABIP against for his career). Okay, sure he has a worse FIP than xFIP for his career, but it’s 40 points, not 400 points. If the difference held steady, he’d have a 3.23 FIP, which I think we would all take.
How does Jordan Walker have two homers?! Well as of this writing, of the four flyballs he’s hit, two have left the park. So at some point, the launch angle will have to improve. But still. It’s sort of incredible that he hits groundballs like he’ll get a $1,000 fine if he hits in the air, and has still managed to be a great hitter. I don’t know how yesterday’s game will affect his numbers, but he has a .404 xwOBA. This isn’t lucky.
The fun thing about Walker is that he is a complete game changer when it comes to end-of-season projections. Because the projections did not rate him well, if he’s actually good or even great right away, you could instantly add a couple wins to the expectation. For example, Walker was projected for 1.5 WAR to begin the year, but if he’s actually a 4 win player, that could take the Cards from a 90 win team to a 92 win team by itself. Whereas if Goldschmidt is actually a 5 WAR player, well that’s expected, so it doesn’t change it.
So if you want the Cardinals to be a 95 win team or a 100 win team, it’s not going to depend on Nolan Arenado or Paul Goldschmidt being great. It will depend on a young player completely breaking out and adding wins not factored in. Speaking of...
Over the offseason, Nolan Gorman went to the Matt Carpenter school of batting. Because somewhat all of a sudden, he is walking like crazy. It’s tough to say how for real this is - I mean he’s not going to walk in 24.1% of plate appearance, but his plate approach makes it very easy to believe he can post 10% walk rates. Which he hadn’t done since he was 19 in Low A.
Put it this way: Gorman’s ZiPS projected an 8.4 BB% and 33.8 K%. And still projected a 114 wRC+. If he has significantly improved his plate discipline and plate approach, the sky is kind of the limit here. I’m not going to do the math, but a 27% K rate and 11% BB rate would be....a lot better than a 114 wRC+. Gorman walked at least twice in a game four times last year. He already has three of those games this year.
He has also only struck out seven times in 29 PAs. I checked to see if he had done this last year and he had.... barely. He struck out in his final two plate appearances on June 22nd and then 5 times in 27 PAs. If you start on June 23rd, he struck out 6 times through 29 PAs blending into July 3rd. However on July 3rd, he struck out three times so he ended that streak with a bang.
He obviously has never done the combo of walks and strikeouts at the same time or really even close to what he’s done in this first week and change. It’s not the power, which we’ve seen, or the BABIP, which will go down, it’s the strikeouts and walks that has me excited for Gorman (and terrified to trade him).
Drew VerHagen/Zack Thompson
VerHagen and Thompson are both off to incredible starts and if it’s at all an indication of how they’ll pitch all year, the Cards bullpen will not be an issue this year. They still have some things to sort out, but if you can add these two to Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos, the starters really only need to throw 5 innings.
I’d include Packy Naughton in this group, who has also looked great, but he got hurt and well that’s less exciting. And he’d be an awkward fit anyway, since I don’t think he has the potential of either of these two as far as shutdown late inning reliever. (though we do know he can pitch in high leverage situations)
So basically, what I’m saying is, let’s hope the Cards survive Coors, don’t put themselves in too much of a hole, because this is probably still a good team. Their pitching came out rusty - Jack Flaherty is still working on things and Mikolas had a highly unusual spring training - and they have faced offenses where you can’t really afford to be rusty. But at some point they won’t face a great offense and we can just hope the Cards do what the Rays are doing - laying waste to the bad teams. That sounds more fun anyway, doesn’t it?