It’s a joy having St. Louis Cardinals baseball back and even though only 2 games have been played so far, there’s still plenty to talk about. So I’ll just dive right in with a few of my observations and takeaways in a stream-of-consciousness style article that you all know so well from J.P. here at the site.
This Team Can Hit
We all knew coming into the season that this lineup has the potential to be one of the best lineups in baseball, if not the best lineup in baseball. That was re-affirmed on Opening Day when the Cardinals racked up 9 runs on 15 hits. They still took a bit of a tough luck loss but the offensive showing was impressive regardless.
That continued on Saturday too. Even though the Cardinals “only” scored 4 runs, they also collected 10 hits.
And perhaps the best part is that the Cardinals did damage against some of the best starters in the league. The lineup had it’s way against Alek Manoah, a 4 WAR pitcher last year, tallying 5 runs on 9 hits and chasing the right-hander in the 4th inning.
Then against Kevin Gausman, the Cardinals put up 3 runs and 8 hits in 6 innings. None of those runs were but the Cardinals certainly didn’t look outmatched against the 2021 All-Star who earned 5.7 fWAR last year.
A common criticism of the Cardinals in the past has centered on an inability to hit elite starters but early in the 2023 season, the team has had 0 issues when an all-star toes the rubber.
This is an offense first team and the lineup can keep it in just about every game.
Jordan Walker Showing His Promise
The Jordan Walker experience has certainly been an exciting one. He has 3 hits in his first 9 at-bats and all 3 have come against sliders. That’s a really encouraging sign for someone who had some issues with MLB breaking balls in Spring Training. Sure a few of those sliders were hung, but I’ll take it.
But Walker has done more than just hit sliders. In fact, he’s crushed just about everything. 5 of Walker’s 8 batted balls have been hit over 100 mph, including 3 being hit above 105 mph in Saturday’s game. If he can start finding the sweet spot, he’ll really start doing some damage.
And that’s something that I’ve mentioned in my writing before. Walker doesn’t always loft the ball enough and that’s really the only limit to his power. It’s not like he was an extreme ground ball hitter in the minors (45.5% ground ball rate in 2022) but for him to really tap into his incredible power, he’ll need to put the ball in the air more often.
(Alec Burleson has the same issue and that showed up on Saturday as he crushed an 110.4 mph groundout. That’s not just a one time thing for Burleson either as he did a lot of the whole crushing-the-ball-on-the-ground thing last year and in the spring.)
We know Walker has the power, and he’s showing an ability to hit breaking pitches too. Now I want to see him work on putting the ball in the air.
Regardless, Walker has shown everything that makes him one of the best prospects in baseball and the early returns are promising.
The one area where he’s been a little rocky has been in the outfield as he misplayed a ball in the corner and airmailed a throw on Thursday. His defensive game is certainly a work in progress but that’s to be expected for someone who only started playing the outfield late last year.
Given his athleticism, I don’t have any concerns about his ability to make the transition. Now we just need to see how quickly he can do it.
What a weird first start that was for Jack Flaherty. He got two quick outs to open the game and then walked the bases loaded and then got out of it with no damage allowed. That pretty much set the tone for his 5 inning outing.
The right-hander didn’t have even a semblance of fastball control for long stretches of the game but was able to get his breaking balls working a bit and often went to his slider for a first pitch strike before losing hitters with his fastball.
And to make matters even worse, his velocity was down across the board.
Quite frankly, there’s a lot to be concerned about with Jack Flaherty after his first start. Maybe he was dealing with a little bit of an injury. Maybe he was taking a little bit off his pitches in an effort to locate better. But either way, diminished velocity paired with a lack of command is concerning.
I don’t want to leave it at that, though, because that isn’t the full story. Flaherty did a great job of gutting through 5 innings and didn’t allow a single hit (although he did walk 7 and hit a batter) while working his way in and out of jams all night. Usually when a pitcher walks 7, he doesn’t throw 5 scoreless innings so Jack Flaherty deserves credit for keeping the Blue Jays off the board and the Cardinals in the lead.
After the game, Oli Marmol thought the same.
The line was bad, but how Flaherty adjusted throughout the day to get through five innings is a positive. How he kept his composure is an even bigger positive.— Katie Woo (@katiejwoo) April 1, 2023
"I'm actually super proud of him," Oli Marmol said. "I think we took a big step in the right direction today."
All we can do now is wait for Flaherty’s next start and hope he settles in.
Don’t Panic About Jordan Hicks
Jordan Hicks is another pitcher off to a rocky start after allowing one run on Opening Day and then walking 3 batters on Saturday while sliding into the 8th inning role for an injured Giovanny Gallegos.
Was Hicks second outing concerning? Yes. He simply had no control and we’ve seen that with him before. But his first outing was also about as good as I’ve even seen Jordan Hicks throw. Sure, he gave up a run but he was a victim of a few bloop hits, the hardest of which was hit at just 80.9 mph and his stuff looked nasty throughout.
So, I don’t care that he gave up a run. It was an impressive and unlucky performance for Hicks that actually had me encouraged instead of discouraged.
Jordan Hicks last night:— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) March 31, 2023
- Threw 70% of his pitches for strikes
- Allowed a max exit velo of 80.9 mph
- 31% whiff rate
- Sinker averaged 101.9 mph
It was a good performance. Let’s not overreact to back luck in one game.
So what did he do after that? He followed it up with a bad outing of course.
So that’s really one good outing and one terrible outing and one pitcher with a 20.25 ERA. What does that mean for Hicks? Absolutely nothing.
If you’ve read my articles before, you’ll know that Hicks is a pitcher I believe in. I outlined that belief last Tuesday and I stand by it. Hicks will be fine. His velocity is up from last year and his new slider should help him get more hitters to chase. The problem in his second outing was that he wasn’t anywhere near the zone. At all. That can happen with Hicks but it’s not the norm for him to be that wild.
I still think he will be one of the better pitchers in the bullpen this year and I’m excited to see him take the mound again.
Let Hicks’ struggles serve as a reminder that we shouldn’t be over-analyzing and overreacting to a two-game sample.
Excellent Start for Drew VerHagen
I’ve had enough discussion of pitchers without control so let’s talk about someone who’s been really effective to start the season - Drew VerHagen.
This is yet another pitcher that I’ve written about and discussed in the comments all winter and spring. I’m a believer in Drew VerHagen. And, so far this season (again, it’s only been 2 games), he’s justified that belief.
He’s made 2 outings, throwing 1 2⁄3 innings and fanning 3 while flashing a sweeper that seems to be his go-to swing-and-miss pitch. And while his sweeper is exciting, it’s really only one half of his slider last year.
And what I mean by that is that VerHagen has taken his slider last year and split it into 2 separate pitches. He has a slower, sweepier breaking ball and he has a harder, sharper, more downward moving slider that Baseball Savant classifies as a cutter.
These will likely be two of his go-to pitches going forward and the metrics on them already look good, especially on the cutter.
That pitch gets 6.1 inches of sweep while being thrown at 88.2 mph on average. That’s impressive and it’s 55% more sweep than the average cutter thrown at that velocity. It’s still early to draw any conclusions and he’s only thrown his cutter 7 times but I’m really encouraged by what it looks like.
That’s a pitch that can bridge both the velocity and movement gap between VerHagen’s fastballs and his sweeper.
Moving beyond VerHagen’s skills, though, I want to talk about his usage because we’ve seen Marmol use him in close game situations in each of the first two games of the year. To me, that’s a sign of trust and it’s a sign that the Cardinals like what they see from VerHagen.
That could absolutely change if he starts getting the results he got last year but I was convinced in the offseason and in Spring Training that VerHagen would be a different pitcher this year and the early looks I’ve had of him have done nothing to sway me from that stance.
This is really the big talking point. How is Oli Marmol going to use his outfield group and where the heck is Dylan Carlson? On Saturday it looked as if Dylan Carlson may get a start with Lars Nootbaar hurt but Marmol turned to Burleson instead.
Marmol provided his reasoning behind the decision prior to the game. And this is where things get a little interesting.
#STLCards manager Oli Marmol said the decision as to whether to start Alec Burleson or Dylan Carlson in LF came down to the average vertical break on Kevin Gausman’s fastball.— John Denton (@JohnDenton555) April 1, 2023
The Cards feel that Burleson will do better vs. the hop on Gausman’s fastball.
Marmol said Burleson over Carlson was the result of Gausman’s stuff profiling down in the zone, inducing chase. Burleson is a better contact guy from that side of the plate.— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) April 1, 2023
So, first off, good For Alec Burleson. I like that Alec Burleson is playing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - I have no concerns about Burleson’s ability to be an above average hitter. He makes a ton of contact and he squares up a lot of balls and he’s an aggressive swinger. I like that aggression for a hitter who can hit everything and can hit everything well. It works for him.
I’m glad that Burleson got a start because I was worried that Jordan Walker’s presence on the roster would bury Burleson on the end of the bench as the fifth outfielder. And, to be honest, I still have some concerns about that. But I’m excited that Burleson got to start and I hope he gets to start more games because he’s a talented player likely capable of starting for some team somewhere down the road.
Besides Burleson getting some time, I also love the way that Oli Marmol made this decision because there’s multiple layers to it. He is looking at lefty vs. righty matchups and that’s great, but he’s also looking deeper than that.
He’s also looking at an individual pitcher’s profile and deciding who the Cardinals best option is to face him. That’s the level of detail that should allow the Cardinals to optimize their matchups all season and I love that. I also love that it signals a willingness to use the bench, especially when there may not be a huge talent gap between the starter and the bench player.
The Cardinals have a ton of talented players on the roster and they all deserve to play. I don’t want to see any of them get buried on the bench.
What I’m still unsure about, is if Dylan Carlson is going to get the chances he deserves.
Yes, I know, it’s only been 2 games. And I don’t want to overreact before we even finish the first series but I do think this is a conversation worth having.
Because here’s the thing about Carlson. If he isn’t playing because the Cardinals think Burleson is a better contact bat, what happens when they figure out that Burleson probably has more power in his bat too.
The issue with Burleson is that he doesn’t elevate consistently, which prevents him from using his power in game, but it’s not an overstatement to say that he probably has more raw power than Carlson.
In fact, Burleson hit a ball harder on Saturday, his first start of the year (110.4), than Carlson has in his entire career (max exit velocity of 109.2 mph). He’s also a left-handed swinger which may give him a leg up on Carlson who is a better hitter from the right side.
So, looking at the reasoning for Burleson playing over Carlson, are the Cardinals ever going to decide that Carlson’s bat is a better fit than Burleson’s? Maybe against left-handed pitchers? But then, does Carlson replace Tyler O’Neill or Jordan Walker, two right-handers? Or does he replace Lars Nootbaar, who crushed lefties last year? I don’t know the answer but I do have some doubts that he will play as much as he should.
Dylan Carlson is too talented to be a fourth outfielder. He is someone who deserves to start and should have more success this year after getting healthy and showing some positive things in the spring. I’m just waiting for him to get the playing time I was expecting to see him get.
Again, I don’t want to overreact to 2 games but I expected to see about equal usage of all 4 outfielders (not including Burleson) and that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. Yet. Maybe it will in the future. I’m hoping so.
Thanks for reading, VEB. It’s great having baseball back and I want to know your thoughts too. Feel free to hit the comments if you have any thoughts or takeaways from the first few games.
Have a great Sunday!