Something we can say for sure about this St. Louis Cardinals season thus far is that it has raised a lot of questions. I was lucky enough to be able to ask some of these questions to ESPN baseball analyst Jesse Rogers. You can read Jesse’s thoughts below on the Cardinals rough start to the season, their pitching woes, the Willson Contreras drama, and his insights into this Cardinals and Boston Red Sox matchup on Sunday night on ESPN.
Viva El Birdos: First of all a big thanks to Katie from ESPN for setting this all up and to Jesse for answering my questions! I think I have to start out with the obvious question and something you reported on in your most recent article about the Cardinals: the St. Louis Cardinals have dug themselves into a pretty big hole in the standings after one of the worst stretches I can remember seeing from them. Lately though they have shown signs of life, taking 2 of 3 games from the Chicago Cubs and winning the first two games of this series against the Boston Red Sox in dramatic, ninth-inning fashion. Fangraphs currently has the Cardinals odds to win the division at 15.7%. Is it too late for the St. Louis Cardinals? Do you see a path for this team to division title or would they be lucky to make the playoffs at this point?
Jesse Rogers: It’s not too late. The NL Central is a forgiving division for teams who have started the season behind the eight ball. This week has proven there’s still some mojo left in the Cardinals and they have plenty of time to right the ship. In fact, they have longer than most teams. St. Louis almost never uses the trade deadline as the point where they have to decide which direction they’re going to go in for the rest of the season. So while, say, the Cubs, need to know in July if they’ll add or subtract by the deadline, the Cardinals are likely to just keep going and at least add around the edges. They can come back.
VEB: I have been (half-jokingly) throwing around the word “cursed” to describe this Cardinals season so far — the manner in which they were losing games was some of the most snakebit and sloppy baseball I’ve seen from them. I believe you referred to it as “A perfect Storm of Badness” in your article, which I quite liked. Allowing multi-run homers at the worst possible time, late-game fielding mistakes from usually sure-handed fielders, deflating outs and double plays with runners in scoring position — all things I am not used to from the Cardinals. Is there a particular weakness for this team that these early-season games have exposed? Is it just a combination of things going wrong?
JR: The weakness is on the mound. And because their pitchers are unable to make enough good pitches, its putting a lot of pressure on other parts of their game. In other words, there’s no margin for error to make a mistake in the field or on the bases. With a young manager, first time pitching coach and a new catcher, every weakness is being exposed – but if their rotation gets its act together, those other things are likely to subside.
VEB: As you also covered in your article, there has been quite a bit of drama — which is again uncharacteristic of the Cardinals — surrounding their newly-signed catcher Willson Contreras and his game-calling ability. As someone that has spent a lot of time covering the Chicago Cubs, is this just a common critique for Contreras? Was this something the Cardinals were aware of when they signed him? Could the new pitch clock be exposing something that was a minor weakness before? Do you think this is perhaps exposing an organizational flaw within the Cardinals to rely too heavily on their catchers as gamecallers?
JR: I think it’s been a perfect storm of issues when it comes to Contreras. His weakness in the game calling part of his job, combined with an underwhelming staff, has resulted in him becoming more of a scapegoat than he probably should be. Are we really to believe every starter’s ERA is over 4.00 because of Contreras? Its just that when a staff starts as bad as they have, they don’t have the catcher who’s strength is to pull them out of it. Yadier Molina could do that. In any case, they added a potential weakness to an area – the rotation — that is also a weakness – hence the terrible results.
VEB: Moving on to Sunday Night Baseball... so far, pretty much everything I have previewed about this series has been wrong. Maybe I’m the curse! I talked up the Red Sox bullpen and they gave up the lead multiple times. I questioned the starting pitching and Paxton and Sale put up solid outings (Paxton threw a fastball topping out around 96-97 mph, which I was not expecting). The one thing I did get right was this Red Sox offense. Even with the loss of Adam Duvall, it is a solid lineup throughout: they don’t strikeout a lot (fifth in MLB in team K%) and they do a lot of damage when they hit the ball (fifth in MLB in ISO). What would you say is the key to navigating this offense for Miles Mikolas as a pitcher that throws a sinker, slider, 4-seamer, and curveball pretty evenly across the board? Are there some hitters in this Red Sox lineup that maybe haven’t been getting a lot of attention that should make Cardinals fans nervous?
JR: Its not the best match-up for Mikolas. The Red Sox put the ball in play – leading the majors in doubles for example – while Mikolas hasn’t missed enough bats in the early going. He’s been better lately but getting Red Sox hitters to chase would be his best case scenario on Sunday. Usually, attacking is a good strategy but unless he has Grade A stuff, he’ll really have to pitch to the edges and hope for weak contact. The Red Sox can’t be happy with the way the first two games of the series have gone – they’re likely to go up there with a very aggressive game plan against a pitcher who’s given up 57 hits in 41.1 innings.
VEB: So what should we expect from Corey Kluber? Ever since his injury struggles he seems to be striking out fewer and fewer each year. This season his walks are up and his home runs allowed per nine innings is a career high 2.36. The velocity on his sinker is 88 mph and it has been getting hit pretty consistently with a batting average against .405. Have there been any flashes of 2017 Kluber — a nasty curveball or a cutter with a lot movement? Or are those days in the rearview mirror of a great career for the two-time Cy Young winner?
JR: He’s definitely a different pitcher than in his early years. These days, his change-up might be his best pitch. Batters are hitting .100 off it this season and he’s on pace to throw it more than ever. Meanwhile, his curveball is his best out pitch. That sinker just isn’t getting the job done this year. Look for him to lean elsewhere.
VEB: Let’s try to end it on a fun note, since some of the questions have been sort of bummers! Is there a player (or players, plural) from either team you are particularly looking forward to watching this game?
JR: That’s easy. Masataka Yoshida has been a hit machine for the Red Sox and he’s going up against a pitcher who gives up a lot of hits. With a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio, its hard to imagine Yoshida not making contact or at least drawing a walk against Mikolas. With 39 hits in 33 games played, Yoshida has been everything the Red Sox could ask for. He’s fun to watch at the plate –despite a recent 0 for 9 skid over the course of two games. He righted the ship this weekend, collecting three hits in the series so far.
VEB: And last but not least, if you had to pick a walk-up song for yourself, which song would you pick? (For me it is Voodoo Child, the Jimi Hendrix version with that opening riff.)
JR: Lose yourself by Eminem
Again a big thanks to Jesse for his time! You can read his baseball coverage at ESPN.com and watch him Sunday night on Baseball Tonight: Sunday Night Countdown!