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The Cardinals have a late-innings problem

Blown leads, opportunities sum up the 2017 Cardinals at the one-third mark.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

We’re exactly one-third of the way through the season and the Cardinals are a frustrating baseball team. They’re fundamentally flawed and feel similar, but worse, to the version that was fielded in 2016. That team through 54 games had a pretty pedestrian 28-26 record but also had a +52 run differential compared to -4 at this point this morning. And a lot of the frustration this year stems from the fact that the Cardinals have been very bad in the later innings of games, and have blown a lot of leads.

If you’ve mildly followed the team this year that shouldn’t really surprise you. After all, the starting pitching for the most part has been very good and the bullpen, well, hasn’t. To sum up the team’s current woes:

But however much blame you want to assign to the bullpen - and they’ve probably deserved it, as of this morning they collectively have the third worst ERA (4.60) in the National League - the offense deserves as much if not more so.

After last night’s 7-6 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley, the result of which being a sweep when, in fact, the Cardinals probably should have won at least two of the games, the Cardinals have now only scored 74 runs in innings six through nine this season. In 54 games total, that’s an average of 1.37 runs per game after the 5th inning. Extrapolate that over nine innings and that’s barely three runs a game. As a whole, the team is hitting .232/.303/.383, good for a 83 wRC+ in these innings.

What’s hurt is that in these same innings, they’ve allowed the opposition to score 2.19 runs a game. The pitching staff in innings six through nine own a 4.88 ERA, which is the worst in the NL and second only to the Twins in all of MLB, and this has amounted to a -44 run differential for the Cardinals in the final four frames. That’s not good.

The reason the Cardinals aren’t ten games out of first place (they’re somehow only 2.5 games away from being back in first) is because: 1) the NL Central, and the entire NL really, is pretty weak; and 2) the Cardinals have been 41 runs better than the opposition in innings one through five (.270/.344/.424, 104 wRC+ as a team in the 1st through 5th inning).

With regard to that second point, a lead needs to first be established for it to be blown, after all, and the Cardinals have certainly blown their fair share. In fourteen games this season they’ve let a two-run lead slip away, including nine games in which they let the other team come back from three runs. I don’t have the research skills to know how this compares with the rest of the league but blowing a two-run lead in over 26 percent of the games at the one-third mark certainly seems like a staggering amount. As does blowing a three-run lead in 17 percent of the time. And ten of these fourteen games have resulted in a loss - including all three this weekend. That’s the story of the season right there.

I don’t know why the Cardinals average 0.52 runs per inning in innings one through five and then choose to slip to 0.34 runs per inning for innings six through nine. It’s likely just some bad, strange luck and the product of an offense that simply hasn’t been good as currently constructed. Last season’s juggernaut offense has given way to one that ranks in the bottom half of the NL no matter what statistic you’re measuring by (runs scored, OPS, wRC+, etc.).

At the conclusion of last season, I noted that the Cardinals were often playing from behind (another difference from this year’s squad) by giving up an average of 0.62 runs in the first inning while only scoring 0.43. I thought that was a frustrating way to watch baseball but feel pretty confident that this is worse.

The bright side is the Cardinals just finished one of their toughest stretches of the schedule with 18 of their last 21 games against teams with a winning record. They now embark on another 21-game stretch, only 14 of these games are against losing teams, as well as four games with the Brewers, whose prowess is certainly up for debate. The offense needs to get going - Matt Carpenter needs to break out of his current funk (.143/.228/.248 in his last 79 plate appearances) - and the bullpen needs figured out. If it’s going to come together for this team, now’s a good time to do it.