ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- It’s been tough to decide what the Cardinals are in 2017. Every time they appear set to slide into full-blown ineptitude, they rattle off a run of series wins to keep them within striking distance of the division title.
Every time they appear to be gaining momentum, they trip over their shoelaces and fall back into the rest of the pack.
Grading this team is a confounding exercise. Are they a talented team under performing? Or are they in fact playing to the best of their ability, a blow rendered less critical by the fact the division is a shambling mess?
What grade do you give the Cards for the first half? Share your thoughts.
The report card isn’t marked with with Fs, but given the expectations heading into the year, the team may do well to hide it until next semester if they hope to keep car privileges.
STARTING PITCHING: B
They could have easily slid into C+ territory, but closed strong enough to avoid being grounded. Adam Wainwright threw 6.2 innings of one-run ball to end his first half and Lance Lynn tossed seven shutout innings and allowed just three hits to finish off the Mets before the All Star break.
What grade do you give the starting rotation? Share your thoughts.
Mike Leake and Michael Wacha opened the season on fire, and Carlos Martinez has been steady enough all year to keep the rotation in the top four of the National League in ERA (3.90). But there have been brutal lows as well. During the abysmal road trip to open June, the rotation averaged five innings per outing and failed to record a quality start in seven games, all losses. Wainwright has 10 starts in which he allowed two runs or less, but has eight in which he allowed four runs or more. He has allowed nine runs twice.
Wacha has limited damage to three runs in 12 of his starts, but has five starts in which he didn’t complete five innings. Leak opened the year 9-for9 on quality starts, but has a 4.66 ERA since.
They’re a group capable of influencing one another; they spring and stumble together. To this point, they’ve been enough to keep the Birds in the race. If things turn, they could be the reason the Cards fall out of it.
RELIEF PITCHING: C+
The Cardinals’ pen is firmly in the middle of the pack in the NL, and they’ve struggled to find consistent individual performance.
In fact, among relievers who’ve thrown at least 20 innings, the Cardinals have just one reliever in the top 30 in ERA. That honor goes to Sam Tuivailala, whose 2.25 makes him 15th in the league.
What grade do you give the bullpen? Share your thoughts.
Brett Cecil spent the first part of the season as a lost soul, but has resurrected his 2017 in spectacular fashion. Since May 16 he’s allowed just 12 hits and four earned runs in 23 appearances. Four of those hits, as well as all four of the earned runs, came in one game. That means 20.2 of his last 21.1 innings, he has an ERA of 0. The fact that stretch exists and his season ERA is still 3.31 should indicate how deep his hole was.
Trevor Rosenthal has the opposite problem. Through the first two months, he had an ERA of 2.45, 31 strikeouts and six walks in 19 appearances. In June and July, his era is 6, and he’s struck out just 22 compared to 10 free passes.
Seung-hwan Oh has stabilized somewhat, but is still much more susceptible than last season. Through the same amount of appearances, the Final Boss has an ERA nearly two runs worse than at this point in 2016, and batters are hitting 100 points better against him.
Now, he wasn’t yet the closer at last year’s All Star break and hitters have had a year of film to study up, but his vulnerability has lent itself to some crushing losses for the team.
The Cardinals have lost 14 games in which they led by at least two runs and have blown leads as big as four runs.
Each piece has been useful for a period, but the group has failed operate as a successful whole all year.
Help has come from below plenty of times this season. Paul DeJong has proven to be a powerful jolt for the Birds (10 doubles, 9 homers, 20 RBI), Luke Voit has provided exciting pop (.316 BA, 1.050 OPS) and fans are still buzzing about Magneuris Sierra’s brief run as a singles machine early this year.
What grade do you give the offense? Share your thoughts.
The incumbent members of the lineup have been largely up and down, with the exception of Jedd Gyorko, whose .300/.364/.519 first half puts him among the top 25 or so hitters in the NL.
The one thing the offense can do better than most is get on base. The Cardinals are third in the NL in OBP (.329) and fourth in walks (.311). Matt Carpenter, for all his troubles to start the year, still leads the NL in free bases with 63.
But all those base runners mean very little if they never make it home. Despite trailing only the Nats and Dodgers in OBP, the Cardinals are 10th in runs scored. Their 402 total trails Los Angeles by 84 and Washington by 61.
The run differential for the Cardinals is +13, the lowest of any team with a positive number. They need steady offense in order to take advantage of the runners they put on, and outside of Gyorko, have struggled to find dependable bats from series to series.
They badly need a bopper as well. They are the only team in baseball without a 15-homer player, despite having four men in double digits.
This grade is fairly obvious and would be lower if not for some particularly exciting individual play. The Cardinals are 10th in errors in the NL, and have only four players above zero in defensive runs saved according to Fangraphs (Jedd Gyorko, Stephen Piscotty Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter). Tommy Pham would be on that list had he played enough innings.
What grade do you give the defense? Share your thoughts.
Pham in particular has played well in the outfield, saving at least two games with his defense. Others like Gyorko have been steady hands, and Kolten Wong offers top-5 defense at second base once he returns from the disabled list.
But as a whole, the team has failed to deliver on its promised improvement. Costing pitchers many unearned runs and extending innings through misplays and poor execution.
On one hand, Mike Matheny and his coaches can’t physically play the game for their players. They can’t field balls or throw pitches. They can’t take the bat up for a crack at a pitcher in the third inning. Some of these mistakes belong entirely to the people making them.
What grade do you give the coaching? Share your thoughts.
However, the coaching staff has utterly failed to deliver on their promises from the offseason. The team is still kicking too many balls around and they’re still one of the worst teams in baseball on the bases. At some point, if the on-field product doesn’t improve (especially if that is the proclaimed area of focus), the strategy for improving it bears some of the blame.
It’s telling that each time a player is struggling, he is sent lower in the system for instruction. Some of that is due to the intense demands of MLB play, meaning there simply isn’t enough time for major league coaches to dedicate to individuals while trying to win games. But the fact coaches lower in the system are charged with fixing players from the MLB roster, and appear to have done so time and again, indicates the approach in St. Louis has flaws.
This was reinforced when Mark Budaska was promoted from Memphis to act as assistant hitting coach (following Bill Mueller stepping away from the team), with then-GM John Mozeliak citing his success with both current and former Triple-A players. Members of the 25-man roster were successful with Budaska, but had not been under hitting coach John Mabry and Mueller, so they tried someone new.
It’s notable that the Cardinals went from 26th in runs scored in May to 7th by the end of June (Budaska was promoted June 9).
While Matheny’s bullpen management has improved over seasons past, he’s still struggled at times to handle an unstable relief corps with a consistent approach. He also played Matt Adams for nearly 35 innings in left field, nearly all of which came in April, a month after he learned the position.
Still, a team that could have very easily collapsed into full sell off mode remains tied with the Cubs and 5.5 games back of the division lead.