Mailbag: Are Cardinals buyers after recent hot stretch? -

Mailbag: Are Cardinals buyers after recent hot stretch?

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ST. LOUIS (BaseballStL) -

It’s time again for the weekly Baseball STL mailbag, found each Friday at and on the Baseball STL app. Got questions about the Cardinals (or anything else, really) that you’d like to see answered by KMOV’s baseball writers, JJ Bailey and Brenden Schaeffer? Send a tweet with #BaseballSTLmailbag and your question could be featured in a future edition of the mailbag!

Let’s say the Cardinals get hot and are in the wild card and division race at the deadline. Does Mozeliak ignore the struggles and underlying problems the team has had to this point and decide not make a key addition or trade on the merits of that recent hot streak? -@CardinalsFan (Sounds made up, but I promise that's a real Twitter handle that asked a real question, go check for yourself)

I know the faith in John Mozeliak’s ability to mastermind a season has been shaken for some in Cardinal Nation, and in many ways, understandably so.

Look, the Cardinals haven’t reached the postseason since 2015. It’s been a while. The team says it doesn’t accept that as the standard, as the norm, so neither should you. For an organization with as much success this millennium as St. Louis has had, coupled with consistent remarks from team management indicating those days of success are expected to continue, it makes perfect sense that people would be irritated after consecutive years of botched expectations.

This year threatens to be a three-peat of an unfortunate variety.

The pressure is mounting to return to October. Criticisms of the team are flowing as freely as they ever have under the current ownership group. For those reasons, it would seem awfully imprudent for Mozeliak to base his decisions on a small sample.

Sure, the Cardinals have been a little better the last handful of games. For the season, they’ve been fine. They’ve hung around. They have some talent, they have some problems. The front office, ideally, is as aware of the state of the club as anyone. My premise: the way it addresses the roster won’t be influenced solely by a recent handful of games. If the Cardinals win 8 of their next 10, Mozeliak shouldn’t, and likely wouldn’t, kick back and assume the team he built is perfect and suddenly a World Series contender.

Middle relief is still a question. Consistency at the plate is still a question. Starting pitching depth, thanks to mounting injuries, is certainly an area to monitor. Mozeliak and his team will do so. Rather than assume they’ll be lulled into a false sense of security by a few nice wins, the real question will be the degree to which they prioritize 2018 against the future.

This team has a shot to reach the postseason. Doing so would go a long way toward earning back some goodwill from an increasingly disgruntled fan base. But does this team have a solid shot to win it all? Perhaps not.

If Mozeliak believes this year’s Cardinals are more than one player (say, a Machado) away, his moves at the deadline might be more muted than those who expect a major splash would prefer. But the knowledge that the natives are restless during a third straight season of such a narrative should motivate the President of Baseball Ops to find a way back into the postseason one way or another. -Brenden

Are there underlying stats to support an expectation that Wong and Fowler could really be awaking from season-long slumps? - MD Norton (@BB_MDN)

Short answer: yes for one, no for the other.

I realize going heavy into stats can make people’s eyes glaze over, so I’m going to do my best to keep this digestible for non-numbers people. *A note that some of this is coming from Statcast data, which only goes back to 2015. So when I say career, I mean since it could be tracked in his career.*

We’ll start with Kolten Wong.

A good place to start is looking at the splits from the last 28 days, 14 days and 7 days. Over the last month, he’s getting better in nearly every category. His slash line (average, on base, slugging) has steadily climbed, and his OPS is on a march toward 1.000. For the past 28 days, it's .777, over the last 14 days it's .889, and over the last week it’s .983.

He’s showing sustained improvement, but there’s more to it.

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a fairly good indicator of luck. The league average is about .300, meaning if you put a ball in play every at-bat, you’d be a .300 hitter. Dramatically higher than that (say, .500), means you’re getting real lucky. You’re hitting everything where the fielders AREN’T. Dramatically lower than .300 (say, .180), means you’re really unlucky. Everything you hit has been going right at someone.

Wong this season has a BABIP of .214, which is the lowest of his career. He’s hitting into fielders. But over the last month it has risen steadily, which means his luck is starting to normalize. That word “normalize” is important, because right about now you’re likely thinking “Oh, so he’s just getting luckier.”

Dear reader, hold your horses.

Wong’s approach at the plate this year is greatly improved. A quick breakdown:

He has the lowest chase percentage of his career (24%), meaning he’s chasing less bad pitches than ever before.

After regularly getting himself in an 0-1 hole for several years running, his first pitch swing percentage is the lowest of his career (22.4%).

His barrel percentage, measuring how many balls he hits in the sweet spot of the bat, is up to 4.7%, which is WAY up from his career average of 3.3%.

Ok, you made it through. Take a breath.

In short, he’s swinging at better pitches, putting himself in better positions during at-bats and is making better contact than ever before. The numbers are improving because he’s improved as a hitter and he got very unlucky early.

Now that things are evening out, he’s finally getting the results you’d expect to see.

With Fowler, there’s less cause for optimism.

His BABIP on the season is astoundingly bad at .196, so he’s definitely due some better luck at some point.

But while his stats are trying to claw their way toward respectable levels, the underlying foundation doesn’t look promising.

Fowler has the lowest hard hit percentage of his career at 27%, compared to a career average of 32%. He also has the lowest barrel percentage of his career (3.1% compared to a career average of more than 5%).

He has the highest whiff rate of his career, the second highest chase rate of his career, and the lowest contact rate on pitches within the zone of his career.

In this case, good luck seems to just be good luck. -JJ

Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris are unavailable, one run lead in the 9th. Who's getting the nod? -@cardbirds_

The struggles of the Cardinal bullpen have been well documented, but for the most part, those struggles have been confined to the middle innings. The conundrum has been how to safely carry leads into the late stage of games, where Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris have shown they can often reliably lock things down.

This is an interesting hypothetical, considering the answer to the question has to come from the group of players inherently deemed less dependable. Among that group, however, has emerged an unlikely candidate that should be considered for increased responsibilities should the opportunity arise.

Remember the guy who infamously fell flat in a spot start on national television a couple years ago? Yeah, well he’s actually carving out a pretty nice role for himself as a reliever lately.

Mike Mayers has struck out nearly a batter per inning (24 Ks in 25 IP) this season, and boasts an ERA of 2.88. His 3.46 FIP indicates his performance hasn’t been buoyed by any extremely favorable luck. What's more, his recent 99 mph fastballs indicate he’s throwing some serious smoke, these days.

Mike Mayers is approaching triple-digits? Yup. And that stuff plays out of the bullpen. Mayers has remade himself into a guy who spits gas and carries himself with a different kind of swagger on the mound. That kind of vibe could play at the back end of games, Mike Matheny has already given Mayers opportunities to finish out games that are well in hand this season.

The next time the Cardinals get in a bind in a save situation, I think I’d like to see Mayers get a shot at it. -Brenden

How did it take Matheny this long to [get mad?] How did the Cubs celebrating clinching the division last season on our field NOT make him as mad as the game on Friday? -Yadi’s strobe lights (@stlupdates491)

I believe you’re referring him staring radiated daggers into the Milwaukee celebration, which was about as intense of a use of eyeballs as there is.

Before I answer this I’ll say: Mike Matheny takes losing personally. This isn’t the first time it’s visibly bothered him, though it may be the first time he didn’t care if the TV audience saw it.

He’s slept in his office after a loss before. He’s closed the door and… let’s say… redecorated the room. He’s been miserable and angry and gut-punched.

I think Friday’s staredown can be explained thusly:

When I was 14 I played for the Elgin National Little League Cardinals. That season we were lucky enough to play a game in the Kane County Cougars’ stadium. The Cougars are a minor league affiliate of the Diamondbacks now, but they were once the Cubs’ Single-A team, and when I played on their field they were part of the Florida (oh I’m old) Marlins. There were pictures of Dontrelle Willis all over the stadium (Oh I’m very old).

Anyway, we played a team from our league and blew a 3-run lead over the last two innings and struck out 1-2-3 to end the game. We played a game on the best field any of us had ever seen, and we just sort of farted a victory away because we didn’t play sharp. It SUCKED.

Afterward, while the other team was dancing and cheering on the field, our coach said, “Before you leave to go home, everybody stand here and watch them for a minute. Watch them celebrate. That feeling you have while you watch them will motivate you more than anything I could say.”

And he was right. Watching someone else live your celebration stays with you. You never want to feel that feeling again. You remember the bile creeping up and the sunken stomach and the heaviness of your feet. It’s something you draw on when adversity comes calling.

So if I had to guess, I’d say some part of what Mike was doing Friday night was making sure he took that celebration in. I don’t think he hated what they were doing, I think he hated the way it made him feel.

As for why it seemed more impactful than the Cubs clinching in St. Louis, it’s likely an issue of circumstance. The Cubs were going to clinch, and the season was largely spent. It hurts, but it’s a likely outcome and there are other things to worry about.

This celebration was different. The team was hanging by a thread, Mike’s position as manager is more tenuous than ever before, and the outcome of that game felt a lot more important to everyone’s career than the Cubs clinching.

So he stared, and hated, and remembered. Just this time, we all got to watch. -JJ

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