Bird Bytes: It Hasn’t Always Been Pretty, but the Cardinals Are Recovering and Getting Wins

Some Bird Bytes for you on this fine Monday morning … 

Over the last week, covering seven games, the Cardinals have had multiple runners picked off base. They’ve been charged with five errors and could have been slapped with more. Their hitters abandoned too many runners on base, batting only .189 with runners in scoring position. And starting pitcher Carlos Martinez is struggling to rediscover way his dazzling opening-night performance.

No, it hasn’t been handsome. It’s been a grind. The Cardinals are still a team that gets in their own way, complicating their baseball lives with the fielding fumbles, base-running buffoonery, bullpen detonations, and making too many outs with runners waiting to be brought home. But this is a bottom-line sport — aren’t they all? — and the Cardinals have regrouped after sagging through the franchise’s worst start since 1972.

It wasn’t artistry — it wasn’t even a decent graffiti wall —  but the Cards engaged division mates Pittsburgh and Milwaukee in seven baseball games and won six times. Even though you may have winced and hollered a few times, you’ll take a 6-1 week … you’ll take a 6-1 week every single time.

As the Cardinals relax on their day off Monday, let’s dig into a few finer points:

Mike Leake has a 1.32 ERA through four 2017 starts.

1. Sure the STL offense perked at Miller Park, but the Cards’  6-1 week run mostly can be credited to the starting pitchers. In this seven-game turnaround their starters cranked out five quality starts, fashioned a 2.57 ERA, and Martinez turned in the only poor start. Other than Martinez getting bonked for a couple of homers and five earned runs in five innings in the opener at Milwaukee, Cards’ starters were touched for only seven earned runs in 37 innings for a 1.70 ERA.

The Cardinals rank fourth in the majors and second in the NL with a 3.33 rotation ERA. And given some of the off-kilter stuff we’ve seen from Martinez and Adam Wainwright, things can get better. The Cardinals are 8-2 when graced by a quality start and 1-8 with a starter ERA of 6.29 without a QS.

2. With Sunday’s win, Leake is 3-1 with a 1.32 ERA and 0.88 WHIP, a 5.0 K/BB ratio, and a 58 percent ground ball rate. He’s been superb. He’s full-on with confidence and energy. Leake pitched his way out of some early threats in Sunday’s victory, and that isn’t easy to do in that ballpark against that Brewer lineup. Using the Bill James “Game Score” metric as a quickie snapshot for grading starts, Leake has turned in three of the Cards’ seven best Game Scores so far.

3. Two young veterans, Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong, are pivotal to the success — or failure — of the Cardinals’2017 offense. Both have searched for consistency and traction. Both have endured too many false starts. Both have, at times, lost the confidence of manager Mike Matheny. It’s only a week, but Wong and Grichuk each batted .333 during the Cards’ 6-1 stretch. They drew walks, slashed extra-base hits. Looked good. Wong has raised his early-season overall numbers to a .339 OBP and a .417 slugging percentage. That will play. Grichuk’s early numbers are still way down. Both guys need to build on last week’s gains and keep it up — or risk going around in circles again.

4. In 17 games at Class AAA Memphis, outfielder Tommy Pham is batting .333 with a .400 OBP and .603 slugging percentage. He has five doubles, four homers and 16 RBIs. In 358 big-league plate appearances Pham has a .440 slug and .324 OBP for a .764 OPS. Question: will he get another shot with the big club? Or has Pham’s time come and gone? Just wondering.

5. Nothing personal, but the Cardinals have to make the obvious decision to move on from RH reliever Jonathan Broxton. They have to eat the remainder of his $3.75 million salary for 2017. Broxton just isn’t useful or trustworthy. He’s been in decline for a while now.  Two seasons ago, the big man’s strikeout rate was 25 percent; now he’s down to 16.7%. His walk rate, which jumped a bit in 2016, is an untenable 20% so far this season. (Yes, Broxton has a negative K/BB ratio.) And he was popped for another homer Sunday in Milwaukee. When you can’t have a reasonable expectation of a reliever protecting a four-run lead with three outs to go, then it’s time to stop the bleeding. Broxton, taking custody of a 6-2 lead, imperiled the Cardinals in the Milwaukee ninth … and the Cards had to rush closer Seung Hwan Oh into the game to pitch for a third consecutive game. Not good. It just seems silly to go on like this; the money involved here is minor.

6. Matthew Bowman hasn’t allowed an earned run in a regular-season MLB game since last Sept 6. Since yielding the one run, Bowman has appeared in 20 games, working 19.2 innings. His stats are phenomenal: a clean-sheet ERA (0.00), a microscopic 0.66 WHIP, an imposing 9.00 K/BB ratio, a .162 batting average and .362 OPS allowed, and a 72.5 percent ground ball rate. Preposterous. Delightfully so.

7. Lefty reliever Brett Cecil in his last six appearances: 4.2 innings, one hit, two walks (one of which was a work-around), a 31 percent strikeout rate, 55.6% ground ball rate, no runs, .188 OPS allowed. After pressing and stressing during the first week, Cecil has signed in. This is the guy coveted by GM John Mozeliak.

8. Cardinals starting pitchers have combined to drive in seven runs this season. Four by Wainwright, two by Leake, and one from Wacha. As a group the rotation’s seven RBIs are as many as the Cardinals have gotten from the catcher position and exceed the RBI contributions from first base (6), third base (6), shortstop (6) and center field (3.) Plus: Cardinals starting pitchers have combined to hit .267 with runners in scoring position (4 for 15.) Non-pitchers on the team have combined to bat .187 with RISP.

9. Through their first 19 games the Cardinals have been assessed with 15 unforced base-running errors according to the charts kept by STATS LLC. That’s tied for the second-worst amount among the 30 teams. It breaks down this way: four caught stealing, nine runners out while trying to advance an extra base on a batted ball, one runner doubled off base on a fly ball, four picked off. Will this team ever develop an aptitude for running the bases? This is ridiculous.

10. Matt Adams in his first two seasons, 2013-2014: .287 average, .327 OBP, .474 slug, .123 wRC+.

10a. Here’s Adams since start of the 2015 season…   .242 average, .297 OBP, .423 slug,  92 wRC+.

As for weighted runs created plus (wRC+):  100 is league average. That means Adams was 23 percent above the league average offensively in 2013-14 … and Adams has been eight percent below the league average since the beginning of the ’15 campaign.

Thanks for reading …

Bernie 

More: The Cardinals Don’t Have to Rearrange the Infield. Starting Jedd Gyorko At Third Base Is Fine