The Cubs have all but sent engraved invitations to St. Louis, requesting the Cardinals’ presence in a duel for first place in the NL Central.
The Cardinals showed up for a while. After defeating Atlanta to win their eighth consecutive game on Aug. 12, the Cards went to five games over .500 and moved into a virtual first-place tie with the Cubs.
Stick a pin in the party balloons.
Since the end of their entertaining, hope-inspiring, optimism-inflating eight-game winning streak the Cardinals have lost nine of 13 games. Only two of the 13 competitions were played against a team (Boston) with a winning record. The Cardinals dragged home following a disappointing four-game split with Pittsburgh (63-68) and fell down again — going 2-4 in losing consecutive three-game series to San Diego (57-73) and Tampa Bay (65-67.)
The Cards’ 4-9 record since Aug. 13 is the worst in the National League and second-worst in the majors. (Detroit is 3-10.) How did this happen? Not that an eight-game winning streak transformed the Cardinals into an unstoppable force. Not at all. This team has problems.
That said, the slide back to mediocrity (65-65 record) is disappointing. Especially since the Cubs have allowed the Cardinals to loiter in the division — and the Cards can’t take advantage of it.
Since vaulting into that first-place tie on Aug. 12, the Cardinals have lost 4.5 games in the standings to the Cubs. And after being two games ahead of Milwaukee on Aug. 12, the slumping Cardinals find themselves 2.5 games behind the Brewers … another 4.5-game swing, Wild card? No need to talk about that right now; the Cardinals are suddenly six games out of the second spot after creeping close for a while.
There are obvious reasons for the latest wrong turn in a long and strange season:
1. The worst thing that could happen to this team was a collapse of the pitching staff. Over the last 13 games, the Cardinals have an overall 6.20 ERA that ranks 13th among the 15 NL teams.
2. That includes a 6.20 starting-pitching ERA. It’s been a rough month for the rotation, with Cards’ starters getting smacked for a 5.03 ERA during August. Despite the Cardinals’ pitchers receiving much healthier run support, the team is only 13-12 this month.
3. And, a 6.20 bullpen ERA. When you’re getting blasted for a 6.20 ERA across the board, it ain’t good.
4. The bullpen has basically imploded since Trevor Rosenthal left the game at Boston on Aug. 16 with a season-ending elbow injury. Including that game, the Cardinals bullpen has been popped for a 6.51 ERA over 11 games. The pen’s collective walk rate (5.54 per 9 innings) and escalating home-run rate (1.69 per 9 innings) since the Rosenthal injury has led to more late-inning disasters. During their 4-9 stretch the Cardinals have a 7.38 ERA from the 7th inning on.
5. With so much trouble swirling with this pitching staff, especially in late innings, we’re seeing a continuation of a season trend: A terrible record in close games. The Cardinals are 19-25 in one-run games for a .432 winning percentage that ranks 26th in the majors. One area that doesn’t receive much scrutiny is the Cards’ record game that are tied late. Games such as Sunday’s 3-2 loss to Tampa Bay in 10 innings. When the Cardinals are tied going into the 7th inning, their record is 5-14. When tied going into the 8th inning the record is 2-11. It’s 5-10 when tied heading into the 9th, and 4-7 with a tie leading into the 10th. And so on.
6. Organizational complacency: since 2011, when he made the biggie July trade to reinforce a thin pitching staff, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak could always be counted on to secure some relief help late in the season. The ’11 deal (the Colby Rasmus trade) put Octavio Dotel and and Marc Rzepczynski in the bullpen. Mozeliak later signed Arthur Rhodes for the ’11 stretch run. And rather than keep starting-pitching prospect Lance Lynn in the minors, the Cardinals broght him to the big club to take on a relief role. In 2012, Mozeliak made a superb deal for reliever Edward Mujica. John Axford was acquired late in 2013. In 2014, Pat Neshek was signed on a make-good spring training contract. In 2015, Mozeliak traded for relievers Jonathan Broxton and Steve Cishek. Last year, it was Zach Duke.
This year? …. not one move … even as the bullpen burns and smolders. The Cardinals haven’t added a major-league reliever to their supply since trading starting pitcher Jaime Garcia to Atlanta in a deal that included John Gant coming to St. Louis. (And Gant wasn’t all that established; after all the Cardinals have declined to promote him from Class AAA Memphis.) That trade was announced on Dec. 1, 2016 … meaning that Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch have gone 271 days (through Monday) without adding an MLB reliever to their bullpen.
This bruised bullpen is vulnerable. Tired arms are the norm. Sunday, three relievers were unavailable to pitch against the Rays because they needed a day off to rest. (Tyler Lyons, Matthew Bowman and Ryan Sherriff.) Manager Mike Matheny’s plan to mix-and-match his way to protecting late leads may work to a point, but only if enough arms are fresh. With Matheny mixing and matching, it sets up a real possibility of the Cardinals using more relievers each game. And if you use more relievers in a game that means less rest — and more arm weariness — for those relievers.
It’s almost as if Mozeliak is sending a message to Matheny: “You want an eight-man bullpen? Then learn how to manage an eight-man bullpen. Because we aren’t trading for a reliever.” Well, that probably isn’t the case. But..
7. Manager Mike Matheny still doesn’t use his best hitters as often as he should. After doing well for his first two games following a brief trip to the minors to regroup, right fielder Stephen Piscotty has gone 2 for 15 with seven strikeouts. Meanwhile, Jose Martinez is sitting … and sitting … and sitting.
Unlike Piscotty, Martinez has been a consistently good hitter for the 2017 Cardinals. In 205 plate appearances Martinez is batting .286 with a .353 onbase percentage and .505 slug for an OPS of 858.
In 317 plate appearances Piscotty has a .235 average, .344 onbase percentage and .366 slug for a .710 OPS. Martinez is the superior hitter in every category. His OPS is 148 points higher than Piscotty’s. In park-adjusted runs created (wRC+), Martinez is 22 percent above the league average; Piscotty is eight percent below league average. That’s a huge gap.
In 56 plate appearances this month, Martinez has an excellent .393 OBP and is slugging .511. Around the time of Piscotty’s demotion, Matheny committed to Martinez by starting Martinez in six consecutive games. The Cardinals won all six games as part of their eight-game winning streak. And Martinez contributed to the Cardinals’ offensive surge, slugging .583 with a .929 OPS and a double, two homers, four runs and five RBIs.
In other words: Martinez passed the test. He helped the Cardinals’ attack come to life and had impact during an eight-game winning streak. The Martinez run of six consecutive starts ended on Aug 10. Since then, Martinez has started only THREE games. The last start came on Aug. 19, and Martinez went 2 for 4 with a double and a homer. That’s it. No more starts as Matheny turned to Piscotty and/or Randal Grichuk. And it’s not as if Grichuk is tearing it up lately; he has one homer in his last 42 plate appearances over 13 games.
So why would Martinez be excluded from the lineup, especially to give starts and at-bats to Piscotty? Martinez isn’t good defensively. Piscotty has saved six runs defensively according to the Fielding Bible metrics. But Piscotty is one of the team’s worst base runners, thrown out on unforced errors 11 times this season — running his total to 28 times lost on the bases via unforced error since joining the Cardinals in late July 2015.
Using the Base Running Runs metric, Piscotty has ranked no better than 23rd on the team in BRR over the last two seasons. He’s had a negative BRR as a Cardinal. Martinez’s BRR is below average, but he’s still rated higher than Piscotty.
When Piscotty starts a game this season, the Cardinals are 31-41. His one asset, defense, has minimal impact. Martinez is easily the more prolific producer — it’s not even close — and is a slightly better base runner than Piscotty. The Cardinals are 22-18 when Martinez starts a game.
Question: doesn’t a manager have a minimal obligation to utilize his best players? If a team is really trying to win, the answer is an emphatic Yes. But Martinez is buried on the bench, moved aside in favor of Piscotty, who is among the Cardinals’ worst offensive performers this season. It’s just crazy … unless the priority is trying to get Piscotty straightened out, at the expense of winning, because the team gave him a $33.5 million contract before the season.
Given the front-office inactivity and the bizarre lineup choices, you just have to wonder what the true objectives are here.
Thanks for reading …