Quarter-Season Pole: Cardinals Are Taking Care of NL Central Business So Far

The Cardinals have officially arrived at the quarter-season pole. The offense has stunk, the rotation has been great, and the bullpen has been unsettled.

Add it all up, and you have a team on pace for 93 wins.

Wait, what?

The Cardinals are one of MLB’s strangest, most inconsistent, most infuriating teams to watch this season. The team’s three best hitters have given them nothing. The two underwhelming offseason pitching signings have given the team more to celebrate than Marcell Ozuna has.

So, at the quarter-poll mark, let’s take stock of where this team stands compared to expectations, and where they could go from here.

The offense has been awful, and it’s not hard to figure out why. The Cardinals are 27th in batting average, 20th in OBP, 26th in SLG & 25th in OPS this year. St. Louis ranks in the bottom 10 in basically every significant offensive category. And it all points back to the three most underwhelming players in the order.

The Cardinals were counting on OBP at the top from Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter, and slugging in the middle from Marcell Ozuna. They’ve received anything but.
Fowler’s .274 OBP ranks 157th among 168 qualified hitters. Matt Carpenter’s .297 OBP ranks 135th. Marcell Ozuna’s .338 SLG ranks 148th.

Yeah, that explains some of the hitting woes.

Thank God for Tommy Pham and Paul DeJong.

Pham ranks fifth among qualified NL hitters in OPS (.971). He’s once again on pace for a .300/.400/.500 season, and his current pace projects to 32 home runs & 28 stolen bases.

To put it another way, Pham is very close to achieving the 30-home run, 30-stolen base goal he set in the offseason. If he reached that mark, he would be just the 11th player to post a .300/.400/.500 season 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases. The last to do so was Hanley Ramirez back in 2008.

DeJong deserves a mention here, because he’s finally showing signs of plate discipline. His strikeout rate is almost the exact same as it was a year ago (29%), but his walk rate has more than doubled! DeJong had 21 walks in 443 plate appearances last season. He’s already up to 16 walks in 166 plate appearances in 2018. His 9.6% walk rate is actually above league average. DeJong has a good shot to stay above the .800 OPS line if he keeps that walk rate at a respectable level. So far, so good.

The Cardinals rotation has been better than expected: The Cardinals boast the 2nd best rotation ERA in the national league, and it hasn’t been due to luck. They also rank among the top 5 in the NL in fielding independent pitching.

The only Cardinals starters with an ERA above 3.1 are Adam Wainwright (4.0) & Luke Weaver (4.9); but Weaver’s FIP is 3.3. Positive regression is coming for him.

Waino just went on the DL with no timetable for return. With his stint on the DL, and Reyes’ return to the rotation expected in the next couple weeks, the Cardinals will soon have an average age of the team’s starting pitcher of 24.8 years old. That’s mroe than a year younger than the current youngest rotation in the majors (the Phillies).

The Cardinals bullpen has been…Unsettled: Considering the trips to the DL for Luke Gregerson, Tyler Lyons, Dominic Leone, Ryan Sheriff, Sam Tuivailala and Brett Cecil, it’s a minor miracle the Cardinals bullpen has held up the way it has.

The Cardinals’ 3.86 bullpen ERA is 12th in the MLB. Jordan Hicks is maintaining a 0.92 ERA despite a 4.92 FIP. Bud Norris is 9-for-9 in save opportunities. Brebbia has a 2.7 ERA and a 0.94 FIP. Those three have saved the ‘pen this season. Just like we all expected.

The Cardinals defense has improved. Baserunning…Ehh…The Cardinals are 11th in the MLB in defensive runs saved (+9). The team’s best defenders have been Kolten Wong (+6 DRS), Harrison Bader (+5 DRS) and Paul DeJong (+3 DRS). The biggest negatives defensively this year are Dexter Fowler (-5) & Jose Martinez (-5). Things are looking up for arguably the worst defensive team in the MLB last season. The Cardinals still aren’t a great fielding team, but they’re slightly above average. If the offense comes to life, average is good enough.

The baserunning remains a problem. The Cardinals are 17th in the MLB in successful steals this season, but they lead the MLB in times caught stealing.

I still believe this is a good team. The Cardinals are on pace for 93 wins. The offense has been a shell of itself. The rotation has been solid. The bullpen has been decent. The defense has been slightly above average.

I fully expect the offense to get it going eventually. The track records for players like Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna speak for themselves. We’ve now seen Tommy Pham play like one of the best players in baseball for more than a year. If any of Paul DeJong’s plate discipline is real, he’ll continue to be a factor. The depth of the lineup remains strong… But only if Carp, Fowler and Ozuna get it turned around. It all hinges on those three.

The rotation is finally going to have the five most talented starters on taking the ball every fifth day. Barring something catastrophic in Carlos Martinez’s rehab, it will be some combination of Martinez, Reyes, Flaherty, Weaver, Wacha and Mikolas moving forward. That’s promising.

The Cardinals aren’t world-beaters, but nobody expected them to be that. The bottom line results are pretty much what fans expected despite getting here in a roundabout way. They’re taking care of business within the division. They’re beating up on most of the bad teams they play. And the schedule is about to open up again after the series against the Phillies.

More – Bernie Bytes: 20 Quick-Hit Takes on the Cardinals. Speed Reading!