Cardinals Fix-It List: Bullpen, Hitting Approach, Pham Slump, Mathenaging

Since sweeping the Cubs in three glorious days of rivalry-charged baseball the weekend of May 4-6 at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals have flattened out.

To this stage of the season the Cardinals’ weekend counterattack on the Cubs — which featured consecutive walk-off wins — was the high point of 2018. When Dexter Fowler touched home plate after stunning the Cubs with a two-run, sweep-clinching homer in the 14th inning to give the home team a 4-3 victory after a battle of 4 hours 46 minutes, the Cardinals frolicked in happiness.

Fowler’s thunderbolt gave the Cardinals a handsome 20-12 record, and first-place status in the NL Central. The Cardinals led Milwaukee by 1.5 games, Pittsburgh by 2.5, and were 3.5 in front of the third-place Cubs.

The Cardinals couldn’t hold. Six games and seven days later, they were out of first place and haven’t been back. Going into the weekend, here are the NL Central “standings” since May 7, the day after the Cardinals sealed the sweep of the Cubs:

Chicago          22-12  .647       —

Milwaukee   21-12   .636      .5

Cincinnati     17-17   .500       5

St. Louis          16-18   .471       6

Pittsburgh     14-19   .424       7.5

Yes, that’s correct … the Reds have a better record than the Cardinals since Cardinals swept the Cubs. The sweep was nice, but the Cardinals dropped the broom to soon.

The 16-18 record is a consequence of injuries, thinning personnel, a capricious offense and the bullpen backdraft.  The Cardinals have played 25 games against opponents with losing records since May ,  winning only 12. And that’s not surprising given the three most ominous trends over the past 34 games:

The first is the overcrowding of the disabled list. Beginning with the Saturday of the winning weekend against the Cubs, the Cardinals have placed 11 players on the DL a total of 12 times.  Some of these injuries were inconsequential. But catcher Yadier Molina, shortstop Paul DeJong, starting pitchers Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes and Adam Wainwright, and lefty relieverTyler Lyons matter.

The second alarming trend over the last 34 games is a 5.34 bullpen ERA. The bullpen has given up at least one run 25 times in the 33 games its worked during this stretch … and been slapped for 2+  runs 20 times … and jacked for 3+ runs in 13 of the 33 games. Moreover, since May 7 the Cards’  relievers have been torched for a .447 slugging percentage, .809 OPS and have walked too many hitters.

 The third wrong-way turn over the last 34 games is an offense with a faulty fuse box. The St. Louis offense has scored three runs or fewer 18 times and failed to reach the league average (4.32) for runs per game 21 times.  Since the sweep the Cardinals rank 11th in the NL in runs per game (3.94), 11th in slugging percentage (.392) and have the fewest extra-base hits.

Now that we understand some of the specifics behind the 16-18 downturn since May, what can the Cardinals do about it? How do they fix it. Collectively, how do the Cardinals raise their game?

1. Clean up the ungodly mess in the bullpen. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch are on the clock. If something isn’t done, and soon, then the Cardinals can just go ahead and toss their 2018 season into the nearest landfill. And waiting for terrible, old, declining or mediocre relievers to heal and come back from the DL isn’t the answer. Either try some of the fresh arms from Memphis or Springfield, or aggressively make a couple of trades. But the Cardinals can’t expect to hang with teams that have excellent bullpens (Cubs, Brewers) when their own bullpen is a nightly grease fire. Oh, yeah, this might be the only way to save Jordan Hicks from harm.

2. Mike Matheny has to use relievers when they’re promoted. The manager often complains about having a tired, beaten-down bullpen. And it isn’t Matheny’s fault that the bullpen is struggling because of work load and front-office personnel decisions that haven’t worked out. I do have empathy for Matheny. However … he can’t constantly cite bullpen fatigue AND decline to use a fresh arm promoted from Memphis.  In late April the Cardinals called up rookie lefty Austin Gomber, who was off to an excellent start in Triple A.  But Gomber sat in the STL bullpen for several days, never appeared in a game, and was dispatched back to Memphis. And how it’s happening again with rookie RH Daniel Poncedeleon. He was promoted in time for the three-game series against San Diego. The three games were played. The Padres left town. And Poncedeleon is still sitting in the bullpen. He has not thrown a pitch in any of the 27 innings of baseball played since his promotion. This makes absolutely no sense.

3. I sure wish Matheny would be more proactive. Recent example: Luke Weaver’s start against the Padres on Wednesday. Luke and the Cards were trailing 2-0 through five innings.  Weaver had allowed seven hits, and had worked hard to limit the damage. And this season, Weaver has a pattern of running low on fuel — very quickly — when he faces a lineup the third time through. The Padres were lined up for their third turn against Weaver in the top of the sixth and sure enough: one out, then double, triple, removed from the game. The Padres would get both of those runners in (the runs charged to Weaver) and take a 4-0 lead on a slow night for the Cardinals offense. These emergencies can be averted. Matheny just has to prevent them by being more proactive then reactive.

4. Tommy Pham has to get cranking, like, right now: In his last 39 games and 159 PA, Pham his batting .219, getting on base only 28 percent of the time,  slugging a substandard .370, striking out at a rate of 28%, and whacking ground balls at a 53.4% clip. This offense cannot ignite without Pham serving as the stimulus. When Pham is right, his impact is momentous.

5. Sing a little hymn to the god of slugging percentage for the safe return of Paul DeJong … and that DeJong stays healthy and robust once he settles into the lineup. No one is saying that Paul DeJong is the Cal Ripken Junior of his era, so calm down. But I’m thinking the Cardinals’ lethargic offense could use an above-average shortstop defensively who has a .517 slug and a home-run ratio of one every 17 at-bats in his first 614 MLB plate appearances.

6. Adjust to a more aggressive hitting approach, or find a new batting coach. I’ve already talked and written about the Cardinals’ foolishly bad habit of watching too many called strikes go by overall — and especially on hitters’ favorites counts such as 2-0 and 3-1. Here’s more: the Cardinals have taken 55.3% of all pitches thrown to them this season, the fourth highest “take” rate in MLB, and second highest in the NL. And to put additional perspective on this, the 55.3% take rate would be the highest by a Cardinals team since 1993. Would someone like to explain the benefit of taking so many pitches? If it’s to get control of the count, fine — unless, of course, that follows with something stupid like watching a called strike on 2-0, or 2-1, or 3-1. And if you’re guessing that this take rate is a strategy to draw more walks and get more runners on base, well, it’s failing, The Cardinals’ current walk rate of 8.4% ranks 18th in the majors.  That 8.4% walk rate would be the Cards’ seventh-lowest since 1996, a span of 23 seasons. Swing. The. Damn. Bat.

7. Give Muscles O’Neill another chance. OK, I realize that outfielder Tyler O’Neill got overwhelmed there near the end of his second call-up from Memphis; after giving the Cardinals a power shot for a few games, I think he struck out something like 7 times in 5 at-bats … no, wait … but it was a lot. But we also know this: after coming up on May 18, O’Neill started seven games for the Cardinals. And in those seven starts O’Neill slammed three homers, a double and drove in six runs. And he scored five runs, and batted .286, and slugged .643, and had a .953 OPS. And even though O’Neill bats from the right side, when he faced RH pitching as a starting outfielder, he had nine hits, and three went for homers, and another went for a double, and he batted .321 and he slugged .679, and his OPS was a freaking 1.023. … and so … yes, strikeouts … I get it. And too many outfielders, even though one of the outfielders can’t hit at all (Fowler), one is quick-sanding in the worst hitting slump of his career (Pham) and another (Harrison Bader) has a career .219 average and .308 slug vs. RH pitchers.

8. And there’s another option at Memphis to consider. His name is Oscar Mercado. Let me just ask a relatively simple question. Do you think the Cardinals’ lineup could use a player that carries this profile? I think the Cardnals’ lineup could use a player that carries this profile: .314 average, .383 OBP, .462 slug, .845 OPS,  10% walk rate, a low 13.8% strikeout rate, 14 stolen bases, 47 runs scored, 15 doubles, a triple, six homers, 27 RBIs, and award-winning caliber defense.  Again, I know the Cardinals have a traffic jam in the outfield. I also know that their offense stinks, and lacks speed, and the all-around tool set that Mercado has in his game. And I also know that absolutely no one, anywhere, for any reason, is comparing the Cardinals’ current outfield to the 1927 New York Yankees’ alignment of Babe Ruth, Earle Combs and Bob Meusel.

9. Go boldly into the trade market seeking  a hitter of magnitude who can strengthen the lineup offensively at second base,  third base, or even shortstop. (Those positions work, because Matt Carpenter can move from third base to second, and DeJong can switch from shortstop to third or second.) The Cardinals need to move on from Kolten Wong, and target an infield bat. I’m not concocting one of those crazy-person fantasy trades here, or demanding that the Cardinals trade their top 20 prospects for Manny Machado. But if this team is in a legit position to jump into the postseason, then management has to be more aggressive this time.

10. I’m going to call this, “Dream On People, But It Ain’t Gonna Happen,” … If you want Matheny fired, it ain’t gonna happen, at least not during the season, because he’s loved by ownership and the front office, and has the extra security provided by our town’s  dutiful media …

(SIDEBAR:  If you want to blame all of this on Matheny, well I ain’t gonna allow it to happen because Matheny didn’t put together this roster, and he didn’t negotiate contracts for Dexter Fowler, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Wong, etc. I’ll be writing on this subject soon, and the Matheny congregation will suspect me of being up to some evil trick … you know: the really insidious, despicable tactics like using statistical and factual information to back up an opinion, and for committing the unforgivable sin of proudly using an independent mind.)

If you want batting coach John Mabry fired, dream on people but it ain’t gonna happen unless Matheny is fired at the same time, because of their special BFF bond that cannot be broken … if you want the Cardinals to designate Fowler for assignment and eat the final 3.5 years of salary owed on a $82.5 million contract, it ain’t gonna happen … if you want Fowler traded, without the Cardinals agreeing to pay for most of what’s left on his contract — that ain’t gonna happen because no MLB general manager in the U.S. or Canada is certifiably insane … if you want Machado, it ain’t gonna happen, unless ownership and Mozeliak change the entire way the franchise does bidness with baseball trades … if you want Josh Donaldson — he’s an obsession in Our Town —  it ain’t gonna happen unless the Cardinals are determined to give up a couple of good prospects and take the risk of having another player go to the DL; Donaldson has had two different injuries this season (shoulder, calf) and has played only 36 games for Toronto.

Thanks for reading …

Have a great weekend.

Happy Father’s Day.

–Bernie

More – Reality Check: We Keep Expecting the Cardinals to Get Better, But Why?