Here’s my assessment of the Cardinals at the break.
Time to hand out the report cards…
MANAGER: Mike Shildt has followed through on his vow to clean up the fundamentals. According to the metrics, the Cardinals rate among the very best teams in MLB for baserunning. And they’ve improved significantly on defense, with the only real problem spot being in right field. We can find fault with any manager’s handling of the bullpen — easy to nitpick — but overall Shildt is very good in this area and a substantial upgrade over his predecessor. I would have liked to have seen more aggressiveness from Shildt in shaking up a lethargic lineup; he was a little slow in doing that. His communication with the players is excellent. The 44-44 record is disappointing, and he’s the manager, so … have to downgrade just a bit. GRADE: B minus
BATTING AND PITCHING COACHES: It’s often difficult to determine if the batting coach and pitching coach make that much difference. For example: during Tony La Russa’s 16 seasons as manager pitching coach Dave Duncan was a tremendous asset, but TLR frequently replaced hitting coaches. In this instance the Cards offense is an enormous disappointment so far, with too many hitters failing to reach their usual standards. And at least some of the responsibility must be owned by new batting coach Jeff Albert; after all he was portrayed as an advanced teacher and thinker when the Cardinals hired him.
At the break the Cardinals rank 11th in the National League offensively in park adjusted runs created (wRC+), are 11th in average, 11th on onbase percentage, 11th in runs per game 4.47), 12th in homers per game, and 13th in slugging (.401). This should not be a below-average offense. And it’s been a terrible offense for the last two-plus months.
As for pitching coach Mike Maddux, I’m not sure how to explain the regression of multiple starting pitchers under his watch. And I’m not sure how to explain why it took Arizona about seven minutes to fix starting pitcher Luke Weaver after the Cardinals had cast him aside. GRADE: D
(Side note: Pop Warner is a terrific third-base coach. The Cardinals have been thrown out at home only seven times this season; over the past three seasons (2016-2018) the team lost an average of 21 runners at home.)
THE INFIELD: Defensively this is a strong group overall, with the regulars and primary backups being credited with 19 Defensive Runs Saved during the first half. But this contingent is a major disappointment offensively. Third baseman Matt Carpenter and second baseman Kolten Wong are below average offensively, and Carpenter (.216 average, .706 OPS) is off to a career-worst start.
First baseman Paul Goldschmidt — slightly above average — isn’t close to matching his established level of offense. Shockingly, Goldy’s value at the break is only 1.0 WAR. Shortstop Paul DeJong’s overall offensive numbers are fine, but he did most of his damage during March-April. DeJong is 21 percent below the league average in park adjusted runs created since the beginning of May — batting only .211 and slugging just .352 over that time. GRADE: C minus
CATCHER: Go ahead and throw rocks at me for being the messenger here … but Yadier Molina, who turns 37 on July 13, is showing more pronounced signs of decline. He’s 27 percent below league average offensively in park adjusted runs created. (Is this because of the injured thumb? Well, maybe. We’ll learn more about that in the second half. And while the feared Molina still suppresses the other side’s running game he doesn’t score well in catching metrics such as pitch framing and Fielding Runs Above Average. Pitchers value Molina’s game-calling and leadership behind the plate, and that matters. GRADE: C minus
OUTFIELD: Collectively, the STL outfield ranks 16th overall and 7th in the NL with 4.3 WAR. Offensively the group is slightly below average (101 wRC+) but left fielder Marcell Ozuna had a .512 slug, 20 homers and 62 RBIs before suffering fractured fingers on June 28. Dexter Fowler is having a solid bounce-back season at 10 percent above league average offensively (110 wRC+). Fowler has played above-average defense in center field (four Defensive Runs Saved) but is below average in right field.
The Cardinals must seriously question whether the offense being provided by Jose Martinez — only four percent above league average based on wRC+ — justifies his horrendous defense. Martinez has cost the Cardinals nine runs in right field this season, ranking 34th at the position in Defensive Runs Saved. Harrison Bader ranks fourth among MLB center fielders with eight defensive runs saved but is 22 percent below league average offensively with a 78 wRC+. GRADE: C
BENCH: Rookie Infielder Tommy Edman (three homers, nine RBIs, and .547 slug in 21 games) has given the Cardinals a lift. As a spot starter in the infield or outfield (13 starts) Yairo Munoz has a .340 average, .353 OBP and .440 slug. Rookie outfielder Lane Thomas has played well when called up as an injury replacement. Infielder Jedd Gyorko was having an awful season (46 percent below league average offensively) before injuries took him down. Backup Matt Wieters has one of the poorest pitch-framing grades out there, but he’s contributed offensively with five homers and .427 slug. GRADE C+
DEFENSE: CardinaLs are fourth in the NL with 42 Defensive Runs Saved; that includes the No. 2 ranking in runs saved (18) by using shifts. The Cardinals are the fourth-best team in the majors in overall park-adjusted defensive efficiency. And they’re second in the majors in defensive efficiency on ground balls. Their one minus is their No. 17 ranking in defensive efficiency on fly balls. GRADE: B
BASERUNNING: The Cardinals have the highest percentage (47%) by an MLB team this season in extra-bases advanced. They lead the NL and rank fifth in the majors in stolen bases, with 59. And their stolen-base success rate (81%) is tied for No. 2 in the majors. GRADE: A
STARTING PITCHING: Inconsistent and vulnerable. Let’s just go to the National League rankings: the rotation is 12th with a 4.84 Fielding Independent ERA (aka FIP), 12th in allowing homers (1.51 per 9 innings), and has the worst strikeout-walk ratio (2.37.) Rookie Dakota Hudson has made nice progress, and Adam Wainwright had a swell June. Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty each had a disappointing first half. Michael Wacha has the second-worst Fielding Independent ERA (5.83) among NL starters and has a below-replacement level WAR of minus 0.2.) Daniel Ponce de Leon has pitched very well as a spot starter and should be in the rotation. But the Cardinals stubbornly stay with Wacha — and that raises many questions about commitment to winning, and the ability to make smart decisions. As a group, the Cardinals’ starting pitchers rank 13th in the NL with 3.5 WAR. GRADE: D
BULLPEN: Even while dealing with injuries (especially Jordan Hicks) the plague, the Cardinals’ relievers have been stout, fearless and reliable. The team’s bullpen FIP (4.04) ranks fifth in the majors, second in the NL. The bullpen has the highest strikeout rate in the majors (28%) and ranks ninth overall and fourth in the NL for Win Probability Added. John Gant and Geovanny Gallegos were outstanding in the first half. Since the start of May, lefty Andrew Miller has a 2.44 FIP, a 41.5 percent strikeout rate, and has limited hitters to a .217 average and .594 OPS. Carlos Martinez looks sharp as the closer replacement for Hicks. GRADE: A minus
FRONT OFFICE: The roster is thin, the talent is questionable, the overall depth isn’t what it used to be, the personnel mistakes are glaring, effective players have been dealt away for (mostly) low returns. And this franchise has wasted trucks of money on highly questionable contract/payroll decisions. For chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch, the trends are troubling. GRADE: D
Thanks for reading …