Last week I wrote a piece about my concerns about the Cardinals, primarily based on the lack of experience most of the roster has in the pressurized months of September and October. One thing I DON’T have concerns about with this club is its overall ability. As they’ve shown with their National League best 37 wins since the All-Star Break, they can play.
Here’s a six-pack of reasons why I think they CAN win the division:
1) Starting pitching: In their last turn through the rotation, Michael Wacha, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright and Jack Flaherty have allowed two earned runs in 28 innings, for an 0.64 ERA. That turn includes the two inning start by Wacha on three days rest. But if you want to go back through the last two turns with their regular starters, they have a 1.51 ERA in ten games, and five starts that featured shutout performances by their starters. Since the All-Star break, the Cardinal rotation has a 3.32 ERA. They’ve been able to sustain excellence for nearly two months, and they must do that for three more weeks.
2) Tommy Edman: In the last month, Edman has hit .324 with an .861 OPS. Along with his excellent defense at 3rd base, Edman has become a sparkplug in a lineup that needed a spark. Edman has also provided some much needed lefthanded oomph. Against righthanded pitching, Edman has 17 extra base hits in 195 plate appearances. The youthful energy that he’s applied to the lineup has been infectious and has been a huge part of the Cardinal surge.
3) Defense: Last year, the Cardinals made the most errors in the majors with 133, twelve more than the team with the next most. This year, manager Mike Shildt emphasized defense in spring training, and lo and behold they have a major league fewest 59, six less than Houston. There’s never been a team that went from the most errors in the majors one year to the fewest the next year. When you get to crunch time and you must win one run games, defense is huge, and the Cardinals have it. By the way, the Cardinals are second in the majors with 145 double plays turned, 27 more than the league average. Last year, the Cards got two outs for the price of one 151 times for the entire season. Last year the Cards had 36 defensive runs saved all season, seventh in the majors. This year they’re already at 52, which is third.
4) Bullpen depth: The quality and depth of the bullpen is well chronicled. From day one to now, you can make an argument that the Cardinal bullpen is the best in baseball. The bullpen ERA is second in the N.L., they have the second most saves and the best save percentage. They’re tied for second in allowing just 28% of inherited runners to score. With as great as the starting pitching has been, the insurance afforded by a solid bullpen has been a big benefit. They need John Gant, John Brebbia and Andrew Miller to settle down, but when they do Mike Shildt will be able to bring in any reliever and feel good about it.
5) The overall offense has been remarkable: The Cardinals have scored eight or more runs in ten of their last 28 games. They’ve gotten contributions from throughout the lineup, with Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong, Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, Paul DeJong, Edman, Harrison Bader and even Matt Carpenter stepping up at different times. The Cards are 67-19 when they score more than three runs. Obviously, the combination of great pitching, defense and offense leads to wins.
6) They have a number one: Did you realize that Jack Flaherty has ten scoreless starts this year? Only Bob Gibson, Adam Wainwright and John Tudor have seasons with more scoreless starts in Cardinal history. The 6-4, 220 pounder is a horse. He has great mechanics, great stuff, and has figured out how to use that stuff. Since the All-Star Break, Flaherty has a 0.76 ERA. Since they started playing the All-Star game, only Jake Arrieta of the Cubs in 2015, at 0.75, has a better post break ERA than Flaherty. In 1968, when his ERA was 1.12, Bob Gibson’s post-All-Star break ERA was 1.19. Flaherty has emerged as a number one, number one. That means, he’d be a number one pitcher on any other team. Since the break, he’s been the best pitcher in baseball. When starting a big series down the stretch and a post-season series, Shildt should have no qualms about starting Flaherty.
It’s been an amazing renaissance for the Cardinals since the Break. Like I said last week, it’s fair to question their ability to sustain excellence because of their lack of experience, but should there be any doubt they can physically handle the rigors of September? There’s no doubt in my mind that they can.