To reach the top of the NL Central for the first time since 2015, the Cardinals took a hard, bumpy, hazardous road instead of gliding on a smooth, trouble-free highway.
There was a 6-18 stretch in May. The 44-44 record at the All-Star break. An 0-5 road trip against the A’s and Dodgers. A combined record of 2-11 when playing the Cubs and Brewers on the road during the first half of the season.
And just when it seemed that the Cardinals were home free and clear — holding a lead of 3 and ½ games over the Brewers with five to play on the regular-season schedule — the Cardinals teetered through an abysmal four-game losing streak that endangered their hold on the NL Central.
In the end — the very end — the Cards handled the adversity and calmness prevailed. With some valuable assistance from the Colorado Rockies — who swept all three games from visiting Milwaukee over the final weekend — the Cardinals straightened their heads, routed the Cubs 9-0 in Game No. 162, and won the division by two games.
In the 24 seasons of Bill DeWitt Jr.’s ownership the Cardinals have qualified for the postseason 14 times. In the National League only Atlanta, with 15 playoff appearances, has appeared more frequently than St. Louis since 1996.
Fitting, then, to have the Cardinals and Braves matched in a best-of-five National League division series that begins Thursday in Atlanta.
The Cardinals have won four NL pennants and two World Series trophies during the DeWitt ERA — and he would like to add more art work to the collection.
“There was a lot of talk about being out of the playoffs for three years,” DeWitt Jr. told Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch. “So to win the Central Division championship is a big deal.”
According to Hummel, DeWitt glanced at the 11 World Series championship banners in the Cardinals’ clubhouse and added: “There’s a lot of flags up there. We’d like to add one more.”
We’ll turn more attention to the Cardinals-Braves clash in the coming days. But for now let’s just say it’s good to have the Cardinals back on baseball’s October stage. They’ll be viewed as a longshot to win the NL pennant — not to mention the World Series — but no one really cares about that.
The Cardinals are competing in the tournament for the first time since 2015. And here are the primary reasons for their return to a familiar and expected place:
1. The team-changing, franchise-altering move made on the evening of July 14, 2018. That’s the day president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, with DeWitt’s approval, fired Mike Matheny as manager and installed Mike Shildt as the new leader in the dugout. The Cardinals are 132-99 since Shildt took over. Among NL teams, only the Dodgers (146) and Braves (136) have won more games during Shildt’s time as the St. Louis manager. Shildt dramatically changed the team culture, cleaned up the chronic fundamental sloppiness, and turned defense and baserunning from an embarrassing weakness to a dependable strength. The way back to October baseball began with Shildt being put in charge to show the way.
2. Run prevention: For the entire regular season the Cardinals ranked fifth in the majors and second in the NL in suppressing runs, allowing only 4.09 per game. After the All-Star break the Cardinals allowed fewer runs per game (3.66) than any teams in the majors. The team defense is a big part of this; I’ll discuss that in a couple of minutes.
3. The starting pitching was better than expected. Much better, actually. For the season the Cardinals ranked fifth overall and No. 2 in the NL with a 3.82 starter ERA. In the second half, their rotation ERA (3.44) was third in MLB and second in the NL.
3a. Mr. Jack Flaherty. In his final 16 regular-season starts, dating back to July 7, he led MLB starting pitchers in most innings (106.1), ERA (0.93), batting average allowed (.139), OBP against (.203), slugging percentage against (.217) and was third with 130 strikeouts.
4. The St. Louis bullpen was a tremendous asset for much of the season before struggling in September. But for the season their 3.88 reliever ERA ranked No. 6 in the majors and second in the NL. And the bullpen’s 71 percent save rate was best in the NL and third overall this season. Kudos to Carlos Martinez for his work as the closer in the aftermath of the team losing Jordan Hicks to a season-ending elbow injury.
5. The pitching performance was substantially enhanced by a huge improvement in the Cards’ defensive quality. Last season they were a middle-of-the-pack team with 40 defensive runs saved (via Bill James Online.) This season the Cardinals ranked third in the majors (and the NL) with 96 DRS. And their runs saved via defensive shifts jumped from a modest total of eight in 2018 to 32 this season. And most of the eight DRS gained through shifts in 2018 occurred after Shildt replaced Matheny. In Matheny’s final three full seasons the Cardinals saved only three total runs with the shift. I’m thinking that +32 in one season (using shifts) is a tad better than +3 over three full seasons.
6. Base-running acumen. I’ll use the Baseball Prospectus metric, Base Running Runs (aka BRR) to show the “before” and “after” photos. In Mike Matheny’s final 4 and ½ seasons as the Cards manager, the team had minus 26 BRR, which ranked in the bottom three of the NL over that time. When Shildt took over last summer, the Cardinals were on the minus side in BRR; over the final 69 games the Cards were slightly above average in BRR. And this season? The Cardinals finished tied for third among the 30 MLB teams with 6.9 Base Running Runs. They also ranked third overall in the FanGraphs’ base running metric, BsR. The Cardinals led the NL in stolen bases (116) and their steals success rate (80%) was fourth.
7. Kolten Wong’s wonderful, all-around second half. Wong actually began heating up around July 1. But after the All-Star break Wong found the finest offensive groove of his career, batting .342 with an .896 OPS. And defensively he’s the best second baseman in the majors. Without question.
8. The emergence of Tommy Edman as a versatile, effective, impactful rookie star. He closed out a strong second half with a terrific September, batting .350, slugging .660 and amassing a 1.078 OPS. After the All-Star break Edman had a slash line of .319/ .370/ .510. He’s also a plus defender at three positions: third base, right field and second base. And Edman is a dynamo on the bases.
9. Paul Goldschmidt’s robust finish to the season. Yeah, yeah … Overall, his offensive numbers were less than anticipated. But let’s not overstate his drop in numbers compared to previous seasons in Arizona. Whether Goldy is in decline is a legitimate question … and a separate question. Goldschmidt didn’t receive enough credit for his upturn since the All-Star break; his stats in 70 starts included a .349 OBP, .538 slugging percentage, .887 OPS with 18 homers, 16 doubles and 60 RBIs. And though Goldy had some rough moments down the stretch he clicked for a .405 OBP, .548 slug, and 15 extra-base hits and 24 RBIs in September.
10. Dexter Fowler’s bounceback season: After a lost and utterly miserable 2018 season, Fowler responded with 19 homers 67 RBIs and 74 runs scored. His OBP climbed to .346, and his power returned. From Aug. 9 until the end of the season, Fowler batted leadoff and gave the offense a lift with a .358 OBP and .759 OPS — and, as a bonus, 30 RBIs.
Yadier Molina. Nothing else to add there. Just Yadier Molina … Yadi Effing Molina … Cardinals fans know.
Thanks for reading …