Bernie on the Cardinals: A Close Look At Key Factors That Could Decide the NLDS

Hours before the first pitch in Atlanta for Game 1, here are some key areas that I’ll be monitoring in the St. Louis vs. Atlanta matchup in the NLDS. Why? Because these factors are likely to go a long way in determining the outcome.

1. RUN PREVENTION: As always. And same as it ever was. The Cardinals are in the tournament despite having hit the least amount of homers and scoring fewer runs than any of the 10 teams that qualified for the postseason.

The Cards’ path to the playoffs was lined with low-scoring wins. STL pitchers allowed no more than three runs in nearly half of the team’s games (79 times.) Only three MLB teams gave up three or fewer runs in a game more often than St. Louis.

Of course anything is possible — October baseball is extremely random — but the Cardinals don’t figure to come out ahead of the Braves in a series that features a sequence of high-scoring battles between the teams. The Cardinals are more of a 3-2 win kind of team than a win by a 9-8 score kind of team.

1a. LIMIT THE DAMAGE ON THE ROAD:  The Cardinals’ pitchers must keep the ball in the yard down in Atlanta.

I’ve seen some comments offered by national media types, warning us about how bad the Cardinals’ starting pitchers have been on the road this season.

This is true …

But  ONLY  if we’re talking about the first half of the season. But if we go by the more relevant performance, after the All-Star break, the Cardinals were quite good when pitching on the road.

This:

First half: rotation ERA of 5.49 on the road with a too-high 1.8 homers allowed per nine innings.

Second half: rotation ERA of 3.66 on the road, sixth best in the majors. And only 0.9 homers allowed per nine.

As for the entire staff: a 4.80 ERA on the road in the first half; 3.81 on the road in the second half. And the home-run rate against STL pitchers went from 1.5 per nine on the road before the All-Star break to 0.9 per 9 IP after the break.

2. CAN THE CARDINALS OFFENSE CRANK IT UP?  Or will we see more of the frustrating stagnation that set in during critical times of September? The Cardinals went 11-9 in their final 20 regular-season games and scored three or fewer runs in nine of the 20 … and two or fewer runs in eight of the 20.

I’ll use park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) as the measure; keep in mind that 100 represents the league-average performance offensively.

Here were some of the most concerning offensive showings by Cardinals’ regulars during September:

* Marcell Ozuna: 69 wRC+, .160 average, .340 slugging percentage. Ozuna batted .118 with runners in scoring position, striking out 12 times in his 34 at-bats with RISP.

* Paul DeJong: 71 wRC+, .175 average, .392 slug, and a 30 percent strikeout rate. DeJong went 2 for 24 with runners in scoring position.

* Harrison Bader: 71 wRC+, a .191 average, and a 37 percent strikeout rate.

* Dexter Fowler: 78 wRC+, 30 percent strikeout rate, with a .183 average, .312 slug. His OBP in September (.325) wasn’t hideous but needs to be higher.

* Yadier Molina: 83 wRC+ and a .227 average with RISP.

2a. LIGHTNING AND THUNDER ON THE ROAD? Here’s the deal … the Cardinals actually ranked 11th among the 30 teams in road home runs this season. I offer this as a gesture of kindness to give you hope. (Smile.)  Maybe this is where Matt Carpenter fits in. He was clearly one of the team’s best and most powerful hitters in September, slugging .500 and posting a wRC+ that was 27 percent above league average offensively.

2a. THE IMPACT OF KOLTEN WONG:  If the Cards second baseman is fully recovered and at full-speed after missing time with a strained hamstring, his return could provide a boost. We’ll just have to wait and see. But before Wong limped out of the lineup late in that late-season game at Wrigley Field, he’d cooled down a bit (.250 average, .645 OPS.)

IF he’s fully healthy and recovered from a hamstring strain,  Wong obviously could provide a boost to the offense. But I’ll have to see it first.

3. MARCELL OZUNA, LIABILITY?  The slumping No. 4 hitter has been making it easier for opponents to stifle the Cardinals offense.

Paul Goldschmidt had a robust September, slugging .548 with a .954 OPS and 24 runs batted in. But minus his five homers, Goldy only scored 10 runs during the final month. At 19 percent he had one of the league’s highest walk rates in September. His 22 walks were the NL’s fourth-highest total in the NL during the final month. Goldschmidt bats third, directly in front of Ozuna. And because of Ozuna’s wayward hitting stroke,  it’s absurdly easy for the other side to pitch around Goldy. And the Braves will certainly go with this strategy as long as Ozuna continues to take horrible at-bats and get himself out.

4. THE BATTLE OF THE BULLPENS:  Postseason baseball often defies predictions. But it’s safe to zero in on this part: if either of these bullpens gets blown up, then there’s your losing team. In this era of hyper aggressive bullpen usage, it is almost impossible to overcome a horrendous bullpen in a short-run postseason series.

The Braves, unlike the Cardinals, made a series of trade-deadline deals to upgrade and reinforce their bullpen. The front office acquired closer Mark Melancon and setup relievers Shane Greene and Chris Martin in deals.

After a rough transition with their new team, the three imported relievers combined for a 2.00 ERA in September. And RH Darren O’Day returned from injury to allow only one earned run in 5 and ⅓ innings. Lefty Max Fried could get some action as a reliever early in this series, and he’s been effective when used in a relief role.

4a. THIS IS YOUR CLOSE-UP,  ANDREW MILLER: We’ll see a lot of Miller, the sider-slinging lefty, going against vs. the Braves’ dangerous LH batters.

Miller isn’t alone. The roster for this series evidently will include three lefty relievers, with rookie Genesis Cabrera joining Tyler Webb and Miller.

Miller wasn’t consistent this season, allowing 11 homers and pitching to a 5.19 FIP. But he’s been solid (not great) vs. LHB, allowing a .213 average and .673 OPS and four homers.

Webb was good vs. LHB, allowing a .157 average and .517 OPS but with a fairly low strikeout rate. Cabrera had poor numbers vs. LH hitters but has the raw talent to make any batter look foolish if he’s sharp.

I won’t burden you with too many numbers, but the Cardinals have multiple RH relievers that can handle LH bats including Giovanny Gallegos and Carlos Martinez.

Dakota Hudson can work out of the bullpen in the first game, possibly two. And after the All-Star break Hudson held LH hitters to a .204 average, .329 OBP and .395 slug. John Brebbia isn’t bad vs. LH bats and wouldn’t be among the first options. Ryan Helsey is talented but vulnerable to LH power.

5. RUN  BOYS RUN: The Cardinals gotta push it as much as possible.  In the second half of the season, no MLB team tried more run-and-hit plays than Mike Shildt’s Cardinals. They also ranked third in the majors in stolen-base attempts and steals after the break.

Wong’s presence — again, if he’s full speed — can make the Cardinals even more of a nuisance on the base paths during this series

Atlanta catchers Tyler Flowers and Brian McCann — while terrific at framing pitches for called strikes — have experienced difficulties in other areas.

The Braves have allowed 76 stolen bases and rank tied for 26th in caught-stealing rate at 21 percent. They’re 29th among the 30 teams in the “throwing runs” metric. The Braves were charged with the most passed balls, 24, in the majors. The ATL total of 70 wild pitches was exceeded only by eight teams; Braves’ catchers rank 26th in blocking pitches.

CONCLUSION:  If the Cardinals’ second-half pitching form holds, they have a fine chance of winning the series. But as always it would be naive to count on the STL offense to come through. If you’re asking for a prediction, I’d go with the Cardinals in five games. That’s based on my assumption that the Cardinals will continue to do an admirable job of limiting runs and homers. And if it’s a tight series, the Cardinals’ advantage in baserunning and defense can make the difference.

Enjoy the series.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie