We don’t talk enough about the St. Louis Cardinals. No, the Cardinals probably didn’t belong in the playoffs last season, but they won 17 games in a row from Sept. 11 to Sep. 28 to head back to the postseason for the third straight year. In fact, St. Louis has one losing season (2007) since the Y2K scare. In that span, they’ve won two World Series and made the playoffs 15 times.
“The Cardinal Way” has worked. Consistent contention in baseball is not easy and the Cardinals have managed to go through a lot of roster turnover and all of the different changes and phases of the game to regularly be part of the playoff discussion. Every year I write a Cardinals preview and every year I marvel at how they continuously win more games than they lose.
At some point, a downturn is coming. At some point, the Cardinals can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing. I felt like last season could be the one and they were 44-46 at the All-Star break and then 71-69 before ripping off 17 wins in a row. Let’s see what 2022 has in store.
Busch Stadium isn’t often mentioned among the best pitcher’s parks in the league, but it absolutely is. The Cardinals finished 17th in wOBA at .312 and posted a 97 wRC + , but I think they got a little bit of a raw deal in the wRC + department. St. Louis’s road wRC + was only 99, even though the Cardinals were fifth in batting average and fifth in wOBA away from home. The Cardinals only scored 307 runs at home compared to 399 runs on the road.
What’s odd is that, despite scoring 4.93 runs per game on the road compared to 3.79 runs per game at home, the Cardinals had an identical 45-36 record home and away. For whatever reason, the ball just doesn’t carry at Busch Stadium. Teams generally perform better at home than on the road for a lot of reasons, such as park factor, umpire bias and the attention paid to building a roster when half of the games are in the same place. The Cardinals, though, are at a disadvantage at home. After all, the Astros, Blue Jays, Giants and Rays were the only road teams to post higher wOBAs.
I think one reason why the Cardinals end up getting unappreciated, especially by me, is because they’re simply average or slightly above in a lot of ways. Tyler O’Neill posted a 145 wRC + and Paul Goldschmidt was second with a 138 wRC + . Nobody else was higher than 113, or 13% better than league average. We talk about “average” as if it’s a negative in baseball, other sports and other walks of life, but it really isn’t. It’s simply average. The Cardinals are, and have been for a long time, full of average or slightly better players aside from the stars.
O’Neill, Goldy and Nolan Arenado combined to hit 99 home runs. The Cardinals only hit 198 as a team, so those three accounted for half of the dingers. It sort of underscores the point I just made in that the Cardinals just have a bunch of regular dudes outside of their headline-grabbing players and that’s more than most teams can say beyond their stars.
Arenado only posted a 113 wRC + in his first season away from Colorado, which is to be expected, as there is an opposite Coors Field Effect to always playing at sea level. He fell victim to a .249 BABIP, which I have to think improves this season. There were no big drops in contact quality to point to as the reason why he had such a low BABIP.
Guys like Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson and Tommy Edman all contributed in their own ways. Edman stole 30 bases and was a below-average hitter, but an exceptional base runner and a solid defender. Carlson posted a 113 wRC + with some strong contact quality and 18 homers. Bader was a great defender and hit 16 homers. Paul DeJong and Yadier Molina were below-average hitters, but good defenders that provided a bit of pop.
Basically, nobody for the Cardinals is useless. There are a lot of teams around the league that have too many useless players that can’t hit or defend. The Cardinals don’t really have any bad defenders, but the guys that can’t hit create value in other ways. Matt Carpenter was about the only useless player, and he’s somebody else’s problem now after a major fall from grace over the last few seasons.
St. Louis also has a fascinating DH platoon with Corey Dickerson and Albert Pujols. Dickerson has made a career out of hitting right-handed pitching with a .288/.333/.512 slash and a 121 wRC + . Pujols is now a platoon player, but on the thin side against lefties, so he’s back where it all started to play as often as a lefty is out there. He had a .294/.336/.603 slash with a 146 wRC + against lefties.
That’s a really potent offensive player if you combine the two and neither guy will be tasked with playing a position unless injuries arise. Pujols needs 21 homers for 700, so he may get some cracks here and there against righties in hopes of getting him to that historical marker in his final season.
The Cardinals probably grade about average offensively again, which seems to be just fine for them. Games at Busch Stadium averaged just 7.7 combined runs total, while road games averaged 9.3, so that’s something to keep in mind when betting totals this season.
This part of the team is growing into a major concern for me. The Cardinals were 11th in both starter and bullpen ERA last season, but they’re already dealing with some key injuries coming out of spring training. Jack Flaherty is sidelined with shoulder trouble and so is Alex Reyes. The Cardinals won in spite of Flaherty’s absence last season, as he only pitched 78.1 innings, but was still fifth in fWAR and had a 3.22 ERA with a 4.22 FIP. He only pitched 16.1 innings after the All-Star break.
Reyes is hurt seemingly every year, but he was healthy last season and worked 72.1 innings as the team’s primary closer with 29 saves. He had a 3.24 ERA, as he outpitched a very high walk rate and a 4.40 FIP. The bullpen will be in fine hands with Giovanny Gallegos, who had 14 saves and worked 80.1 innings with an ERA of 3.02 and a FIP of 2.75, as well as Genesis Cabrera, who found a niche in a setup role, but you never like to see reliever injuries to prominent guys.
The bullpen will probably follow suit with the lineup, as it should be average or slightly better. It will be up to the starting pitchers to see where the ceiling winds up being for this team. Flaherty is a big loss, but one they’ve overcome before. The bigger issue to me is that I’m not sure relying on another excellent 200-inning season from Adam Wainwright is a sound strategy. Kwang-hyun Kim went back to South Korea after last season’s 106.2 innings. Dakota Hudson threw 8.2 innings last season. Miles Mikolas made nine starts. There are a ton of injury red flags here.
Wainwright has thrown almost 2,400 innings as he heads into his age-40 season. His 3.05 ERA and 3.66 FIP were both thoroughly impressive and he was better in the second half than the first half. He also had the luxury of throwing 50 more innings at home than on the road, which certainly helped his numbers.
The Cardinals signed Steven Matz to a four-year, $44 million deal over the winter back in the fall. He hasn’t thrown more than 161 innings in a season, though he has made at least 29 starts in each of the last three full seasons. Matz basically fits the strategy of this team to have a bunch of guys that are average or better, as he has a career 4.24 ERA and 4.34 FIP. He’s coming off of the best season of his career with the Blue Jays and now goes to a better home park and an easier division. I think last year could be repeatable, if he stays healthy. If so, he’d be one above-average arm to count on.
The Cardinals are a pitch-to-contact staff, so they do rely on defense more than most teams. Flaherty is really the only starter with big strikeout upside. Balls in play are less hurtful at Busch Stadium than most parks, so it’s a strategy that works for the Cardinals and also allows them to keep pitching costs down in order to spend more on position players.
Like the lineup, this pitching staff looks average to maybe slightly above – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Player to Watch
SP Dakota Hudson: There may not be a more maddening pitcher to me than Hudson. You rarely see a ground ball artist with a .257 BABIP over a decent sample size, but Hudson is one of them. For his career, his ERA is 3.14 and his FIP is 4.66 in 249.2 innings. I’ve lost a lot of times betting against him and all the regression signs in his profile. He’s even carried really high LOB% marks for a guy with awful K/BB numbers.
He doesn’t even necessarily stand out in the contact management department. I’m partially writing this as a reminder to not just fade Hudson with regularity, but it’s hard because he has so many indicators that suggest lessened performance.
If the numbers even out and he does have a down year, it could really hurt the Cardinals. They don’t have many reliable arms and depth is a concern. They’ll need the able-bodied guys that they do have to pitch well.
Betting against the Cardinals hasn’t really been a recipe for success. They’re a team that has won at least 83 games every single season since 2007. Naturally, their win total is right in that range at 84.5 in most places. If the division was stronger, I could talk myself into this being the year that St. Louis does falter. I don’t think they’re as good as an 85-win team. I am a bigger believer in the Cubs and think they could ultimately rise up and be Milwaukee’s biggest threat.
The Cardinals just don’t have any glaring weaknesses aside from the potential for injury, which is a malady that can plague any team. My best guess is that St. Louis falls within two games of this number on either side, and those aren’t win totals that I want to play. I don’t think the Cardinals are suddenly bad enough to go 77-85. They’re also probably not good enough to repeat last year’s 90-72. I think they’re simply a team that finishes a little bit above .500.
Win Total Lean: Under 84.5