Sorry for the title. I'm a bit salty, apparently.
But seriously, what the *#@& is going on with these Cardinals? I know there are plenty of people in Cardinals Nation that believed that the Cardinals did not do enough this past offseason. While I too wish they would have done more; I believed that they could be division winners quite easily. If healthy, maybe they still could. Who knows?
What we do know is that as late as Monday May 31st, prior to their game with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cardinals were sitting pretty at 30-23 and atop the division. At that time, they were just 11-14 vs. teams that (as of this writing) are .500 clubs or above. That means that they were 19-9 against teams that are currently under .500.
But as of this writing, the Cardinals have joined them under .500 at a now putrid record of 36-38, having gone just 6-15 in their last 21. In those 20 games, they are 2-9 against teams currently at .500 or above and just 4-6 against teams currently below .500.
Crudeness one last time. So, what the *#@& is going on with these Cardinals?
So as you can see above, it's not just that the Cardinals have played some tougher teams as of late. They held their own (didn't do well) against .500+ teams in their first 1/4 of the season. In the last 21 games, they've been downright awful against good teams. However, they've been just as much worse against the "bad" teams than they were before as the "good" teams.
I think the obvious answers here are multi-faceted - as "obvious" as "multi-faceted" can be. 1) Injuries. The Cardinals were on a tear before the injury bug really destroyed some momentum and the roster itself - especially the pitching staff. 2) The pitching staff is in shambles. They are walking and hitting an absurd amount of people - a problem which spans the organization, not just the MLB level. 3) The hitting has gone stone cold. 4) There's a bit of unluckiness to go along with all of this.
Let's get the one that sounds most like an excuse out of the way - but also the one that makes the most sense regarding the timeline I laid out quite clearly above - THE INJURIES. The Cardinals started the season short at pitcher. They knew coming into 2021 that Dakota Hudson, who (deserved or not) has a career 3.17 ERA and 3.81 RA/9 to his name in 241 career innings over 40 starts and 67 games. He had improved his K:BB year over year by improving both his BB% and K% each of his 3 seasons in the majors. That was a loss that the Cardinals knew was going to hurt their depth. However, that wasn't all. In spring, Miles Mikolas wasn't coming back as quickly as they had hoped from his 2020 lost season. Not only that, but Kwang-Hyun Kim (KK) got shut down with a balky back earlier in the year.
Then, right as Kim was set to return on the final game of the road trip to end May, the one thing that the rotation couldn't afford to happen occurred. Jack Flaherty went down with an oblique injury while pitching against his childhood teammate Lucas Giolito on the Southside of Chicago. He is out until at least August, I believe.
Kim came back a few days later and lasted 2 starts before being shelved temporarily. He has since been back for 2 more starts. Daniel Ponce de Leon had since been moved to the bullpen full-time, but he just went onto the Injured List in the last series. A rotation that was set up to be some variation of:
Martinez / Gant / Ponce de Leon / Oviedo
to start the year did not even start that way and quickly devolved to look less and less like the above scenario. It started off with Flaherty, Wainwright, Martinez, Ponce de Leon, and Gant occupying the 5 spots in the rotation. It currently looks like this:
That includes Flaherty, Mikolas, and Ponce de Leon currently on the IL along with Hudson. The depth has been completely and utterly depleted by injury.
With worse pitching (both in the rotation, and via the trickle-down effect the bullpen as well) comes a need for an improved defense. So of course who has been hurt the most this year? Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, and Tyler O'Neill. That's two gold glovers, one guy who is arguably their best defender, and a solid shortstop who has had a near gold glove season. All of them but O'Neill are up the middle defenders. That just spells doom nearly all on it's own. That's something that takes a team from 92-win pace to 79-win pace in a hurry, no? Well, it certainly has. So I'd give that an affirmative.
If that was all the fate of the Cardinals' record were up against, I would say that they might be able to push through and not be quite as bad as they have been in the last 21 games, however.
To add to the above injuries, there are two more relievers on the IL - Jordan Hicks and Kodi Whitley. But that's not the point of this section. Not only is the pitching staff the walking wounded, the pitching staffs have had horrendous command this season, up and down the organization.
At the Low A level, the Palm Beach Cardinals have walked or hit 320 batters in 43 games. That's 7.44 per game. That's 7.88 per 9 innings. The Low A Southeast division average is 6.05 per game and 6.25 per 9 innings. They are dead last in the division. The Low A average as a whole is 5.34 per game and 5.54 per 9 innings. They are dead last in the league.
At the High A level, the Peoria Chiefs have walked or hit 246 batters in 43 games. That's 5.72 per game. That's 6.04 per 9 innings. The High A Central division average is 4.76 per game and 4.97 per 9 innings. They are second worst in the division. The High A average as a whole is 4.64 per game and 4.82 per 9 innings. They are fourth worst in the league.
At the AA level, the Springfield Cardinals have walked or hit 237 batters in 42 games. That's 5.64 per game. That's 5.81 per 9 innings. The AA Central division average is 4.76 per game and 4.88 per 9 innings. They are dead last in the division. The AA average as a whole is 4.39 per game and 4.56 per 9 innings. They are dead last in the league.
At the AAA level, the Memphis Redbirds have walked or hit 222 batters in 43 games. That's 5.16 per game. That's 5.30 per 9 innings. The AAA East division average is 4.53 per game and 4.68 per 9 innings. They are fourth worst in the division. The AAA average as a whole is 4.56 per game and 4.70 per 9 innings. They are fifth worst in the league.
In 73 games at the major league level, the St. Louis Cardinals have hit 54 batters - 10 more than the next highest team. They've also walked 313 batters, 11 more than the next highest team. They are dead last in the league with a 5.03 per game mark and 5.23 per 9 innings mark. League average at the major league level is 3.71 per game and 3.81 per 9 innings. The Cardinals marks at the major league level are approximately 35-37% higher than league average. Not only that, but they are ~8-11% higher than the next highest team in all of baseball. They are historically bad when it comes to free passes being given to the opposition.
Note: I do projections every year of the Cardinals. And while some people believe I am too sunny on them at times, which is fair this year I suppose, I typically come fairly close on some guys and miss wildly in both directions on others. Just like most projection systems.
To bury this point in: here are Cardinals pitcher totals for the combinations of walks and hit by pitches per 9 innings difference to what my projections said they would do compared to what they have actually done (- is good, + is bad).
Gant +2.07 (even adjusted as SP!)
Yes. Oviedo is the ONLY ONE out-pitching his projection when it comes to command. The problem, he's still got 24 free passes in 39 innings. That's 5.54 per 9 innings.
From 2015-2019, the St. Louis Cardinals pitchers averaged throwing between 63.5% and 64.9% strikes. In 2020, the number bumped down to 62.4% strikes. In 2021, the numbers has bumped down again to 61.4% strikes. Similarly, from 2015-2020, Cardinals pitching has gotten less called and swinging strikes this season. It's not just strikes we're looking at here, it's optimal strikes. The ones in which contact is not made at all. There's a stat for that: Called + Swinging Strike (CSW%) Rate. Here is where the Cardinals have ranked in that category compared to league in the Statcast era.
Cardinals / League
2021 - 27.1% / 28.3% (95.8% of League)
2020 - 28.1% / 28.2% (99.6%)
2019 - 27.6% / 27.6% (100%)
2018 - 27.3% / 27.6% (98.9%)
2017 - 27.7% / 27.2% (101.8%)
2016 - 26.9% / 27.0% (99.6%)
2015 - 26.5% / 26.8% (98.9%)
As you can see, this year has been an aberration from the norm for the Cardinals in this category. My guess here is that they are not getting the optimal strikes because of how wild they have been. It's easier to not swing at pitches when you know you're not going to get pitches in the zone as often.
The paradox here is this: from 2015-2020, the Cardinals threw 42.1% of their pitches in the "shadow" of the strike zone - that's the area just inside and just outside of the strike zone by one width of the baseball. That means that they threw 42.1% of pitches in a place where it was very much a 50-50 ball-strike opportunity and batters had to decide. That's a good thing. They also threw 8.5% of pitches in the "waste zone" - pitches that basically have no chance of being swung at. In 2021, they have thrown 9.5% of pitches in the "waste zone" - which might account for their 1% decrease in the percentage of strikes they have thrown in 2021. However, they have countered this by also throwing 43.1% of their pitches in the "shadow zone." There is an exact 1% increase in balls thrown, an exact 1% increase in waste pitches, but also an 1% increase in pitches in the shadow zone. I would imagine that would lead to more swings and misses - but it just...hasn't. It's led to a whole lot less.
In April, the Cardinals hitters averaged 4.5 runs per game.
In May, the Cardinals hitters averaged 4.14 runs per game.
In June, the Cardinals hitters so far have averaged 2.9 runs per game.
In April, Cardinals hitters batted .225/.298/.388/.686.
In May, Cardinals hitters batted .237/.309/.402/.711.
In June, Cardinals hitters so far have batted .214/.284/.318/.602.
(AVG / OBP / SLG / OPS referenced above)
That's how you go from 30-24 to end April and May to 6-13 in June. As the weather has heated up, the bats have gone STONE COLD.
The biggest culprits in terms of drops in OPS from April+May to this June slump? Trick question, nearly everyone.
O'Neill - down 65 points of OPS
Carlson - down 70 points of OPS
Edman - down 164 points of OPS
Arenado - down 196 points of OPS
DeJong - down 232 points of OPS
Sosa - down 302 points of OPS
Molina - down 422 points of OPS
Not only that, but they are by and large also playing much worse than my projections would have suggested. Between being worse overall and slumping from where you were for 2 months...there you have it. That's how you get worse by 33% at scoring runs in June than in April and May combined.
Lastly comes the luck factor. Why in the world are the Cardinals so bad this year so far compared to expectations, and especially in June? Well, let's look at some numbers explaining that they might be just a bit unlucky as well.
Whether you sort by batting average, slugging, or wOBA the St. Louis Cardinals have been the unluckiest team in baseball as compared to what their expected statistics say that they should be doing as opposed to results. Now, we've been through this exercise before in this space, but just in case you have never heard this, the expected statistics take into account exit velocity and launch angle (vertical) off of the bat, but do not incorporate the horizontal angle off of the bat, called launch direction. That could play into this more significantly, but that would be me taking about 2000 batted balls per team and manually figuring this out. That is not happening for one team, much less 30.
Here's what these statistics currently say.
With how the St. Louis Cardinals have hit the ball thus far in 2021, they should have a batting average of .247, which is expected to be 11th in all of major league baseball. Instead, their .226 actual batting average is tied for third worst in baseball.
With how the St. Louis Cardinals have hit the ball thus far in 2021, they should have a slugging percentage of .427, which is expected to be 12th in all of major league baseball. Instead, their .376 actual slugging percentage is tied for seventh worst in baseball.
With how the St. Louis Cardinals have hit the ball thus far in 2021, they should have a wOBA of .321, which is expected to be 15th in all of major league baseball. Instead, their .294 actual wOBA is tied for fifth worst in baseball.
All in all, this should be a top half offense in the league and instead it's a bottom five or so offense in the league by all of these measures. What is shown in the three images above is that they are the unluckiest team in all of baseball by ALL THREE MEASURES. Wow.
Now here's the crazy bit. The Cardinals pitchers also have this same thing going on but in reverse. As bad as the pitching staff seems to be this year with all of the walks and hit by pitches and nonsense, they actually might be getting a bit lucky themselves. Their differences are actually the best in all three categories, meaning they've gotten the best avg, slugging, and wOBAs against below what their expected stats tell us they should have instead.
Now, Busch III is known as a notoriously bad hitters park. It favors pitchers plain as day - especially on power and even more especially (are there degrees of that?) on power to the alleys. But this year, there are at least 5 parks that seem to be worse by Statcast's one-year park factors and the three-year park factors say that there are at least 6 parks worse for hitters. So it's not all that. Something else fishy has to be going on. But I don't know what that is and honestly, I'm salty tonight...so I'm not willing to look deeper to bail out the Cardinals at this moment.
Let's not take the length of this section as anything more than the concept needing to be explained a bit more fully for comprehension. The "luck factor" has as little weight to it as any of the other factors - the pitching, the hitting, and the injuries.
I personally rank them in the order that they appeared. I think the injuries are the thing that is killing them the most because it directly leads to the pitching - which is the second most problematic for me. Hitting goes through slumps. They could end this month on a heater for the next week and bring that up to a respectable total of runs still (although assuredly less than either April or May). As for the luck, I'd be much more worried about it if the positive factor of pitching luck wasn't matching the hitting luck's negative.