Saturday, May 25, 2024

Cardinals’ surprisingly bad start to 2024: Reasons for optimism (pitching) and major concern (hitting)

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Coming off a disastrous 91-loss season in 2023, the St. Louis Cardinals undertook a pitching-focused roster overhaul in order to reverse their fortunes in 2024. More than a month into the 2024 season, however, the team, while marginally sorta-kinda better, is still not good and not looking like a playoff contender. Going into their weekend home series against the White Sox, the Cardinals are in fourth place in the National League Central and on pace for 89 losses. So, yes, (marginally sorta-kinda) better without being good. 

That they’ve arrived at such a spot is perhaps not all that surprising given what happened last season. But how they’ve gotten here is indeed surprising. That’s because the pitching additions made by president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and company have largely worked out quite well, while the offense – presumed bedrock of their 2024 hopes – has been among MLB‘s most punchless attacks. This unexpected path to failure merits a bit more exploration. 

The good: The Cardinals’ pitching makeover

At this writing, St. Louis ranks 20th in the majors in ERA and a more respectable ninth in K/BB ratio. That’s not optimal from a run-prevention standpoint, so why are we declaring the Cardinals’ rebuilt pitching staff to be a success? We do so because it’s largely the returnee starting pitchers who are dragging down the overall numbers. 

In the rotation, new additions Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, and Kyle Gibson have combined for a 2.74 ERA and a 2.90 K/BB ratio in 16 starts. Meantime, holdovers Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz, and Zack Thompson have teamed up for 15 starts, and in those starts they have a 6.04 ERA and a 2.29 K/BB ratio. The rotation reboot has worked very well in the sense that the starters who were brought in have been excellent thus far. That those three incumbents have been so collectively bad is a sign that the makeover didn’t go far enough, not that it was ill conceived from the start. Even with the Mikolas-Matz-Thompson (Thompson was only making starts because Gray opened the season on the injured list with a hamstring strain) trio dragging things down, this year’s rotation has been substantially better than last year’s. 

As for the bullpen, it’s been quite solid overall, and it’s shown a similar trendline to that of the rotation. The Cardinals’ four new additions to the pen have teamed up for an ERA of 1.84 and a K/BB ratio of 3.27 in 29 ⅓ combined innings. As well, new bullpen faces Keynan Middleton and Riley O’Brien have combined for only one inning of work thanks to forearm injuries suffered by both. Meantime, relievers who were on the team for all or part of the 2023 season have a combined ERA of 4.66 with a K/BB ratio of 3.04 in 77 ⅓ innings (to be fair, returnees Ryan Helsley and JoJo Romero have both been excellent). 

If you’d known the core new figures in the Cardinals’ reconstructed pitching staff would be faring so well, you’d probably tab them for first place in the division. That, of course, is not where things stand. Assume the position, Cardinals 2024 offense. 

The bad: The Cardinals’ surprisingly terrible offense 

The Cardinals’ offense last season ranked just 19th in runs scored. However, their OPS rank was a more encouraging 13th. Peer under those numbers and you found stronger fundamental indicators at the batted-ball level and good evidence that what would’ve been a quality offensive attack was undone by bad luck and injuries. Throw in the fact that young core contributors like Jordan Walker, Nolan Gorman, and Masyn Winn could reasonably expect skills growth, and this is projected as one of the better non-Braves/Dodgers offenses in the NL. 

That, of course, is not how things have gone thus far. Consider: 

  • The Cardinals rank 28th in MLB in runs scored and OPS. 
  • They rank last in home runs. 
  • They’re 22nd in average exit velocity off the bat. 
  • They’re 24th in hard-hit rate. 
  • They’re 27th in wOBA (what’s this?). 

That’s a broad-based and comprehensive failure. Yes, their xwOBA (what’s this?) rank is a good bit higher than that wOBA rank, and that perhaps suggests better days ahead. The current reality, however, is that Willson Contreras and Winn are the lone lineup regulars who have produced at a high level. Losing not one but two center fielders to injury – first Tommy Edman and then Dylan Carlson – put them in a bad spot at that position, but that’s hardly a standalone issue in the lineup. When Paul Goldschmidt has been dropped from second to fifth in the order, they’re on their second primary center fielder, and Walker is in Triple-A, you know things haven’t gone swimmingly.

For the Cardinals, the good news is that we’re barely a month into the six-month regular season, which means there’s plenty of time for the offense to find its expected level. Thus far, though, the Cardinals have been a surprising team – in both good and ill senses of the term. If nothing changes, then 2024 will look different from 2023, but in another, more important regard, it’ll look exactly the same – with the Cardinals at home in October and wondering what the way forward can possibly be. 

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