ST. LOUIS — Eight days ago, Adam Wainwright stood in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium as the little hand on the clock approached midnight ET and gave St. Louis Cardinals fans a reason for optimism that the team couldn’t. Coming off his third loss in as many starts and the team’s ninth loss in 12 games, the Cardinals’ former ace thought back six years, to the earliest days of what, eventually, turned into a world championship season.
“We started off bad in ’11, but we never lost that mojo. We always felt like we were going to eventually come in and start winning every game, and we did,” Wainwright said. “That’s why we’re going to keep building up those expectations now and we’re eventually going to stinkin’ do it.”
It didn’t take long for the Cardinals to prove Wainwright, well, right. They swept a Pirates team deflated by the 80-game suspension to Starling Marte and then feasted on Brewers pitching, as they often do, to pull their April back on track with a 6-1 week. As if to mock the people panicking over two bad weeks, the Cardinals did a lot of what they had been unable to do in the previous two weeks, with some worrisome bad habits lingering. Now, the Cardinals are staring at a prime opportunity to help themselves again with the struggling Blue Jays in town to kick off a 10-game homestand. But how much of St. Louis’ upswing is sustainable?
It never felt like starting pitching was the problem. Yes, some of Wainwright’s worst trends carried over from 2016 and Carlos Martinez had that bizarre lack of fastball command at Yankee Stadium, an issue that, in diluted form, spilled over to his next start.
But since the earliest days of spring training, the Cardinals’ primary reason for optimism has been the rejuvenated stuff of Mike Leake and Michael Wacha and the fact that Lance Lynn looks practically identical to his pre-Tommy John self.
Last week was an encouraging one for the Cardinals’ rotation. Wainwright may have gotten his curveball back, judging by his nine strikeouts in five innings and the fact the Brewers put just three of his 24 curveballs into play, one for a base hit.
Wacha, Leake and Lynn combined to go 5-0 with a 1.41 ERA.
Nobody ever said a pitcher can help his team only while on the mound, and Wainwright and Leake are among the best hitting pitchers in the National League. It is part of their value. Their six RBIs in Milwaukee were a big part of the series.
Cardinals starting pitching now ranks second in the National League in ERA (3.33), sixth in WHIP (1.26) and third in strikeouts per nine (8.5). If these guys continue to pitch this well, they’re providing an excellent foundation for the team to have sustained success this season.
The bullpen saw a massive spike in effectiveness, probably the main reason the Cardinals managed to smooth out the ride.
Trevor Rosenthal has provided a crucial boost, striking out 47.8 percent of the batters he has faced since he was activated from the disabled list two weeks ago. Matt Bowman just keeps going. The ground ball specialist has been razor sharp. He hasn’t allowed a run since last September — 19⅔ straight scoreless innings — and he has a 64 percent ground ball rate.
Kevin Siegrist seems lost and Jonathan Broxton is really just an innings eater at this stage of his career, but for now those are the only two relievers struggling. It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not with this bullpen, but Oh’s revival alone counts as a major step forward.
It was an encouraging week, to be sure, but the bullpen has been erratic enough over the first three weeks to wonder whether it will be an asset or a liability over the rest of the season.
Jedd Gyorko is a pretty good hitter for a guy with a lifetime batting average of .240. He is demonstrating that at an opportune time for the Cardinals and, apparently, seizing the third base job with no intention of giving it up.
The average exit velocity off Gyorko’s bat this season — 91.0 mph — is on the top page of the major league leaders and roughly on par with Chicago Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber (91.1). Gyorko’s 1.039 OPS has helped carry the team, but it wasn’t an isolated uptick in the lineup. Aledmys Diaz emerged from the worst slump of his young career to mash four home runs in a week.
Overall, though, it wasn’t a particularly dynamic week for the offense, which could be the good news. The Cardinals averaged 3.8 runs per game last week. They won mostly because their starters set a good tone and the bullpen didn’t blow leads. Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter haven’t shaken off slow starts and those two guys’ ability to get on base and produce early action are the keys to this offense.
Aside from Gyorko, the only lineup regular with an OPS above his career norm is Kolten Wong. That indicates that, if you believe a hitter’s performance tends to regress to the mean, good things are in store for what has thus far been a sluggish start for the lineup. The Cardinals have few places to go but up when it comes to scoring, so they could get a serious boost when some of their slumbering bats awaken.
Fielding and base running
Now for the bad news. The Cardinals haven’t really cleaned up what they promised they would. Sunday, they made two errors and had three runners picked off, continuing season-long — make that two season-long — trends.
They are 27th in the majors in defensive WAR (minus-7.3). Yadier Molina has been the only impact defender (2.7 dWAR), Gyorko (1.0) has been solid and the rest of the starting lineup has been below average.
The uptick has been better on the bases. Fowler’s impact is showing. The Cardinals are seventh overall in Fangraphs’ base running rankings, way up from last season’s performance.
Overall, this isn’t a team with the athletic ability to make up for bad pitching or a slumping lineup. Lately, the pitching hasn’t left much slack needing to be picked up and the lineup is sprouting little signs of life heading into a stretch of winnable games. If the fielding doesn’t improve, it could drag down everything else the team is trying to do, making 2017 look a lot like 2016.