Baseball is a fickle beast. In other words, it can toss and turn you within a week's time, and the landing is never smooth.
Unlike other sports-which give a fanbase time to react and cool down-baseball just keeps coming-and is relentless in its action. On April 16, the St. Louis Cardinals were 3-9 (one of their worst starts in the last 15 years), and fans were ready to cancel the rest of the season. Flash forward a month later, and the Cards are 21-15 and sitting atop the National League Central Division. Who would have thought such a turnaround was possible with such a horrid start? Well, welcome to baseball. It doesn't care about trends or what is supposed to happen. It just goes about its business.
Weeks ago, I suggested on my Twitter feed that a little time was required before one could properly judge this Cardinals team. Imagine throwing a steak on a hot grill and cutting into it too early to see if it was done or not. It's important to let the season and team marinate before taking its temperature. They went from 3-9 and doomed to 18-6 since, including a series win over the slumping Chicago Cubs this past weekend.
Adam Wainwright previously led the league in slumped shoulders and head in hands after a start up until Sunday, where he suddenly turned back the clock and spun seven shutout innings at the Cubs to put a stamp on a riveting week of Cardinals baseball. When asked after the game by Rick Hummel about his doubters wanting to see him move on, Wainwright was as blunt as ever. "I imagine they want me to just move along, but it's just not going to happen." Wainwright isn't done yet; neither are the Cardinals.
Let's take a look at the team as they enjoy a much needed day off.
STARTING PITCHING (steady wins the race)
Steady as it goes, the rotation has produced solid if not exemplary work, which is to be expected. Going into the season, this group carried more question marks than a Donald Trump state of the union speech rough draft. Mike Leake, deemed a bust last season, is among the league leaders in ERA with a 1.94 mark through seven starts, and has the fielding independent pitching mark of 3.12 to back up the assertion that he's getting a few outs by himself.
Lance Lynn has bounced back well from Tommy John Surgery, going 4-1 with a 2.75 ERA and averaging 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Carlos Martinez bounced back from a rough April stretch to show dominant streaks in May, while Michael Wacha has held up decently through a smaller sample size of starts. Wainwright's best start before Sunday was a five inning effort during opening week against the Cubs, and there were questions about him making it through the season. Now, he may be back on track.
Leake and Lynn, the two least likely to dominate, have been the true bright spots so far. While they may not hold up in court during July, the team needs it right now.
BULLPEN (Coming together)
This crew is coming into form real quick, with the return of Trevor Rosenthal producing a late inning door slam with Seung-hwan Oh. After a rough week, Oh has rebounded to collect ten saves, and the Cardinals rank second in the National League in saves coming into tonight's action. Kevin Siegrist looked anything but loose, but has held opponents off the basepaths in his last four outings with six strikeouts to boot. Jonathan Broxton has managed to not blow a plethora of baseball games, and Sam Tuivailala is showing signs of improvement.
Brett Cecil is the only real problem child of the pen, with his inability to get lefthanders out at the plate tossing some dirt on a huge offseason contract. Whether it's letting inherited runners score or giving up majestic home runs, Cecil has been anything but pleasant to watch. If he turns it around, the pen is one of the best in the game. And how about that rubber arm of Matt Bowman? Without his work, Cards aren't in first place.
MLB Ranks--ERA of 3.62 is fourth, third in quality starts, sixteenth in WHIP
LINEUP (A little power, some speed, and you have something)
Coming into the season, Dexter Fowler was supposed to guide the Cardinals into run scoring territories, but so far, the best part of his game has been occasional power and the ability to draw a walk. The .227 batting average, 31 strikeouts, and overall lack of consistency has stricken his introduction to St. Louis in disappointment, but he's starting to climb out of the muck with some big hits and the OBP climbing to .328.
Aledmys Diaz, Stephem Piscotty, and Randal Grichuk have collectively struggled to find a rhythm at the plate, with the former and latter producing some pop at the plate, but all three failing to get much going. Diaz's average is climbing, but his OBP and slugging are down. Perhaps Fangraphs was wrong and teams are adjusting to him. Now, Diaz must find a way to counter that adjustment.
Yadier Molina hit a pair of home runs Sunday to further remind fans that he can win a game with his bat and glove, while Kolten Wong's .354 OBP (powered by 13 walks) has been a nice surprise. Wong didn't thrive in the leadoff spot during Fowler's injury, but he's got some pop restored in the lumber and is reaching base.
How about Tommy Pham's resurgence? After being forgotten about last September, Pham has ignited the Birds on their latest streak with a .743 slugging percentage and seven extra base hits. All his hits seem to matter or leave a dent.
Magneuris Sierra may be the story of the year in the big leagues, going from starting a game in High A ball to starting in Atlanta in the Major Leagues. Sierra's stellar defense, disruptive speed on the bases, and steady bat which has produced hits in six straight games has given the Birds a healthy jolt. It seems like every year an unlikely player is helping this team.
The standouts are Jedd Gyorko and Matt Carpenter. Gyorko is proving he can not only hit 30 home runs again, but also anchor the cleanup spot. He hits home runs when the team badly needs them-and the fact that they are all solo shots hasn't detracted from his value. He won't maintain the 1.010 OPS or .390 OBP, but the slugging percentage will stick.
Carpenter is doing Matt Carpenter like things. There was a time where the man didn't have a double and wasn't hitting for much power. Now, he has eight home runs and his OPS is a ruthless .932. Carpenter is proving that batting average is overrated, especially if you get on base over 40 percent of the time and when you do get a hit, it's of the extra base variety. Add to this the fact he is learning another position this year, and Carpenter once again is guiding this offense, not Fowler.
MLB Rank: fifteenth in batting average, seventh in OBP, tenth in slugging percentage
BASERUNNING (still rough around the edges)
While Sierra and Pham give the team some baserunning punch, the Birds are still getting picked off extremely often, and running into outs on the bases. The record could be better if the team didn't think there was an extra base out there. Going from first to third is slowly becoming a workman like action, while the stolen bases threw Cubs pitcher Jon Lester off during Saturday's start. A work in progress, but not nearly as rough as early May.
DEFENSE (Not much to look at)
Looking at Baseball Reference, the only player on this team with a positive rDRS is Jedd Gyorko, who has only committed one error and three different positions. Everywhere else is a problem, and it starts in the outfield. Sierra has helped some, but Fowler, Grichuk, and Piscotty have not been noteworthy in the field yet. They make the plays, but miss others. Runs aren't saved out there. Wong's defense isn't good, with a .962 fielding percentage and six errors. Aledmys Diaz is projected to make 12 errors on the season, which would be an improvement on last year, but his range still needs work. The defense still ranks in the bottom sector the league. Only Yadier Molina and Gyorko are bright spots.
SUMMARY (Good, with room to grow)
When you take all that into account, it's important to remember one thing: while the stats are reflective of the entire season, a lot of the ugliness of those marks are from a terrible first three weeks of play. The Cards are still having trouble winning close baseball games, and only 11-9 at home. However, the starting pitching has been a strength-and the bullpen is a weapon in training. The lineup doesn't smash as many home runs (middle of the pack in home runs in the league), but they are getting key contributions from bargain players. Gyorko is an early MVP candidate with his versatility at the plate and in the field, and Carpenter isn't far behind. Pham and Sierra are proving there is strength in unlikely corners, and Fowler is slowly finding his way.
The Cardinals are proving that it's important to never judge a team three weeks into the season. Somewhere, Tony La Russa's postgame speech is echoing throughout the clubhouse lockers. Six weeks is the first pressure cooker check, the perfect time to pull off the lid and see what's going on in the pot.
The offense is trending up, but the pitching is once again guiding the ship for this team. Just look at Wainwright, Gyorko, and Sierra. After a dreadful stretch of starts, Wainwright carried the Cards to a win, and it wasn't pretty. He had to battle the Cubs when they were at their worst, and they still had bite. He got the best of them, and was premium Waino at least for a day. Gyorko is the league's biggest bargain of a cleanup bat at six million dollars, and Sierra is making it very hard for the Cards to send him back down.
Unlikely producers. Good starting pitching. Up and down trends. That is the St. Louis way, and the fans are into it. This weekend, the fans produced the largest crowd ever at Busch Stadium 2.0. I wouldn't throw caution to the wind with this team of rogues in red, but it's safe to say the Cards are going to make 2017 an entertaining dogfight.
*special thanks to Baseball Reference and Fangraphs for the statistical assist)
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