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The Best Fans in Baseball Should Be Worried

Mike Matheny’s Cardinals are off to a horrid start, and the problems appear to run deeper than the typical small-sample concerns

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The difficulty of baseball’s detective work varies. Sometimes, the root causes of a team’s struggles are hidden, and we pore over advanced metrics and parse every line of Statcast data in search of the elusive smoking guns. Other times, the diagnosis is far simpler. Consider the case of the Cardinals, who, even after defeating the Pirates on Monday, are MLB’s second-worst team by both record (4–9) and run differential (negative-21).

The Cardinals haven’t started a season this poorly since 1997 and haven’t finished a season with a losing record since 2007, but to date, their quality of play has befit a last-place team in a National League full of rebuilding clubs, rather than a would-be contender. Their problems are readily identifiable; as starting pitcher Lance Lynn said after a recent loss, “We’ve got to pitch better. We’ve got to score runs. We have got to play defense.”

Give that man a studio show! And let’s examine his points to see how the Cardinals are foundering in each of those facets of the game.

1. We’ve Got to Pitch Better

St. Louis’s greatest concern entering the season was its rotation, which lost top prospect Alex Reyes to Tommy John surgery early in spring training. But so far, the starting staff has been the least of the Cardinals’ problems. Carlos Martínez is tied for third in MLB in strikeouts, Mike Leake has surrendered just one run in 15 innings, Michael Wacha’s changeup is working again after a year in hibernation, and Lynn has pitched well in his return from Tommy John surgery in 2015. Adam Wainwright showing his age is reason for worry, but overall, the starters (3.45 ERA, 3.39 FIP) have been solid.

The bullpen, though, ranks in the bottom seven in the league in strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate, en route to a league-worst 7.18 ERA. A unit that was supposed to be one of baseball’s best has instead surrendered runs at an unfathomable rate, with the back-end trio of Seung-hwan Oh, Kevin Siegrist, and free-agent splurge Brett Cecil combining to allow 16 runs in 15 innings.

Given their track records, it’s likely that those pitchers will improve, but they have flashed warning signs in the season’s early going. Oh generated the fifth-best swing-and-miss rate among qualified relievers last season, placing him in the range of Aroldis Chapman and Zach Britton, but he’s fallen to 119th this year, which explains why he has collected only two strikeouts. Siegrist, meanwhile, has lost the strike zone entirely: With eight walks and 24 batters faced, his walk rate is equivalent to Max Scherzer’s strikeout percentage. Should these small-sample signs solidify, the Cardinals might end up relying more on deposed closer Trevor Rosenthal (five strikeouts and no walks in 2.1 innings) and unheralded arms such as Matt Bowman (6.1 scoreless innings) than they expected heading into the season.

2. We’ve Got to Score Runs

In the National League, only the Padres have scored fewer runs per game than St. Louis, only the Rockies have a worse park-adjusted batting line, and no team has fewer extra-base hits. The drop is precipitous for a Cardinals offense that ranked third, second, and second in the NL in those respective categories a year ago.

The Cardinals returned largely the same cast of hitters from 2016, but Stephen Piscotty (.265/.390/.471) is the only everyday player who has hit well. New leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler has lost 186 points of on-base percentage from a year ago, when his .393 mark placed him behind only Mike Trout among outfielders. Fowler and Matt Carpenter have one extra-base hit apiece; Jhonny Peralta and Matt Adams have none.

The default answer two weeks into the season is that those numbers will improve once bloopers start dropping and fly balls clear the fence, but the Cards have routinely made their own bad luck so far. A year ago, St. Louis hitters ranked in a virtual tie for second in the league in hard-hit rate (33.4 percent of batted balls), but this season, they sit in 29th place (25.7 percent). That’s the difference between the 2016 hard-hit rates of Mookie Betts and Joe Panik; meanwhile, the leaguewide hard-hit rate has stayed almost constant, falling from 31.4 percent last year to 31.3 percent in 2017. St. Louis’s drop in batted-ball quality explains much of the lineup’s statistical decline: In 2016, MLB batters hit .540 and slugged 1.133 on hard-hit balls, versus .239 and .277, respectively, on other contact.

As with the relief pitchers, the batters’ prospects for improvement are muddled. It’s unlikely that established hitters such as Fowler and Carpenter have lost their ability to make solid contact, but Peralta’s porous plate discipline suggests he no longer belongs in a starting lineup, and Adams, Randal Grichuk, and Kolten Wong might never profile as anything more than league-average bats.

3. We Have Got to Play Defense

Mike Matheny’s name has not yet appeared in this story, which might represent a misstep to the Best Fans in Baseball clamoring for their manager’s ousting. But because the bulk of a manager’s duties occurs outside the public eye, relating to matters of clubhouse and morale management, it’s difficult to cast aspersions on the St. Louis skipper, who has done something right since taking over in 2012: No manager who has coached in the last 30 years has a better career winning percentage than Matheny, and from 2012–2016, the Cards boasted the majors’ best record.

Like with all managers, though, fans judge Matheny for what he does in front of an audience, which is where his faults — most notably inefficient bullpen management — manifest. The newest cause célèbre involves his management of the Cardinals defense, which the front office identified in the offseason as a specific area in need of improvement. So far, the results have been less than encouraging.

St. Louis ranks 27th in the majors in fielding percentage, and an unearned run was the difference in two one-run losses to the Yankees over the weekend. Those numbers don’t take into account defensive miscues that show up as hits rather than errors, either, and the Cards have also allowed the third-highest batting average on balls in play.

Matheny can’t help that Aledmys Díaz is a bat-first shortstop or that Carpenter had to move to a less demanding position due to his own fielding issues elsewhere in the infield, but he can abstain from moving players up the defensive spectrum. Yet Adams, who had never played any position other than first base in his professional career before this season, has already started four games in left field — meaning Matheny, who had nowhere to put Adams as the Cards attempted to fix their defense, created more fielding problems in an effort to jam a below-average hitter into the lineup. FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron outlined the faults with this plan last Friday, and his piece is worth reading both for its analysis and the laugh-inducing videos it contains.

It’s not Adams’s fault that he’s being forced to learn a new, more difficult position with little protection from public humiliation, but it’s hard to watch his work in left and think that it’s a tactic the club should continue to employ. (This isn’t just an armchair manager’s opinion; erstwhile fourth outfielder Tommy Pham, currently crushing Triple-A pitching, liked a tweet promoting the FanGraphs post.)

In case you were wondering, yes, belly flops rate poorly by both traditional and advanced defensive metrics. Matheny needs to keep Adams confined to first base and a pinch-hitting role, but even doing the sensible thing there won’t solve the team’s broader defensive problems. A bad defense does not, by itself, bring a team to ruin — St. Louis finished just a game out of a wild-card berth last season, and the Orioles reached the playoffs with the worst defensive outfield in the majors. Combined with untimely relief blowups and consistently unproductive trips through the batting order, though, fielding lowlights provide the most striking visual indicators of roster management — from the front office’s construction to Matheny’s execution — gone wrong.

Any piece of baseball analysis this early in the season comes with the inherent small-sample caveat. The Cardinals’ best hope for a bounce back up the standings derives from this fact, and that they have already played the Cubs, Nationals, and Yankees, which lessens the sheer magnitude of their 4–9 record. Over the next three weeks, their schedule lightens with bouts against the Brewers, Blue Jays, Reds, Brewers again, and Braves, and it’s possible that they’ll end the month with a record in the neighborhood of .500 and with the top of the standings back in sight.

But a good deal of damage has already been done. At the start of the season, FanGraphs’ projections pegged St. Louis with essentially a coin flip’s chance to make the playoffs, but those odds have been cut to 28.0 percent. Baseball Prospectus is even more pessimistic, giving St. Louis only 9.2 percent odds, worse than the Brewers, Braves, and Reds. Even the schedule isn’t truly a savior: From mid-May through early June, just after their relatively easy stretch, the Cardinals will play the Cubs and Dodgers for two series each, and the Red Sox and Giants for one. If they’re not back in the race at the end of this month, the ensuing stretch could clinch their sudden fall from contention. It’s early, but given how poorly the Cardinals have started, it’s not too early to think about how a whole season can be lost.