It’s often difficult to summarize a Major League Baseball season. One hundred and sixty-two games that can feel pointless at times and far too finite in others, the trek of a MLB season is like no other in professional sports. Despite the feeling that only some games matter, usually being the ones toward the end of the season, the work done in the dog days of summer is what separates teams from playoff and ultimately World Series contention.
The Cardinals attempted to make a statement of intent by signing first base slugger Paul Goldschmidt last offseason. The message from the team’s front office was “Win now.” What followed in April had many fans buying in, but many would soon jump ship as the team slumped hard in the month of May, posting a paltry 9-18 record.
Not that it is entirely the fault of Paul Goldschmidt, far from it in fact. The only Cardinal that was really hitting at this stage of the season was shortstop Paul DeJong, who was tearing the cover off the ball coming out of Spring Training. Goldschmidt and left fielder Marcell Ozuna were having quieter yet productive starts, though both weren’t quite living up to expectations. Notably absent was the offense of Matt Carpenter. The fan favorite who has been a crucial part of this Cardinals team on and off the field found himself struggling, hitting just .216 in the first three months of the season.
Part of the first half struggles for the team started before anyone could grab a bat. Pitching was pretty inconsistent in the first half. Many around the Cardinals thought this would be the year Alex Reyes would become a force in the team’s pitching staff, whether in the starting rotation or the bullpen. Reyes only pitched a handful of innings for the Cardinals before he was yet again victim to a season-ending injury, this time being a pectoral strain.
Last season’s pitching sensation, Jordan Hicks, fell victim to a similar fate. Hicks burst on the scene in 2018 and set baseball on fire with his pitch velocity. Hicks’ pitches average around 97 mph, with his fastest reaching 105, a tenth of a mile per hour short of the MLB record of 105.1, set by Aroldis Chapman. Hicks suffered a torn UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament) in his throwing arm, and underwent Tommy John surgery that ended his 2019 season after just 29 appearances.
Carlos Martinez was a proverbial walking question mark coming out of Spring Training. The 2018 Opening Day starter was dealing with shoulder weakness all offseason, and was sidelined into the 2019 regular season. “I wanted to be a little bit smart about it, and be 100 percent before throwing the ball again,” Martinez said to media in Spring Training. “I don’t want to make it that big of a deal. I just don’t want to make it worse.”
Being short a few arms was exacerbated by less than stellar performances by the Cardinal hurlers that were expected to be the foundation of the ballclub. After earning a bigger contract ($68 million, a 4-year contract extension) with a great 2018, Miles Mikolas looked more like a guy who had to go to Japan for a pitching job just years prior. The former Yomiuri Giant posted a 2019 ERA of 4.17, a jump of about a run and a half from his 2018 ERA of 2.83.
Despite the aforementioned miserable month of May, where the ballclub went 9-18, the strong April and fair June kept the team around the .500 mark heading into the All-Star Break. Due to the unexpected and unprecedented success of St. Louis’s hockey team, the Blues, the sputtering start to the Cardinals’ “win now” season was largely flying under the radar of the sports watching public of the city.
Conveniently enough, once fans (myself included) came out of a pleasant, comfortable haze created by the Stanley Cup run, the Redbirds started to stir out of their more noxious, dreary haze that was more a creation of their own. The Cards became a true threat in the second half. The same team that went 41-41 in the first three months of the season went 50-30 in the last three. The team had life for the first time since April.
The pitching came around in the second half of the season. Jack Flaherty emerged to be the ace the organization was banking on, posting a 0.91 ERA in the second half, and striking out 124 batters in 99.1 innings. While I spent several paragraphs rattling off why the Cardinals’ pitching could have been less than stellar in the first half, the second half exposed the team’s real problem: the Cardinals can’t hit. At all.
In the modern era of MLB, many teams have offensive production up and down their batting lineup. The league has openly admitted that the baseball is different, which has produced a massive uptick in home runs league wide. While having three players hitting around thirty dingers (Goldschmidt 34, DeJong 30, Ozuna 29), the team still languished offensively, and no series proved that more than the one that ultimately decided their season.
The Cardinals ranked in the bottom third of MLB in many key offensive statistics. 23rd out of 30 in batting average (. 245), 24th in both hits per game (8.23) and home runs per game (1.27), 22nd in RLISP, runners left in scoring position per game (3.47), and 27th in doubles per game (1.56). In defiance of these numbers and rankings, the Cardinals won the National League Central Division, and a trip to the MLB postseason.
The Cardinals postseason run was meteoric, in the sense that most of it burned up in a short period of time and then whatever was left crashed back down into Earth with extreme, violent force. After a 13-1 shelling of the Atlanta Braves clinched a berth into the National League Championship Series to face the Washington Nationals, reality set in. The Cardinals were out of runs and frankly, out of gas.
Up and down the order were guys who simply could not hit a baseball to save their lives in October. Dexter Fowler, who had a much better regular season than his first with the Cardinals, posted 2 hits in 37 postseason plate appearances. Matt Carpenter’s struggles carried over into the playoffs, where he managed just a single hit in his 17 at-bats. After a dominant NLDS against the Braves, Paul Goldschmidt went 1 for 16 against Nationals pitching in the NLCS.
While falling short of the front office stated goal of “Winning now,” the Cardinals were a winning team, and one that said front office will use as an example of why chasing after more expensive talent in the future is a fool’s errand. In their minds, winning the World Series would be a fun little novelty, but ultimately, the team just needs to flirt with the postseason. Actually doing anything in the postseason is all gravy.
The Cardinals front office knows that if they manage to stay within this acceptable range, they remain a relevant force both in St. Louis and in baseball as a whole. The front office doesn’t need to win a World Series if 3.4 million people keep buying tickets every year, they just have to keep the team good enough to make people think it’s not impossible.
Our city’s beloved Redbirds have become masters at being merely “good enough.” Good enough to win somewhere between 80-95 games (winning 91 this season). Good enough to contend for the MLB playoffs or Central Division title (doing both this season). Good enough to stand pat and do very little and tell their fans they’re doing their damndest to bring a 12th World Series title to St. Louis.