One month of Cardinals baseball down, five to go

Well here we are, one month of the 2017 season already completed and the returns have been…mediocre at best. The Cardinals haven’t been terrible, but they haven’t been as good as we hoped.

The bad news: As of now the Cardinals are one game under .500 and in third place in the NL central.

The good news: The Cubs are only one game over .500 and in first place in the NL central.

So although the Cardinal’s haven’t gotten off to the start that many fans were hoping, they’re far from eliminated as of now. Let’s break down what went well  and what went poorly over the first month of the season.

The Good: Starting Rotation

Let’s be clear, the only reason the Cardinals are even sniffing first place is the starting rotation. The most surprising part is that it’s not the usual suspects carrying the load for the starters.

Carlos Martinez and Adam Wainwright have far and away been the worst starters on the team. I figure Martinez will turn his season around once his BABIP goes below .340 and his ground ball rate starts to regress to the mean.

Wainwright may be on his last legs as a starter, but he’s also been the victim of bad luck. Right now, his FIP is actually the third best in the rotation. With a little more time and innings pitched, their ERAs should start dropping once their luck improves.

The real reason the rotation has been excelling is the return to form for Michael Wacha, Mike Leake, and Lance Lynn. We always knew Wacha had the ability, it was just a question of whether he could stay healthy and consistent enough to harness that ability.

So far this season the returns have been excellent. Wacha is sitting pretty with a 3.23 ERA and a WHIP of 1.14. His FIP is pretty close to his ERA, so it’s possible that this is the Michael Wacha we’ll be getting for the rest of the season, and if that’s the case the Cardinals have nothing to complain about.

Lance Lynn has been excellent in his return from Tommy John surgery. Through the first month and change, Lynn has a a 2.45 ERA and a 1.091 WHIP. This is probably not sustainable (his FIP is 4.29) but so far the Cardinals will take what they can get from Lynn, who was supposed to be the 4th starter but has pitched like a 2nd or even 1st starter.

Michael Wacha’s solid season and Lynn’s return have been nice, but the strength of the Cardinals rotation really comes at the top with Mike Leake. Leake has looked like an early Cy-young candidate so far this season. He lead the majors in ERA with a 1.95 mark, he’s top 15 in innings pitched and top 5 in WHIP with a 0.99 mark. Not bad for the 5th starter.

Leake has been a revelation this season, but I wouldn’t be too quick to call it a comeback. Let’s look at these stats real quick.

These are the stats from Barry Zito’s first month in 2012 (s/o to McCovey chronicles for this data). He finished the season with an ERA over 4. April can be a tricky beast to understand. The caveat is that Leake was younger than Zito was and Zito had already been bad for a while.

Plus, Zito ended up winning a postseason game against the Cardinals and out dueling Justin Verlander in the world series that season. The moral of the story? Baseball is weird and nobody knows what’s going on, so don’t crown Leake Cy Young just yet.

The Bad: Defense

I know you’re sick of hearing about defense, and I’m kind of sick of writing about defense, but really it’s not something we can just ignore. Cardinals are bottom five in the league in many defensive statistics and it’s not really looking like a solvable problem.

Right now they’re bottom five in the league in fielding percentage, and defensive runs saved. Right now, three starters have positive defensive runs saved: Yadier Molina and Jedd Gyorko have 3, and Matt Carpenter has 1.

According to the metrics on baseball reference, the Cardinals next best defender so far has been….Mike Leake. I’m not sure the Cardinals should be relying on Mike Leake’s hidden 6th tool to carry the defense much longer.

The good news is that bad defensive teams have succeed before, and they’ll succeed again. It’s just that when you’re offense isn’t beastly and you have other major weakness (see: the Ugly) it’s hard to sustain success.

This is especially important in the postseason where every run matters a bit more. The Cardinals don’t need to become the Royals defense overnight, they just need to marginally improve to keep them out of the bottom 10 of the league, and hopefully their offense and pitching make up for it.

The Ugly: The Bullpen

Relatively speaking, you could argue that the defense has been worse than the bullpen, but the bullpen has definitely cost the Cardinals more games than any other facet of this team. As of now, the bullpen has an ERA of 5.45, bottom 5 in the majors. Their WHIP is 1.57, 3rd worst in the majors and opponents are currently hitting .278 against all of their relievers, 4th worst in the majors.

No reliever has an ERA below 3.50, and right now theres very little confidence that any relievers can reliably get outs. For what was supposed to be a strength, the bullpen has turned into a tire fire very quickly. The big offseason acquisition Brett Cecil has been bad, Seung Hwan-Oh has been a victim of some bad luck but also regressed a bit and Kevin Siegrist has been pretty awful.

Again, the good news is that teams can succeed with bad bullpens. The bad news is that the worse your bullpen is, the more reliant you become on your strengths. A team with a bad bullpen has to rely on stelar offense or starting pitching to get the job done, and while the Cardinals have the pitching and offense to stay relevant right now, that might not last forever.

Some relievers have been suffering from bad luck, but others have been downright awful. If the bullpen doesn’t rebound soon, the gap between the Cardinals and Cubs will start to grow and it will grow quickly.

Conclusion

The Cardinals Pythagorean win loss record is 11-12, and their actual win loss record is 11-12. They are what we thought they were, but at the same time their completely different.

The loss of Alex Reyes and the additions of only Brett Cecil and Dexter Fowler led us to believe the Cardinals would be a bad defensive team with a good bullpen and mediocre rotation. This added up to a pretty average team that would be in contention for the majority of the season.

In reality, the bullpen has been trash, the rotation has been a godsend and the defense has been…bad. Despite those deviations, the Cardinals are where we thought they would be at the end of April, one game out of first and still in the running for a postseason berth.

Overall, April definitely could have been better, but remember that it could always always be worse.

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry – USA Today Sports