Since firing Mike Matheny in mid-July the Cardinals have the best record in baseball. At the end of July the National League Central looked like a two horse race between the Cubs and Brewers. However, the last few weeks have seen the Cardinals become contenders for the division title.
For most of the season the Cardinals’ hitters have been disappointing both individually and as a group. Prior to the start of the season the Cardinals appeared to have one of the deepest lineups in the National League but a lot of the key pieces in the lineup have performed well below expectations. Marcell Ozuna slugged under .340 over the first two months of the season, Tommy Pham was a below average hitter prior to being traded and Dexter Fowler has been a below .200 hitter when fit. On top of all that the usually consistent Matt Carpenter even struggled for the first month of the season.Embed from Getty Images
Since Mike Shildt took over as interim manager, the Cards’ offense has started to produce. The redbirds didn’t make any major additions before the trade deadline but their outfield has a very different look to the one that started the season. The new look outfield is also the main reason for this offensive breakout. Rookies Tyler O’Neil and Harrison Bader have replaced Fowler and Pham from the opening day lineup.
Dexter Fowler’s .210 BABIP suggests that he is unlucky to have a slash line of .180/.278/.298 and he had still been playing everyday until his injury a few weeks ago. Tyler O’Neil has provided an improvement on Fowler without doing anything too spectacular. He has managed to be a league average hitter in his short major league career so far whilst providing more athleticism and improved defense in right field.
Harrison Bader on the other hand has shown glimpses that he could become a consistent All-Star. Bader has been on the major league roster all year but has been starting more consistently since Pham was traded. Pham’s poor first half made 2017 look more like a fluke than a sustainable breakout and the Cards’ front office decided to trade before his value fell too much.
Bader has been elite defensively all season, he is tied with Billy Hamilton at the top of Statcast’s outs above average leaderboard. Bader’s bat has also been elite since becoming an everyday player. Tommy Pham was traded on 31st of July and since the start of August Bader has an OPS of .968, fourth among centre fielders.Embed from Getty Images
The one remaining outfielder from the start of the season is the Cardinals’ big offseason acquisition, Marcell Ozuna. Since his underwhelming start Ozuna has fixed his swing and rediscovered his form from his time in Miami.
Surprising pitching dominance
The Cardinals’ starting pitching has been the biggest strength of the team for most of the season. This is somewhat surprising looking at the roster in April. Miles Mikolas has been the main story of course. After a few years pitching in Japan he returned to Major League Baseball this year to become the stalwart of the Cards’ rotation. Mikolas has been consistent all year with occasional spells of dominance. His 2.80 ERA has made him a bargain on his two year $15.5 million contract.
Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez were also dominant during the first couple of months of the season, when the offense was struggling. Without this front three exceeding expectations the Cardinals’ may have been out of the reckoning weeks before the All-Star break.
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Both Wacha and Martinez have been out injured during the recent hot streak so young pitchers such as John Gant, Jack Flaherty and Luke Weaver have had to step up. Gant and Weaver have had up and down years but have both been good enough in August to keep the team in every game so that the smoking hot offense can win them games.
Flaherty has had a very good rookie year and may be leading the rotation along with Alex Reyes for many years to come. When you add Daniel Poncedeleon, who has pitched 11 innings for 1 earned run so far as a starter, to that it is clear that the Redbirds now have a lot of pitching depth.
Front Office Find Perfect Balance
The Cardinals have found the perfect balance between youth and experience. They should make the postseason from their current position and have as good a chance as anyone in the National League to make it to the World Series. With a lot of their key players being rookies they have achieved a Front Office’s dream of rebuilding and still being competitive. By changing manager the Cardinals have caught the kind of magic that the Giants and Nationals had been searching for.