Sixty games into the baseball season, what a weird, wacky year it’s been for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Exactly $25.5 million of the team’s payroll is getting spent in Memphis. A guy named Aledmys Diaz has been a huge help, a guy named Adam Wainwright a little less so. While familiar names like Holliday and Peralta and Grichuk have ranged from absent to so-so, the team has received unexpected contributions from fellows named Kiekhefer and Bowman and Fryer and Hazelbaker.
Who could have foreseen the career renaissance of Matt Adams? Or could have known how little-regarded Greg Garcia proved so persistent he’s won a spot (for now) on the roster? Or could have predicted the long stretches of frustration felt by Randal Grichuk, a walking, talking, brooding personification of a sophomore slump?
Who could have foretold all the home runs and the robust offense, and the less-than-stellar pitching and defense?
Well, not me: I thought the Cardinals, after losing Jason Heyward to the Chicago Cubs in the offseason and Jhonny Peralta to a spring training thumb injury, would have trouble scoring runs. Which is not what’s happened.
And after the return of Adam Wainwright and the addition of Mike Leake to the rotation, I thought the pitching could at least approach if not equal last year’s starting staff, buttressed by an always-solid defense. Which is not what’s happened.
Which serves to remind us, just past the one-third mark of the season: Every team is different each new season, no matter how much the core remains the same.
And we are likewise reminded: What a difference a year can make ...
Through 60 games last year, the Cardinals were 18 games over .500. After a 3-2 win at Cincinnati Thursday, the team is – for the first time all year – four games above .500.
In the first 10 weeks of last season, the Cardinals had winning streaks of seven games (once), five games (twice) and four games (twice). The 2016 team’s best winning streak has been four games, a total it’s reached just once.
At this point last year, the Cardinals had been in first place all 60 games of the season. This year, the club has never been in first: It’s found itself in second place for 13 days, third place for 38 days, fourth place for five days and fifth place for three days.
Last year at this point, the Cardinals had a 6 ½ game lead on the rest of the National League Central. This year, the Cardinals are 10 games behind the front-running Chicago Cubs.
That’s a 16 1/2-game swing in the standings, a figure that is less startling when you consider how this team has played day to day. Armed with less-than dominating starting pitching – the hallmark of the 2015 staff – this year’s team has been unable to put itself consistently in the win column.
In the first 10 weeks of last season, the Cardinals had winning streaks of seven games (once), five games (twice) and four games (twice). The 2016 team’s best winning streak has been four games, a total that it has reached just once.
The 2015 Cardinals went 10 games over .500 on May 1, 15 games over .500 on May 8 and spent the first 10 days of June anywhere from 15 to 19 games above .500. This year? After six tries at various points earlier this season, the Cardinals finally made it to four games over .500 Thursday.
5-19 The Cardinals’ record when they’ve allowed five runs or more so far in the 2016 season
27-9 The Cardinals’ record when they’ve allowed four runs or fewer so far n the 2016 season
How to explain this one-step-forward, two-steps-back performance? Don’t look anywhere but the pitching mound.
Last year’s team posted a 2.94 ERA; so far this year the team ERA stands at 4.24. When a team gives up 1.3 more runs a game than it did a year ago, it’s going to lose more games.
Last year’s team gave up 525 runs, earned and unearned. This year’s team is on pace for 726 runs allowed, a 38 percent increase if the trend doesn’t reverse itself or at least level off.
When the Cardinals have won in recent years — and that’s been a lot — they’ve done so with better pitching and defense. This year, not so much: In 24 of their 60 games, they’ve given up five runs or more, or 40 percent of the time. Last year, through 60 games, the Cardinals gave up five runs or more 15 times in the first 60 games, or 25 percent of the time.
Does it matter? In a word, yes: The Cardinals are 5-19 in games when they’ve given up five runs or more this season, compared to a record of 27-9 when they’ve allowed four runs or fewer.
2.94 The Cardinals’ team ERA last year, the best in the major leagues
4.24 The Cardinals’ team ERA this year, good for ninth in the National League
And while there are positives on the offense — the team is pace to score 885 runs, an astonishing 238 more runs than the 2015 Cardinals did, and are on a pace to hit 216 home runs, 79 more than last year’s total of 137 — that may not be enough to surmount the shortcomings in the pitching staff or the Cubs’ double-digit lead in the standings.
And so on June 10 we turn our attention to the wild card race, where the two teams with the best second- or third-place records in the National League qualify for a one-game playoff to extend their postseason run in October.
Where do the Cards sit in that race at this moment? On the edge:
At 32-28, they are tied for second in the wild card standings, tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates (32-28) behind the New York Mets (33-26). Right behind: The Los Angeles Dodgers at 32-29.
Granted, it’s far too early to be watching the scoreboard every day. But not a day too soon to hope the Cardinals’ pitching takes a dramatic turn for the better.
Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at 618-239-2512 or on Twitter @JoeOstermeier