How the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter is beating the shift
St. Louis Cardinals achieved the remarkable accomplishment of being the fastest team in the National League to make it to 20 wins, taking the victory in 20 of their first 30 games.
But what is even more encouraging is the fact that the Redbirds don’t appear to have played anything close to their best baseball as of yet.
While we discussed the other day that role players like Adam Wainwright and John Gant have played like team pillars, some of the core players for St. Louis are still trying to get out of first gear about 20 percent of the way into the season. If the supporting cast keeps putting up numbers like it has so far and then the big guns start to concentrate their fire, the Cardinals could be a really special team.
Granted, his April doesn’t look nearly as bad in 2019 as it did in 2018, but Matt Carpenter isn’t producing like the front office must have hoped he would when the team recently inked the nomadic infielder to a contract extension. On Thursday, Carpenter struck out for the 11th time in the four-game series against the Washington Nationals. I can understand that guys sometimes go into slumps. But it’s another level of concern when they can’t even make contact. It’s one thing when a player is hitting sharply-struck balls at the fielders. It’s another when he’s swinging through pitches and unable to pull the trigger on strikes.
We know that the idea that he can’t hit anywhere besides lead off is in Carpenter’s head. But apparently it also messes him up between the ears that other teams shift against him like no one else. Where most players see shifts that put three infielders on one side of the field and only one on the other, against Carpenter lately teams are using no one on the third base side of the field. He’s got to learn to be able to hit the ball the other way, otherwise teams are never going to put a stop to this practice. And there just aren’t many places to find an empty patch of grass when you have seven players covering the only half of the field a hitter can utilize.
Of course, Carpenter supporters are going to say that fielders can’t defend a ball that’s hit over the fence. But it’s obvious that Carpenter is only looking for balls he can try to hit out of the ballpark. And most power hitters will tell you that it’s when you’re trying to hit a home run that you get yourself into trouble by popping up or missing the ball by over swinging. It’s appropriate that this week marked the anniversary of Stan Musial’s five-homer day. Stan the Man used to say that the first five at-bats he just tried to hit the ball square and it left the ballpark — it was on his sixth try that he intentionally tried to hit the ball a mile and, in the process, got himself out.
St. Louis Cardinals pitching gets a boost
Andrew Miller was supposed to essentially be the centerpiece of the St. Louis bullpen, providing all sorts of flexibility in the late innings as a set-up man, closer or multi-inning pitcher, depending on what is needed on a given night. Instead, he’s been remarkably inconsistent, giving up homers much more often than he has in the past and issuing far too many walks.
Fortunately, Jordan Hicks has been spectacular in the ninth inning and John Brebbia and Gant have been phenomenal in the middle. But, sooner or later, one has to hope that Miller will get his groove back and really put the St. Louis bullpen over the top. While the quality of pitching has been excellent in the St. Louis bullpen, manager Mike Shildt needs more options or he’s going to burn up the ones that currently work.
Speaking of the pitching staff, the Cardinals figure to get a boost as the season goes on from pitchers who are currently on the shelf because of injuries.
Carlos Martinez may be the closest to returning to the big leagues, spending his time building up the strength in his pitching shoulder in extended spring training. Martinez, at the very least, could be a guy who gives Brebbia and Gant a bit of a breather. Or he could be a guy who finds his way into the starting rotation later in the season, boosting a team that really doesn’t have a legitimate ace, at least not now as Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson are still learning to get big league hitters out on a consistent basis.
Alex Reyes, if he can regain his control and refrain from punching walls, could also be a factor in either the rotation or the bullpen and, hopefully, lefty bull penner Brett Cecil will get things figured out after he recovers from surgery in the spring.
Paul Goldschmidt needs to get hot for St. Louis
Finally, while he hasn’t been bad, superstar slugger Paul Goldschmidt hasn’t played like a superstar so far.
I look for the first baseman to get hot at the plate as the weather warms up. He’s used to playing in Arizona, so trying to get accustomed to new atmosphere might be hitting him a little bit harder than what happens to most players when they have a change of scenery.
If these guys can pick up the pace and perform more like they have historically, the Cardinals could really have something special on their hands. Most teams have at least a couple of weak spots on their roster. But this club could have 29 or 30 players on the roster who are ready to contribute at the major league level. Keeping everyone sharp might be the biggest issue the team faces as the season rolls on.