St. Louis Cardinals: What fans didn’t see coming in 2019

SAN DIEGO, CA - JUNE 30: Harrison Bader #48 of the St. Louis Cardinals makes a diving catch on a ball hit by Franmil Reyes #32 of the San Diego Padres during the third inning of a baseball game at Petco Park June 30, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JUNE 30: Harrison Bader #48 of the St. Louis Cardinals makes a diving catch on a ball hit by Franmil Reyes #32 of the San Diego Padres during the third inning of a baseball game at Petco Park June 30, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images) /

Many so-called ‘keys to the season’ have faltered, but fielding and relief pitching have saved the season for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Before this season began, various websites projected that the St. Louis Cardinals could be a 2019 playoff contender if the following came to pass:

Paul Goldschmidt enjoyed an MVP-caliber season. Thomas Lott of predicted that Goldy would win the NL’s Most Valuable Player award.

• Newly acquired reliever Andrew Miller avoided injury and returned to his 2014-2017 form. Over those four years, the lefty had ERAs ranging from 1.44 to 2.04 and sub-1.0 WHIPs (it was 0.686 in 2016!). Bleacher Report called Miller “the key to the bullpen.”

Matt Carpenter had another big year with the bat. Harris Ahmadzai of wrote that Goldschmidt and Carpenter could be “the best one-two punch in all of baseball.”

It was further suggested by various media that Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks, and Miles Mikolas would need to make large contributions for the Cards to have any shot at reaching the postseason.

As we know, none of that happened. All of the previously mentioned players have had disappointing seasons through early September, yet the Cards are leading the NL Central. So what went right?

Answer: Two projected weaknesses — defense and the bullpen — have exceeded all expectations. pointed out on March 26th that “the Cardinals made the most errors in the majors last season, the latest chapter in their long-standing defensive shortcomings.” The 2018 Redbirds finished dead last with a .978 fielding percentage and their 133 errors were 10 more than any other team.

This year, the Cardinals are leading the majors with a .989 fielding percentage. Through Sept. 6th, They’ve committed just 59 errors, five less than the Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals, who rank second, and 36 fewer than the Chicago Cubs, who rank 25th. While fielding percentage isn’t the only indicator of defensive prowess, it’s good to see the boo-boos dwindle.

Why the fielding turnaround? Hard to say. The up-the-middle defense (Yadier Molina at catcher, Kolten Wong at second, Paul DeJong at short, Harrison Bader in center) has been excellent, but they’re the same group as last year — and Molina and Bader have played fewer games this season. It helps that Tommy Edman, a far better fielder, has taken over for Carpenter at third, but he’s started just 39 games there.

It also helps that Jose Martinez, called “a future DH” by a Brewers announcer this year, has started zero games at first base after starting 84 games at the position in 2018.

It’s possible that three-time Gold Glove winner Paul Goldschmidt has made the biggest difference in the Cardinals fielding. Last year, it was Martinez and Carpenter at first, a grim-glove combination. Keith Hernandez has called first base the game’s most underrated defensive position.

A good first-bagger takes numerous throws from three infielders and a catcher and is capable of creating or preventing miscues. “The fact that he’s going to be more involved in the game than anyone should elevate the idea of having a good first baseman to the top of the list,” Hernandez, an 11-time Gold Glover, told The New York Times in 2005.

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One problem with the Goldy’s glove theory: his Defensive WAR this year is -0.2, suggesting he’s been a (slightly) below-average fielder this season. Then again, defensive statistics remain an imperfect measure of a first baseman’s fielding proficiency. It certainly seems like Goldschmidt has been a huge improvement over the Martinez-Carpenter combo.

As for the relievers, Alex Crisafulli of wrote on March 24th that the Cardinals pen “was nothing short of a disaster in 2018.” St. Louis finished 20th in reliever ERA with a 4.38 mark a year ago before improving to 3.77 this year, seventh in the majors and second in the NL.

Remarkably, they’ve accomplished this with Jordan Hicks out for most of the season with a torn UCL and Andrew Miller putting up subpar numbers (4.30 ERA, 1.348 WHIP, a bloated 4.9 walks per nine innings pitched). Injuries also limited Alex Reyes to three innings pitched (and five runs allowed).

The bullpen has nonetheless flourished thanks to career years from Giovanny Gallegos (1.8 WAR),  John Gant (1.0 WAR) and John Brebbia (1.0 WAR), plus sturdy contributions from Carlos Martinez (0.6 WAR) and Ryan Helsley (0.6 WAR).

Did the Cardinals just get lucky with their bullpen? Maybe. But the club deserves credit for acquiring and developing a group of younger arms. Gant, 26, came from the Braves in the 2016 Jamie Garcia deal. Gallegos, 27, arrived from the Yankees in the 2018 Luke Voit trade. Brebbia, 29, was plucked from the Diamondbacks in the 2015 Rule 5 draft. Martinez, 27, Helsley, 24, and Hicks, 22, came up through the farm system. The average age of those six pitchers — 25.8.

The Cubs, by contrast, went the free-agent route to acquire four of their six busiest relievers (Steve Cishek, Kyle Ryan, the departed Brad Brach and Tyler Chatwood), plus injured closer Craig Kimbrel. The average age of those five pitchers is 30.2.

Next. Jack Flaherty is a Cy Young contender…for 2020. dark

The year-to-year success of a bullpen can feel like a dice throw. Relievers can run hot and cold from one season to the next, and the Cardinals bullpen could slump a year from now. But depth and youth are two factors that could keep the team in better shape than most.