St. Louis Cardinals: Is 2021 heading toward another 1978?
In 1978 the season completely came apart early for the St. Louis Cardinals. Is that disastrous season a forewarning for the 2021 Cardinals?
As I write this on June 27, the St. Louis Cardinals just lost three of four games to the Pittsburgh Pirates. They are currently 37-41 and are in 4th place in the NL Central. Now eight games out of the division lead, the Cardinals actually seem much farther back after a 7-2 loss.
However, in 1978, the Cardinals season had already imploded by this time. After a 2-0 win over the the Pirates on June 27th, they were 28-47, 13 games behind the Eastern Division leading Chicago Cubs, and on their third manager of the season.
In other words, the 1978 season was essentially over for the Cardinals. They would eventually finish 69-93, 21 games behind the Eastern Division champs, Philadelphia Phillies.
What happened in 1978 seems to be what happening so far in 2021. Then, as in now, fingers could be pointed at both the hitting and the pitching. Additionally, like in 2021, no one predicted the team in 1978 to struggle like it did.
In other words, the 1978 team, like this current version of the Cardinals, just seemed to have too much talent to struggle as they did. Let’s take a closer look at the 1978 Cardinals.
You would think a team which had a lineup that included Ted Simmons, Keith Hernandez, Garry Templeton, Lou Brock, and George Hendrick, wouldn’t have offensive issues. But in 1978, they did, because several players took a step back from their 1977 performances.
Unexpectedly, subpar performances were seen by Keith Hernandez, Garry Templeton, Lou Brock, and a new arrival, Jerry Morales. To add on, there wasn’t much help on the bench either.
Offensively, the team finished 21st in Batting Average (.249), 25th in OBP (.303), 22nd in SLG (.358), 25th in OPS (.661), and 25th in OPS+ (86). Additionally, they finished in the bottom half in RBI (20th), Runs (23rd), and Sacrifice Hits (24th).
Individually, several of the Cardinal hitters took a significant step back from 1977. Keith Hernandez had a slash line of .291/.379/.459 and an OPS+ of 125 with 15 HR and 91 RBI. However, in 1978 his slash line dropped to .255/.351/..389 and an OPS+ of 108, with 11 HR and 64 RBI.
The switch hitting Garry Templeton saw his slash line drop from .322/.336/.449 in 1977 to .280/.303/.337 in 1978. Additionally, his OPS+ dropped from 110 to 91.
Fans were beginning to see the effects of age on the 39-year old, Lou Brock in 1978, who eventually lost his starting job in left field. The legend saw his slash line drop significantly from .272/.317/.354 in 1977 to .221/.263/.252 in 1978, and suffered an OPS+ of only 46.
The Cardinals acquired Jerry Morales from the Cubs in 1978 to play right field and improve the offense. It didn’t work out. Morales had a slash line in 1977 with the Cubs of .290/.348/.447 with an OPS+ of 103 and an All Star appearance. In his one season with the Cardinals in 1978, he hit a slash line of .239/.288/..341 with an OPS+ of only 77.
The names in the Cardinals rotation in 1978 didn’t look bad at all. It included future Cy Young Award winner John Denny, Bob Forsch, Pete Vuckovich, and Silvio Martinez. The bullpen had some effective tools in Mark Littell, Buddy Schultz, and Tom Bruno.
As a staff, they held a 3.58 ERA, they gave up only 94 HR (compared to an MLB average of 114), 5th in baseball in strikeouts. and gave up the fewest hits allowed in baseball.
So what happened in 1978 to Cardinals pitching?
The 1978 Cardinals staff were third in walks allowed in baseball and, also, second in wild pitches. Bob Forsch led the staff in walks with 97, which was 6th in all of baseball, and starter Pete Falcone had the highest walk rate on the staff with a 5.8 BB/09.
Plus, some of the bullpen arms had rather high walk rates in 1978. Closer Mark Littell had a 5.0 BB/9, Aurellio Lopez’s was 4.4, and John Urrea’s was 4.3.
To Sum up…
The 1978 Cardinals were not supposed to be a last place team. There was just too much talent to expect a season which would end with them finishing in the cellar of the National League East.
But with the combination of enough good hitters having sub-par years and a pitching staff with a high walk rate, it happened. Sound familiar?
Let me be clear though, I’m not projecting this year’s version of the Cardinals to finish 24 games under .500. After all, this team is currently only four games under .500.
Additionally, some comparisons aren’t fair. The 1978 Cardinals started the year with an unpopular manager in the clubhouse, Vern Rapp, who was fired in late April. On the other hand, Mike Shildt by all accounts, is well respected by his players. Furthermore, the personality differences between the rosters can make comparisons unfair.
Nevertheless, I feel like this team is at a pivotal point in the season. To prevent a repeat of 1978, some of the veterans of this team are going have to step up. Adam Wainwright has stepped up, we now need to see the same from Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Paul DeJong. Waiting for the Trade Deadline to resolve these issues, at this rate, could be too late.
In 1978, this never happened, in spite of the talent on that roster. All we can do as fans, is to wait and see if it happens in 2021.