The Cardinals formula for success in 2024 was on display in win over Padres

If the Cardinals can play like they did on Monday more often than not during the 2024 season, it's easy to see how they'll be contenders.

Apr 1, 2024; San Diego, California, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Kyle Gibson (44)
Apr 1, 2024; San Diego, California, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Kyle Gibson (44) / Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

If you're a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers, or whoever else you would say are the best teams in baseball, you have a variety of ways you can win ballgames. Their front offices have done an excellent job over the last number of years to build rosters capable of winning the World Series.

When it comes to the St. Louis Cardinals, at least as currently constructed, the path toward winning games has much less room for error, although their series opener win against the San Diego Padres showed that it can be highly effective (in the regular season).

During the entirety of the Cardinals' opening series against the Dodgers, I kept saying to myself "I can't wait to see this team play against the San Diego Padres and the other teams on their upcoming schedule". The Dodgers are in a different class than the Cardinals right now, and although that's a whole other problem that needs to be addressed, it doesn't necessarily mean the Cardinals are incapable of success this season, and Monday's game showed exactly why.

For St. Louis, the formula for winning includes the following:

1. A quality start from their rotation (6+ IP w/3 ER or less).

2. Their offense performing like a top-10 unit in baseball.

3. High-leverage arms closing the door when the starter leaves the game.

4. Playing clean baseball, not making mistakes on the basepaths or in the field (and hopefully even making positive plays in both areas.

On Monday night, all four things were clearly present, and the Cardinals controlled that game from start to finish. It does not mean that St. Louis is a World Series contender now or that they won't end up having a poor season, but they should the world they have all the ingredients to beat good ballclubs like the Padres when they play to their strengths.

People are probably sick of the quality start stats, but they have to be mentioned if you want to understand how this front office envisions this team competing in 2024. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (subscription required) had an incredible write-up on this a few weeks ago, but I'll share some small tidbits I wrote about earlier this offseason.

- The Cardinals were 34-19 (.641 win%) in 2023 when their starting pitcher went 6+ innings and allowed 4 or fewer earned runs (which is actually one more run allowed than the quality start stat allows). When they did not get that from their rotation, they were 37-72 (.307 win%).

- In 2023, the Cardinals ranked 24th in all of baseball with just 48 quality starts (30% of their games)

- Adam Wainwright, Jake Woodford, Drew Rom, Dakota Hudson, and Matthew Liberatore combined for 60 starts in 2023, and only 10 of those starts were quality starts (10%). Each of their ERAs when in the rotation ranged from 5.26-8.02, and all of them averaged just 4.1-5.1 innings pitched per start.

- Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson combined for 65 starts in 2023, and 30 of those starts (46%) were quality starts.

We saw the power of a quality start in action on Monday, as Gibson gave the club seven innings, giving up just two runs on four hits and two walks during his outing. While they don't need Gibson to be that good every time out, he actually had 18 starts in 2023 where he went 6+ IP with 4 or fewer earned runs, and an additional 7 starts where he went five innings with 4 or fewer runs allowed.

This past weekend, the Cardinals' starts only lasted 4.1 innings, 5.1 innings, 4 innings, and 5.1 innings in four straight starts, with Mikolas and Thompson giving up big run totals as well. Add in an extra innings game and rain delay as well, and the Cardinals really wore out their bullpen that series.

But if more often than not the club gets 6+ innings from their rotation with 0-4 runs being allowed, it gives the offense a real chance to win the game, and the bullpen is talented enough to hold those leads as well.

On Monday, JoJo Romero and Ryan Helsley were able to shut down the 8th and 9th innings with just 15 pitches combined between the two of them. Add in Andrew Kittredge, Giovanny Gallegos, Matthew Libeartore, and both Keynan Middleton and Riley O'Brien once they return, and you've got a lot of options to cover the late innings at a high level.

And of course, the strength of this team is clearly the offense. If it's not performing at the level it needs to be, all of this falls apart rather quickly. The Cardinals averaged just 3.5 runs per game against the Dodgers, and while that's just four games, it's clear this club is in trouble when it's not scoring runs.

Against San Diego, the Cardinals' offense tailed 17 base runners, with four of their hits being extra-base knocks. They were also 5-15 with runners in scoring position (.333 batting average), pushing across six runs and really running with this game.

Up and down the lineup, this Cardinals team has players who can get on base and do damage at the plate. Having the kind of lineup depth that they do, even while Lars Nootbaar is on the mend, gives them opportunities to score every time they come up to the plate. Gorman, Arenado, and Contreras have all three been pretty quiet to begin the year, so as they get going as well, this offense will take off even more.

Lastly, the defense and base running have been really good to start the year as well, and both really came through during their win over the Padres. Jordan Walker made a phenomenal diving grab in right field, Masyn Winn continued to impress at shortstop, and Victor Scott II continues to make his defense look effortless in center field. Overall, the defense looks much improved so far in 2024 and is one of four teams in baseball that has yet to commit an error.

Will every night look like this? No. Can they win when one or two of these elements are off? They have to be able to. But if they can look like they did on Monday night more often than not, the path toward returning to the playoffs was shown to us in San Diego