What contributed to the Cardinals poor start in 2023 and how to avoid it in 2024

The questions around the Cardinals entering 2024 are getting louder and louder, but is it really as bad as things were in 2023?

San Francisco Giants v St. Louis Cardinals
San Francisco Giants v St. Louis Cardinals / Michael B. Thomas/GettyImages
facebooktwitterreddit

We all remember how terrible the St. Louis Cardinals start to the 2023 season was, but do we all remember what the biggest issues were?

Sure, the simple answer was the same concern people have entering 2024 - the starting pitching. But when you take a deeper look at the numbers, you can pinpoint the issues even further.

Let's start by looking at the numbers for the Cardinals rotation and bullpen through the month of April in 2023.

March/April

ERA

FIP

K%

IP

WAR

W-L

Starters

4.94 (22nd)

4.76 (21st)

20.4% (24th)

153 (9th)

1.5 (T-19th)

6-13

Bullpen

3.97 (17th)

3.38 (3rd)

29.5% (1st)

99.2 (T-17th)

1.2 (9th)

4-6

About what you'd expect, right? The rotation was poor, although it ate more innings than we might have remembered. The bullpen was more of a mixed bag - finishing 1st in K% and 3rd in FIP while finishing just 17th in ERA and innings pitched. But let's look deeper at each of the specific starters and relievers to see what went south.

Starter

ERA

FIP

QS

Team Record

Jordan Montgomery

3.34

2.57

5

2-4

Miles Mikolas

5.97

4.93

1

3-3

Jack Flaherty

3.94

5.07

1

3-3

Steven Matz

6.23

5.18

0

0-5

Jake Woodford

5.72

6.57

0

2-4

The only starter that was truly great during the first month of the season was Jordan Montgomery, whose only poor start of the month came against the Diamondbacks. Five of his six starts were quality starts, yet the team only went 2-4 in his outings. It's important to note that during the season, the club went 34-19 when starters went 6+ innings giving up 4 or fewer ER.

The rest of the rotation combined for just two quality starts, and only Jack Flaherty was objectively average during that stretch. Flaherty went five or more innings in five of his six starts but was super inefficient with his pitches.

Where things really fell apart for the Cardinals was their other three starters. Out of the 120 starters who threw 20 or more innings that first month, Woodford, Mikolas, and Matz ranked 97th, 100th, and 105th in ERA. The Cardinals lost all five of Matz's starts, as he was so bad to begin the season that they had to remove him from the rotation. Woodford was soon removed for Adam Wainwright, and even though the Cardinals won two of his starts, it was a really bad experience.

Mikolas was a bit more of a mixed bag than the overall numbers showed, as in his first three starts he posted a 10.05 ERA in 14.1 innings, but settled down to allow just 5 earned runs in his final three starts and 12.1 innings pitched.

The moral of the story with the rotation was that when the club got average or even below-average starts, they had a chance to win, but too many of the starts were just catastrophically bad, ending any hope of winning that game.

The rotation has not looked good so far in Spring Training, but if the Cardinals' projections hold up, there is what ZiPS projects each of their starter's ERAs to be in 2024:

Sonny Gray - 3.56 ERA
Miles Mikolas - 4.36 ERA
Kyle Gibson - 4.51ERA
Steven Matz - 3.99 ERA
Lance Lynn - 4.46 ERA
Zack Thompson - 4.45 ERA

While no one is going to write home about the production of that rotation, it would provide steep improvements over what the Cardinals got from their worst three starters last year.

6.23 to 4.51 (1.72 ERA improvement)
5.97 to 4.46 (1.51 ERA improvement)
5.72 to 4.36 (1.36 ERA improvement)

Again, we have to wait to see what the results will be on the field, but that's the kind of improvement St. Louis is hoping to see from the rotation. Things get dicey if Gray misses more than just a start or two.

When it comes to the bullpen, it's interesting to see how multiple of the arms they expected to be major contributors had rough starts to the year.

Relievers

ERA

FIP

K%

IP

Ryan Helsley

4.50

3.46

29.5%

10.0

Jordan Hicks

6.35

4.67

33.9%

11.1

Giovanny Gallegos

1.00

1.48

34.4%

9.0

Zack Thompson

4.63

3.60

32.7%

11.2

Andre Pallante

7.56

6.14

17.1%

8.1

Drew VerHagen

4.38

2.69

30.2%

12.1

Chris Stratton

4.40

3.05

19.6%

14.1

JoJo Romero

1.50

3.59

22.7%

6.0

Genesis Cabrera

2.31

3.00

42.2%

11.2

Packy Naughton

0.00

1.86

29.4%

5.0

I expect the Cardinals bullpen to be a lot better in 2024. Ryan Helsley is healthy and looks like himself again. Keynan Middleton and Andrew Kittredge should be much better than what Jordan Hicks and Zack Thompson provided, two of the arms the Cardinals trusted in high-leverage situations early on in the season. And I really like the mix of Giovanny Gallegos, Riley O'Brien, Ryan Fernandez, JoJo Romero, and whatever options they go with than the lower end of the bullpen last year.

The story these numbers tell me, and the feeling we had back at the end of April last year, was that the rotation rarely gave the Cardinals a start they could work with, and even when the Cardinals found themselves in a position to win a game, the bullpen would then crack and give up the lead. Small steps forward in both departments would go a long way toward not starting the season 10-19.

While that seemed to be the biggest black hole last year, the Cardinals aren't expecting the pitching to carry them this year. There's a good shot the bullpen is not just incrementally better but substantially better in 2024, but the rotation leaves little upside to bet on. What they really need to carry them in 2024 is their offense, and it got off to a cold start in 2023.

March/April

OPS

wRC+

Runs

WAR

Offense Ranking

.749 (12th)

105 (T-10th)

123 (18th)

3.5 (12th)

Again, here lies part of the problem with the 2023 Cardinals. Although the offense wasn't necessarily the reason it was not winning games, it wasn't doing enough to overcome the issues the pitching had. While it improved rapidly in the summer and ranked top 8 in most offensive categories before the trade deadline, it was slightly above average to start the year, which was not good enough if they were going to stay afloat.

In 2024, the expectation should be that this offense is top-10 in baseball, and they need to figure out why the total runs they scored often lagged behind their other offensive outputs. But if they want to do more than just survive in 2024, they need that offense to be closer to the top-5.

Like we did with the pitching staff, let's look at the individual starts offensively to the 2023 season.

March/April

OPS

wRC+

WAR

PA

Paul Goldschmidt

.914

152

1.2

126

Nolan Arenado

.600

63

-0.2

121

Nolan Gorman

.878

135

0.7

104

Tommy Edman

.827

124

0.8

98

Lars Nootbaar

.705

124

0.5

65

Willson Contreras

.762

112

0.3

104

Jordan Walker

.718

98

-0.1

78

Tyler O'Neill

.661

83

0.1

90

Alec Burleson

.722

95

-0.2

87

Brendan Donovan

.715

98

0.3

91

Dylan Carlson

.619

71

-0.1

64

Andrew Knizner

.368

5

-0.3

29

A quick summary of how each guy did at the plate:

Elite - Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Gorman

Good - Tommy Edman, Willson Contreras, and Lars Nootbaar (Nootbaar only played in 15 games)

Average - Jordan Walker, Alec Burleson, and Brendan Donovan

Bad - Nolan Arenado, Dylan Carlson, Tyler O'Neill, and Andrew Knizner

Once again, you can see where the issues were. They had more players who were average or bat at the plate to start the year than they did good or elite, and while it's unlikely that they'll have a ton of elite performances to begin the year, this lineup should be one that produces a few elite bats, a lot of good ones, and a few average. They especially can't afford to have a star like Arenado be one of the players who was bad.

In short, here is how I would describe the Cardinals' start to 2023:

Starting pitching: It was mostly really bad, with the major issue being uncompetitive starts where the offense and bullpen have no chance to salvage things.

Bullpen: The group wasn't quite as bad as the rotation, but the arms they were relying on in big spots mostly had bad months. So when the Cardinals did have a lead to work with, the bullpen was not holding it down.

Lineup: Most of their bats got off to slow starts, with one of their best players, Nolan Arenado, being one of their worst hitters. We didn't address the defense, but we all know how big of a struggle that was as well.

The question is, as the Cardinals approach Opening Day in just a few weeks, how much better can the club be to begin this season? As injuries pile up and players still don't look sharp in camp, it's getting worrisome to say the very least, but as we all know from last year, Spring Training performance does not indicate success or failure in the regular season.

The bar to start off 2024 better is very low, as even just incremental improvement from the rotation, bullpen, and lineup should result in a closer to .500 team. If the offense and bullpen can be a true strength like I believe they can be, it's easy to see how they can start the year above .500 and build upon that momentum in the summer.

The margin for error is thin here though, and I see why many are not confident in the club to begin the year. While clearing the low bar they set in 2023 is not impressive by any means, I do believe starting the year off better can help the club stay on the rails the whole year, rather than crash and burn like they did in 2023.

manual