Analyzing an Underwhelming First Half for the St. Louis Cardinals

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    We are officially halfway through the 2021 MLB season (well, 56% through to be exact), and to say the Cardinals’ season so far has been disappointing would be a considerable understatement. Coming into the season, many baseball fans picked the Cardinals as the favorites to take the NL Central crown, what with the addition of Nolan Arenado. While a division title is not completely out of the picture for St. Louis, it certainly feels far out of reach, as the Cardinals sit just 44-46, tied for 3rd in the Central. How have the Cardinals gotten to a spot where they are under .500 at the break?

    Opening Day certainly ignited a hopeful fire in Cardinals fans, as an 11-6 victory led by Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill home runs and fantastic work from the bullpen got us out on the right foot. A couple of disappointing losses and the series loss to Cincy were quelled by a succeeding 3 game sweep in Miami, in which Dylan Carlson slugged two more homers (one a grand slam). Nolan Arenado’s massive two-run go-ahead blast in the 8th to push the Cardinals past Milwaukee in the Thursday home opener put them at a solid 5-2 start to the year. Lots of excitement was brewing amongst Cards fans. The team then followed the dramatic home-opening victory with two losses to the Brewers, and 3 consecutive series losses to NL East opponents. 

    Arenado's late HR lifts Cards over Brewers in home debut
    Nolan Arenado’s go-ahead 2-run home run propelled the Cardinals past the Brewers in St. Louis’s home opener on April 8th, 2021.

    From April 10th to April 29th, the Cardinals posted a team 88 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), 16th in baseball. Their 4.38 team xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) in the same time span ranked 22nd. Their offense was guided by…Yadier Molina? Yadi’s 167 wRC+ blew everyone away and gave some semblance of hope that he may end up returning to prime form in 2021. The issue? Since May, Molina posted just a 70 wRC+ in 193 PA. Somehow, he was a finalist for National League starting catcher in the All Star Game, and even made it as a replacement when Buster Posey decided to sit out. Yadi needs to have even an average offensive second half to be valuable at all to this team down the stretch, as his defense is regressing as he gets older. 

    A Cardinal who did not make the All-Star Game but should have is Tyler O’Neill, who has finally broken out and become the player that all Cardinals fans knew he could become. O’Neill has posted a 138 wRC+, .879 OPS, 5 DRS (defensive runs saved), and 2.3 fWAR (Fangraphs wins above replacement) so far this season. Another positive thing about O’Neill: he is starting to take better at bats. He is seeing more pitches, walking more, and cutting down on the chases. O’Neill has posted a 10.5 BB% since the beginning of the month, which is incredibly promising. He is also significantly cutting down on the strikeouts. If he can have a great second half, his bat could easily help guide us towards the playoffs.

    Tyler O’Neill’s Rolling K% in 2021, via

    Let’s talk about Goldenado. Nolan and Goldy. Our two best bats. Arenado has posted a 120 wRC+ in the first half, which is a bit underwhelming. The positive? He’s still playing phenomenal defense, with his OAA (outs above average) hovering in the 80th-90th percentile range for the last couple of months. We also know what kind of hitter he is, and we know he can easily turn it around and have a ridiculous second half. Paul Goldschmidt, similarly, has had a disappointing first half. After putting up a 146 wRC+ in 2020, Goldy got off to a really rough start to his season, unable to eclipse a 70 wRC+ in April. He has started to get hot, fortunately, and finished his second half with a 113 wRC+. Another positive about Paul Goldschmidt? His Baseball Savant page is blood red. Goldy’s .382 xwOBA (expected weighted on base average) is in the 89th percentile in Major League Baseball, while his xSLG (expected slugging percentage), Hard Hit %, and average exit velocity are all 92nd percentile or better. He’s also playing very solid defense at first, with a 79th percentile OAA. He is truly primed to have a monstrous second half if he continues to hit the ball as hard as he has been. 

    Images from the Brewers' 6-1 loss to the Cardinals in 11 innings
    Cardinals stars at the corners Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt.

    As for other guys within the offense, there’s not a whole lot to talk about. Paul DeJong finished the second half strong with a couple home runs at Wrigley, but has not had the start to the season the Cardinals had counted on. Edmundo Sosa has stolen some of his playing time, and had a very solid stretch of games, but overall has not been very good in the first half with an 88 wRC+. Tommy Edman’s weakness from the left side and strength from the right side has been revealed this season, as Tommy holds a 69 wRC+ as a lefty, and a 153 wRC+ as a righty. It might be time for him to drop the whole switch hitting act. Dylan Carlson has slowed down since a great April, and Harrison Bader has battled injuries but has been decent when he’s played. 

    The biggest problem with the Cardinals in the first half was pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen. Coming into the season, the Cardinals were going to be missing Dakota Hudson (Tommy John surgery) and Miles Mikolas (elbow inflammation), which already left the rotation thin. Jack Flaherty had a fantastic start to his season, only to be injured while hitting at Dodger Stadium, a clear sign that we need the universal DH, like, yesterday. On the bright side, Kwang-Hyun Kim has really stepped up, posting a 3.11 ERA, 3.77 FIP, and 3.88 xERA in the first half. Adam Wainwright also continues to age in reverse, as his 3.58 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 3.78 xFIP, and 4.03 SIERA (skill interactive earned run average) has anchored the Cardinals’ depleted rotation. Guys like Johan Oviedo and Wade LeBlanc have had bright spots in the rotation, as well. The removal of John Gant and Carlos Martinez from the rotation will prove to be pivotal for the Cardinals in the second half, especially if they are able to add a starter from outside the organization at the deadline. 

    Cleanup hitter O'Neill not in Cardinals lineup due to finger injury;  LeBlanc continues bid for rotation spot | Derrick Goold: Bird Land |
    Wade LeBlanc has eaten innings since being signed by the Cardinals in mid-June, turning in some solid starts.

    Alex Reyes’ first half, which garnered him his first career All Star appearance, has carried the bullpen thus far. Giovanny Gallegos has also remained one of the league’s best relievers, and Genesis Cabrera has emerged as a dominant arm from the left side. These three will have to carry a thin Cardinals bullpen through the end of the season. 

    Reyes wants to start for Cards next year
    Alex Reyes made his first All Star team in 2021. In the first half, Reyes was 20 for 20 in save opportunities with a 1.52 ERA.

    Overall, the Cardinals have played some pretty poor baseball so far this season, but it has been sprinkled with many bright spots. I don’t think it’s quite time to hit the panic button yet; St. Louis is a 7 game winning streak away from really getting back in the playoff hunt. If the Cards decide to add some pieces before the end of the month, I think there is still a very good shot that they make the postseason. The 2019 Cardinals were only 44-44 at the break, and went on to take the division title. There is a lot to be excited about as the Cardinals enter the second half of the season.

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