2018 has been a confusing year for Cardinals fans because it’s been difficult to gauge whether or not this is a playoff caliber team or a mediocre .500 club.
Sitting at 17-12, the numbers would show Mike Matheny’s squad is performing as well as many would hope. That may be somewhat true, but you have to keep in mind, seven of the team’s 29 games have come against the lowly Cincinnati Reds (7-24). Against all other opponents, the Cardinals are a underwhelming 10-12.
Sure, they’re taking care of the teams they should beat, going 9-0 against teams under .500, but losing 12 out of 20 games against teams with winning records won’t cut it. The Cardinals’ inconsistent play is a by product of an offense that’s been either red hot or ice cold and a bullpen that hasn’t quite found its identity.
Although the Cardinals boast the fourth best ERA in baseball (3.32), the bullpen has had a tough start to 2018.
The emergence of Bud Norris (1.72 ERA, 12.6 K/9) and Jordan Hicks (1.17 ERA, .160 BAA) have helped save an otherwise brutal bullpen. Pitchers not named Norris or Hicks have a combined ERA of 5.79.
That’s less than ideal.
Thankfully for Cardinals fans, Norris and Hicks lead the bullpen in innings pitched, but they can’t pitch every game in relief. Matt Bowman has the third most innings pitched out of the bullpen, which has many questioning Matheny’s tactics in late game situations.
Bowman sports a 5.56 ERA and a WHIP of nearly 2.00 in 11 innings pitched — that’s not going to get it done. If Bowman continues to struggle, Matheny at some point, has to consider a different option.
Then there’s Greg Holland. The experiment has gone about as poorly as possible. After an All-Star performance in 2017 with the Colorado Rockies, where Holland recorded 41 saves, the Cardinals signed him with the intent of being their closer. However, he’s hardly sniffing any innings because of his early struggles (7.36 ERA, 2.32 WHIP, .300 BAA).
While the bullpen has been disappointing in the first month of the season, it’s not the only reason the Cardinals have struggled to win against teams with a winning record. The entire lineup has had trouble finding consistency in 2018.
Marcell Ozuna started off the season red hot, but has cooled iff recently, currently hitting .243. He’s started picking it up the last week or so, but the inconsistency of the Cardinals cleanup hitter is alarming. Although, Ozuna does rank second on the team with 17 RBI.
Dexter Fowler has been nonexistent at the plate in 2018, forcing Matheny to move him down to sixth in the lineup. Fowler is hitting well below the “Mendoza Line” of a .200 batting average, hitting just .170. He’s also striking out one out of every four at-bats — a rate no leadoff hitter (or former leadoff hitter, if you will) should be at.
Another former top-of-the-lineup hitter, Matt Carpenter, has continued to decline. Only two seasons removed from an All-Star selection, Carpenter is currently sporting a .167 batting average, striking out around in a third of his at-bats. If Carpenter continues to struggle, look for the team to make a move for a mid-season replacement at the trade deadline.
Even players enjoying success in 2018 like Paul DeJong and Tommy Pham sport high strikeout rates. DeJong has struck out in over 35 percent of his at-bats, while Pham has gone down on strikes a little less than a quarter of the time.
All-and-all, the Cardinals should be thanking their lucky stars they’re 17-12. If the bullpen can figure it out and the offense starts making more contact, they could very well head to the postseason.
Jack Parodi covers the St. Louis Cardinals and you can find him on Twitter @jack_parodi