By Rob Rains
Nothing, or at least so it seems, produces more of a positive or negative over-reaction then how a baseball team performs in the first week or so of the season.
This has been true for the Cardinals with fans already wanting to know why the team didn’t add to its pitching staff over the winter because the rotation stinks. There already has been a team-created controversy involving manager Oli Marmol and Tyler O’Neill that was blown out of proportion.
Take a deep breath folks. As the old adage goes, a 162-game baseball season is a marathon not a sprint. And yes we are all well aware of the fact that games in April count exactly the same in the standings as games in September. But trying to predict how a season will end up based on what happens in early April usually is just a recipe for failure.
Still, there might be a few things we have learned from watching the Cardinals go 3-7 in the first 10 games of the season – positive, negative or perhaps just something to stay on top of as a potential cause of concern.
Here are 10 takeaways from the first 10 games:
- Jordan Walker is really good.
There is a lot that could be said about the 20-year-old Walker’s first 10 games, but let’s start with this: Nobody in the major leagues over the last 110 years has begun his career at that age or younger by getting at least one hit in his first 10 games. When he extended the streak on Monday night, Walker broke a tie with Ted Williams for the longest streak since 1912. When you do something better than Williams, it doesn’t get much better than that. There certainly will be challenging stretches ahead for Walker as the league begins to learn more about him, but neither he or the Cardinals could have asked for a better start.
- The rotation will be better than it showed during each of the starter’s first two games.
Two of the five starters, Jake Woodford and Miles Mikolas, have ERAs of 9.00 or above. Steven Matz has an ERA of 8.18 and combined the five starters’ cumulative ERA is 5.96. They have allowed 91 baserunners in 51 1/3 innings. Jack Flaherty has walked 13 batters in 10 innings. It’s been well-documented how badly the starters fared in the first two innings in the season’s first six games, allowing 20 runs. Take away those 12 innings, and the group combined has allowed just 14 runs in 37 1/3 innings, a much more respectable performance and probably a much better indication of how this group will pitch over the long season. It’s also likely Adam Wainwright will rejoin the rotation by the end of April.
- Baserunning, especially when it comes to trying to score, might be a concern.
There are two aspects to the baserunning problems during the first 10 games. The first concern, which likely is temporary, is the number of runners who have been thrown out at the plate – four, the most celebrated of course being O’Neill, and the debate about whether he was or was not running hard on the play. There has not been nearly as much said about the other three outs or the fact that despite recording 98 hits, the sixth most in the NL, they have scored only 40 runs, ahead of only the Reds and Marlins in the league.
The second aspect of baserunning is the lack of stolen bases, or more accurately, the lack of stolen base attempts. The bigger bases was supposed to lead to more steals, but so far the Cardinals have three, one each by Tommy Edman, Walker and Paul Goldschmidt, in just four attempts. In the first 10 games last year, the Cardinals had eight stolen bases in nine attempts.
- Dylan Carlson deserves more playing time, especially in center field.
Carlson has started only three of the 10 games in center field, with O’Neill getting the other seven starts. That has been more than enough time to see that Carlson is by far the better player defensively at the position, especially after O’Neill badly misplayed two fly balls in the loss to the Brewers on Sunday.
It isn’t just on defense, however, where Carlson hasn’t been used correctly. Even with Lars Nootbaar on the injured list, Carlson has just 21 plate appearances compared to 32 for O’Neill and 29 for Alec Burleson. Despite the fewer at-bats, he has just two fewer hits, six, than Burlesan and O’Neill.
More impressive, however, and showing why he deserves more playing time, is that Carlson has gone 4-of-14 against righthanded pitchers, the area of his game where he struggled after hurting his right wrist last year. The competition for at-bats is going to get even more intense with Nootbaar returning, but Carlson has proven he should not be the odd-man out.
- Jordan Hicks needs to find a way to get outs.
Here’s just one statistic that is a cause of concern for Hicks. He has pitched in five of the Cardinals’ 10 games, and exactly half of the batters he has faced, 14 of 28, have reached base on eight hits and six walks in five innings. The batting average against Hicks is .364, compared to .210 a year ago and .147 in 2021. No matter what the velocity is on Hicks’ fastball, he isn’t helping the team if he can’t find a way to get batters out. Hicks did retire both hitters he faced on Sunday in his last outing, so that might be an encouraging start.
- The team’s most improved player from 2022 is Nolan Gorman.
One statistic that points out the difference in Gorman’s performance from his rookie 2022 season compared to the start of this season is his walk total – Gorman drew seven walks in his first 29 plate appearances. He did not draw his seventh walk a year ago until his 79th plate appearance. Being able to lay off the high fastball, or at least foul it off, will make Gorman an even more dangerous hitter. He also had eight hits, including two homers and two doubles, in his first 10 games and compiled a .455 on-base percentage.
- Matthew Liberatore deserves a chance to start for an extended period at the big-league level.
If the Cardinals’ rotation continues to struggle, Matthew Liberatore should be on the receiving end of a phone call. After an impressive spring training, his first two starts at Memphis in the regular season have been even better – working 10 innings without allowing a run, issuing only four walks and recording 14 strikeouts. It seems as if the Cardinals have been waiting on Liberatore for a long time to live up to his potential and prospect hype, but the time might finally be right for him to do that. His next start for Memphis will be on Wednesday.
8. The team’s best reliever has been Zack Thompson.
The former first-round draft pick did not allow a run in 11 games in spring training, and was charged with his first run in the regular season, which was unearned, after he left Monday night’s game. He has proven to be effective against both lefthanded and righthanded batters and has earned a shot at more high-leverage situations out of the bullpen, especially if Hicks continues to struggle. Thompson has retired the first batter he faced in three of his four appearances and stranded two of four inherited runners.
- Willson Contreras has made the transition from Yadier Molina very seamless.
Contreras arrived in St. Louis saying all of the right things about succeeding the retired Yadier Molina and in the first 10 games has made the transition from Molina very seamless. He hasn’t hit as well as the Cardinals would have liked, going 7-of-31 with only one extra base hit, a double,but he has played well defensively, throwing out three of five potential basestealers. Contreras hasn’t hit for power yet but the Cardinals expect that will come as he becomes more familiar and comfortable with his new surroundings.
- The best of the rules changes has been the pitch clock.
The best thing about the clock is that it really hasn’t affected the game but has led to more action and less dead time between pitches. Taking away the crazy game on opening day that lasted 3 hours, 38 minutes, the average length of the next nine Cardinals games has been 2 hours, 32 minutes, a very good pace. More important than the actual time of the game, however, has been the fact that the time which has been eliminated really wasn’t needed. There still are some kinks in the rules that need to be worked out, especially with umpires showing common sense about when to let the clock slide for a few extra seconds, but that should come with some more familiarity and comfort level from both the umpires and players.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo of Jordan Walker by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports