Report: The Sucky Cardinals Are Headed Into Unfamiliar But Well-Charted Waters

Report: The Sucky Cardinals Are Headed Into Unfamiliar But Well-Charted Waters

Oliver Marmol, the manager of St. Louis, is becoming agitated. To avoid finishing last in the NL Central for the second straight season—something they haven’t done in their division since 1908—the Cardinals will require some assistance from the Pirates or Reds. With no apparent way out of their current situation, they currently own the third-worst record in the National League. The Cardinals had lost nine out of ten games going into Sunday’s series finale at Milwaukee, including an interleague series loss to Chicago’s hated Pale Hose. They had also lost seven straight games. There is still a great deal of regular season yet to go, they are pointed sharply in the opposite direction, and the long-spoiled St. Louis fans are growing impatient.

The Cardinals, plagued as they are by the self-inflicted disadvantages of building a club around a core of aging veterans, are currently unable to afford to be caught off guard by the typical poor breaks that occur in the game. First-base umpire Sean Barber called a bang-bang play in favor of the Brewers during the opening inning of Sunday’s game; however, the decision was later overturned upon review. That repeated itself in the third inning; that, along with a few oddities in the strike zone from crew chief Alan Porter, prompted Marmol and Cardinals bench coach Daniel Descalso to act provocatively and bark vehemently from the visitor’s dugout. That argument quickly got out of hand, and Marmol took full advantage of the chance to vent his frustrations:

To hear Marmol tell it after the game, this ejection was less about dissatisfaction with the performance of the umpiring crew and more about seizing the opportunity to raise the pulse of his shitty players. “Alan Porter and Sean Barber are good umpires,” Marmol later explained, in apparent seriousness. “That had more to do with getting something going. Those guys do a nice job. Their job is tough. But at times, you’ve just got to—a little skid—get something going. I don’t have anything against that group [of umpires].” It’s not clear that getting ejected on purpose in the third inning of a game you are losing is ever a good idea, but the Cardinals did later plate runs in three consecutive innings and slink out of Milwaukee with a one-run victory to avoid a four-game sweep; therefore, by the immutable laws of causality, we must concede that this change in fortunes was definitely propter hoc.

Marmol and Descalso might need to try a lot more of this. The odds of it working cannot be very much worse than the odds of Paul Goldschmidt rediscovering his MVP form in what is shaping up to be a nightmare of an age-36 season. Goldschmidt did sock a dinger Sunday, but it was just his sixth extra-base hit in 147 at-bats on the season, and his first in the month of May. Statcast’s new bat tracking metrics say that Goldschmidt’s average bat speed is basically fine, and a notch above the major-league average at 71.8 miles per hour. He’s just failing to make good contact, and so is searching around for solutions, and flailing, much like the entire rest of St. Louis’s roster. Goldschmidt’s whiff and strikeout rates are alarming for a guy otherwise celebrated for the beauty and efficiency of his swing; his plate appearances have been so dire through the first quarter of the season that tracking his ugliest efforts has become a social media pastime. Goldschmidt’s brutal start to the 2024 season stands out even amid a surprisingly large and diverse cohort of scuffling veteran hitters, because of his age and his position and the frequency of this kind of thing:

Pinning your hopes for a Cardinals turnaround on the possibility of a Goldschmidt resurgence means ignoring the full scope of the problem. Only the Chicago White Sox, in all of baseball, have scored fewer runs than St. Louis; by normal stats (a team batting average of .220) and advanced stats (a weighted on-base average of .287) the Cardinals are one of the two or three worst hitting teams in the sport. No one in the lineup whose arm was not gibbed by the requirements of contemporary pitch framing is doing any hitting. Nolan Arenado, also showing signs of rot at 33 years of age, leads all Cardinals regulars in OPS at a Nolan Reimold-esque .703. Two important youths—hulking first baseman turned hideously misplaced outfielder Jordan Walker and diminutive centerfielder Victor Scott II—recently bumbled themselves all the way back to the minors. Nolan Gorman and Lars Nootbar are batting a combined .389. Goldschmidt starting to hit like Paul Goldschmidt would certainly make things a lot better, but unfortunately in this case the Cardinals mirroring the offensive production of the last-place Los Angeles Angels for one solid month would have to be considered “a lot better.”

Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic also places St. Louis’s starting pitchers toward the bottom of the majors, and the three veteran workhorse starters they signed in free agency have a combined age of 107. A typical team might be considering a teardown, but it’s unclear right now if The Cardinal Way’s restrictions will allow for such actions.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that The Cardinal Way is any longer the guiding philosophy in St. Louis: Back in January, the Cardinals hired Chaim Bloom as an advisor to president of baseball operations and Cardinals lifer John Mozeliak. Bloom rose up with the Tampa Bay Rays, and took over the baseball operations of the Boston Red Sox in 2019. He’s an optimization guy: Bloom enthusiastically took on the duty of gutting Boston’s team payroll, infamously trading away Mookie Betts and then lowballing Xander Bogaerts in extension negotiations. His Red Sox teams mostly sucked pretty bad, but the selling point on Chaim Bloom’s résumé is experience running a bare-bones—or “efficient,” if you like— baseball operation. Tampa Bay’s best-in-class player development pipeline and talent for maximizing the utility of Certified Weirdos made it appear that Bloom had been versed in the exploitation of a new market inefficiency, but the broader lesson of his time in baseball might be and probably is that cheapo mode is a better way to lose baseball games than to win them.

Therefore, it’s possible that the Cardinals would be more open to the concept of giving up and selling anything of value now days than they would have been a century or so ago. The Cardinals may soon have to find a new route if the current team is unable to claw their way back into contention, whether it be by hook (swinging the bat with eyes open, for once) or by crook (Oliver Marmol selecting timely bouts with random umpires whom he otherwise respects and admires). A path to the fucking bathroom!

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