As baseball is a summer sport, here in the middle of winter we sit at the equal-ish point between last year and this year. So I thought I would stop and have a look around at some of the main issues with the 2021 Cardinals and what that might tell us about what the Cardinals need to do to be more successful in 2022.
Despite the great start to the season with a record of 14-12 in the month of April, cracks quickly began to show with the Cardinals pitching. One of the first issues was with starting pitching, as neither Jack Flaherty nor Adam Wainwright managed to pitch five innings in their first starts. After the first series, the bullpen threw more innings (13) than the starting pitching (12), which was an early sign of pitching issues to come.
One of the main consequences of this was the unusually high number of batters reaching base through unintentional walks and hit batters. By the 17 May, the Cardinals had the highest walk rate (14.8%) in the divisional era and the highest amount of walks (195) in all of MLB through the first 144.2 innings. Additionally, there were worrying signs of a loss of control as Cardinal pitchers hit three different batters in the face or head in the month of April and were in the top five teams in MLB for hitting opposing batters (21 batters in 28 games). This translated into over a third of the runs scored against the Cardinals had been affected by walks and players who were hit by a pitch through the first 60 games. Some of this can be explained by a particularly cold spring in the Midwest, which can make throwing strikes more difficult. Also, during the cold weather, pitchers were more likely to use foreign substances on the ball to help them with control, but this was also cracked down on by MLB coming into the 2021 season, which also exacerbated this problem. Lastly, the Cardinals also played a jam-packed schedule with 23 games in 24 games from 23 April to 16 May, with fatigue also playing a factor.
Additionally, the coaching style of Cardinals pitching coach, Mike Maddux tends to favour more aggressive pitching, which is designed to increase the number of strikeouts, and a heavy reliance on defence but does result in an increase in walks. There were some calls in May for Maddux to be fired, but he has kept his post and continues to do so as we head into 2022.
While the cause does seem to be wild pitching over intent, interestingly, this seems to be an issue that affects NL Central teams more than any other division in baseball. By the end of the 2021 season, the four teams that gave up the most walks in MLB were the Reds (617), Cardinals (608), Pirates (606) and the Cubs (596). While intent on behalf of the pitcher does not seem to be the main driver; the NL Central does have some of the oldest and most intense rivalries in baseball, with the Pirates hitting three different Cardinal batters during the three-game series at the end of April and both the Cubs and Cardinals getting into various bench-clearing altercations with the Reds. According to research by Baseball Prospectus, the NL Central features six of the top 10 “rivalries” when measured by total hit batters from 2017-2020. Cubs-Reds have combined for 77. Cardinals-Pirates are up to 72 after this April 2021 series.
Another issue that these wild pitches highlighted at the beginning of the 2021 season was player safety. The new three minimum batter rule that has been in place before the 2020 season meant that each pitcher had to face a minimum of three batters before being taken out of the game. The rule was brought in to speed up the game by cutting down on pitching changes or bringing in a new pitcher to face a single batter. This rule has been controversial due to concerns over player safety, and this was shown very clearly on 28 April when Genesis Cabrera hit Bryce Harper in the face with a pitch.
The injury was hard to watch, and it clearly upset Cabrera, who, in normal circumstances, would have been taken out of the game. Due to this rule, Cabrera had to stay in the game and proceeded to also hit the next batter, Didi Gregorius. This shocking incident may have highlighted this issue with his rule and encourage MLB to possibly reconsider in the future.
The Cardinals pitching staff did not have a successful first half of the season, but they did improve with key acquisitions that helped get them back on track. They brought in J.A. Happ and Jon Lester, plus Luis Garcia and T.J. McFarland developed into important relievers. This helped the Cardinals go from the 17th placed ERA (4.27) and 21st in FIP (4.42) during the first half of the season to 7th in ERA (3.80) and 12th in FIP (4.19) by the end of the season.
The Cardinals have already acquired Steven Matz during the offseason, which should help continue the improvement of the Cardinals pitching as we move into the 2022 season.
Matz only walked 6.6% of the batters he faced in the 2021 season with a 45.5% ground ball ratio. While a high ground ball rate can contribute to extra hits (compared to a high fly ball rate), it does tend to mean that it allows the defence to turn more those ground balls into outs. As Maddux likes to rely on his defence, Matz will hopefully fit in well while helping to bring down the amount of walks. If this can translate to the rest of the team, the Cardinals pitching can focus on bringing this improvement into the 2022 season and beyond.
Adam Wainwright featured image photo by John Fisher/Getty Images.
Jennifer Annely is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @jenniferbarnes8