ST. LOUIS — The 17-14 Cardinals have played decent, but not great, baseball over their first 31 games of the season. They did not flounder out of the starting blocks at the beginning of the year, but they haven’t consistently played up to their potential either.
The latter was only magnified after a disappointing home series loss to the Orioles over the week — a three-game set in which the Cardinals demoted starting shortstop Paul DeJong to Triple A and did not have starting pitcher Adam Wainwright available due to COVID-19 protocols.
However, St. Louis began to see true promise in top prospects Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan. For now, Donovan is likely to see a good amount of playing time at shortstop along with Edmundo Sosa. Yepez is quickly becoming a mainstay in the Cardinals lineup. Turns out two home runs, a .400 average and a 1.155 OPS over your first eight major-league games will have that effect.
The offense is inconsistent — and at times severely lackluster. Tyler O’Neill has struggled, hitting .200 with a .581 OPS and 36 strikeouts over 28 games while battling, and ultimately losing, his arbitration case. Dylan Carlson and Yadier Molina scuffled in April, but both have turned in considerably better at-bats over the last 10 games. Carlson, for example, is boasting a .912 OPS with two homers and four doubles in May compared to a .184/.238/.250 line in April.
But manager Oli Marmol didn’t shy away from talking about the lack of performance by his hitters after the Cardinals’ 3-2 loss to the Orioles in Thursday’s rubber match.
“In order for this to click and go the direction that we need it to go, more guys have to contribute. That’s just the bottom line,” Marmol said.
Yet as perplexing as the offensive struggles have been for the Cardinals, their 4.47 runs per game rank ninth in baseball. Scoring is down across the league, with only the Dodgers and Giants averaging above five runs per game.
Low offense makes the impact of the Cardinals pitching staff that much more important. The rotation warranted the most skepticism coming into the season, with the bullpen a close second. Yet the Cardinals’ arms have impressed over the first six weeks of play. Miles Mikolas has not only returned to his 2018 All-Star form, he might even be better. Jordan Hicks is showing all the potential the Cardinals believed he would when they decided to stretch him out as a starter. And St. Louis might have one of the best relievers in baseball in Ryan Helsley.
The Cardinals pitching staff has a telling test ahead of them in facing two of the most productive offenses in the National League in the Giants and the Mets. They’ll face San Francisco for three games at Busch Stadium over the weekend before heading to Queens for a four-game set at Citi Field.
What can we look at — beyond the obvious strikeouts and ERA — to evaluate the success of the Cardinals pitchers? Let’s take a deeper dive and break down five Cardinals pitchers excelling in five different stats.
Ryan Helsley’s fastball velocity
Throughout his career, Helsley has been profiled as a hard-throwing high-velocity right-hander, so it should hardly be a surprise to see him consistently light up a radar gun. But as catcher Andrew Knizner said: “I mean, it’s the big leagues, everybody can hit a fastball. No matter if you’re throwing 100 or 110 (mph), someone is going to time your fastball. But what’s impressive is (Helsley) can use three other pitches to get you off that fastball, and it makes the fastball play even harder.”
It’s true Helsley’s pitching arsenal has become more balanced. He pairs his fastball with a slider and has increased the usage of his curveball, and will also mix in a changeup, though he hasn’t done that yet this season. But in relation to his four-seam, two particular factors have played into Helsley’s success: accuracy and spin rate.
Helsley is the owner of MLB’s fastest pitch this season — a 103.1 mph heater against Ketel Marte near the end of April — and ranks in baseball’s 100th percentile when it comes to overall fastball velocity. He also ranks in the 98th percentile in fastball spin, with an active spin percent of 86.
Only two active pitchers in baseball have a higher average velocity on their fastball than Helsley. Seattle’s Andrés Muñoz and Cleveland’s Emmanuel Clase rank in the top percentile alongside Helsley, with teammate Jordan Hicks just below. Match that with his spin — which is ranked 11th in baseball, and you can build a compelling case that the 27-year-old boasts the most effective fastball in the major leagues.
But if that still isn’t enough, just take into consideration Helsley’s overall line. He hasn’t allowed an earned run or walked a batter all season and of his 31 batters faced this season, 20 of them have struck out.
That will surely play for the Cardinals.
Jordan Hicks’ pitch arsenal
Hicks has been one of the most intriguing and exciting talents in St. Louis for years now, though various injuries — including Tommy John surgery in 2019 — have delayed his arrival in full. The Cardinals hope 2022 will be Hicks’ defining season, as the organization transitions him from a flame-shoving reliever to a multi-faceted starting pitcher.
Like Helsley, Hicks has always showcased shocking velocity. His hardest pitch on record at the major-league level is an eyebrow-raising 105 mph. As a reliever, Hicks found success by letting it rip early and often — after all, he was only needed for an inning or two, so it made sense to empty the tank. The result was a steady fire of triple-digit velocities, but the Cardinals believed Hicks had a full pitch mix that would play at the big-league level if he could learn to use it.
In stretching out Hicks to a starter, the 25-year-old has learned to temper his velocity. He can still hit above 100 mph — he’s tapped out at 102 mph this season — but in order to reach the level of durability necessary out of a starting pitcher, Hicks’ overall fastball velocity now hovers around 98.8 mph.
Yet it turns out the Cardinals were on to something, because by incorporating his secondary pitches — and adding a changeup — Hicks now has the top pitching arsenal in baseball, according to Baseball Savant. Hicks’ sinker will play heavy off his fastball and sits just a tick below velocity-wise at 98.7 mph. But it’s been the advancement of his slider and the development of his changeup — a grip which he modeled after teammate Miles Mikolas — that has helped round his pitch mix into form.
The high velocity still plays, especially with the horizontal movement of the sinker, but Hicks’ ability to drop in a changeup that averages 92.2 mph (which is faster than Wainwright’s average four-seam velocity this season) has sent his stock soaring. He needs to refine the command a bit more since it is a relatively new pitch for him, but once the comfortability in the pitch develops and he’s reached average starter’s length, Hicks could be one of the most feared pitchers in the division, if not the league.
Miles Mikolas’ hard-hit percentage
With two full years of injury concerns finally in the rearview mirror, the Cardinals were hopeful Mikolas’ return would resemble something close to his 2018 All-Star season. Mikolas has fit that part — if not more — over his first seven starts of the year. His 1.49 ERA is the second-lowest mark in the National League, behind only Miami’s Pablo Lopez (1.00) and he’s only allowed eight walks.
But Mikolas isn’t exactly overpowering hitters. He’s not a pitcher who relies heavily on the strikeout; he’s recorded just 31 against 166 batters faced. What he’s excelled at is limiting hard contact.
Mikolas’ hard-hit percentage lists in the 94th percentile and at No. 25 overall. Wainwright, who also excels at inducing weak contact, ranks No. 20. For Mikolas, limiting hard contact throughout his entire five-pitch arsenal has been the telling tale of his stat line. In 2021, Mikolas’ hard-hit percentage measured out at 37.3 percent. This season, it’s down to 28 percent, mirroring his 2018 mark of 29.4 percent.
Pitching for contact is part of Mikolas’ scouting, and while he’ll occasionally pitch for the strikeout if the situation arises, he’s comfortable in a lower amount if the contact off him remains soft, especially with how sound the defense is behind him.
“Strikeouts are super sexy, but they’re not something I’m really known for,” Mikolas said after his latest start, a seven-inning affair in which he allowed one earned run on four hits, a walk and three strikeouts. “I feel like I’m moving the ball around the zone and keeping it down, getting pitches when I need to, and letting our defense work. Our defense has been great all year. Keeping the ball on the ground and letting them do their thing is the game plan.”
Steven Matz’s sinker spin
The Cardinals have seen Good Steven Matz and Bad Steven Matz over his early tenure in St. Louis. Matz is 3-3 with a 6.40 ERA and a 1.510 WHIP. Those numbers certainly aren’t great, especially when you factor in the four-year, $44 million contract St. Louis offered.
But there’s an optimistic trend developing for Matz, whose reputation as a sinkerball lefty with a knack for putting the ball on the ground was a primary reason the Cardinals targeted him in free agency last fall. Matz’s sinker has a 99.5 percent active spin, which serves as the second-highest mark in baseball behind the Reds’ Nick Lodolo. Baseball Savant defines active spin as the overall spin that contributes to a pitch’s movement. For Matz, who has thrown his sinker the most of his four pitches (49.2 percent) this season, it’s encouraging to see the spin rate and subsequent deception rank so high.
The results haven’t followed — opposing hitters are hitting .396 off Matz’s sinker this year — so there’s still some obvious work to be done on his primary pitch. But when Matz is at his most effective (like his previous start against the Orioles, where he allowed three earned runs and seven hits over 6 2/3 innings with no walks and seven strikeouts) the common denominator has been his sinker’s effectiveness. The spin rate is there, now the command will need to follow.
Nick Wittgren’s barrel percentage
Nick Wittgren has flown relatively under the radar in comparison to other names in the Cardinals bullpen, such as Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, Génesis Cabrera and rookie Andre Pallante. However, he’s been just as effective and he’s been used heavily by Marmol regardless of leverage or situation. Wittgren has appeared in 15 major-league games for the Cardinals and holds a 2.84 ERA. He isn’t a flashy arm and his velocity falls a tad below league average, but he has a solid five-pitch mix and he’ll go to all five options equally.
Wittgren has been able to see success regardless of the low velocity because hitters are struggling to barrel the ball off him. Of the 42 batted balls Wittgren has surrendered, not a single one was registered as barreled. He ranks high amongst average exit velocity (85th percentile), expected slugging percentage (87th percentile) and hard-hit percentage (85th percentile) as well.
When looking at Wittgren’s batted ball profile, he isn’t exactly inducing weak contact, but the balls put in play aren’t being squared up. Like Mikolas, Wittgren has maneuvered his way through opposing offenses because he’s able to allude loud contact and keep the ball on the ground. Wittgren holds a 41.2 ground ball percentage and opposing hitters are topping the ball 35.7 percent of the time.
He wasn’t the splashiest of post-lockout signings, but Wittgren has provided effective depth to a Cardinals bullpen that is already surpassing expectations. The bullpen’s ERA coming into Friday’s contest against the Giants sits at an even 3.00, good enough for the top mark in the National League and the fourth-best in baseball.
(Photo of Helsley: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)