The Cardinal Collapse

In the crisp days of early April, whispers of a St. Louis Cardinals playoff charge circulated, fueled by hopes that the pitching might finally decide to step up its game. High-level? It didn’t. For the first time in years, the team approached the trade deadline in sell mode. With how the post-season is structured, that’s almost harder than winning ball games. Given an overabundance of wildcard spots and many teams hovering around the edge, a supply and demand problem emerges. There simply aren’t enough quality players, especially hitters, on the market, with few teams looking to sell. Surprisingly, even the Cubs showed restraint, acting as cautious buyers.

Yet, the Cardinals, a team loaded with Arenado and the reigning MVP Goldschmidt, ended up here. There will be no Waino magic—unruly fans ran him off Twitter too. But big names and high expectations don’t win championships; the Mets ended up in the same spot despite making moves for Verlander, Senga, and Quintana. The trumpets won’t be blaring in Queens, either.

Assessing the team’s trades, the Cardinals made solid moves, offloading Flaherty, DeJong, Hicks, and Montgomery. Still, it feels like I’m praising John Mozeliak (the team’s General Manager) out of obligation rather than admiration. All of these players were becoming free agents. Each planned to test the market. Commendable under the circumstances, despite the lack of foresight, I suppose. And that’s the problem; the organization clung to their outfielders because a team apparently can never have enough. They didn’t make a single hard choice. This evokes images of a disconnected company executive making decisions based solely on numbers and then being perplexed when results don’t align with expectations.

I’m not sure Mo was a trailblazer here, but he played his hand reasonably well. While his actions were born out of necessity more than visionary planning, there’s no denying that market dynamics and the team’s position influenced both the moves and roster additions.

How did the Cardinals End Up Here?

In most preseason predictions, they reigned at the top of the division. There is the obvious answer—pitching. Going into the season, the organization planned to tread carefully, remain in the hunt, and grab a starter at the deadline to reinforce the squad.

Sadly, the organization never had the chance. Analyzing key metrics through last week, the team’s expected batting average (XBA) and expected weighted on-base average (XWOBA) showcase an unfortunate reality, opposing teams loved the Cardinals’ pitching and wanted more of it. Hard-hit percentages are also higher compared to their peers. But it wasn’t all bleak. Pallante, statistically, emerged as a reliable bullpen option. Another? The previous closer, who has been hurt for the past month. There was a reason Oli Marmol (the manager) kept sending him out for the three-inning save. He had limited options.

Other Ways to Win

In a recent interview, Mozeliak said, “I definitely think we’re going to treat the deadline as pitching, pitching, pitching.” This is the obvious answer, but the game is complicated. Hitting and effective run prevention can shift fortunes. In these categories, I felt the Cardinals played 2021 baseball. Although some will argue the rule changes didn’t have a statistical impact, over the course of 162 games a bounce here or there matters greatly. On paper, this team should be one of the best-hitting clubs in the league. And the Cardinals thought so too. Here is the General Manager again, “When you look at what we’ve put on paper, it should’ve worked better, but it didn’t.” The club’s statistical models probably showed the acquisition of Contreras, replacing their Hall of Fame catcher, would offset any pitching woes.

And it might have worked two years ago when teams worked to inflate pitch counts, chase walks, and swing for the fences. It’s the same blueprint the Yankees and Red Sox have followed. However, a closer look at the numbers reveals a lower-than-expected batting average (XBA) and weighted on-base average (XWOBA). Digging further, the team ranks near the bottom of the league in batted balls, barrel percentage, and hard-hit balls. They just don’t make consistent, high-quality contact. With the rule changes and the elimination of the shift, the game we all played as kids has finally made its triumphant return, and the organization wasn’t prepared.

Speed. Fielding. Putting the ball in play. Oh, I miss Whitey Herzog’s teams; my nostalgia is taking over. And while being the critic is easy, it’s important to note that baseball, much like life, involves an element of luck. A solid hit ball can end up being an easy out if hit straight at a fielder. The definition of a blooper is a weakly hit fly that drops between fielders. Sadly, one of these raises the batting average. Also, the weather, slight variations in a playing field, and even the spin of the baseball can affect the outcome of a game.

Throughout the season, these factors should even out. In the ever-unpredictable realm of baseball, luck occasionally takes the stage with an audacious performance. It’s possible the Cardinals have been locked in a game of chance, where misfortune insists on playing their favorite mark. Sadly, for whatever reason, they didn’t make their own luck—a favorite Branch Rickey speech of mine. And so, fan favorites and players the team invested in are now in the wind. Alas, for the first time in a while, I’m watching the last month of the season, thinking there is always next year. With medical science these days improving longevity, let’s hope I’m not saying that for the next hundred years. But if you wander in the wilderness long enough, even the Cubbies can be champs. Yeah, the Redbirds have some work to do.


  • The picture is old, taken from behind home plate amidst better days.
  • Note, the data compiled was taken from Statcast. I’ll probably do a deeper dive once all of the box scores are uploaded at season end.