The Keys to the Cardinals’ Resurgence

On a hot afternoon in St. Louis on August 8, in a game that felt meaningless at the time, the Cardinals rallied for three runs in the eighth inning to tie their game with the Royals at 5–5. In the next half inning, a Paul Goldschmidt throwing error and a go-ahead single by Nicky Lopez dropped St. Louis to 55–56, mired in third place in the National League Central. The team was 10.5 games behind Milwaukee for the division lead, 8.5 games behind the Padres for the second wild card spot, and, per our Playoff Odds, had a 1.4% chance of reaching the postseason.

But following that ugly loss, back-to-back sweeps of road series in Pittsburgh and Kansas City put the Cardinals back over the .500 mark for good, and a 10-game winning streak entering Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee has them with a commanding lead for that second Wild Card spot, and the overwhelming favorites to stay that way. Since that loss to the Royals, St. Louis has gone 26–13, but those hot streaks show just how, well, streaky the team has been; those 16 wins wrap around a 10–13 run.

Still, whether the wins come in bunches or not, the Cardinals have been one of the stories of September, and that story feels largely ignored, mostly due to the five-team dogfight that is the AL Wild Card and the back-and-forth NL West battle between the Dodgers and Giants. On last week’s episode of Chin Music, Joe Sheehan and I wondered why everyone was talking about the Blue Jays and not the Cardinals in the battle of surging birds. Our take: the team is boring. The Blue Jays have swag, infectious energy and cool jackets for when somebody hits home runs. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are relative automatons, getting overshadowed by a Toronto club that is just more fun to watch.

That’s not to take anything away from St. Louis. Entertainment value be damned, this is suddenly looking like a postseason team planning to line up a surprising ace for the coin-flip game. Here are five key factors as to how the Cardinals went from under .500 six weeks ago to being in the driver’s seat for that final playoff slot.

Paul Goldschmidt Started Playing Like an MVP

It feels like the Cardinals’ recent highlight reels have been filled with the heroics of Nolan Arenado, who leads the club with 11 home runs during the 39-game return to prominence. But on the whole, the third baseman has been good but not great, with a 105 wRC+ and .231/.290/.497 triple-slash line during the stretch. Instead, the offensive leader has been Goldschmidt, who spent the first half of the season looking like a one-dimensional slugger whose age was beginning to catch up to him.

There’s no obvious and clear reason for Goldschmidt’s late-season explosion, which has him hitting .329/.413/.608 (172 wRC+) since August 10. It feels cheap to say simply that he’s gotten hot, but that’s really the case; there’s no dramatic turnaround in one area as much has there’s been improvement across the board, and in the end, his season line falls in with expectations. Arenado is getting the highlights, but it’s Goldy who put this team on his back offensively.

Tyler O’Neill Started Playing Like an MVP

In O’Neill’s case, there are two things to point out in his impressive second half, which includes a .281/.365/.563 line since the beginning of the August turnaround to go with a 148 wRC+. Certainly, there’s been some luck involved; his BABIP over that span is .377. More sustainable are greatly improved swing decisions. That’s partially a result of pitchers trying to work around his prodigious pop, but O’Neill has clearly shrunk his zone and become a more patient hitter during the second half of the season. Getting into better counts means getting better pitches to hit, and he suddenly looks like a consistent star-level player with his newfound approach at the plate.

An Unexpected New Shortstop

By struggling to stay above the Mendoza line this season, Paul DeJong lost his job in the second half to former utility man Edmundo Sosa. The thought at the time was that if you’re going to play a light bat at the position, you should at least go with the better defender. Sosa is that, but he’s now hitting as well, with a .311/.371/.495 line and 135 wRC+ since August 10. With his raw power increasing by a full grade or more over the last three years, his ability not just to make contact but also to deliver hard contact has completely changed his profile. Now the question is if Sosa’s emergence will keep the Cardinals away from the deep free-agent market at the position this offseason to use their resources elsewhere.

Surprising Bullpen Contributions

The struggles of the Cardinals during the first two-thirds of the season led to many fingers pointing in many directions, but most were pointed at the bullpen — one that couldn’t throw strikes and handed out free passes like perfume samples at a department store. There, it’s a pair of arms who didn’t join the team until early August that have played the biggest role in the relief resurgence of late.

Signed in late July off the Yankees’ scrap heap, 34-year-old journeyman righty Luis Garcia has one really good pitch in a sinker that sits in the upper-90s, and the Cardinals have him throwing said pitch more than ever. Kodi Whitley, meanwhile, came back to St. Louis in late August after a three-month stint in the minors. He doesn’t have huge stuff, but improved pitch shapes — his fastball rises a bit more and his slider drops a bit more — turned him into a more effective pitcher, and a solid changeup for use against left-handed hitters provides assurance that he can navigate a tough inning.

Since August 10, Garcia and Whitley have combined to allow just two runs over 30 innings, with the latter putting up goose eggs in all 11 appearances since his most recent promotion. Once a nightmare for manager Mike Shildt, the bullpen is suddenly a strength, and it’s thanks to a combination of shrewd player development and excellent waiver wire scrounging.

Adam Wainwright Became a Second-Half Ace

Coming out of spring training and having turned 40 in August, it felt like 2021 just might be Wainwright’s swan song. At the same time, he still had that curveball to go with plus command; it felt like he could probably go years as a dependable back-end starter who can deliver five or six innings and keep your team in the game. He’s been much more than that. In his first start after that brutal loss in August that put the Cardinals under .500, he tossed a two-hitter, and in his last eight starts, he’s allowed just ten runs over 56 innings, putting himself in position for some down-ballot Cy Young votes.

It’s a remarkable achievement for Wainwright, who rarely even touches 90 mph these days, instead relying on movement and location and mostly scrapping his straight four-seam fastball for a sinker/cutter mix, while the curveball, as always, remains highly effective and is thrown at any point in count at a variety of locations. Jon Lester, who Jay Jaffe went into more detail on here, has helped as well (as has J.A. Happ, who’s pitched to a similar ERA and FIP as Lester but with less fanfare), but while he is more than a bit over his skis of late, that’s not the case for Wainwright, who already has said that he’s going to pitch next year. At this rate, going beyond that wouldn’t surprise anyone.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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2 years ago

FYI Wainwright turned 40 this August, 2021, not 2020 as the article seems to claim