The NL-Worst (!) Cardinals Are Panicking

Willson Contreras
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals snapped their eight-game losing streak on Sunday thanks to Paul Goldschmidt’s three-homer day, but not before finding new ways to embarrass themselves this weekend. Saturday’s loss dropped them to 10–24, their worst record through 34 games since 1907. On top of that, that same day the team declared that Willson Contreras, the marquee free-agent catcher signed in December to replace the retired Yadier Molina, would no longer be the primary backstop but would instead spend his time as a designated hitter and corner outfielder, drastically reducing his value. A day later, St. Louis backtracked, announcing that Contreras will DH but have a path to returning to catching duties.

What in the world?

This is jaw-dropping, panicky stuff coming from what was supposed to be a well-run organization. The Cardinals entered the season having reached the playoffs in four straight years and won at least 90 games in each of the last three full seasons; twice in those four years they took home division titles, including last year, when they went 93–69. But more than 20% into this season, they own the National League’s worst record at 11–24, three games worse than the Rockies (14–21), the NL’s next-worst team, and only three games ahead of the godforsaken A’s (8–27) for the majors’ worst record.

Nobody expected this to happen. In our preseason staff poll, 23 out of 27 respondents picked the Cardinals to win the division. Other outlets, including Las Vegas oddsmakers, picked them to win as well, and so did our projection systems. As you might surmise from their NL-worst record, they’ve experienced the largest drop in Playoff Odds of any team:

Cardinals Change in Playoff Odds
Date Proj W Proj L Proj Win% GB Win Div Clinch Bye Clinch WC Playoffs Win WS
Preaseason 86.9 75.1 .536 0 50.6% 20.7% 16.8% 67.4% 4.7%
Through May 7 78.8 83.2 .486 9 13.5% 1.3% 7.2% 20.7% 1.1%
Change -8.1 +8.1 -.050 +9 -37.1% -19.4% -9.6% -46.7% -3.6%

The Cardinals are off to their worst 35-game start in half a century, which at least beats their worst 34-game start in over a century; they haven’t been anywhere near this bad since 1995:

Cardinals’ Worst Record Through 35 Games Since 1901
Rk Season W L W-L% TmRDiff Pyth
1 1903 9 26 .257 -97 .253
2 1907 10 25 .286 -73 .268
3T 1973 11 24 .314 -29 .407
2023 11 24 .314 -19 .445
5 1972 12 23 .343 -39 .376
6T 1902 13 22 .371 -66 .325
1918 12 22 .343 -38 .360
1919 13 22 .371 -46 .339
1925 13 22 .371 -10 .474
10T 1908 14 21 .400 -18 .420
1912 14 21 .400 -43 .388
1940 13 21 .371 -37 .396
1947 13 21 .371 -13 .455
1975 14 21 .400 -11 .466
1976 14 21 .400 -21 .432
1978 14 21 .400 0 .500
1980 14 21 .400 10 .529
1986 14 21 .400 -8 .472
1995 14 21 .400 -24 .433
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Those Deadball Era teams were gruesome — last-place teams in an eight-team league, notable for the presence of a Hall of Famer here (Three-Finger Brown in 1903) and there (Jake Beckley in 1907). Both the 1972 and ’73 teams featured four future Hall of Famers in Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Joe Torre, and Ted Simmons, none at their absolute zenith but all good enough to make the All-Star squad in at least one of those years. The 1972 team went 75–81 in the strike-shortened season, the ’73 one 81–81; they lost the NL East by a game and a half, doomed by their wretched start.

You’ll note from the table above that this team isn’t close to having the worst run differential or Pythagenpat record of the bunch, but the 2023 edition has gone 1–7 in one-run games. Sequencing and timing have been issues, to the point that the Cardinals are five wins below their Pythagenpat and BaseRuns records, tied with the Cubs for the majors’ largest gap in the former and one game behind them in the latter.

The Cardinals have been spiraling downward ever since manager Oli Marmol called out Tyler O’Neill for getting thrown out at home plate after not running hard enough during a 4–1 loss to the Braves on April 4, when the skipper called O’Neill’s effort “unacceptable.” O’Neill, who was limited to 96 games last year by hamstring strains in both legs and whose sprint speed has declined from the 97th percentile to the 77th, disputed the assertion that he wasn’t hustling and took issue with the manager’s public airing of what could have been a private conversation. With that, one suddenly had to wonder whether Marmol had significantly shortened the horizon of his continued employment via a desperate show of authority. The Cardinals fell to 2–3 that night and haven’t been within reach of .500 since.

If Marmol made a mess out of that situation himself, he’s got a multitude of collaborators in the Contreras situation, starting with president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. With Molina retiring and with none of the organization’s other catchers ready to take over, the team signed the going-on-31-year-old Contreras to a five-year, $87.5 million deal in December, the largest deal they’ve ever given to a free agent besides Matt Holliday, whom they retained via a seven-year, $120 million deal in January 2010 after trading for him the previous July.

When they signed Contreras, it was clear that the Cardinals were getting a bat-first catcher, but they did see him as a catcher first and foremost; concerns about his game-calling and staff-handling had depressed his market around the trade deadline last summer, as teams considered him a part-time backstop. Last year, he hit .243/.349/.466 with 22 homers and a 132 wRC+, second among players who had at least 400 plate appearances and 60 games caught. Contreras caught 72 games, starting 61 of them and DHing 39 times; he took 65% of his PA as a catcher. Behind the plate, he was 3.5 runs below average via our pitch framing metric, 2.5 below via that of Baseball Prospectus, and average via that of Statcast — all much better than his 2017–19 numbers, which neared or reached double digits, albeit in more innings behind the plate. Meanwhile, Statcast’s new catching metrics had him four below average in blocking but three above in preventing stolen bases; BP had him 0.2 runs below average in the former and 1.1 above average in the latter. In all, the numbers paint a picture of a catcher not without his weaknesses but certainly playable given his offense.

While showing his typical patience at the plate, Contreras is currently hitting .265/.341/.393 for a 107 wRC+; he’s making good contact (92.1 mph average exit velocity, 8.9% barrel rate, 47.8% hard-hit rate) but is well short of his .460 xSLG. Defensively, he’s about on pace for the numbers he put up last year save for already reaching -3 blocking runs, but the samples are still small enough to prevent firm conclusions.

As to what suddenly turned the Cardinals against his catching, this smacks of management finding a scapegoat to cover up for the assembly of a mediocre rotation that ranked 20th in our Positional Power Rankings. The unit is currently 23rd in WAR (1.3) and ERA (5.33) and 20th in FIP (4.80). Excluding Adam Wainwright, who allowed four runs in his five-inning season debut on Saturday, four of the five starters (Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz, Jack Flaherty, and fill-in Jake Woodford) have ERAs of 5.70 or above and FIPs of 4.93 or above; Jordan Montgomery (3.29 ERA, 2.87 FIP) is the exception. The unit doesn’t miss enough bats, ranking 25th in strikeout rate (20.1%) and 22nd in strikeout-walk differential (12.1%). It doesn’t help that they’re also 20th in home run rate (1.38 per nine).

The bullpen was supposed to be the stronger end of the staff, and at first glance it is. After ranking 12th in our preseason PPR, it’s third in strikeout rate (27.7%), fifth in K-BB% (17.6%), seventh in FIP (3.66), 13th in WAR (1.0), and 18th in ERA (3.88). For as strong as some of those rankings are, the unit is last in the majors in WPA (-4.13) and Clutch (-3.82), both by sizable margins. Of St. Louis’ six relievers with an average leverage index (pLI) of 1.0 or better, five (closer Ryan Helsley, setup man Giovanny Gallegos, middle men Jordan Hicks and Drew VerHagen, plus the since-demoted Andre Pallante) have WPAs below zero. Long story short, they’ve allowed runs at especially bad times, hence the 1–7 record in one-run games.

Though they praised Contreras’ communication skills after signing him, Marmol and Mozeliak both seem dissatisfied with the catcher’s communication with the staff and don’t like what they’re seeing. Here’s Marmol from Saturday via

Marmol said the decision to move Contreras out of the catching role was made “by watching the game.” He added, “There are certain things in ways we operate that Willson is still taking to and learning — and it’s a difficult thing coming from a different organization and learning all of it.” Marmol, who chose not to be specific about the areas that need improvement, added, “So, we have an internal strategy to help with all that and we’ll start moving in that direction over the next several weeks.”

And here’s Mozeliak on Sunday, noting that the new pitch clock is a factor, via The Athletic’s Katie Woo:

“You’ve got to have confidence with people in certain roles, that’s what it comes down to,” Mozeliak said. “We’ll be patient, but look, again, this has not gone how we would have thought. You’ve got to remind yourself it’s a long season, but it’s certainly gotten off on the wrong foot. … I do (still believe in Contreras). But some of the things we expect, some of the things about the game we’ve become accustomed to, I think he realizes it’s going to require more preparation. Now the question is, can that happen? I guess we’ll have to find out.”

“When you ask, where is this on the pitchers’ side, the difference is, this year you have a pitch clock,” Mozeliak explained. “In the past, if hypothetically you were my catcher and you keep asking me to throw a slider, I could just step off. Eventually, if you wanted to burn one of your mound visits, we could talk it over. But the clock has changed the dynamic of the interaction. It does speed things up. We need to come up with a strategy of how the communication between our catcher and pitchers can become more seamless or candidly, more timely, to allow if they’re not on the same page.

The Cardinals are tied for first in the majors with 13 pitcher pitch timer violations, but those are only estimated to have cost the team 0.9 runs.

One problem for the Cardinals is that less Contreras behind the plate doesn’t bring about the second coming of Molina, or even Jeff Mathis. Andrew Knizner, who’s 28 years old, has hit .204/.288/.291 (67 wRC+) in 595 career PA; even after collecting a pair of doubles on Sunday, he’s batting .205/.244/.333 (59 wRC+) this year. Defensively, by our metrics he’s 17.9 runs below average in framing in 1,344 career innings, including -8.7 runs in 685.1 innings last year. By BP’s metrics he was seven runs below average, and by Statcast he was six below, though he was four above average in blocking. In other words, he wasn’t good enough to prevent the Cardinals from concluding that their big investment over the winter should be a new catcher, yet somehow he’s now the player whom they believe should be starting.

Tres Barrera, who was recalled from Triple-A Memphis on Saturday, is 28 and a career .231/.317/.315 (73 wRC+) hitter in 162 PA; the minimal data in his 382 innings behind the plate shows him above average in framing and average in blocking. And carrying three catchers doesn’t just cost the team an extra roster spot. In any key late-inning situation, somebody has to pinch-hit for one of them, and thus a contradiction rears its head: the suddenly-vaunted pitcher-handling skills of Knizner or Barrera won’t be available at a crucial point in the game. Hmmmm.

If all this doesn’t seem laughable enough, there’s the quick reversal of Contreras’ non-catching role. It briefly looked as though he would be shoehorned into the outfield, one that was already overcrowded enough for Mozeliak to cite playing time issues. “[G]uys just aren’t getting into rhythm, [with their] expected playing time,” is what he said when demoting top prospect Jordan Walker less than two weeks ago. Contreras does have 35 career games (24 starts) in left field and is a couple of runs below average by DRS and UZR. More Mozeliak via The Athletic:

“We won’t have him in the outfield… I know that came out yesterday, but after talking with him, it’s basically going to be more in the DH role right now. And there’s light at the end of the tunnel to get back behind the plate.

“I don’t anticipate (Contreras in the outfield) unless there’s some sort of emergency reason,” Mozeliak added. “Everything was moving quickly yesterday. A lot of things were getting out there. His hope is he gets a chance to get behind the plate. That’s what we’re going to work toward.”

Uh, ok. Maybe this is just a temporary setback, a wake-up call for Contreras to do things The Cardinal Way, but if it does wind up being his transition out of catching, the Cardinals won’t get as much value out of his contract. Via Dan Szymborski, as a catcher, he projects to produce 11.1 WAR over the five-year deal, which ZiPS values at $89.2 million; as a left fielder, he projects to produce 5.5 WAR, a value of $39.1 million. ZiPS assumes he’s a -5 run left fielder based on his age, his speed data, his limited experience in the outfield, and historical moves of catchers to the outfield. That’s pretty much DH-caliber defense, so I don’t think the reversal to keep him out of the field changes things appreciably — and all of this is with Contreras getting 10–15% more PA as an outfielder or DH. Via Dan’s projections, Contreras would have to be worth about seven runs above average per 150 games in left field for his valuation to match that of him as a catcher.

Projections aside, using Contreras as the primary DH cuts into the playing time of Nolan Gorman, who’s hitting .255/.347/.510 (133 wRC+) with seven homers, tied with Goldschmidt for the team high. The 22-year-old Gorman is at DH because he was blocked at third base by Nolan Arenado, and his work at second base has been brutal (-6 DRS, -10 RAA in 631.2 innings last year and this one), a liability behind the contact-oriented rotation.

As for the outfield, the Cardinals have been mixing and matching all over the place with lefties Lars Nootbaar and Alec Burleson, switch-hitter Dylan Carlson, and righties O’Neill and Walker. Only Nootbaar (137) and Walker (101) have a wRC+ of 100 or better; O’Neill (74, and now on the injured list as of Friday due to a lower back strain), Carlson (78), and Burleson (84) have struggled mightily, each with an OBP below .285. The righty-swinging Walker, the no. 11 prospect on our Top 100 Prospects list, made the jump from Double-A to the majors out of spring training and hit .319/.360/.489 (137 wRC+) while assembling a career-opening 12-game hitting streak. He then went just 5-for-26 (.192/.250/.231) over his next seven games, with four of those hits coming in the final three, and was optioned to Memphis, with Mozeliak deciding that the depth of the unit was a suddenly a problem.

To be fair, Walker’s 3.8% walk rate, 25.6% strikeout rate, and 40.4% chase rate were worrisome, and his defensive numbers were even worse than Gorman’s in a smaller sample; another converted third baseman, he’s got -5 DRS, -3.1 UZR, and -2 RAA in just 170 innings. So yes, he’s got things to work on in Triple-A, and if it means avoiding the stench of the current squad, that’s a bonus.

All of this, though, comes back to a roster that just doesn’t fit together, with too many DHs and back-end starters, and not enough playing time for a horde of young outfielders. Mozeliak and Marmol have already raised our eyebrows with several of their moves. At this point it feels like rubbernecking to see what they think of next.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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11 months ago

I didn’t expect this contract to age very well- 30+-year-old catcher multi-year commitments rarely do- but I never expected this. And from the Cardinals? I’m really surprised they’ve handled this so poorly. As a Cubs fan, there has always been begrudging respect for how the Cardinals have run their team so this is completely unexpected.

I’m not really sure what they expected from Contreras. It was widely known that he is a below-average framer and blocker. The pitch clock is new but they had all of March to get used to it. You paid him because he can hit, he’s an emotional leader, and he has a rocket arm. I truly don’t understand how this could have gone so wrong so quickly.

11 months ago
Reply to  Joe23

Its all about scape-goating. If the Cardinals were 24-10 no one would be talking about replacing Contreras. This is the coaching staff throwing the only guy under the bus who could potentially affect the entire pitching staff. I have to say some of the pitch-calling has been weird. Like when he called 7 straight sliders by Hicks. However, this has to be about more than that.