Looking at the current St. Louis Cardinals rotation, there’s no one that truly stands out as an ace. Most contending teams have a guy (or two) who is the rock of their rotation. It’s basically a necessity for a team with World Series aspirations to have an ace they can look to every fifth day. Those aces are usually must-watch TV with electric stuff and lots of strikeouts. The Cardinals simply don’t have that guy right now.
Here’s a list of pitchers who have started more than one game for the Cardinals this year: Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, Adam Wainwright, Steven Matz, Jordan Hicks, Matthew Liberatore, Andre Pallante, and Jack Flaherty. While some of them have previously held ace statuses such as Wainwright and Flaherty, no one is currently there. In terms of pure stuff, Cardinals pitchers aren’t exactly passing the eye test either. Just three of them (Hicks, Matz, and Pallante) throw fastballs harder than the major league average of 93mph. Hicks and Matz have been on the IL for over a month now and Pallante is only starting due to the injuries of the aforementioned pitchers.
Despite the injuries and the lack of a truly exciting arm, the Cardinals starting rotation has the 12th-best ERA in baseball and the 5th-best in the National League. Even more importantly, their three most-used (and most healthy) arms all have a sub-3.85 ERA. It’s easy to point to the Cardinals’ “devil magic” for always finding success regardless of the situation, but there’s a method to their madness that keeps them in playoff contention.
Defense, Defense, and more Defense
The saying “defense wins championships” is one seldom used in baseball. It’s harder to see a lockdown defense at work in baseball compared to other sports, but the Cardinals are finding a way to do that. It’s become somewhat common knowledge that the Cardinals significantly benefit from good defense with the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Tommy Edman, and Harrison Bader, but the whole team is defense-oriented and it makes a difference. And it doesn’t hurt that there are incredibly heads-up plays from those elite defenders that are game-changing, such as this double play turned against the Mets last year:
Incredible double play turned by Paul Goldschmidt and the Cardinals to stop the Mets from walking it off pic.twitter.com/2zkkR6WQW0
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) September 15, 2021
As of June 27th, the Cardinals rank 4th in baseball with a .989 fielding percentage. Since 2018, they have only ranked 10th in baseball with a .985 fielding percentage. As this iteration of the Cardinals has developed, their front office has bought more and more into the defense. The ability to make the easy plays makes a significant difference in overall run prevention and there’s a clear way to see that effect.
Looking at runs minus earned runs can identify how many extra runs have been scored due to errors. This is not an advanced insight and doesn’t encapsulate true defensive ability, but it does show how many runs have been directly given up due to poor defense.