photo: St. Louis Cardinals
I know it lacks suspense, but per tradition, our Top Story of the Year is a recap of how the St. Louis Cardinals performed in the preceding season.
This year, as we prepare to say goodbye to 2019 forever, I truly believe it is something for fans to celebrate.
St. Louis won 91 regular season games, reached the playoffs and recaptured the Central Division crown, all three high water marks since 2015. They won their Division Series match to reach Major League Baseball’s final four before being swept by the eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals. The Cardinals accomplished this behind a very strong defense, stout pitching and enough offense much of the time.
The regular season
After securing Paul Goldschmidt in trade and signing left-handed pitcher Andrew Miller last off-season, manager Mike Shildt’s Cardinals got off to a good start in 2019.
Unlike in recent seasons, the Cardinals played extremely well in April, going 20-10 (through May 1) while opening up a three-game division lead. It was short-lived, however, as the club went into a tailspin in May. On the 22nd, they had fallen to .500 and were in fourth place, five games back. At the July All-Star break, the Cards were still treading water at 44-44.
A post-break spurt enabled the Cards to re-capture the division lead for a week starting on July 25. A disastrous 0-6 road trip to Oakland and Los Angeles knocked St. Louis back into third place, four games out.
In the midst of a six-game winning streak, on August 23, the Cardinals took over first place for the final time. Even including the aforementioned poor West Coast trip, St. Louis finished the month 18-9.
On September 8, St. Louis opened up its season-best 4 1/2-game lead. A huge four-game sweep in Chicago concluding on September 22nd helped put the Cubs away, and in the process, the Cards clinched a Wild Card.
But red-hot Milwaukee, even without injured reigning MVP Christian Yelich, would not go away. The Cardinals were pushed to the final day of the regular season before clinching the division, ending at 91-71 and a two-game edge over the Wild Card Brewers.
As it has in recent years, pitching continued to lead the way for St. Louis. The 2019 team ERA was second in the league, up from sixth in both 2017 and 2018. The actual ERA itself improved year-to-year-year from 4.01 to 3.85 to 3.80.
St. Louis’ starters ERA of 3.78 was third-best in the NL, same ranking as in 2017, though the ERA itself was up from 3.52 the year before. The team’s relief ERA, on the other hand, showed tremendous improvement. The 2018 mark of 4.38 had been fourth-worst in the 15-team league, but was second-best in 2019 at 3.82. St. Louis’ bullpen WHIP, a surrogate for baserunners allowed, went from second-worst in the NL at 1.47 to second-best at 1.22 this season.
The offense was disappointing, with the 10th place finish in the National League in runs scored a drop from fifth the year before. In the slash stats, the Cardinals were also down in all four measures compared to 2018 as a bottom-third unit – just 11th in average (.245), 10th in OBP (.322) and 12th in slugging (.415) and OPS (.737).
The 2019 Cardinals made major improvement on the bases, improving from 63/14th (total/NL rank) in steals to 116/2nd. Further, their success rate was a good 80 percent.
Along with pitching, defense was the other main differentiator for the 2019 Cardinals. The Cardinals set a club record with just 66 errors and posted a league-best .998 fielding percentage. They tied the White Sox for the MLB lead in double plays with 170. This was a major change as the Cardinals led the majors with 133 errors in 2018 and became the first team to go from worst to first in errors in back-to-back seasons.
In new defensive stats, the Cards fared exceptionally well. In Ultimate Zone Rating/150, the Cards were first in the NL at 6.0 (second in MLB) and second in both the NL and MLB in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) with 95.
According to Inside Edge, the Cards made the most effective use of shifts of any MLB team in 2019.
|Home runs||34||Paul Goldschmidt||K rate||33.3%||Giovanny Gallegos|
|RBI||97||Goldschmidt||BB rate||4.2%||Miles Mikolas|
|Stolen bases||24||Kolten Wong||HR/9||0.037||Carlos Martinez|
|Walk rate||12.9%||Dexter Fowler||LOB %||87.3%||Gallegos|
|Strikeout rate||12.8%||Yadier Molina||GB %||67.2%||Jordan Hicks|
|Isolated power||0.231||Marcell Ozuna||ERA||2.31||Gallegos|
|Batting average||0.304||Tommy Edman||FIP||2.86||Martinez|
In the Division Series, the Cardinals faced the Atlanta Braves, the first-place finisher in the East Division and holder of the second-best regular-season record in the league at 97-65.
The Braves held a 4-2 edge over the Cards in the regular season, but that did not matter. After St. Louis nullified the home field advantage in a split of the first two contests in Atlanta, the Braves came back with a Game 3 win in St. Louis. However, the Cards won two straight elimination games, dominating in Game 5 on the road to take the series, three games to two. Our co-MVPs of the LDS were Marcell Ozuna and Paul Goldschmidt.
The Cardinals fell far short in their Championship Series appearance, bowing out of the post-season in four games straight to the Washington Nationals. St. Louis had home field advantage despite the Nats having won 95 games in the regular season since Washington was a Wild Card. The underdog Nationals had eliminated the 106-win Dodgers in the LDS after dispatching the Brewers in the Wild Card Game.
In Games 1 and 2, Cardinals pitching held the visitors to just five runs in total, however, St. Louis’ offense scored just one. Heading to the Nation’s Capital down 0-2, the Cards were dominated in Game 3 by Stephen Strasburg and dropped Game 4 as well.
Though the post-season ended with a thud, 2019 was a highly successful year for the Cardinals, with a final-four finish and the vast majority of the roster returning for 2020.
What is next?
Coming up, I will audit how well I did in predicting the top stories of 2019 as well as make my guesses for the Top Stories of 2020, with the latter to be revisited next December.
The Cardinal Nation’s top 10 stories of the year countdown
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