2015 St Louis Cardinals Regular Season Review

From April 16, the Cardinals spent the season in first place before winning the NL Central with three games remaining. First of two articles summarizing the 2015 season.

This is the first installment of our annual series recapping the year of 2015 for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Part 1 begins with a quick summary, before we go into significant detail on off-season moves, spring training and the regular season, month by month.

Sections include:
Season Summary
Personnel Changes
Spring Training Injuries
Spring Training Results
April
May
June
July
August
September

Check back soon for Part 2 of this article, which will cover the Cardinals post-season and include a look ahead to 2016.

Season summary

The Cardinals reported to 2015 spring training camp with high expectations – both placed on them by others and by themselves. With the vast majority of the same players that won the division the prior two seasons, the club was viewed by many as one of the favorites, along with the Nationals, Dodgers and Red Sox, to win it all.

Through game eight of the 162-game regular-season schedule, the Cards had completed series against three division rivals – Chicago, Cincinnati and Milwaukee – and pulled into first place. From April 16 on, the Cardinals would never look back, though surges by the Cubs and Pirates kept St. Louis from clinching the division title until three games remained. The three NL Central competitors finished with the three best records in Major League Baseball.

Once again, pitching carried the way for St. Louis in 2015. Despite offensive inconsistency, the extraordinary mound showing powered the Cardinals to 100 wins, ten more than in 2014. St. Louis’ 2.94 team ERA was the lowest in the game since the Mets of 1988.

St. Louis was the first team in MLB to secure a playoff spot, on September 19th, as manager Mike Matheny led his fourth club into the post-season in four years, a new MLB record. However, it took another 11 days, until September 30th, for the Cards to clinch the division.

After the Cubs defeated the Mets in the one-game Wild Card round, the Cardinals faced Chicago again, this time in the Division Series. During the regular season, St. Louis had an 11-8 edge over Chicago, but the Cubs eliminated them in four games of the best-of-five series. It was St. Louis’ earliest playoff exit in the last three years.

Personnel changes

Matheny welcomed several important newcomers to spring training camp in February. Outfielder Jason Heyward and set-up man Jordan Walden had been acquired from Atlanta in return for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Corner infield reserve Mark Reynolds and right-handed reliever Matt Belisle were signed as free agents. So was long reliever Carlos Villanueva, brought in on a minor league deal.

Heyward was targeted to become the new right-fielder, following the tragic death of Oscar Taveras in October 2014. Carlos Martinez was expected to take Miller’s spot in the pitching rotation.

The pitching staff had lost three hurlers to free agency, Justin Masterson, Jason Motte and John Axford. Free agent position players included catcher A.J. Pierzynski and second baseman Mark Ellis. There were no indications the Cardinals tried to re-sign any of them.

In addition, outfielder Shane Robinson was released and arbitration-eligible infielder Daniel Descalso was non-tendered. Of the seven free agents mentioned, all found jobs for 2015, with the exception of Ellis, who announced his retirement as camps opened.

There was only one new member of the coaching staff, plus a shuffle. Bench coach Mike Aldrete moved to the same job with the Oakland A’s. He was replaced by assistant hitting coach David Bell, who had been in the job just one season. Former Cubs third baseman and coach Bill Mueller assumed Bell’s former position, assisting hitting coach John Mabry.

Spring training injuries

On the offensive side, both centerfielders, Jon Jay (wrist) and Peter Bourjos (hip), were coming off off-season surgeries. Jay’s spring debut was delayed as a result. In fact, he only played in nine games to close the schedule, batting .214.

For the third consecutive year, Jaime Garcia reported to camp with injury concerns, but by now, nothing was expected from the left-hander, who pronounced himself fit. Michael Wacha was also said to be ready after months of rehabbing the stress fissure in his shoulder that slowed him for the latter half of the 2014 season, but some fans had lingering worries.

Ace Adam Wainwright was fully recovered from his own off-season procedure to clean up his pitching elbow. However, even before camp was officially open, a major scare ensued when the ace suffered an abdominal strain. A trip to a specialist in St. Louis confirmed the injury was minor. The Cardinals had already planned to limit the 33-year-old’s spring workload, anyway.

Through three spring outings, Garcia was pitching well enough to apparently take the lead in the fifth starter competition with Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales. Then the club decided to push Garcia in an 80-pitch simulated game on March 24th. The lefty felt discomfort afterward and did not throw again in camp. He was placed on the disabled list to open the season.

The only other player to start the regular schedule on the DL was the first-week sensation in camp, Tommy Pham. The oft-injured outfielder aggravated a quad injury while chasing down a ball in left field on March 12 and did not play in Florida again.

Spring training results

On the field, the club fared reasonably well in Florida overall, winning 13, losing 11 and tying three. That was the second-best record in the NL Central and sixth-best in the Grapefruit League. It was the club’s third winning spring in Matheny’s four years as manager.

The spring sent signals of how the upcoming season would unfold. Continuing the pattern from 2014, the pitching led the way, with the lowest team ERA in MLB at 3.06. The offense struggled, especially at home, with a run-scoring total for the spring that came in dead last in MLB.

With a renewed focus on baserunning, the Cardinals were just one off the spring MLB lead with 27 stolen bases. However, they also led the way with 15 caught stealing, making their success rate of 64 percent far off the pace.

Spring competitions

There were four primary competitions in camp - the fifth starter berth, a left-handed relief role, a reserve infielder and a reserve outfielder.

As noted above, Garcia, Martinez and Gonzales were in the hunt for the rotation. While Gonzales had better numbers, Martinez also pitched well enough to claim the spot as expected, with Gonzales the de-facto sixth starter assigned to Memphis.

When Kevin Siegrist demonstrated reasonably well that his 2014 troubles seemed to be history, the Cardinals had to make a decision with left-handed relief. With Sam Freeman out of options, the club traded him to Texas with a week remaining in camp for a player to be named later or cash.

Also out of options, Pete Kozma was in the driver’s seat to claim the reserve infield spot vacated by Descalso. With a hot start to the spring continuing to a team-best .408 batting average, Kozma ended any thoughts of a competition quickly.

Though it originally looked like Pham, Grichuk and newcomer Ty Kelly were fighting it out for the final bench spot, Pham’s injury made it a two-horse race. As Grichuk continued to slug away, Kelly slumped badly the final two weeks, making the decision easy.

The only non-roster invitee to make the team, as expected, was veteran right-hander Carlos Villanueva as the long man out of the bullpen.

Individual spring standouts

In terms of numbers, Gonzales, Wacha, Lynn and Martinez had ERAs under 2.00 as starters and Wainwright (3.14) and Lackey (3.77) were not too far behind.

Among the relievers with strong springs were newcomer Belisle, Seth Maness, Siegrist and closer Trevor Rosenthal. Non-roster right-hander Mitch Harris stood out, as well.

On the offensive side, Grichuk led the club with four home runs and 10 RBI. He also drew just two fewer walks than strikeouts. Newcomer Reynolds did his thing, batting just .132 and striking out a team-most 15 times, but also hitting two home runs and plating six.

The regulars seemed to receive a bit more rest than usual, which was probably a good thing. One of two standout poor performances was registered by 2014 spring camp sensation Kolten Wong. The second baseman batted just .214.

The other struggler was Yadier Molina, who had lost more than 20 pounds in the off-season. In Florida, the catcher batted only .217 and had just one extra-base hit, one walk and one RBI in 19 games.

April

Six consecutive years of fast starts in which the Cardinals ended April in first place was interrupted by the Milwaukee Brewers’ torrid first month in 2014. The situation returned to “normal” in 2015, as the Cards went an impressive 15-6 while racking up at 2 ½-game divisional lead.

The season began very slowly as a rainout and two off-days scheduled in the first week meant the team played just two games in the first five days. Both were shutouts, with the Cardinals winning the opener in Chicago behind Adam Wainwright, starting his fourth career opening game.

After a 3-3 start, St. Louis reeled off a five-game winning streak, then a four-gamer, taking nine of ten. After a pair of defeats, the club finished the month with the first three wins of an eight-game streak that is the longest in Matheny’s four years of managing the team. Oddly, the Cardinals managed just one sweep – in a three-game home set against Cincinnati on April 17-19.

The offense was second in the league in batting average and on-base percentage, fourth in slugging and third in OPS. However, in the stat that matters most, runs scored, St. Louis was exactly in the middle of the NL pack in eighth.

The strong record was clearly due to dominating pitching.

The staff’s 2.45 ERA was over a half-run per game better than the second-best club in the NL. They had the lowest batting average against (.233) and fewest baserunners allowed (1.11 WHIP). The Cards issued the third-fewest walks, but were just eighth in strikeouts.

In terms of individual performances, the two biggest pitching question marks coming into the season, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, had the lowest ERAs after ace Adam Wainwright’s 1.44. Matt Carpenter was named the NL Player of the Week for the period of April 13-19.

Four relievers posted April ERA’s under 1.05 – Jordan Walden, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Villanueva and Matt Belisle. Closer Rosenthal was a perfect 8-for-8 in save opportunities.

The injury front provided the biggest news of the month, however, when Wainwright suffered what was thought to be a season-ending torn left Achilles tendon while batting on April 25th at Milwaukee. Gonzales was already on the disabled list at Memphis, so was unavailable as a replacement. Rookie Tim Cooney was given a one-game trial in Wainwright’s place, but did not impress and was returned to Memphis.

The other notable injury was to Grichuk, who was hurt lifting weights and went on the DL on April 19th. His elbow problems lingered all season long, leading to a later DL stint, as well.

Along with Cooney, Dean Anna, Ed Easley, Cody Stanley and Mitch Harris made their Cardinals debuts during the month. Also like Cooney, the latter three were making their first appearances in an MLB uniform. Only reliever Harris stuck for more than a few games until September, however.

May

Though the 18-11 record for the month was not the team’s best, the Cards added 3.5 games to their lead during May, making it the best month relative to their divisional competition.

The Cardinals opened May with an exciting home sweep over rival Pittsburgh, with all three walkoffs in extra innings. After taking three of four against Chicago in the next series, the club was 22-9 on the season. That was their best start since 1887.

Later in the month, they stumbled in interleague play, going just 4-5 against Cleveland, Detroit and Kansas City. In the May 13 loss, the Indians’ Corey Kluber fanned 18 Cardinals, the most by an opposing pitcher in St. Louis team history.

To end the month, the Cards won two of three over the Dodgers at home. On May 31st, the team paid tribute to Taveras, with his close friend Carlos Martinez pitching. Martinez performed brilliantly, fanning eight Dodgers and extending his scoreless inning streak to 20 1/3.

Overall, the offense was in the exact middle of the NL, eighth in runs scored, while the pitching led the league with a 2.94 May ERA, same as their full-season mark.

On May 3rd, Walden was placed on the disabled list, followed by Jay on the 14th. The former’s biceps injury, from which he did not recover during the season, robbed the Cardinals of their eighth-inning set up man and likely lead to a couple of July acquisitions to try to fill the bullpen void.

Two days after Jay went out, Grichuk was activated. Among those called up from Memphis at least briefly during May were Miguel Socolovich, Tyler Lyons, Sam Tuivailala and Xavier Scruggs.

On the 21st, Jaime Garcia was activated for the first time since spring training. Essentially, the lefty took Wainwright’s rotation spot that neither Cooney nor Lyons could claim.

However, more injuries struck. For the second straight May, Matt Adams hit the DL. The first baseman suffered a significant right quad tear and went out on the 27th. Though his wrist appeared to still not be right, Jay was again brought off the DL two days later.

June

In what seemed a typical up and down pattern, the club started a Western Division road trip by winning two of three over the Dodgers, but split the next four versus lowly Colorado. They took two of two over the Royals, but split the next four with the Twins.

However, as the month neared its conclusion, St. Louis finished strongly, with a three-game sweep in Miami followed by three more over the Cubs at home. As the Chicago series ended, the 18-8 Cardinals reached their high-water mark in the standings for the season with a nine-game division lead.

As a staff, the Cardinals pitchers had another strong month, with an MLB-best 2.33 ERA. The Pirates were second and Cubs fourth. The Cards were tied for 10th in the league in June runs scored with the Cubs and Brewers.

Though he was not hitting for his customary power, Holliday extended his new National League record for consecutive games on base to start the season to 45. The streak ended when he was thrown out of the June 2nd game by umpire Joe West for arguing balls and strikes.

June was another rough month on the injury front. Holliday went on the disabled list on the ninth with a right quad strain (see photo below) and Lynn followed three days later, but the latter spent the minimum time out. Holliday was not so fortunate, however. Belisle was placed on the DL on the 30th.

July

The Cardinals’ big division lead, sitting at eight games to open the month, eroded quickly. Just two weeks later, a surge by the Pirates while the Cards struggled through a 5-9 stretch, dropped St. Louis’ lead to just 2.5 games heading into the All-Star break. Especially disappointing were two extra-innings losses in the Steel City to end the first half. Yet, St. Louis’ 56-33 record was still best in MLB.

Six Cardinals were named to the National League All-Star Team. Peralta and Holliday were voted starters, but the latter was unable to play in Cincinnati. Among the NL reserves were Molina, Wacha, Rosenthal and the winner of the fan-driven Final Vote, Martinez. The latter three were first-time All-Stars.

The Cardinals improved their play out of the break, winning seven of their first eight in the second half and concluded the 15-12 month with a 5.5 game division edge. On the 26th, in the midst of a three-game sweep over the Cubs, the Cards won their 50th game of the season (against 24 losses). It was the fastest any MLB team reached that point since 2005.

However, the injury problems persisted.

His elbow still not right, Jay returned to the disabled list on the second and Jaime Garcia followed three days later. The latter missed three weeks with a groin injury. Holliday was activated to start the second half, but after just 11 games, he re-injured his quad, more seriously this time, and was back on the DL by the 30th.

Stephen Piscotty was added to the 40-man and promoted from Memphis on the 21st. Other new Cardinals included first baseman-outfielder Brandon Moss, received in trade from Cleveland on the 30th, plus veteran relievers Steve Cishek, acquired from Miami on the 24th, and Jonathan Broxton, picked up from Milwaukee on the 31st.

On the stat front, the same story continued. For the month, St. Louis led the NL with a 2.78 team ERA. The Cards were sixth in runs scored, but their .235 batting average for July was tied for 11th in the league.

Two big off-the-field news stories related to the Cardinals surfaced during the month. The second was positive, but the first was not.

On the 2nd, news reached the public that Cardinals had fired scouting director Chris Correa amid a Federal investigation over illegal access of the Houston Astros' internal baseball operations database. At the end of August, former St. Louis relief pitcher Randy Flores was named as Correa’s replacement.

On the 30th, the Cardinals announced an extension to their television contract with FOX Sports Midwest. The new deal runs from 2018 through 2032 and is reportedly worth over $1 billion, with the extra funds expected to help the club remain competitive. The team will also take a minority ownership stake in the network.

August

The Cardinals played .500 ball much of the month, with their division lead dropping to 3.5 games on the 22nd. To close August, however, the team compiled a 7-3 West Coast trip that improved their record for the month to 19-9 and brought the lead back to five games.

Another month, another great collective pitching performance from the staff, with an NL-best 2.69 ERA. The offense was 12th in batting average and 10th in OPS, but seventh in runs scored.

Grichuk’s elbow strain forced him back onto the disabled list on the 17th. That created an opening for the promotion of Tommy Pham, who along with Piscotty, provided a much-needed boost to the struggling Cardinals offense that still lacked Holliday, Jay and Adams along with the rookie Grichuk.

On the 16th, the Cardinals formally inducted four individuals into the team’s Hall of Fame: Bob Forsch, Ted Simmons, Curt Flood and George Kissell.

September/October

September was a rollercoaster month to be sure.

Over Labor Day weekend at home against their key rivals Pittsburgh and Chicago, the Cards had a chance to pull away. Instead, they stumbled badly, dropping four of six. With three more losses in Cincinnati, their NL Central lead was down to 2.5 games, the slimmest margin since the All-Star break.

In the second half of the month, though the Cards dropped two of three in Chicago, series sweeps over Milwaukee and Cincinnati helped create a bit of breathing room.

A loss by the Giants on the 19th assured the Cardinals of at least a wild card berth. St. Louis then reeled off a five-game winning streak. However, not until they took two of three at Pittsburgh to close the month could they celebrate their third consecutive Central Division title.

St. Louis ended September with a 15-14 record before dropping the entire season-ending series in Atlanta while not scoring a run. Their overall mark was 100-62, leaving them two games ahead of the Bucs, and giving them home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. It was St. Louis’ first 100-win season since 2005.

One key factor in winning the division was the Cards tying for the best record in games played inside the Central Division (46-30, .605). Along with MLB’s best home winning mark (55-26, .679), the Cardinals also tied for the second-best road record (45-36, .556) in MLB for a truly balanced performance.

With expanded rosters in September, every final-month addition from the minors had already seen time with St. Louis earlier. They included Greg Garcia (August 23), Lyons, Sam Tuivailala, Miguel Socolovich and Cody Stanley. When the latter was suspended for a positive PED test on the 12th, Ed Easley replaced him. Later, Travis Tartamella was added, as well.

While on paper, the Cardinals appeared to be approaching near full strength during the final month with the returns of Jay (Sept. 3), Grichuk (Sept. 6), Adams (Sept. 9), Belisle (Sept. 12), Holliday (Sept. 15) and Wainwright (Sept. 30), that was not the case. None of the returnees appeared to be 100 percent, though Wainwright was effective in relief.

In addition, the standout pitching staff was beginning to tire, notably Wacha and Lynn. The Cardinals’ final month team ERA of 4.15 was their worst of the season.

Even more painful perhaps, were two new late-season injuries to key Cardinals.

The first was a hand injury suffered by Yadier Molina on September 20. The All-Star catcher did not play for the remainder of the regular season and required surgery on a torn thumb ligament following the NLDS.

Carlos Martinez, our choice as the top starting pitcher on the 2015 team, injured his shoulder and was shut down for the season with a strain after leaving his September 25 start after just six pitches.

All told, the 2015 Cardinals led MLB in potential WAR lost to injured players throughout the season, 15.88 WAR via 772 games lost. That total included over 5 WAR from Wainwright alone, according to mangameslost.com. The continued injuries left the club vulnerable in the post-season.

To review key individual player stats from the 2015 Cardinals, check out these four articles:
TCN 2015 St. Louis Cardinals Rookie of the Year
TCN 2015 St. Louis Cardinals Relief Pitcher of the Year
TCN 2015 St. Louis Cardinals Starting Pitcher of the Year
TCN 2015 St. Louis Cardinals Position Player of the Year

Final article in this series

In Part 2, we will recap the 2015 Cardinals post-season, along with a 2016 outlook.

For more

Link to master article with all 2015 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. That includes our St. Louis post-season recap, up next.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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