Over the next two weekends, the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals will engage in the I-70 Series, with the Royals visiting Busch Stadium this weekend and the Cardinals visiting Kauffman Stadium next weekend. While it is still questionable if the Royals-Cardinals matchup is indeed a “rivalry” by baseball standards (I explored this last season), it is still a matchup that is highly anticipated by Kansas City and St. Louis baseball fans alike.
After all, what is better than Missouri residents from both sides of the state (as well as eastern Kansas and Wester Illinois residents) coming together to engage and enjoy in the great game of baseball?
That being said, 2021 has been a bit of a down year for baseball fans in Missouri. Not only are the Kansas City Royals pretty much out of the playoff race at 47-60 while sitting in fourth-place in the American League Central, but the Cardinals too have failed to live up to expectations after an aggressive off-season. Despite plucking Nolan Arenado away from Colorado (and signing him to a massive extension), the Cardinals are 53-55 and are 11.5 games behind the NL Central division-leading Milwaukee Brewers. Currently, the Cardinals’ playoff odds, according to Fangraphs’ Depth Charts is 1.3 percent, not much better than the Royals’.
Thus, for Missouri denizens looking for baseball hope on any side of the state, it has been a lean year that may only get worse in August and September.
And as a result, this Royals-Cardinals series may be more important than ever for both Royals and Cardinals fans alike.
Because Missouri “bragging rights” may be the best either club could hope for by season’s end.
The Royals and Cardinals have disappointed in different ways in 2021, much to the chagrin of baseball fans in their respective cities.
For the Royals, expectations were heightened after Dayton Moore acquired Mike Minor and Carlos Santana in free agency, and Andrew Benintendi via a three-way trade with the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets. That being said, the Royals lost 100-plus games in 2018 and 2019, and over a pro-rated season, they still would have lost 90-plus games in 2020. Therefore, while the Royals were expected to be “slightly” better, it is not surprising that the Royals have been a sub-par team in 2021, especially considering the struggles of Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler in the middle of the linuep, and the fact that they failed to exceed the $100 million mark in payroll this season.
As for the Cardinals, the hopes were much loftier for 2021. The Cardinals made the playoffs in the extended playoff structure a year ago, but bowed out early, as they lost to the San Diego Padres in the three-game series. As a result of the debilitating loss to the Padres, the Cardinals re-loaded their roster in preparation for the 2021 season. They acquired Arenado in what was arguably the biggest deal of the MLB off-season. They brought back longtime veterans Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, but still seemed invested in young talent by investing in talent with long-term upside such as Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson, and Jack Flaherty. To Cardinals fans and baseball fans in Missouri, it seemed like playoff baseball was in store in the eastern side of the state, and that was further confirmed by the Cardinals’ payroll, which dwarfed the Royals’ by a considerable margin.
But unfortunately, fortunes have not been kind for either the Royals or Cardinals in 2021.
Both teams have struggled in similar ways. Neither the Royals nor Cardinals have demonstrated much power or consistent production at the plate this season. The Royals and Cardinals rank 25th and 26th in runs scored this year; 24th and 25th in OPS; and 26th and 24th in home runs. While both teams have shown some propensity on the basepaths, as the Royals rank 3rd and the Cardinals 9th in stolen bases, it hasn’t made up for the deficiencies at the plate overall this season.
Furthermore, the Arenado trade, which was supposed to help put the Cardinals over the top in the division, hasn’t quite lived up to expectations in Arenado’s first season in St. Louis:
On a pitching end, the Cardinals have been slightly better, though neither has been impressive by any means. The Royals have been pretty lackluster on a pitching end as they rank 26th in starting pitcher ERA and 24th in relief pitcher ERA. Luckily for St. Louis baseball fans, the Cardinals have been slightly better, as they rank 15th and 19th in those categories, respectively. On the other hand, the Cardinals have been kind of lucky on the pitching end, as their walk and strikeout numbers don’t necessarily support their ERA metrics.
When it comes to BB/9, Cardinals starters rank 29th and their relievers rank 30th. On a K/9 basis, Cardinals starters rank 29th and relievers rank 26th. In comparison, on a BB/9 basis, Royals starters rank 27th and relievers rank 26th. When it comes to striking batters out, Royals pitchers overall have been even more impressive than their Cardinals counterparts, as Royals starters rank 18th in K/9 and relievers rank 16th in K/9. Thus, it will be interesting to see how Cardinals pitchers overall will fare down the stretch over these next couple of months, especially in comparison to the Royals and their pitching staff.
Let’s just say, it may not be the most surprising development if the Royals and Cardinals finish the 2021 season with similar records.
(Yes, I know that statement may “royally” piss of Cardinals fans.)
In all likelihood, the Royals and Cardinals will both miss the playoffs, which makes these games over the next two weekends even more important for fans of both clubs. Even though it is not a traditional rivalry in the Cardinals-Cubs, Dodgers-Giants, or Red Sox-Yankees mold, there definitely is a different vibe whenever the Cardinals and Royals face each other. There is a heightened energy in the stadiums, and it may be from the visitors in blue and white at Buch Stadium or those dressed in red and white at Kauffman Stadium whenever these two teams meet.
The bottom line? The games just mean something more, even if they are simply “Interleague” contests.
Despite the “special nature” of the I-70 series, this year was supposed to be a season of positive development for baseball on both sides of the state in Missouri. The Royals were supposed to take the next step and compete for a playoff spot in the American League. The Cardinals were supposed to distance themselves from the rest of the National League Central.
And yet, the Royals hover near the bottom of the division, and the Cardinals seem on their way there, especially after getting swept at Busch Stadium this week by the Atlanta Braves (who were fueled by a big series from former Royal Jorge Soler):
After next weekend, sports fans in Kansas City and St. Louis may be a little more checked out on their teams. At this point, the goal for both teams will be to focus not only in 2022, but beyond as well. Furthermore, both clubs may be exploring major changes in management as well. Cardinals fans are already questioning whether or not manager Mike Shildt will be around next season, and for the Royals, it seems like there will be some considerable heat on Moore and Mike Matheny to win and make some major moves next season, or else they could be in jeopardy of losing their jobs, especially with John Sherman starting his third year as Royals owner.
The Royals and Cardinals are both in rare form: both out of the national eye as baseball enters the final two months of the season. While this more unfamiliar territory for Cardinals fans (Royals fans are more used to it), it should make the next six games between the Royals and Cardinals an interesting set of contests worth watching and perhaps attending in person (I will be going to the August 14th game at Kauffman).
Because bragging rights for the Royals against the Cardinals would certainly be the highlight of the 2021 season for Kansas City baseball fans…
And bragging rights for Cardinals fans over Royals fans may generate a similar feeling as well in the city of St. Louis, which would have been unthinkable in April for Cardinals and Royals fans alike…
Who knows how long that will be the case for baseball fans of both teams.
Let’s enjoy this while we can.
Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images