St. Louis Cardinals Midseason Report
[EDITOR’S NOTE - This should have been posted last weekend, but I’ve had a great deal of internet woes. Until Time-Warner fixed a broken line, I was surfing on the crappy phone and on a bad connection in my car at McDonald’s -DS]
This is my All-Star Break report on the Cardinals. It has folded into it most of what I wrote as a preseason preview. Unfortunately, due to a long flu episode, that didn’t get done until early June, so it never got posted here. Sorry about that. I promise not to get the flu any more.
As of the break, the Cardinals, to the surprise of most, are not in first place. The Reds are. So, are those Reds for real? Short answer: Yes. This is the one thing I wish I had gotten to say before the season started. The Reds are for real. They are an example of a kind of team that is always a threat. They have adequate pitching and their first four lineup spots involve no outfielders.
That last is really important. Why? Because you can always find corner outfielders who can hit. If you have four other guys who can hold down the prime lineup spots, and you add two corner outfield bats to hit 5 and 6, you’ve got a very strong, long offensive sequence. That’s the Reds. It’s also what makes the Phillies so dangerous, and we all know how dangerous they are.
The Cincy outfielders, including center field, hit 5-7 in their lineup. If it gets to late August and they are still in the pennant chase, they can upgrade easily by finding one or two waiver wire corner outfield rent-a-bats. That’s scary, especially considering that their GM, Walt Jocketty - well, do I need to say any more? Don’t give Walt a chance to win with a month’s rental of a big bat or two. You’ll end up competing for the wild card.
So, how about the Cards, instead of the Reds? Last year, you may remember that I went on at some length about my “pool” method of team analysis. Instead of dividing the position players into catchers, infielders, and outfielders, I divide them into the “catcher pool”, the “bat pool” (outfield and first base), and the “glove pool” (second, third, and short). This division, in my opinion, most accurately represents who might actually replace whom on days off and for injuries. If your first baseman goes down, the left fielder might move in to play first, but the shortstop won’t, and so on.
Each pool has constraints. The bat pool has to contain at least two people who can play center field. The glove pool has to have at least two who can play shortstop. Those are the main ones. It’s pretty obvious stuff, if you think about it.
Anyway, last year and especially in 2008, the Cardinals had a very odd bat pool. Essentially, the team had Albert Pujols and six guys who could play center field, but none of whom was an established bat. What the team did was keep the center fielders who hit best and stayed healthy, and sent the rest out to AAA, available for a shuttle in case someone got hurt or stopped hitting. This worked very well for two years, despite not having a single established major league bat in the outfield.
But then, wallowing in their glut of CFs, the Cardinals decided to use the asset for more than just the bat pool. They moved one of the CFs, Skip Schumacher, to the glove pool. Ryan Ludwick stopped getting injured, although that may not hold up, and claimed the right field job exclusively. They got a chance to get Matt Holliday to play left field. With hot rookie Colby Rasmus taking over the starting job in center, Rick Ankiel was relegated to the bench. Wanting to start, Ankiel opted for free agency. The remaining CFs had failed, and were no longer in the Cardinal system. Suddenly, the Cardinal bat pool was very thin, with Rasmus as the only center fielder left, unless you count Ryan Ludwick. Ludwick is a good defensive right fielder, but he lost speed to an injury, and can’t really play center for more than a game or two any more.
This complete overhaul of the Cardinal bat pool is the main difference between the 2009 and 2010 teams. Here’s how it worked in April: The Cards had solid starters at all the bat pool positions, and two different backup center fielders for different roles. If Colby Rasmus needed a day off, that would happen against a lefty pitcher, and Joe Mather, a righty hitter, would play center. If Rasmus got hurt and needed a string of off days, then it was John Jay, a lefty like Colby, who would play center. The team had no real backup center fielder at all. What a change from having a pool of six CFs.
And the team didn’t like it. The Cards picked up Randy Winn, a switch-hitter who used to be a decent CF, but is 36 years old. John Jay went back to AAA, where he has won a trip back to the majors as a general outfield backup. Joe Mather has, essentially, disappeared. Right now, this is working. Jay is hitting very very well and Winn can still run. Obviously, the Cards would take a hit if Albert or Matt Holiday got hurt, but the outfield now has a sufficient bat bench to not embarrass itself.
That brings us to the glove pool., which is not doing as well as the bat pool. Second base is manned by the aforementioned converted outfielder. The shortstop, Brendan Ryan, is a hot glove with a questionable bat who hit for a high average in 2009. The odd thing there is that Ryan is very old to be a shortstop sophomore, especially since defense is a young man’s game, and it’s Ryan’s strong point. The Cards are more skimming the cream off the peak of his career than having a hot young shortstop prospect. Third base is the same thing, only worse. David Freeze, the starting third baseman, is a very old rookie instead of an old sophomore. His bat isn’t the question. His injury history is. He played great for half a year, but is currently hurt for who knows how long.
Waiting until the last moment, the Cards picked up Felipe Lopez as the primary backup infielder. Before that, they only had the gamble of Tyler Greene. Right now, Greene is the shortstop starter, as Ryan hasn’t hit at all and Lopez has to cover for Freeze at third. Desperate, the Cards have gone back to Aaron Miles on the bench. No one knows whether Ryan’s problem is just Sophomore Slump or what. With few walks and no power, he has to hit .300 to have any offensive value. Greene, right now, is the better player, even given that Brendan has a golden glove. At least, with Ryan, Lopez and Greene, the Cards are deep in shortstop gloves. But they are shallow at second and third, where you want more bat than Ryan or Greene is likely to deliver, much less Miles.
The catcher pool is easy to discuss because it hasn’t changed. If you have Yadier Molina, and he’s hitting like he has the last two years, you play that Gold Glove. This has the additional bonus that when he hits the rare home run, you get to bet on how many commercials the TV can run before Yadi plods his way around the bases. I have no idea how he steals the occasional base.
Overall, the offense is good but not great. The main reason, of course, is the injuries to Ryan Ludwick and David Freeze. The Cardinals have gotten lucky the last couple of years with Ludwick, but that may be over. Freeze has also been hurt before.
The secondary reason is the bat problems, so far, of Skip Schumacker, Brendan Ryan, and Yadier Molina. Some of this is just the overall decline of offense in the game this year. People like Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday are hitting a bit worse than you’d expect, but the drop is not serious, and those two have retained their relative standings among the league’s hitters. But Skip, Brendan, and Yadi are really down. What is odd, and painful, is that those three are the three Cardinal hitters with the least power. All three are really one-dimensional hitters. That dimension is hitting for average, and all three are way down, with Ryan being a total catastrophe. And let’s face it. These three, plus the two injured power bats, are over half the lineup.
So, it is a very very good thing that Colby Rasmus has broken loose. And that has its own oddity. For the last few years, the Cardinals have been trying to get Colby to quit obsessing over power and try to get on base more. Take some walks. Well, that has finally worked. Rasmus’ on-base percentage is way up, and the reason is that he is taking many more walks than ever before. No, I don’t know why. But I do know this: There are people here in St. Louis who want to blame the problems of the Little Three on Mark McGwire’s entrance as hitting coach. OK, fine, it’s only been half a year, but if you have no patience, well, then…. But if you’re going to blame McGwire for those three, then you have to give him credit for Colby Rasmus, especially since Rasmus hits a lot more like Mark did than Schumacker, Ryan and Molina do. And he hits even more like McGwire now, with all the walks.
About defense: I checked out Chris Dial’s Defensive Runs Saved, which is one of the most respected defense systems out there (there is no consensus about defense yet among analysts, but DRS does have respect), although it does not rank catchers, who are absurdly hard to rank. The Cardinals do well, with ten team DRS. That’s fourth in the NL, behind the Reds (another Cincy strength) and San Diego, who are dominant with 26 and 28 DRS. Philly has 13, and a couple of teams are right behind the Cards with nine. Including catchers, with Yadier Molina established as a Gold Glove, the Cards probably have the #3 defense in the league overall. Most of the Cards are near average, but then there is Matt Holliday. Matt has the highest DRS of any left fielder, with nine. That’s almost all of the team DRS edge, and an enormous number for a left fielder in half a year. No one else in the NL is close. Just thought I ought to note that.
Ever since I first analyzed Tony La Russa’s managerial style, way back when he was with the White Sox, I have maintained that Tony rises and falls with his veteran starting pitching. That hasn’t changed, so it’s a good thing the Cardinals realize it. This year, they start a rotation featuring four strong vets: Wainwright, Carpenter, Penny and Lohse. Penny and Lohse are already hurt, but hot kid Jaime Garcia has come through. No one knows about Lohse, because he has an injury that almost never happens to baseball pitchers. As of this writing, no one knows about Penny, either, because he’s had a relapse during rehab. Still, even if one of them is done for the year, there’s more than enough here for Tony to win with. This is probably the most important paragraph in this entire essay in terms of the Cardinal chances to win. They have the veteran starting pitching. And the ownership has announced that, if neither Penny nor Lohse is able to return and Dave Duncan is unable to resurrect Jeff Suppan, there is money for a late-season veteran.
Have you noticed that almost no one seems to have a real bullpen any more? Except for closer, that’s the weakness of the Cardinal team. And even the TV commentators have noticed that the Cardinal offense all too often amounts to waiting until the opposing starter leaves the game and then beating up on the bullpen. That is, all the other teams have the same weakness.
Is this the inevitable result of the continuing shrink of starter IP plus all the arm injuries coming from managers who are in denial about the shrinkage? I don’t know, but it’s my best guess. Under the circumstances, the Cardinal bullpen is doing OK. It has depth, and it isn’t dreadful. It does not, however, have anyone who is really ready to take a rotation spot, so they are losing games that were scheduled to be Penny and Lohse starts.
I don’t suppose I need to tell anyone that the Cardinals still figure to win their division; people have been saying that since Matt Holliday signed, much less Brad Penny. They are currently right behind a Cincy team that has had very few injuries compared to the Cards. If the Cards get some health back, or the Reds have a couple of guys go down (they have their own perpetual injury gambles, like Scott Rolen), it’s probably all over. But injuries have brought down many a fine, fine team. That’s the big threat, really - that the Cards will not be able to bring in late-season replacements as fast as the injuries take their starters down.
And so, on that cheery note do I leave you. Well, hell. Actually, I can leave you with a cheerier note than that. I just looked at Baseball-Reference, and checked out the Cardinals’ and Reds’ Pythagorean records. Pythagoreans are a way of estimating how many games a team should have won given how many runs they scored and how many they gave up. The difference between the Pythagorean and the actual team W/L is generally due to luck. Well, the Reds are two games lucky and the Cardinals are two games unlucky, according to the Pythagoreans. That is, given runs scored and allowed, the Cards are still a bit better than the Reds. Over the season, that luck should even out. The Cards should squeak out the win.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to disagree.
Posted: July 28, 2010 at 05:36 PM | 12 comment(s)
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