from Nick Suss
June 24, 2014, 1:10 a.m.
As a journalist, I’ve been taught to avoid generalizations. Generalizing your beliefs into truth is kind of like when a waiter asks you “Is Pepsi okay?” Obviously some people are going to answer in the affirmative but most people will look at you like you’re crazy. But I’m going to start this week’s rant off with a generalization: If you call yourself a baseball fan, you appreciate the St. Louis Cardinals.
It’s hard not to appreciate the Cardinals. Appreciate doesn’t mean like, obviously. Plenty of people don’t like the Cardinals, just ask Cubs fans. But there’s a certain respect the franchise has earned, not just from their success in this generation but in past generations too. And I’m the golden boy for this generalization. As a lover of statistics and of the history of the game, Stan Musial and Rogers Hornsby might be my two favorite NL players ever. Growing up, I knew that Albert Pujols had the sweetest swing this side of Ken Griffey, Jr. and that Jason Isringhausen has more wins than any other pitcher in major league history whose surname began with the letter I. And while some baseball fans take pride in their ability to spell Yastrzemski or Samardzija or Kluszewski, I’ve always been most proud that I can spell Schoendienst.
Despite all this appreciation, I jumped off the Cardinals bandwagon this year. I projected them to come in third place in the NL Central. Of course, the Central might be the strongest division in baseball and every team accept the Cubs still has a feasible chance of winning it, but it’s still not a glowing compliment. And while the Cardinals sit in second place right now, they have all the makings for a late season implosion.
Now I’m going to do something I almost never do in a Tuesday Morning Rant: substantiate my claims. I know a lot of you aren’t big into sabermetrics like I am, so I’ll try to keep this basic, but there are one or two advanced ideas I want to talk about. Essentially, the Cardinals are doing the baseball equivalent of outkicking their coverage every night they play. They’re a team built around strong pitching and gap power that plays in a ballpark essentially engineered for speed. What’s more, they really don’t look like they have a short-term solution to any of their problems.
Alright, I’ll start off with the comparatively-fancy stat to get it out there before I go into the easy-to-understand stuff. As of Sunday, Busch Stadium is the second-most friendly hitters park in the United States for 2014. Despite the fact that it is a below-average home run park, it is among the best parks in baseball for both doubles and triples. When it comes to runs, only Coors Park in Colorado is nicer to hitters. But while the Rockies rank second in baseball when it comes to runs scored, in large part due to their home-field advantage, the Cardinals remain offensive bottom dwellers, having scored just 281 runs on the year, the fourth-worst total in baseball and 32 runs below league average. Of course, the Cardinals make up for this by having the second-best pitching staff in baseball by runs allowed and still are posting a +25 run differential, but theoretically this doesn’t make any sense.
How does a team that plays in such a favorable ballpark for inside-the-park extra-base hits rank league average in these areas but prevent them at such an astounding rate? (Teams slug just .337 against the Cardinals at home, which is as impressive as it sounds.) Here are the two problems I found, one of which obvious and the other of which less so: Firstly, the Cardinals can’t hit home runs. That one’s easy; the Cardinals are tied for last in the bigs with 42 home runs on the season. Secondly and more importantly, the Cardinals are getting next to no value from their lineup construction.
I’m not a major league manager, obviously, nor do I think I could be one, but there is a hole in the center of the Cards’ lineup bigger than the mole on Drew Brees’ face. On the season, the two hitter in the Cardinals lineup is batting just .244 with a .318 on-base percentage and is slugging .388. In other words, Admittedly, that isn’t that bad of a batting average, the Padres as a team are batting .214 in a pitcher’s park, but for a position in the lineup that comes up more often with runners on base than any other this is nothing but a waste of potential. Not only is the slot inept swinging the bat, it has proven incapable of even getting on, walking almost 20 less times than both the leadoff and third slots. There isn’t much of a fix in the lineup – no other position in the lineup is walking at a high rate save the preceding and succeeding slots – but the fifth hole is hitting almost .300 and could easily create more scoring opportunities.
Regardless of the two-hole problem, the Cardinals biggest problem seems to be what I just hinted at: there really isn’t a short-term solution. The Cardinals can always reload, they consistently have a strong farm system, but Oscar Taveras proved he wasn’t ready when he came up and Matt Adams’ brief hot streak off the DL doesn’t appear to be sustainable. Combine that with the fact that with Michael Wacha, who has been excellent as of late not giving up more than four runs in any of his last 10 starts, is heading to the DL and both the Reds and Pirates seem to be playing up to their potential, the Cardinals are starting to look like the odd team out.
It’s easy to say that defense wins championships and that the Cardinals’ pitching is good enough to carry the Redbirds back to the World Series. But here’s one more generalization for you: 100 percent of teams that get outscored in a game lose.