Introduction (aka a bunch of words at the top): An introduction is most certainly in order. I’m Dennis, but you may know me on Twitter as gr33nazn – owner of #ManFridge. I recently authored a post on my personal blog about why I’m not a baseball blogger, so naturally I’m now attempting to be a baseball blogger. Moral – be careful what you don’t wish for. I’ll admit to reading no fewer than 20 different blogs about the team in the past week, and many reasons given for the team’s performance this year made sense to me. An almost equal number made no sense at all. In retrospect, I tried to figuratively step back and put the nearly complete season into perspective. Only then did I realize that maybe even my own perception had deviated greatly from reality.
Perception:The Cardinals won the NL Central in 2009, so they should win in 2010 due to an improvement in talent. Having Matt Holliday for an entire year should help the offense quite a lot. Another year of experience for Colby Rasmus should help with his progression.
Assumption: Ceteris paribus – roughly translates to “all other things being equal”. Unfortunately, a lot of things changed. Like what?
- Brendan Ryan – Regression toward the mean. 2009 (.292/.340/.400) in 390 ABs, 2010 (.220/.273/.290) in 410 ABs. I still think he’s a legitimate .275 hitter, and he’s one of the few guys that truly bothers opposing pitchers by reaching 1st base. Still, his .740 OPS (.563 in 2010) is sorely missed this year. When he has quality at-bats and demonstrates patience, it really shows. How? He’s batting .300 this year when the count is 3-1 but only faced that count 10 times.
- Skip Schumaker – 2009 (.303/.364/.393) became (.268/.331/.347) in 2010. Maybe the Cardinals were prepared to withstand one of the two middle infielders taking a step back but not both. After 2 consecutive .300+ seasons, 2010 is probably more of an aberration for Skip, but it’s an untimely one for the guy many people had tabbed to be the best leadoff hitter on the opening day roster.
- Starting rotation – Much has been made of this, and I think that maybe a bit too much has been said about it. Wainwright, Carpenter, and Garcia give the Cardinals a legitimate 1-2-3 that can reasonably be expected to compete with any 1-3 starters on any staff in the NL. If all 3 remain healthy, this may be true for the next couple of seasons. The problems begin at the 4 and 5 spots. Lohse is signed for another couple of years for $11,875,000 annually. Yes, that’s roughly 9% or more of what is estimated to be the team’s payroll each of the next 2 seasons. As a fan, I’m counting down the days until he becomes unofficially known as “Mr. Expiring Contract Every Other Team Wants”. Until then, I’m calling him “Mr. $40m Albatross”. Perhaps plunking down big money for Brad Penny was a foolish bet. In hindsight, it certainly was. At the time, it simply smacked of desperation and sent out a signal that the Cardinals lacked any in-house options at the time. Hopefully that will not be the case for 2011.
Omissions: The Reds improved greatly and would get a career year from 1 or more key players. The 2009 Reds went 78-84, scored 673, and allowed 647. The 2010 version is on pace to go 93-69, score 795, and allow 690.
Reality: The 2009 Cardinals went 91-71, scored 730, allowed 640. The 2010 team is on pace to go 83-79, score 729, allow 647. It’s not so much that the Cardinals took a huge step back, rather the Reds really took a big step forward. On paper, the 2010 Cardinals team started out as a 90-95 win team, and that estimate was based on good health and average seasons from nearly all full-time contributors. When substantial contributions are being made by perennial journeymen (Winn and Miles) and secondhand cast-offs (Feliz and Lopez), your team is in trouble.
More reality: Holliday is a notoriously slow starter (albeit not Mark Teixeira slow). Getting hot in September is great as long as your team is still vying for the playoffs in September.
Bonus Material: Much has been made of Matt Holliday’s “clutchness”. Utter nonsense has been blogged on both sides of the issue, and limited statistical information has been presented as well. Sabermetrics have been discussed. So has planetary alignment, the Mayan death calendar (which is actually a drinking game), and the possibility that he’s actually playing up to the ridiculous expectations of his huge contract. Obviously, you can use numbers to frame a debate just about any way you like. Just try on these numbers on for size though (bearing in mind that I’m fine with his production for what he’s being paid):
With RISP: .271 Man on 3rd, <2 out: .379 Man on 3rd, 2 out: .214
2 outs, RISP: .272 Late & Close: .333 Tie Game: .335
You can conclude different things from those statistics. Maybe “Late & Close” is a big deal to some, but I’m more interested in “Early and Often”. Giving your starting pitcher an early cushion is as important as being able to play catch-up later in the game. There’s a good reason why starting pitchers get the mammoth contracts. If you can knock out the starting pitcher, you have an opportunity to face middle relievers who aren’t typically as consistent or as talented as the starters or the closers. Maybe I’m just nitpicking, but for approximately $17m a year, I believe fans should expect quite a lot from the first swing to the last. As a fan, I value runs scored early in the game more than runs scored later in the game. Ask anybody how good the Cardinals are when they take a lead into the 8th inning or later. They are not presently built to come-from-behind frequently.
20/20, Hindsight, and #TeamCake: If I could change one thing that doesn’t involve David Freese learning how to do the whole “left foot, right foot” thing around the bases, I’d play Colby Rasmus and bat him 2nd. Pretty much every day. Overall, Rasmus has pretty darn good numbers for a CF (.277, .362 OBP, 23 HR, .514 SLG, .876 OPS) in only 426 at-bats. A lot of his success is attributable to TLR’s selective use of Rasmus. Didn’t notice that? Check his splits:
Colby vs RHP: 320 AB, .281 BA, .369 OBP, 19 HR, .534 SLG, .904 OPS
Colby vs LHP: 120 AB, .264 BA, .339 OBP, 4 HR, .453 SLG, .792 OPS
Maybe he’s not the most accomplished CF in the game. Maybe he doesn’t take his craft quite seriously enough to suit everybody. Fine. Someone in that clubhouse needs to hold him accountable for that (or cut the umbilical cord that connects him with his dad). He could be the guy roaming centerfield at Busch Stadium for the next 8-10 years. Get that little chat out-of-the-way now and play ball. That semi-contrived drama involving Colby and TLR was a bit overblown, but it did show a lot about the how quickly some members of Cardinal Nation can take sides. For the record, I sided with #TeamCake, but that’s a completely different story. If you aren’t familiar with #TeamCake, then look for it on Twitter. Anyway, the TLR/Colby thing is not a personal issue for me at all this time. There is practically zero chance that TLR will be around more than a few years, even if he chooses to manage beyond this year. Colby is already a really solid player and a commodity that simply doesn’t come along every day. He’s a left-handed hitter with 30 hr/yr power who is just learning to go gap-to-gap late in the count. More importantly, the Cardinals probably couldn’t trade him right now and get back more than $.70-80 on the dollar, so it’s not worth moving him. He costs them very little, and he could probably be locked up long-term for a reasonable price, if they want to buy out his arbitration years (not a bad idea). FYI – Colby’s agent is Paul Cohen who is the same guy who negotiated extensions for Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki, and Tim Hudson. This may bode well for the Cardinals.
Moving forward (and bringing this to a merciful close soon): The Cardinals biggest competition for the NL Central next year (and for the next few years) should be the Reds. To compete, the Cardinals need to improve overall team speed/defense and become more efficient on offense. Offensive efficiency is somewhat difficult to explain in purely quantitative terms, but it’s somewhat easy to grasp in general ones. The Cardinals are currently 10th in BA, 15th in HR, 11th in Hits, but only 16th in RBI. Given AP’s propensity for drawing walks, it seems like the team just has problems converting or capitalizing on opportunities. Translation: Too many solo home runs, too few stolen bases, runner on 1st ends up on 3rd after someone hits a double. Having a healthy David Freese next year should help substantially, but that’s not going to be nearly enough. One possibly solution is to move Skip back to the outfield and make him the full-time right fielder. He probably has the best throwing arm of anybody who can play that position, and he’s a plus defender in terms of speed. That means that the Cardinals would have to find a new 2B, either from within the organization or via free agency. I’m ignoring the trade option here, because Mozeliak has yet to show the ability to fleece anybody.
Dream sequence: Padres decline to offer Ryan Ludwick arbitration, so Ludwick finds his way back to Stl. where he signs very reasonable contract. (4 yr / $20m). Skip stays at 2B. 2011 starting position players (batting order): Skip 2B, Rasmus CF, Pujols 1B, Holliday LF, Ludwick RF, Freese 3B, Yadi C, Ryan SS. Jon Jay becomes the super sub off the bench and is possibly one of the best 4th outfielders in the NL. Since he can hit against LHPs, he’s a really good pinch-hitting option, so the Cardinals can stay with the youth movement. Dream sequence part 2 – The Reds blow up their payroll by giving Joey Votto a serious raise that involves a lot of zeros and commas. Better yet, Cueto starts fight in own dugout and gives himself a career ending concussion (apropros, I think).
Grand finale: If you’ve made it this far, you now know why I’m not a baseball blogger. I started out with the intention of writing a short post about how disgusted I was with the disappointing season the Cardinals have had up to this point. About 2 pages later, I’m no longer disgusted, and I’m not nearly as disappointed. Actually, I’m optimistic that the team can be much improved by opening day 2011 with money to spare.