Where Optimism and Realism Diverge

by on August 16, 2011 · 12 comments

This post has been clanking around in my head for some time, a couple of weeks now at least, just waiting for the right moment – the right time to finally put words to screen, to find what it is that remains of the 2011 Cardinals season.

Away from the whiplash fans (“Tonight’s win was just what the Cards need to retake first place.”  Next night: “Oh my gosh, this loss is the worst loss ever and this team will never win another game.”  You know this fan?  Are YOU this fan?), the extreme optimists (“There are still seven games left, of course they can overcome a six game deficit.”  I truly appreciate this dedication.), and the folks who just never seem happy (“Yeah, Albert Pujols hit three home runs tonight, but if he hadn’t made that error, the Cards would’ve won by 27!  They should trade Pujols.  Loser.”  Feel sorry for this bunch.) – there is a reality that has been developing.  It’s not pretty, and it’s also not written in stone – but each Cardinals loss and Brewers win brings us a step closer to it.

The Cards just weren’t good enough.

This post is going to seem very disjointed and conflicted, but please understand that for each point and counterpoint below, right or wrong, I believe both.  I still hold optimism that the club can pull something off – something equal and opposite of their 2006 swoon (albeit with different results than that team wound up with – they would have to be on the other hand now, upsetting a collapsing leader).  I’m realistic enough to understand and begin to resign myself to the fact that it’s not likely to happen, and beginning the process of trying to understand why and offer my humble explanation.

OPTIMISM:  The season isn’t over yet.  This club still has the Wild Card to play for, still has six games against the Brewers, still time to put together an epic winning streak.

REALISM: What makes you think the Cards can magically beat the Brewers six of six (which is looking more and more necessary, as the Milwaukee bunch continues to tick off win after win)?  For that matter, what makes anyone believe that the Cards could even string together five wins in a row against ANYONE?  Hasn’t happened yet this season.

OPTIMISM:  The Brewers are bound for a crash.  They have won seventeen of their last nineteen games, a truly unsustainable win rate.

REALISM:  Yeah, sure, they won’t continue to win at an almost .900 clip, but so what?  The fact that they already have over a span of 19 games has put them so far ahead that it is beginning to not matter how badly they could slump.  If the Brewers played .500 ball the rest of 2011, finishing at 91-71, the Cardinals would have to go 26-14, a .650 winning percentage.  Even in their great April, the Cards were only 16-10, a .615 win percentage.

I want to expand some more on the Brewers’ crazy play of late.  They have good pitching.  They have a good offense.  Both are really clicking for them right now, something that the Cardinals have really not had happen for them all year.  The bullpen was down early in the season even when they were winning.  Then the offense took a nap.  Lately, the starting pitching has been failing them.  All it took was for one club, in a division left up-for-grabs, to get hot and click – and the rest would be flailing behind them.  That is what has happened.  Were the Brewers the better club all along?  Maybe, maybe not.  What matters is that they have been the better club for the last two months or so, and the Cardinals haven’t answered the bell.

What I’m ultimately getting at is this:  Cardinals fans want to “blame” the Brewers for getting hot and winning at an “unreasonable” rate.  Well, I don’t expect MLB to take away any of those wins anytime soon.  Blame whatever you want, the Brewers are six games ahead of the Cardinals.  That’s not changing.  Colby Rasmus being with the Cardinals since the end of July was not going to make the Brewers win any fewer games.  Brendan Ryan does not own Ryan Braun voodoo dolls (okay, I’m making an assumption there, but one I feel pretty confident in).  The Cardinals had a chance. If they played two games above .500 ball in June and July, we’re talking about a two-game deficit right now, instead of six.  And that INCLUDES the Brewers’ 17-of-19 blitz.

None of this is to say that the Cardinals can’t share in the blame.  They weren’t as good as necessary to win the division in June and July.  I don’t want anything written here to be misconstrued as letting the Cardinals off the hook because the Brewers have played out of their heads.  But that’s really what this season has boiled down to, isn’t it?  One could pretty reasonably argue that the Cardinals and Brewers came into the season as equals, where a couple breaks one way or the other could make or break one.  Well, the Brewers have turned a bad break (Rickie Weeks‘ injury) into an incredible run.  The Cardinals haven’t seized their opportunities and often look lethargic.  If it weren’t for bad luck, the Cards might not have any.  That’s the way it has shaken out – the Brewers have done more, the Cardinals less.

But I digress…

OPTIMISM:  Albert Pujols is getting hot, if the offense can consistently put runs on the board, the Cardinals can run off 17-of-their-own-19.

REALISM:  James McDonald just held the Cardinals to two runs on six hits.

OPTIMISM:  The bullpen is pitching really well, at least we don’t have to worry about blowing leads like early in the season.

REALISM:  The bullpen is pitching really well, at least we don’t have to worry about blowing leads like early in the season.  Hey, Jason Motte has been really, really, REALLY good.  And the manager has even used his bullpen wisely in some situations, bringing in his best reliever in the situation that called for it, specific inning or matchups be damned.

OPTIMISM:  What about catching the Braves (or other appropriately leading at the time Wild Card team)?

REALISM:  The Braves (or any other Wild Card team) are certainly not as hot as the Brewers right now, but we’re overlooking one thing – the Cardinals still have to win.

OPTIMISM:  But this is 2011!  Remember the new clubhouse chemistry and improved offense, they were awesome in April!

REALISM:  Yeah, I know.  I’ve a constant reminder on this site of the dangers of sample size and getting all gussied up about a team we apparently didn’t really know yet, with many unproven cogs.  I know the Cardinals CAN win like that.  I’m less and less confident that they WILL win like that, given the current state of affairs.

OPTIMISM:  The club will right itself, the manager can still affect change.

REALISM:  I think we have seen, more this season than at any other time, a league that has finally refused to be intimidated by Tony La Russa.  In prior years, Tony would say something, the umpires and opposing managers would either willingly or unknowingly fall into line, and the Cardinals would profit.  Now, Tony spouts off and makes himself and the organization look foolish.  No one holds him to a higher standard anymore, and I don’t think it’s for lack of performance – I think it’s just lack of caring about his “way to play the game”.  Tony doesn’t like pitches to be thrown up and in – Ron Roenicke (and plenty of other managers, I’m sure) doesn’t care what Tony thinks.  And so on and so forth…

OPTIMISM:  Maybe Corey Patterson can get hot.

REALISM:  Maybe Corey Patterson is not a major league caliber ball-player.

OPTIMISM:  Maybe Corey Patterson will get designated for assignment.

REALISM:  He’s more likely to get a contract extension, if La Russa plans to stick around for 2012.

OPTIMISM:  Maybe…

REALISM:  No.

OPTIMISM:  But…

REALISM:  Uh-uh.

You get the idea.  My point is this – the folks who argue that the season isn’t yet over (and I’m trying my damnedest to remain one – so far, so good) are right.  But with each momentum killing loss after winning two or three in a row, the Cardinals are putting themselves more and more in the path of the reaper.

The folks who argue that this season was damned from the beginning aren’t quite right either.  This is why they play the games.  The Brewers took off in July and August.  What can the Cardinals do about it but try to keep up?  They didn’t, they haven’t, and they’ve dug themselves a hole.  So now it’s the front office’s fault for not putting together a better team?  Not putting together a team that can keep up with one playing .900 ball?  Let’s not mistake my intent here, obviously the Brewers were not built to play .900 ball, but they’ve caught a hot streak – what is John Mozeliak supposed to do about it?  Go back to the off-season and trade for Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez and not let Adam Wainwright pitch during the spring?  If Mozeliak is guilty of anything, it’s continually cow-towing to the manager’s desire to sign and actually use (!) players past their primes, providing negative value/performance, and blocking just as capable younger players in need of development.  But yet again, what is a general manager to do when his hand is so forced, such as in the Rasmus situation?  The manager is in the hip-pocket of ownership, is apparently above reprimand or consequence for inappropriate comments and/or behavior, and knows it.  *sigh*

Step back from the ledge for a minute.

No one was complaining about Colby Rasmus in April when he was tearing the cover off of the ball, including the manager.  Once he went cold, so did he and TLR’s “relationship”.  Again.  Total coincidence, right?

Everyone was willing to be patient with Jake Westbrook‘s flailing in April and May because the team was winning, giving Jake plenty of run support.  Surely he would figure it out, right?  He hasn’t, and the team now sporadically scores runs for him.  Problem.

I’m just as guilty as anyone of that “aw, it’ll work itself out” attitude as any fan or observer – what’s not to like about a club distancing itself from the pack in April and May?

Now we flash forward to the middle of August, and all of that energy has long been sucked out – by injuries, by the manager running his mouth and strong-arming players, player fights, what else?  It’s a daily soap opera with this club.

Sure, some of Tony’s gambits have worked, like the “start” he gave Miguel Batista against the Reds that so infuriated Dusty Baker.  La Russa is still a heck of a manager, but I fear sometimes that he’s read too many of his own press clippings.  For every advantage he gives this club – and make no mistake, that is always his end-game with ANYTHING he does – I can’t help but think he’s approaching or teetering over the tipping point between advantageous gamesmanship and destructive distraction.  If you really want to hear some excellent discussion of La Russa, please listen to the Baseball Prospectus podcast episode featuring Matthew Leach.

Perhaps it’s the mentality installed by Tony La Russa for all of these years, or the IMPENDING DOOM ™ that surrounds the team trying to win again before Pujols supposedly skips town, but I’ve never seen a team less excited about sweeping a four-game series than the Cardinals in Florida last week.  Are we to believe that they still are optimistic, or has the reality set in for them that the Brewers are running away with “their” division?

I said it on Twitter earlier this week, and I’ll say it again here:  The Cardinals have improved in August.  Before last night’s loss to the Pirates, they had gone 7-3 in their previous 10 games.  The Brewers were 9-1 over the same stretch, including two wins over the Cardinals, one of which could have gone either way in extra innings and was a hell of an exciting game to watch.  If at the end of the season, the Cardinals have played .700 ball to close out and the Brewers have played .900 – what can the team do besides tip their caps?  If you want to play the blame game, go ahead – but it occurs to me that maybe the Brewers have just been the better club, if even only for three weeks – sometimes that’s all it takes.

I didn’t intend for this to come off as an obituary for the 2011 Cardinals.  Not yet.  Lots of baseball to be played, and stranger things have happened.  I’m still watching every game, and I hope you will too.

OPTIMISM:  Here’s hoping for a 2-and-19 stretch for the Brewers.

REALISM:  I’d be happy with the Cardinals winning on the same night the Brewers lose, to start…

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Writing about the Cardinals and other loosely associated topics since 2008, I've grown tired of the April run-out only to disappoint Cardinal fans everywhere by mid-May. I do not believe in surrendering free outs.
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{ 12 comments }

Dennis August 16, 2011

Nice work. So is now a good or a bad time to mention that we here at PH8 picked the Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds to finish 1-2-3 in the NL Central this season?

For the record, I have more faith that the Cardinals can win the division than the wild card for the time being. The Braves have the same record as the Brewers, but the Giants are a game up on the Cardinals in the WC race as well.

If the Cardinals do finish where they are now relative to the Brewers, that’s roughly the equivalent of being just 1 game a month worse than the division champs. That’s not a huge margin when you think about it over the course of such a long season, but I’d bet it’s approximately the difference between having Adam Wainwright and not having him.

I wouldn’t let Mo off the hook so quickly here, though. He wasn’t charged with putting together a team that could keep up with a team that could play .900 ball. He just needed a team that could play .582 ball for 122 games to this point. If he had accomplished that, the Cardinals and Brewers would be tied.

PH8 August 16, 2011

Agreed, re: Mozeliak – I knew there was one more part I wanted to add this morning.

He was charged with putting together the best team that he could with the resources, both financial and personality (it’s important, whether we like it or not) -wise. So far they haven’t produced.

I guess my point to make was that as pertains to guys like Brendan Ryan – yeah, we can all wish he was still in St. Louis, and statistically he may have improved the team, but if there was a vocal group in the clubhouse that had gotten over him, then he had to go. I can’t blame Mo for that. Sure, you could leave him be and force everyone to play nice – same could be said for Rasmus – but it’s a destructive path, IMO.

My larger comment to be made about Mozeliak is more directed toward those who want him fired because of the Rasmus trade, or because he signed Theriot, or because “he” keeps bringing La Russa back. Some things he has control over, some things he doesn’t. Sometimes best laid plans go awry and the team doesn’t win. I’m not ready to hang it all on his head just yet.

am August 16, 2011

Mo’ and the FO decided to build a club that could out slug teams, while being anchored by a good pitching rotation. They did this incredibly successfully, and will probably proceed to 85-88 wins w/o their ace.

It’s easy to sit in mid-August and say he ‘needed to build a team that could play .582 ball’, but in reality, Milwaukee isn’t a .582 baseball team, and no one in the game thought they were before the season — and I don’t think anyone thinks they really are right now. Mo’ built a superior roster than MIL before the season with a process that the whole org believed in and executed. You don’t involve losing Adam Wainwright in your process — you can’t. And for that, I don’t think there’s much blame to be placed on Mo.

PH8 August 16, 2011

Well, hang on a second – semantically, you’re wrong. In reality, Milwaukee is, today, exactly a .582 ball club. That’s reality.

Statistically, models tell us they should be more of a .533 club, but that’s where the whole “you have to be lucky and/or have a couple bounces go your way to win 15 of 17″ comes in. Just like the Reds are 6 to the south of their Pythagorean. Could be a much thicker race.

We could debate all day which club had the better roster before the season started, and no doubt, injuries have played a role in St. Louis’ struggles – hard to fault anyone there, I agree.

But as for placing blame, at the end of the day general managers are judged on wins, losses, and pennants. I agree that the “fire Mo” stuff is nonsense (and I stated as much above), but likewise, this is the club he assembled. Bad luck or injuries or otherwise, if his club doesn’t win, he has to answer for it at some level.

I doubt Doug Melvin involved losing Rickie Weeks in his process (albeit after getting many productive months out of him), but seems the Brewers are managing just fine…

am August 16, 2011

But they have won, haven’t they? Second best winning percentage in the NL since ’06.

There’s been just one postseason appearance in that run, which speaks to the kind of luck you’re talking about. Probably the same luck that explains Milwaukee’s “managing” without Weeks.

I also don’t read into the same complex with La Russa that you mentioned. While I’m sure some are eager to see what Mo could do with less ‘power ties’ let’s call them (including Pujols being somewhere else, too), I certainly don’t think it’s a situation where TLR is in the back pocket of ownership and that’s why he returns. I think Mo genuinely believes in TLR.

PH8 August 16, 2011

No one was talking about Mozeliak’s history, we’ve all been discussing the construction of the 2011 club. Besides, I’m not sure how many more times or ways I can explain that I’m not trying to run him out. Merely stating that there is culpability to go around.

It’s certainly possible, even likely, that you’re right about the internal goings on between ownership/Mozeliak/TLR. And I don’t doubt for a second that Mozeliak believes Tony is as good a guy for the job as any. But someone is certainly looking out for La Russa on high, if the way the Rasmus situation played out is any indication.

I still can’t get over how the club can be negotiating an extension with a young player, only to have the manager sabotage that with a handful of flippant comments, ultimately forcing a trade. From extension negotiation to shipped out of town unceremoniously, at the snap of a finger. Not a lot of employees of any company that could get away with that…

Just out of curiosity, because I can’t find you actually putting forward any opinions for why the Cardinals have under-performed, what is the culprit in your mind? Just injuries and Milwaukee being lucky? That’s it?

am August 16, 2011

I think they’ve played better, gotten better luck, and stayed relatively healthy. It’s not like their a bad club that should receive bitterness for winning the division. Just, they’ve had things go their way, and they’re pretty good, and they play in a weak division. Usually that’ll add up.

PH8 August 16, 2011

I can agree on all points there.

Freddie August 16, 2011

Fantastic article!!! Kudos to you….I’m one of the optimists but, temper it with reality. I don’t believe in unneccesary bashing online and you article was spot on. Like you, I’m hopeful we’ll pull this thing out but, realize with each loss, it gets tougher. Way to go!!! Will mention on my podcast Friday and put a link on my website.
Freddie

PH8 August 16, 2011

Thanks for the kind words, Freddie.

I think the best way I can describe the purgatory between optimism and realism is frustration.

I know the team CAN play better, I know that they HAVE played better – but even if they were winning 3 of every 5, they’d still be losing ground to the Brewers right now. So you’ve got an under-performing club losing ground to an over-performing one. That’s a tough spot to be in. Just have to hope that the luck changes for both sides enough to make a difference.

Christine August 16, 2011

Terrific job, and it must be that I agree with you — I kept nodding my head as I was reading.

I agree too that there’s still much baseball to be played, and you never know what’s going to happen. Maybe the Cards will surprise us. I wouldn’t bet money on it — and, damn, I just realized I DID bet money on them when I was in Vegas in February — but nothing is over yet. It’s been a frustrating season in many ways, especially recently, but I don’t thing blame can be assigned (if it has to) to any one thing in particular. It’s not only Mo, it’s not only La Russa, it’s not only Wainwright being hurt, the starters, the bullpen, the offense, the defense … Losing, winning, inconsistency — everyone’s involved, everyone contributes (or doesn’t).

Same thing when it’s amazing winning consistency like the Brewers have now. There’s no way to bottle/duplicate/replicate what they have either. Much as I just don’t like the Brewers (because I never like any rival), I’ve now reached the point of having to step back and just marvel at what they’re doing. Hearing about last night’s triple play was what finally did it.

The Cardinals took a gamble this season. And, just like Vegas, every once in a while it pays off.

PH8 August 16, 2011

I’m not even certain I’d classify this year’s construction of the Cardinals as a gamble so much as some bad bounces. The Cards believed, I believed, and after April and May pretty much everyone else believed – they had plenty.

It’s since crumbled. You’re right, no one thing to point at – and as noted at VEB this morning, it’d be much easier to take if there were a clear-cut scapegoat, but really… they’ve just not gotten it done.

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