May 26, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
A Shuffled Deck
On Monday night, after hitting a pair of fly balls into the massive expanse that is Petco Park's center field, Albert Pujols finally cleared the wall. The shot off Dustin Moseley, which broke a scoreless tie in a game the Cardinals would ultimately win, was Pujols' first home run in exactly a month, ending a barren stretch of 120 plate appearances without a homer, the longest of his career. Somewhat amazingly, the Cardinals went 17-10 in that span, even climbing atop the NL Hit List for the first time this season. They entered Wednesday having won seven of eight and owning the majors' top run differential and its largest division lead—this while getting subpar contributions not only from their best hitter but also from their best pitcher, Chris Carpenter, while enduring a slew of injuries and a shakeup in the bullpen. It's worth a closer look to see how they're getting it done.
The Cardinals came into Wednesday ranked second in the league in scoring at 4.98 runs per game; accounting for the fact that they play in a pitchers' park, their .284 True Average is the majors' highest. They led the league in all three slash stats, hitting .282/.360/.423, showings owed primarily to league leads in BABIP (.319), doubles (98), and walks (196). Yet they've done it with relatively little help from Pujols, who's hitting just .267/.336/.415; if you're scoring at home, that's 65, 90, and 209 points off his cumulative marks for the first 10 seasons of his career, as amazing a headstart on a plaque in Cooperstown as the game has ever seen.
Exactly what's wrong with Pujols is unclear; he has played in all 50 of the Cardinals' games, though he was limited to pinch-hitting duty once in late April due to a mild left hamstring strain, which is apparently affecting his swing by preventing him from firming his front leg, slowing his rotation and generating less power. The effect is glaringly apparent in his stat line. At the time of the injury, he was hitting .250/.306/.500, with an uncharacteristically awful .205 BABIP, but still a homer for every 14 plate appearances, actually ahead of his career average. Since then, he's hit like the second coming of Ryan Theriot, .280/.361/.346 with a .299 BABIP, but without a homer until Monday. It's possible that Pujols' struggles have been exacerbated by the pressure to perform as his free agency looms. While he's swinging at just 41.0 percent of the pitches he sees—his lowest clip since 2007, but not appreciably off his career mark of 42.2 percent—a greater share of those swings have come at pitches outside the zone, 23.6 percent, compared to 20.4 percent for his career. Still, that's hardly conclusive evidence that he's pressing, and if you're looking for a silver lining, it's quite possible that his slow start may either lower his asking price to the point that St. Louis can afford to keep him, or induce him to stay another year while hoping to hit the market off a more Pujols-like season.
Picking up the slack for Pujols has been the league's most productive outfield, which has hit a combined .323/.413/.511. Though he's been sidelined for the past three games due to a quad strain, Matt Holliday has played like a $120 million man thus far, hitting a sizzling .349/.439/.557 with a league-best batting average despite missing time early in the season due to an appendectomy. Lance Berkman, who last year looked headed for a future of part-time duty, is hitting .346/.462/.654, leading the league in both on-base and slugging percentages, and ranking third in homers (11) and second in walks (31). Though manager Tony LaRussa has used Berkman's past flailings against southpaws as a convenient excuse to give him an off day, he's hitting a promising .286/.405/.629 in 42 plate appearances against them thus far, a sign that he's no longer the pushover he had become in 2009-2010. Berkman's done this while playing right field, his first foray into regular pasture patrolling since 2004, and while he's been slightly below average out there, he ranks second in the league in WARP behind Joey Votto. While Colby Rasmus hasn't hit for power (.422 slugging percentage, three homers), he's showing better plate discipline than ever before, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio that's fallen from 2.34 to 1.43 as both rates move from acceptable to impressive. Add to that trio impressive spot work from lefty Jon Jay (326/.402/.465) and righty Allen Craig (.311/.395/.486), and you can afford Pujols spending a couple of months imitating Lyle Overbay.
Craig's versatility has also come in handy in an infield that's been battered by injuries, forcing LaRussa to juggle even more than he usually does. Second baseman Skip Schumaker missed more than a month due to a triceps strain before returning to action earlier this week, and backup Nick Punto went down as well, leading the Cards to try Craig at the keystone for the first time in his professional career save for one low minors appearance in 2006. Third baseman David Freese, who hit a torrid .356/.394/.471 through May 3, will be out until early July after breaking a bone in his hand and undergoing surgery; this marks the third straight year he'll have missed at least two months. Daniel Descaslo has done the bulk of the fill-in duty at the hot corner, but he has yet to get untracked, hitting .239/.311/.359; Pujols even made one start and one late-inning appearance at third, his first playing time there since 2001. Shortstop Ryan Theriot has hit a wafer-thin .294/.344/.329, but he's at least shown up for work regularly. None of the infielders, not even Pujols, has been as productive as catcher Yadier Molina, hitting .333/.375/.493 thanks to an unsustainable-for-that-family .341 BABIP.
Despite the patchwork infield, the Cardinals have managed a better-than-average .700 Defensive Efficiency rate, vital behind a pitching staff that's last in the league with 6.3 strikeouts per nine. As is customary for a Dave Duncan staff, Cardinals pitchers are generating a healthy number of groundballs; their 49.7 GB% is fourth in the league, as is their 0.7 HR/9. Overall, they're fifth in run prevention at 3.92 per game, this despite the loss of Adam Wainwright for the entire season due to Tommy John surgery and the inconsistency of Chris Carpenter, who came into Wednesday afternoon's start with a 4.88 ERA and just one quality start out of his previous four. Carpenter's problems don't appear insurmountable; his strikeout and walk rates are virtually unchanged from last year, but he's been singed for a .343 BABIP, the fifth-highest rate in the league, 61 points higher than last year. His groundball and flyball rates are both depressed, but proportionately so given an increased line drive rate, and a greater share of balls are finding their way over the wall: his 1.0 HR/9 is his highest rate as a Cardinal since 2004.
As with the lineup with respect to Pujols, other starters are picking up the slack. In addition to leading the league in LaRussa disguises, Kyle Lohse has rebounded from two injury-plagued seasons to deliver a 2.06 ERA and a .575 Support Neutral Winning Percentage, fourth in the league behind Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, and Tim Lincecum. Jaime Garcia (.572) and Kyle McClellan (.550) are also in the league's top 10 in SNWP. Garcia has picked up where he left off during his outstanding rookie season, posting the league's third-best ERA (1.93) and fourth-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.38). Pressed into rotation duty by Wainwright's injury, McClellan has overcome a subpar 4.5 K/9 to post a 3.11 ERA, and while his .250 BABIP is obviously ripe for some regression, his .269 career mark tempers that somewhat. The only starter who's truly scuffling is Jake Westbrook, who's suffering from a case of baserunneris galorus via a bloated 4.3 per nine walk rate and a .316 BABIP. The starting five collective's potential for regression is certainly there given the low strikeout rates, but for the moment, it's worth noting that the extra defensive support has helped the unit go deeper into games than any rotation this side of Philadelphia (6.28 innings per start).
Which has helped take some of the pressure off a bullpen that saw Ryan Franklin blow four out of five save opportunities through April 17 before being ousted as closer, with all of those booboos turning into losses. LaRussa has since called on four other pitchers to close out games, more or less gravitating from Mitchell Boggs to Eduardo Sanchez to Fernando Salas, with situational lefty Trever Miller picking up a save as well. Sanchez is a rookie who arrived in mid-April, a 22-year-old Venezuelan who has used his mid-90s heat to whiff 26 in 19 innings of work. Salas is a 26-year-old Mexican League refugee with a three-pitch arsenal but less than a full year in the majors. He has racked up a 21/5 K/BB ratio in 21.1 innings while collecting five of the team's last six saves. Sanchez, Jason Motte, and the ageless Miguel Batista have emerged as the team's primary righty setup men, while Boggs was recently farmed out to work as a starter and hone his secondary repertoire. Absent the familiarity and reliability provided by McClellan and Franklin (who's mopping, as befits his 9.20 ERA) in recent years, this mix is a work in progress, and sorting it out remains one of LaRussa's biggest challenges—but then the same could be said for nearly any manager and his bullpen. It's worth noting that aside from Franklin, the unit has a 2.83 ERA, which would rank fourth in the league, though their peripherals are merely middle of the pack across the board.
After starting the year 9-9, the Cardinals won at a major league best .656 clip to put distance between themselves and the similarly slow-starting Reds and Brewers, both of whom have had significant injuries of their own to contend with. With Pujols, Carpenter, and the bullpen slumping, the Cardinals could just as easily have found themselves buried, but instead they've reaped the benefit of a lineup that's less stars-n-scrubby than years past. Given that they've reached the postseason just once in the past four seasons, and that they may be facing the end of the Pujols era, you can expect that they'll be aggressive at the trading deadline. Jose Reyes would certainly make an interesting addition, and there's always a potential closer or two available if things haven't sorted themselves out. By that point, one would expect the team's two biggest stars to be playing at a level closer to their past performance, in which case the NL Central—which looked as up in the air as any division at the outset of the season—could be theirs for the taking.