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May 4, 2009

Prospectus Today

Taking Wing

by Joe Sheehan

The Cardinals have exceeded expectations with a 17-8 start that includes a +36 run differential, tied for the second-best mark in MLB with the Blue Jays. The underlying performance in those numbers is good as well: the Cards are second in the NL in OBP, third in SLG, and second in runs scored. They're tied for fifth in runs allowed, with a 2:1 K/BB ratio and the second-fewest home runs allowed in the league.

If that last part sounds familiar, it should. The Cards' strong start a year ago was driven by an extremely soft schedule and a flukishly low home-run rate. Once pitchers such as Kyle Lohse, Braden Looper, and Ryan Franklin began giving up home runs as expected, the Cards' pitching didn't look quite so good. They did finish 86-76 thanks in part to the strong start, but they weren't a factor in the races for either the NL's Central title or Wild Card.

Well, we're back there again. Lohse has allowed just one homer in 32 innings. Joel Pineiro, playing the part of the departed Looper, has given up two in 33 1/3 innings. Franklin has yet to allow a home run, or a run, in 10 1/3 innings. Todd Wellemeyer, not pitching well, would have an ERA even higher than 5.28 if he'd allowed more than a single bomb in his 29 innings.

Some of this is a marked tendency toward getting ground balls. Pineiro has a 69/26 GB/FB ratio this season, and both Lohse and Wellemeyer are close to two ground balls for every fly ball. Even Franklin, a notorious fly-ball pitcher, is at 12/6. This is Dave Duncan's influence, as all of these pitchers were more prone to putting the ball in the air before they got to St. Louis. Turning these pitchers into a ground-ball staff has been a remarkable achievement, and a big part of the Cards' success the last two years.

With that said, the home-run rates by the starters are not sustainable.


                2009           2008
            HR   FB   %    HR   FB    %
Lohse        1   26   4    18  152   12
Piniero      2   26   8    22  137   16
Wainwright   1   27   4    12  103   12
Wellemeyer   1   23   4    25  174   14

The Cardinals may give up a below-average number of homers because their starters won't put the ball in the air as much as their peers do, but they will give up more-twice as more on a per-fly ball basis-as they have so far this season. This isn't a particularly good defensive team-12th in the league in Defensive Efficiency, 11th in PADE-so the rotation's tendency to put the ball in play, coupled with an uptick in homers allowed, will bring the run prevention more in line with what was expected at the start of the season, and chip away at that .680 winning percentage.

The bullpen doesn't have the same issue with HR/FB collectively, but it is anchored by a Ryan Franklin with a zero ERA, so skepticism is warranted. However, the live arms of Kyle McClellan, Jason Motte, and Chris Perez make this the most skilled pen that Tony La Russa has had in some time. The role assignments have been a little quirky, and will likely be fluid throughout the year, but it's not hard to see this pen being an asset in 2009.

Can the Cardinals hit their way into the postseason? With a .283 EqA so far, their offense has been second only to the Dodgers in MLB, but that's been put up by a mix of guys playing way over their heads and guys having awful seasons. Albert Pujols is at .356/.468/.724, which is stunning even by his lofty standards. I can't wait to see who gets the MVP instead of him this year.

(Side note: Am I the only one who feels as if triple-slash stats can never again be truly jaw-dropping after the Barry Bonds Era? Say what you will about the man and the issues surrounding him, but he had a .609 OBP one year, and an .863 SLG in another. He was intentionally walked 120 times in 2004, when he drew 232 walks in total. Over the last seven years of his career, Bonds has more intentional walks than strikeouts. Albert Pujols is great, really great, but when it comes to his effect on the opposition, he's not in Bonds' league.)

In addition to Pujols, Yadier Molina is continuing his development into a two-way threat, paralleling the career path of Ivan Rodriguez (albeit on a less-elevated track). He's at .329/.393/.481, with nine walks and nine strikeouts. Chris Duncan is apparently healthy again, batting .312/.413/.558, with only the batting average being particularly inflated. Duncan's play has eaten into Colby Rasmus' playing time, but the rookie has batted .270/.365/.365 so far, which is a positive.

Despite David Freese spitting the bit, even third base has been an asset thanks to the best month of Joe Thurston's life, and Brian Barden's with it. Overall, Cardinals third basemen are batting .281/.356/.416, which is very probably the dream scenario for a team still hoping to get Troy Glaus back this summer.

At the other end of the spectrum you have the middle infield of Skip Schumaker (.266/.337/.329) and Khalil Greene (.215/.329/.338), both failing to produce at the plate while also being part of the Cards' overall defensive issues. Brendan Ryan (.250/.317/.389) has been the best of the group, platooning with Schumaker and making a bid for a larger role. Rick Ankiel hasn't built on last year, hitting .256/.326/.405, though if you combine what he and Duncan have done, you're about par for the course for the two players.

Overall, this offense is unlikely to continue being among the best in the league. Molina, Thurston, Barden, and Duncan... even Pujols... are all candidates to slip a bit, and there's not enough projection in the rest of the lineup to make up for that. Schumaker's 2007-08 peak was nice, but he has to hit .300 to help a team whether he's a good left fielder or a bad second baseman. Greene has improved his command of the strike zone at the cost of his power, which is a tradeoff that might work if he can hit .270. He may also be someone whose short peak is gone. Ankiel and Duncan, combined, are likely to match the current level of production; same for Ryan Ludwick, who's picked up basically where he left off last year.

Are there other ways to get better? Playing Rasmus over Duncan more often would help the defense, but Duncan has a 971 OPS, which makes him hard to sit. If you play Ryan over Schumaker, you upgrade the defense a little, but Ryan is a worse hitter than he appears to be, and you'd have the collateral effect of having no place to play Schumaker, who can't crack this outfield. The ideal scenario is the same as it was over the winter, when trade rumors involving Ludwick for a second baseman never became a reality. Give the team all of the credit in the world for the Schumaker play, which was an outside-the-box gambit, but the Cardinals' issue is exactly what it was six months ago: four outfielders, one DH, and no second baseman.

The solution is to trade the pitching coach's son for a second baseman, which is probably as politically dead an idea as it was when I suggested it a year ago. Still, would a Duncan-for-Luis Valbuena deal be a fit for Cleveland? To the Angels for Brandon Wood? It's a little hard to find an AL team that has second-base depth to move.

One thing that can't be held against the Cards this year is their schedule. They've played six games against the Cubs and three against the Mets, Diamondbacks, and Braves. Last year's hot start was against the weakest slate in the game deep into May; this year's is against a more representative slate of opponents. No demerits there. They'll have a chance to set the season's narrative this month, as after hosting the Phillies for two games this week, they play 14 straight games against NL Central foes, including six with the Brewers and three at home against the Cubs. By Memorial Day weekend, we'll have a much better read on this team.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Dave Duncan,  The Who,  Ryan Franklin

35 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

clobberthesaurus
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"Am I the only one who feels as if triple-slash stats can never again be truly jaw-dropping after the Barry Bonds Era?"

Probably.

May 04, 2009 14:29 PM
rating: -4
 
ZacharyRD

For me, whenever I see an "outstanding triple-slash number it merely reminds me about how, artificially enhanced or not, Barry Bonds was simply ridiculously better than everyone else playing at the time - and we know for sure he was not the only person on steroids, the others were just not as good at baseball, by a long shot.

May 04, 2009 15:04 PM
rating: 4
 
eighteen

Weren't Bonds' numbers also in part due to the Giants being "Barry Bonds and 7 guys who wouldn't scare yer Gramma"? I know Kent was there for some of Bonds' run, but wasn't Kent just about the only other decent Giant bat when Bonds was there?

May 04, 2009 16:23 PM
rating: 4
 
Ira

That may be true. but the degree with which managers were afraid of Bonds after he hit 73 homers that normal rules about intentional walks stopped applying. For example:
From 2002 thru 2004 he was intentionally walked 63% of the time first base was open. he was walked 23% of his PA's with men on first and third (which is iffy in the "by the book").

in over 6% of his PA's with men on either first, or first and second he was intentionally walked. In other words, 18 times a manager elected to put a man in scoring position rather than let Bonds hit. 13 times a manager elected to move a man to third base and load the bases rather than let Bonds hit.

32 times managers in those 3 years an opposing manager elected to intentionally walk Bonds with the bases empty. That's fear.

He was also intentionally walked in 14% of his plate appearances in the first inning. and 19% of his plate appearances in the third inning. That's not situation dependent.

Fear.

May 05, 2009 08:35 AM
rating: 3
 
sbnirish77
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Lets just hope we don't find Pujols ridiculous numbers were achieved with performance-enhancing drugs (HGH).

The ultimate deterrent would be taking and holding blood samples.

May 04, 2009 21:02 PM
rating: -10
 
MikeJordan23
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Pujols is never gonna get the respect he deserves, even from the supposedly "intellectual" baseball types. lol @ "He's really great", like he's Ian Kinsler or something.

May 04, 2009 14:38 PM
rating: -13
 
thebeev

Nice read. Glad to hear you will be appearing on the Bernie Show in St Louis on Thursdays!!!

May 04, 2009 15:02 PM
rating: 0
 
formersd

I think Joe knows Pujols is an inner circle HOFer and could be the best 1B in the history of the game by the time he's done. It's more of a comment of the insane heights Bonds reached in the first half of the decade. Pujols will likely end up as one of the greatest player we'll ever see and even in that context, Bonds' numbers look ridiculous.

May 04, 2009 15:05 PM
rating: 3
 
MikeJordan23

True, though for all of Bonds ridiculous stats, Pujols still has a higher career OPS.

May 04, 2009 15:11 PM
rating: 0
 
Josh Sklar

Yeah, but you also have to remember that Bond's career is over where as Pujols is still under 30.

May 04, 2009 16:40 PM
rating: 0
 
vivaelpujols

OPS underrates Bonds, because he gets on base a lot more than Pujols, despite a lower slugging. OBP is more important that SLG, so Bonds is a better hitter.

May 04, 2009 17:03 PM
rating: -1
 
tdrury

Albert's also played his entire career in a very good offensive environment while Barry began in the weaker hitting 80s, league OPS is rather different.

May 04, 2009 23:04 PM
rating: 0
 
gregorybfoley

As best I can tell they have identical career OPS of 1.051. Amazing coincidence. Bonds career average was brought down by four merely good years in his age 21-24 seasons in the mid to late '80s whereas Albert got going right away at the beginning of the new millennium.

http://www.thebaseballcube.com/players/B/Barry-Bonds.shtml
http://www.thebaseballcube.com/players/P/Albert-Pujols.shtml


May 05, 2009 09:54 AM
rating: 1
 
beaversnkings

Mike Scioscia is a much better comp for Molina than Ivan Rodriguez, IMHO. Less flattering, but closer to reality.

May 04, 2009 15:13 PM
rating: -1
 
Richie

Much of the IBB differential between Bonds and Pujols is simple platoon difference. It's in the Manager's Big Book O' Rules to intentionally walk a huge hitter with a base open if that hitter has the platoon advantage. Shouldn't be in there, but is. And the Book itself belongs in the trash, but is still with us. More influential than ever, really, given the content needs of sports squawk radio.

May 04, 2009 15:13 PM
rating: 1
 
tdrury

Albert averages 20 IBBs a year. Barry was IBBed 120 times one season. It seems like a triple digit difference might be more than just a platoon advantage issue

May 04, 2009 23:07 PM
rating: 3
 
Clemente
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As to Pujols's OPS advantage over Bonds: 1) Let's see how Albert's post-35 years go. 2) All those walks diminish Bonds' SLG. Normalize his walk rate to Albert's, give him the same non-walk percentages as for his other at bats (probably optimistic), and I wonder (because I don't have the stats skills to do it) what his OPS+B (special Bonds OPS) would be? Not to criticize Pujols at all; just not Barry, I think, though the above would reduce Bonds' OBP.

May 04, 2009 16:57 PM
rating: -11
 
Nathan

How do walks diminish Bonds' slugging? SLG is TB/AB, isn't it? Walks should have no effect.

May 04, 2009 17:39 PM
rating: 2
 
jrwatts

How do the walks diminish Bonds' SLG? You do know that walks don't count as at-bats, right? Thus they don't factor into slugging (or batting average) one way or the other.

May 04, 2009 17:46 PM
rating: 0
 
vivaelpujols

what?

May 04, 2009 19:46 PM
rating: 0
 
Clemente

You all missed my (I guess poorly written) point. I know walks are not used to calculate SLG. My point was that by having so many IBBs and so many regular walks, many of which were really IBBs, it hurt Bonds' SLG---all the lost opportunities to hit doubles and HRs.

May 05, 2009 11:54 AM
rating: -1
 
vivaelpujols

Pujols, Yadi and Duncan might regress, but with that Schumaker, Greene and Ankiel should regress also. In the end, it will probably even. Ditto with the third base situation. Barden and Thurston will most likely not continue to hit like an above average player, but when Glause comes back, he should easily be able to replicate their production to date.

May 04, 2009 17:01 PM
rating: -1
 
Nathan

Khalil Green is a defensive liability? Is this a statistical glitch, or have his defensive skills really started to deteriorate at 29? The metrics have a dubious history in appreciating his fielding ability.

May 04, 2009 17:16 PM
rating: -1
 
MikeJordan23

Khalil Greene has been awful this year defensively.

May 04, 2009 17:31 PM
rating: -1
 
jrwatts

As a fan, I wish I could find something to nitpick in this article. More objectively, though, I think this analysis is pretty much spot on. Damnit.

Although I will say that at this point, I just can't put any level of performance past Pujols. April was an outstanding month for him, but get this: it wasn't even in the top *fifteen* months of his career. How crazy is that? See

http://www.vivaelbirdos.com/2009/4/30/859342/king-alberts-best

May 04, 2009 17:51 PM
rating: 0
 
jimnabby

True. Crazier still: the OPS he put up in his *best* month (according to that article) is the same as the OPS Bonds put up for the entire 2004 season

May 04, 2009 23:25 PM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Maybe the Cardinals are not going to be better than last year, but if the Cubs can't maintain last years pace, there's a better chance the Cardinals will be in the running...

May 05, 2009 07:30 AM
rating: 0
 
SirVLCIV
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Regardless of comparing Albert Pujols to Bonds' chemically enhanced seasons, Pujols has to be a much better well-rounded player - elite defense, solid, smart baserunning (despite not having basestealer speed), and overall good baseball smarts (see: jogging between Utley and the ball, causing an error).

I'd take a Pujols on my team any day over a Bonds.

May 05, 2009 07:48 AM
rating: -5
 
gregorybfoley

Bonds played a tougher defensive position and also posted some excellent FRAAs until he turned 34 and even after that he remained about average until he turned 42.

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/dt/bondsba01.php


He posted excellent UZR/150 ratings until he turned 41. Let's not knock his defense just because he was so old when he finally stopped playing.

http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=1109&position=OF#fielding

May 05, 2009 10:07 AM
rating: 2
 
SirVLCIV

And Pujols has been one of the elite defenders in baseball over the past couple of seasons.

May 05, 2009 12:46 PM
rating: 0
 
LouisArighi

At first base. Again, not to say the Pujols is bad, the man is an incredible baseball player, but let us not get so worked up that we make inaccurate points.

May 05, 2009 12:54 PM
rating: 0
 
LouisArighi

Greg makes some great points, and just to add to that, as much as I can appreciate Pujols' smart baserunning, I think it's safe to say that he is not, on his career, a better baserunner than Barry Bonds, he of the 514(!) career steals, including 5 in his age 42 season.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bondsba01.shtml

If we are going to compare, let's not compare Pujols at age 30 to Bonds at 42. That seems a tad unfair.

May 05, 2009 12:53 PM
rating: 1
 
MikeJordan23

My problem was never about comparing him to Bonds steroid enhanced years, because we don't even know if Pujols is on 'roids or not. I was just saying, saying Pujols isn't in his league when Pujols has a higher career OPS is a bit ridiculous. Of course right now he doesn't compare to Bonds outlandish end of his career, however, Pujols worst season in his first 8 years, is better than Bonds best season his first 6, and overall, has been a far better player the first 8 years.

Who know what his stats will look like in 5-6 years, I just think it's kind of an insult to assume Pujols can't maintain a 350/450/720 line, when guys like Jeff Bagwell have done similar things. I just don't feel he'll ever get his just due, because the media is too worried about A-Rod and the new flavor of the month, and the supposed "Intellectual" analysis, are more concerned with anything new and shiny (Hanley Ramirez, David Wright, Longoria, Sizemore). I think they feel Pujols is boring, because he does the same thing every year, so his consistency is considered mundane, instead of legendary.

May 05, 2009 12:40 PM
rating: 2
 
LouisArighi

I'm not sure exactly who you mean when you say "intellectual analysis", but the more sabremetrically inclined websites that I frequent (BP and the Hardball Times among others) are generally yelling the loudest about how amazing Pujols is. Joe himself has been a Pujols cheerleader, such as his line about wondering "who the MVP will be given to instead of him". I don't think it is necessary to say that Pujols is better than Bonds to say that Pujols is a top-tier talent, or that through his age-29 season he is one of, if not the, best first basemen in the history of the game. There are lots of effusive things that can be said without claiming that Pujols is better.

May 05, 2009 13:00 PM
rating: 1
 
harderj

Brandon Wood with a chance to play? Sounds good to me. Nice article and Bonds follow-up chat.

May 05, 2009 13:16 PM
rating: 0
 
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