Filed under: Baseball | Tags: marc rzepczynski, Mike Napoli, St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa
Mike Napoli versus righthanders in his career: .253/.343/.498
Mike Napoli versus lefthanders in his career: .294/.400/.555
Mike Napoli also has the 10th best OPS in the majors this year against lefties.
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Albert Pujols, MLB Playoffs, St. Louis Cardinals, Wild Card
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Before the season even began, Adam Wainwright heard the three words that every pitcher fears: Tommy John Surgery. The Cardinals best pitcher was out for the season. He would be replaced in the rotation with middle reliever Kyle McClellan. An aging Chris Carpenter and a still-green Jaime Garcia would become the anchors in an increasingly unstable rotation.
Brendan Ryan, perhaps the best defensive shortstop the Cardinals have seen since Ozzie Smith, was shipped out due to issues with management. He was replaced by Ryan Theriot, who could only theoretically still play the position. For the first month of the season, the team clung to washed-up closer Ryan Franklin, who did his best to hasten his own retirement.
Everything seemed lost.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
One month ago, the Cardinals were 10.5 games out of first place. Fans and columnists wondered if the team should start thinking about the wildcard. Even that seemed silly. Atlanta and San Francisco were in the way. The bullpen was unstable as ever. Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman were out so often they barely played in the same game. Jaime Garcia was faltering and barely looked like the same pitcher who carried the team early in the season.
Four days ago, we were supposed to watch Albert Pujols’s last home game as a Cardinal. Maybe he would re-sign but with the numbers being floated around, there was no reason to hope. Maybe they’d pull it out and catch up to the Braves, but it wasn’t likely. The fans at Busch gave him a proper send off, letting him know how much they appreciated the decade he spent wearing the birds on the bat. It was over. We all knew it, one way or another. Even if we were hopeful, we feared the worst. We suspected the worst. The Cardinals were done. Pujols was done. This was the end of an era. Right?
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
But it did.
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: National League, St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa, Wild Card
After 161 games, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves are tied in the NL Wild Card race at 89-72.
I haven’t posted in over two months. There are reasons for that.
Some of my reasons are good: I was in the process of studying for, then taking, and finally agonizing over the bar exam. I was also writing a novel. Posting my thoughts about baseball on the internet took a back seat to other things. It’s really too bad, as there have been so much drama and intrigue over the last few months. The Colby Rasmus trade alone, along with the performance of the involved players after the move, would have given me plenty to write about.
Some of my reasons are bad: I haven’t been following the team as much as I did earlier in the season. It’s been forever since I’ve paid this little attention to a Cardinals team. I’ve been distracted, but it’s been more than that. Up until this month, the Cardinals have been a frustrating mess that I simply couldn’t deal with. Because of this, I felt rather unqualified to make any intelligent observations about them.
I’ve been watching over the last few weeks, however, and I’ve seen a Cardinals team with a new lease on life. Over the season, they have turned victory into defeat. Tonight, they turned defeat into victory. That’s been this year in a nutshell.
No matter what happens, the comeback to tie for the wild card was amazing. But, at the same time, it is something of a disappointment.
The fact that the Cardinals managed to get this far only underscores everything that went wrong. Where would this team be with a healthy Adam Wainwright? Where would they be if not for the persistent, random injuries to Matt Holliday?
And where would they be if not for some atrocious management early in the season? One game is one game, and the Cardinals gave away several games this season. If not for Tony La Russa’s fanatical devotion to Ryan Franklin, game 162 might just be a tune-up for the playoffs. If not for a mind-boggling infield of Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker behind a groundball pitching staff for half the season, many of us Cardinals fans would already have our NLDS tickets in hand.
I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. The Cardinals deserve to be in the playoffs. The Cardinals front office and management staff…maybe not so much. But it doesn’t matter. It’s almost like a whole new season. One day, two games, and everything will be decided.
Or not. If the Cardinals and Braves both win or lose, we’ll see game 163. Wouldn’t that be something?
The history of all hitherto existing ballgames is the history of base struggles.
Hurler and slugger, ace and masher, closer and bunter, mop-up man and clean-up hitter, in a word, pitcher and batter, stand in opposition to one another. They carry on a fight, hidden and in the open, a fight that each time ends with quick resolution in only three outs or common ruin writ large across the bases and scoreboard.
In the previous epoch of baseball, we found almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of ephemeral factors which were believed to have led to a significant increase in offensive production across the league. Off the field, we had focused weight training, performance enhancing drugs, and advanced medical procedures. On the field, we had shrinking strike zones, body armor, maple bats, and pitch counts.
The modern era of deflated WHIP and OPS that has sprouted from the ruins of the offensive explosion has not done away with baseball antagonism. It has established new villains and heroes, new conditions of domination, new forms of at-bats in place of the old ones.
The aggregate ERA of the league has dropped to a meager 3.86, down from the halcyon days of 4.32 in 2009 and 2008. Slugging percentage, the lifeblood of the hard-working designated hitter, has fallen in two years from .418 to .390.
This new revolution was brought about with a tool of insidious quietude, the creeping rise of K/BB rate. In the long-past days of the offensive explosion, the league K/BB rate hovered comfortably around 2.00. In 1999/2000, perhaps the zenith of the hitters’ epoch, K/BB dipped into the 1.7s. Unsurprisingly, ERA rose into the 4.7s. Today, in these dark times, the league K/BB is an uncharacteristically high 2.16. But where did this come from?
The circulation of baseballs over home plate is the starting point of strikeouts. The throwing of baseballs, and the more developed form called “pitching” create the historical groundwork from which this era of strikeouts arises. The modern history of strikeouts dates from their creation in the 19th century, in a world which slowly came to embrace pitching. Firstly, a third strike could be thrown over the plate and not swung at, resulting in an out. Hurlers were allowed to throw overhand. Batters could no longer specify whether they wanted the ball low or high. The development of the strikeout led to a dramatic change in baseball related transactions between pitcher and batter
To generalize, there are two sorts of transaction between the pitcher and the batter. The simplest form of circulating baseballs is known as “pitching to contact”, in which the objective is to induce the batter to strike the ball with the bat in the hope that such striking will be ineffective and render the ball directly to the pitcher’s teammates. This transaction can be simplified into the following pitch sequence, in which B represents pitches outside of the strike zone, K pitches within, and H the intended contact: B-K-B-K-H. The pitcher uses balls and strikes to set up the batter in order to force him to swing and make contact. When the batter strikes the baseball, both the batter and pitcher are placed in equal positions as described by the terms of BAbip. Therefore, pitching to contact places both participants on even footing. This is not only the most egalitarian form of circulating baseballs, but also the original, as intended before even the called-strike rule was implemented in the 1850s.
Alongside this form of pitching, we find another specifically different form: K-B-K-B-K. This is simplified from the actual form that real-world pitching takes, but it exemplifies the desired effect. The pitcher begins with a strike, then pitches a ball, and eventually converts his pitches into a strikeout.
Both forms are resolvable into the same antithetical phases: K-B, an attempt to force the batter into swinging at a bad pitch, and B-K, an attempt to placate the batter into taking a good pitch. In both of these phases the same elements–a ball and a strike–and the same baseball dramatis personae–pitcher and batter–confront each other. Each form unifies these phases, but one reconciles them in a balanced outcome: “H”, or contact with the baseball.
What distinguishes the two forms is the manner in which they are resolved. The simple act of pitching to contact begins with a pitch and ends with a ball in play. The majority of balls in play, as evidenced by a league-wide BAbip of .300, turn into outs. Meanwhile, short of a walk, the only method for a batter to reach base is to put the ball in play. Therefore contact is a mutually desired outcome.
The ciruit K-B-K-B-K, on the contrary, begins with a strike and ends with a strike. The strikeout is the leading motive of the pitcher, and the goal that attracts the repetition of strikes. The strikeout brings another batter to the plate, without involving the prior hitter or any fielder, and allows another strikeout to take place immediately subsequent. The circulation of strikeouts has no limits, other than the 27 standard outs which constrain the game of baseball.
The pitcher who throws strikeouts therefor becomes the strikeout pitcher. His person, or rather his arm, becomes the point from which strikes begin and strikeouts return. With every strike he throws, whether fooling the batter over the plate or inducing him to swing against the wind, his sole objective becomes the expansion of his K/BB rate. The restless, never-ending process of striking out batter after batter is his aim. The circulation of the baseball becomes an independant process, devoid of input from the batter.
But if strikeouts beget strikeouts, where does the value in pitching come from? A cursory glance at baseball-reference or fangraphs tells us that pitching has value, whether it is represented in WAR or VORP or WPA. Quite simply, this value is extracted from the batters themselves: from their effort to reach the ball or incorrectly discern its outward dive. Even in these flashes of futility, the batter provides a modicum of labor. This labor is converted into value for the pitcher and the batter is left with nothing, neither the fruit of his effort or even the lop-sided roll of the BAbip dice.
But what is to be done? If the reign of the hitter has been replaced by the tyranny of the pitcher via the conversion of bat-labor into strikeout value, is there any hope for the beleaguered batsman?
The hitters must use their strength and supremacy to wrest all strikeouts from the pitchers. They must follow in the path of Jose Bautista, the leader of the vanguard which intends to seize the means of (run) production from the oppressive regime of the pitching elite. He does not fear the power of the strikeout and the imbalance inherent within the circulation of baseballs. With 20 HR and a .500 OBP in these trying times, Bautista is a model for future revolutionaries.
In the footsteps of Bautista the hitters will, by means of revolution, make themselves the ruling class once more, sweep away the conditions of strikeouts, and eliminate the current state of batter/pitcher antagonism. The K/BB rate will drop to 2.00 (or perhaps lower) and the era of the unfettered home run and base hit will begin anew.
Working Hitters of All Teams, Unite!
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Albert Pujols, Contracts, Ryan Braun, St. Louis Cardinals
Just about two months into the season, Albert Pujols is putting up a thoroughly disappointing .257/.326/.395 batting line. Fangraphs has him at only .8 WAR on the season to go along with a negative WPA (-.41). Some of this is BAbip related, but he’s also hitting almost 50% groundballs, which doesn’t do any favors for a guy not known for his speed. It’s ugly.
I expect Pujols will rebound. Or perhaps that he’s injured and refuses to acknowledge it in a contract year. Either way, I highly doubt we’re seeing the real Albert Pujols. But this gives me a good opportunity to write about something that I thought a lot about during the Pujols contract extension talks, as well as after the recent extension given to Ryan Braun. That is the risk-shifting function of long term extensions and how little that seems to affect certain negotiations.
There’s no way to really know what Albert Pujols and his agent asked for at the beginning of their dialog with the Cardinals front office this winter. However, what little we do know indicates that he was looking for a contract in the range of Alex Rodriguez’s 10 year/$275 million deal from 2007. The reasoning was solid. Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball. By pure OPS, he’s been the best right handed hitter of all time. He believed he deserved to be paid like it.
Alex Rodriguez’s deal, however, was not an extension. In the unlikely event that talks broke down between him and the Yankees, he could have chosen to sign with another team. That wasn’t the case with the Cardinals and Pujols last winter. No matter what happened between the parties, Albert Pujols would play in STL in 2011. And no matter what happened, the Cardinals would pay Pujols $16 million for his services.
With that in mind, the Cardinals should have never topped Alex Rodriguez’s record contract. And Pujols’s agent shouldn’t have expected them to, although baseball teams have done stranger things. A pre-2011 extension shifted the risk of the 2011 season from Pujols to the team. And, even with the best player in baseball, that is a significant risk.
I’m not talking about decline. There’s a fair amount of historical precedent that the best players age slowly and Pujols could be expected to produce fantastic numbers for at least 5-6 more years. (On the other hand, there is Jimmie Foxx, whose career was fairly similar to Pujols). Injury is also a factor. A hip injury or disorder could sap Pujols’s power (see Albert Belle). A freak accident and broken leg could put him out for a year and call his career value into question (see Kendry Morales, perhaps Buster Posey). A foul ball could injure his eye, or his elbow could finally explode, or he could cut his hand with a hunting knife. All of this is exceptionally unlikely, and it only happens to a few players a year, but it happens. And so does a bad streak of luck, an unprecedented GB%, and a possible sudden drop in interest from certain money-conscious team. If Pujols ends the season with an OPS under .800, how many GMs will line up to give him a record 10 year contract?
All of this risk moves to the team with an extension. If Pujols’s career takes a downturn for any reason, he still gets the ridiculous amount of money he’s promised on his new contract. And the Cardinals, or perhaps an insurer (in the case of unexpected catastrophic injury) still has to pay him.
I’m not saying the Cardinals did the right thing. I have no idea what happened between them. I still think both sides could have found a reasonable, agreeable contract. And I think both sides would have been smart to consider the risk of the 2011 season. Right now, we’re seeing what that risk means. Right now, the Cardinals are probably breathing a huge sigh of relief that Pujols didn’t accept their offer–whatever it was. If he did, they’d be facing down 7+ uncertain years and hundreds of millions of dollars on a 1b who can’t put up a positive WPA. But by the end of the year that might change. Probably will. Pujols is too good to keep hitting this bad.
Maybe the strangest example of a team failing to take risk into consideration is the Ryan Braun extension, signed earlier this season. The extension covers the 2016-2020 seasons. Braun wasn’t just committed to the Brewers next season. He was committed to them until 2015. Any number of things could happen between now and then, and yet the Brewers still agreed to give Braun more than Holliday makes per year.
To me, that’s completely bizarre. I understand that inflation and proper accounting practices makes the ~19 million he will make per year at the end of the decade considerably smaller than it seems. But baseball can’t be predicted that far in the future, and there was no reason for the Brewers to take this risk. They don’t know where the team will be in 2016. They certainly don’t know where Ryan Braun will be then. Unlike Pujols, he’s having a fantastic season in 2011. But Braun could have an entire 4 year slow decline phase between now and then. The team took on all of the risk for everything that might happen to Braun in those four years. I understand a team being willing to bet against a sharp drop-off or freak injury. But wagering ~100 million dollars against potential decline along with all of those other things? When the team already has Braun under contract well into the future? No way.
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Albert Pujols, Daniel Descalso, Nick Punto, ryan theriot, St. Louis Cardinals, Tyler Greene
As I’m writing this, Albert Pujols is playing at third base. He’s starting there for the first time in almost a decade. Apparently it was his idea, and he approached La Russa about it. The whole thing is ridiculous given the history Pujols has with his throwing elbow. I’m tempted to write about that, but there’s not much more to say than “what the hell?” especially when I heard La Russa’s justification. He wanted to get Allen Craig into the lineup without playing Allen Craig at 2b. Never mind that Craig’s spent significant amount of time at 3b himself…
This brings me to what I really want to talk about. For some reason, the Cardinals have insisted on handcuffing themselves with their defensive alignment. In my last post, I complained about the pool of players that have been “hitting” in the 7-1 slots for the Cardinals. Theriot, Punto, Descalso, and Greene have been Very Bad at Hitting and ideally we wouldn’t see so much of them on a day-to-day basis. But assuming that we have to see them, why is TLR playing them all at the wrong position?
There have been several variations of this problem, but I’ll use the May 14 lineup as the best example. Tyler Greene at 2b, Ryan Theriot at SS, Daniel Descalso at 3b.
I’ve already talked about Ryan Theriot and how he should play 2b instead of SS. He’s lost some range in the last couple seasons, and he proved he can play there last season. He was mediocre, with 7 errors in 119 games, a -1.6 UZR, and fangraph’s Total Zone runs above average pegged him as neither a plus nor minus defender. It’s not great, but if you have to play Theriot for some reason, 2b is the place to play him.
Daniel Descalso is also a 2b. Not because of age or skill reasons–he’s actually shown a good arm for 3b so he has the natural talent for the position–but because of experience. Between his rookie season in 2007 and the beginning of this season, Descalso made 17 plays at third (all last year). He doesn’t have much experience there. Counting this season, where he’s gotten almost all of them, Descalso has 239 innings at 3b.
Tyler Greene, meanwhile, never played 2b in the minors. The first time he was ever asked to play second in pro ball was in the majors. In two seasons, Greene has shown himself to be a bad second baseman. He made 2 errors in 76 innings there last year, and has already made 2 errors in 66 innings this year. His time at 2b is so limited that there simply isn’t enough of a sample size to use advanced fielding stats to determine anything. Counting this season, Tyler Greene has 160 innings total at 2b in his 7 year pro career.
To put everything together, the Cardinals are surrounding a bad SS (Theriot) with two players who have played less than 1/3 of a season at their respective positions combined. There’s no reason for this. Nick Punto, as much as I like to trash him, should probably never be on the bench with the current roster composition. Not only does he have significant experience at 2b, 3b, and SS… But he’s actually a good fielder.
The composition of the Cards’ roster isn’t great right now. But they’re utilizing what little they have terribly. When the Cardinals keep sending out lineups with defensive alignments like the one on May 14 (or ones featuring Pujols at 3b) they are practically playing with a handicap…and against the Reds, they shouldn’t be hurting themselves like that.
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Daniel Descalso, Kyle Lohse, Nick Punto, Progressive Game Blog, ryan theriot, St. Louis Cardinals, Tyler Greene, United Cardinals Bloggers
Today I am participating in the United Cardinals Bloggers progressive game blog, an annual UCB event where a number of Cards Blogs each cover an inning of a single game.
For coverage of the second inning of today’s game, check out the awesomely-named Aerys Sports Cardinal site Aaron Miles’ Fastball . For a full list of bloggers participating in the UCB Progressive Game Blog, head over to the main United Cardinals Bloggers page.
After the third inning, the Milwaukee Brewers have a 1-0 lead. It could be a lot worse. Fortunately, we can thank Casey McGehee for giving Colby Rasmus the chance to get his first outfield assist of the season, allowing the Cardinals to escape the top of the inning with minimal damage.
It could have been a great inning for Lohse, who struggled with his pitch count through the first two. He retired Counsell and Braun quickly. Then Prince Fielder came up and spooked Lohse, probably by looking at the pitcher like he was an extra-large veggie burger. Lohse all but pitched around him, setting up McGehee’s RBI double.
Prince Fielder scored from first base, the ground shook as far west as Colombia, and Rasmus threw to the cutoff man instead of trying to nab fielder at home. This was a heads-up play, not only avoiding a potential fatal collision between Fielder and Molina, but catching McGehee off-guard.
If you believe in momentum, that was the sort of play that should have reversed it. Rasmus stopped a rally before it could get out of hand, and the Cardinals came to bat with the wind at their sails. Unfortunately, it was also time for the 7-8-9 spots in the lineup.
First up was Daniel Descalso, who earned some leniency with a well-timed HR on Tuesday to give the Cards the lead over the Marlins. Single game heroics aside, Descalso has been awful so far at the plate. He came into today’s game batting .221/.276/.368. After him was Tyler Greene, who has managed to be even worse at .206/.289/.324.
Nine pitches later, Kyle Lohse came up to the plate with two outs to complete an easy inning for Brewers starter Yovanni Gallardo. If Lohse reached base, next up would have been Nick Punto and his .222/.349/.306 line. That’s a nice IsoD. It’s remarkable that pitchers throw Punto anything but strikes. But it’s still abysmal.
Counting the pitcher, the Cardinals have four players in the lineup with an OPS under .660. Ryan Theriot is out today. At least at the moment, he would marginally improve the situation with his .682. .682 is also bad. And this success, which is only relative to the rest of the light-hitting infielders on the team, has come from a BAbip-fueled high batting average. Even when he comes back, the Cardinals are conceding almost half their at-bats to fringe hitters. Three out of nine starters are utility players who would be fine bench options or #8 hitters on a good team. Surrounding the pitcher, they create an oasis for opposing starters. Berkman and Holliday aren’t going to hit .400 forever, and when they regress it’s going to get ugly if they don’t have some backup from the rest of the lineup. Hell, even an off day from the heart of the lineup could turn into a no-hitter.
To make things worse, we’re not sacrificing offense for defense with these guys. As long as Theriot continues to start at SS, the infield defense will be shaky. And it doesn’t look like he’ll be moving any time soon. So the Cardinals aren’t getting anything out of the black hole at the bottom of the lineup… although I admit that Descalso is incredibly impressive at 3b considering the last time he spent significant time there was 2007 at low-A ball. It’s not good enough to make up for his hitting, and it’s not good enough to make up for the error machine that TLR installed at shortstop at the beginning of the season.
So, what’s the solution?
I want to see Matt Carpenter and his .429 OBP in AAA on the major league team. Bat him leadoff. No, I’m not kidding. He’s got a career .107 IsoD in the minors. He gets on base.
Move Theriot to 2b, and platoon him with Skip when he comes back. Theriot against lefties, Skip against righties. I don’t like Skip’s defense at 2b at all, but he’s got a .780 OPS against righthanders for his career. Theriot has a similar .782 against lefties. It’s not fantastic, but it’s a lot better than what we have.
I wouldn’t mind handing the position to Descalso, hoping he could work out the kinks and find the success he had in the minors. But TLR won’t give up on Skip or Theriot. Descalso should work on his hitting in AAA as a starter at 2b. If putting Carpenter at leadoff isn’t an option (and I know it isn’t) a Schumaker/Theriot platoon could probably get on base at a decent clip.
As for shortstop? Well, absent a trade I don’t think we have any great internal options. Punto can take a walk and he has decent defense. I’d let him have it for now but explore trade options. Tyler Greene? At 27 he hasn’t shown any indication he can be a major leaguer. He needs to go.
Carpenter-Rasmus-Pujols-Holliday-Berkman-Molina-Schumaker/Theriot-Punto. It’s not perfect, but it’s better. The Cards need to do something if they’re going to avoid ugly innings like the bottom of the third.
For the fourth inning, head on over to Fungoes.