When I was in the 3rd grade, I checked out Bob Gibson’s autobiography, From Ghetto To Glory, from our school library. I knew very little about Bob Gibson back then, but I saw a St. Louis Cardinal staring back at me on the cover and figured this book was as good as any. It’s not a book really meant for nine-year-olds. At well over 200 pages, From Ghetto to Glory is a nuanced look not only at Gibson’s life and baseball career, but also the racially-charged 1950s and 60s culture in the United States. I’d be better off reading it today. Still, the school librarian, Ms. Knight, was proud I was tackling this book. Each Wednesday, when my class would return to the library to check out new books, she’d smile and ask if I had finished it. I’d determinedly reply, “Not yet,” and renew it. I wasn’t conveying defeat but rather affirmation that I was going to finish this thing and I eventually did.
I think of those two words when looking at the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals. Their run since 2000 (11 playoff appearances, four pennants, two World Series titles, and only one losing season) has been remarkable. The roster has completely turned over and yet the Cardinals keep on winning. As a fan, it’s been amazingly satisfying. But alas, nothing lasts forever. The younger, stronger-farm-system Pirates are coming off two straight post-season appearances of their own and nipped at the Cardinals’ heels into the last week of 2013 and 2014. The Cubs, well, we all know about the Cubs. Stick your head out of a moving car window on the interstate and you’ll hear someone yapping about the Cubs. Their farm system and current roster are stacked with young studs, they march into 2015 with one of the best managers in baseball by their side, and they’re already fitting themselves for the NL Central championship belt for the next ten years.
So where does this leave the Cardinals? Will 2015 finally be the year the window closes on their hegemony over the NL Central? No sir. Not yet.
How do they score runs? Are they notably home run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth or on production from stars?
When I was asked to give a bold prediction for the Cardinals’ 2015 season on the Banished to the Pen Podcast, I told host Ryan Sullivan that I thought no one on the team would hit more than 21 home runs. If you’ve followed the Cardinals (or hell, baseball) the last couple of seasons you’d know there was nothing bold about that at all. In fact, it was a pretty safe thing to say. PECOTA and ZiPS both predict Matt Holliday to lead the team in 2015 with 20 home runs. Jhonny Peralta led the 2014 team with 21, and Carlos Beltran the year before with 24. The Cardinals actually finished last in the NL in 2014 with only 105 total home runs and are 28th overall the last two years.
But my larger, unstated, bold prediction was this: The Cardinals are going to win the division in 2015, but they’re actually going to score some runs this year – while still not hitting many home runs.
So how are they going to score runs? By hitting for contact and doing a better-than-average job at getting on base. The Cardinals were excellent in 2014 at putting the bat on the ball evidenced by the lowest strikeout rate in the National League. This starts at the top with leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter. If you look at Carpenter’s combined 2013 and 2014 stats, this is what you see:
- 1st in the NL in plate appearances, hits, runs, and doubles;
- 3rd in walks;
- 8th in on-base percentage; and
- Hit into only seven double plays.
To put that last bullet point into perspective, only Charlie Blackmon and Joaquin Arias hit into less double plays during that span and they have a combined 80 less plate appearances than Carpenter. In fact, no one who has played more than 250 games over the last two years has hit into less double plays. Now, batting leadoff might not be conducive to hitting into a lot of double plays, but still, that number should count for something. Simply put, Carpenter has been really good at starting and sustaining rallies, and not ending them.
PECOTA, ZiPS, and Steamer don’t expect Carpenter to replicate his MVP-caliber 2013 season, but like 2014, they do think he’ll keep doing a good job of putting the bat on the ball and getting on base. And this is where it gets exciting. The Cardinals now have Jason Heyward likely following Carpenter in the order. It’s been said in many places but it bears repeating: No team improved more at a single non-pitcher position in the offseason than the Cardinals did in right field. The Cardinals got -2.2 WARP (Baseball Prospectus model) from that position last year – mostly manned by Allen Craig and Oscar Taveras. Heyward’s 4.4 WARP projection for 2015 would be a remarkable improvement and added punch to the lineup. And while it’s not wise to guess a Mike Matheny lineup, let’s do it anyway:
- Matt Carpenter
- Jason Heyward
- Matt Holliday
- Matt Adams
- Jhonny Peralta
- Yadier Molina
- Kolten Wong
- Jon Jay
I like it. We’re not staring at any elite hitters, but there’s also not a slouch in that bunch, which is not something the Cardinals have been able to say since probably 2011. Maybe I’m still drunk off of Wong’s 2014 NLCS (.278/.316/.833) or ignoring the likelihood of Peralta regressing from a very solid 2014 (.263/.336/.443), but I see this team getting on base and putting up a lot of crooked numbers.
Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?
With the addition of Heyward, the Cardinals have a pretty lefty-centric lineup (Carpenter, Wong, Jay, and Adams also bat from the left side). While Carpenter, Wong, and Jay have hit lefties just fine, Adams has been dreadful. (To a lesser extent, so has Heyward.) Since Adams first saw limited action in 2012, he is batting .197/.227/.326 in 203 total plate appearances against left-handed pitchers. Some saw this as the impetus for the offseason acquisition of right-handed slugger Mark Reynolds. Reynolds is a known two-trick pony, but only one of those tricks is good. He strikes out at a historic rate but also hits a fair amount of home runs. Time for the platoon, right? Well, probably not. Reynolds hasn’t done a good job lately of hitting lefties either. In 2014, Reynolds batted .173/.277/.296 vs. lefties. But fortunately, I believe there’s still time for Adams to prove he can hit the southpaw. In some crazy universe, Adams, homered off of noted lefty wonderboys Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner in last year’s postseason. Small sample? Most certainly. But if we’re going to dwell on sample sizes, it has to be noted that 2014 was basically Adams’ first full season as a regular in the lineup (91 PAs in 2012; 319 PAs in 2013). If his slash line vs. lefties doesn’t improve in 2015 then it’s probably time to talk but I’m willing to see this through.
And I like that Reynolds adds pop off the bench, while being able to play first or third base. It’s not looking like much of a platoon advantage but added depth at the corners never hurts.
Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games?
Heading into the winter, it seemed the Cardinals were going to be in the unique position of having a starting rotation that was equally deep and vulnerable. Back on January 12, this is what I wrote about the projected starting pitchers heading into 2015 (I added a spot for Jaime Garcia because he’s surprised everyone and remained in the mix. Also, barring an injury or two, I’m assuming that Marco Gonzales is not going to win that fifth starter spot no matter how good his numbers are by the end of spring. I could be wrong, but giving the rookie the nod would be out of character from what we’ve seen from this team in the past.):
- Adam Wainwright: Entering age-34 season; pitched 227.0 innings in 2014; underwent surgery in October to shave cartilage off his elbow which was a lingering problem in the second-half of the season, including the postseason.
- Lance Lynn: Entering age-28 season; pitched 203.2 innings in 2014.
- John Lackey: Age 36; pitched 198.0 innings in 2014; missed a start in September due to a “dead arm.”
- Michael Wacha: Entering age-24 season; pitched 107.0 innings in 2014; had a 68-game DL stint in 2014 with a rare shoulder condition (the same condition that afflicted pitcher Brandon McCarthy) and had a noticeably less-effective changeup – his best pitch – when he returned.
- Carlos Martinez: Entering age-24 season; pitched 89.1 innings in 2014; 32.1 innings pitched as a starting pitcher with a 4.45 ERA, 1.639 WHIP, and 9.5 SO9; 57.0 innings pitched in relief with a 3.79 ERA, 1.281 WHIP, and 7.9 SO9.
- Jaime Garcia: Entering age-29 season; pitched 43.2 innings total in 2014; after shutting down for the season in June, he had surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome.
Safe to say, I was slightly concerned. Do I feel better about the rotation on March 26? Indeed I do.
Let’s start at the top. It’s in Cardinals fans’ DNA to worry about Adam Wainwright. He had the surgery in October, and he suffered an abdominal strain in February which sent us all into a tizzy even though it wasn’t really a big deal. But his age and workload might be something to be concerned about. As Bernie Miklasz pointed out, when including the postseason, no pitcher in the NL has pitched more innings over the last three years than Wainwright’s 733.1. His strikeout rate from 2013 (8.2 K/9) dipped to 7.1 last year, which was his lowest since 2008. His walk rate also increased to 2.0 BB/9 from 1.3 in 2013. And yet, Wainwright still finished third in the Cy Young voting last year by compiling a 2.38 ERA, 2.88 FIP, 1.031 WHIP, and a 154 ERA+. He also logged five complete games and three shutouts, which, oddly, I’d probably prefer not to see repeated in 2015. Rather, he might be best served by being yanked from a start an inning or two earlier to ease his workload. Wainwright’s not a young guy, but he’s still very good, and I expect him to be good in 2015. After throwing four scoreless innings on Saturday in his spring debut, the talk was he should be ready for April 5, opening night, vs. the Cubs. And if he’s not ready, then we’re probably looking at Lance Lynn, which is a fun story in and of itself.
After the 2013 season, when the most pressing need for the Cardinals was finding a shortstop, I half-jokingly offered a Cubs fan Lynn for Starlin Castro straight up. (Half-jokingly because: (1) I wasn’t sure if it was even a good trade for the Cardinals; and (2) I am not authorized to make trades for the Cardinals.) He laughed at me, but he’s probably not laughing now. Castro is a fine player in his own right, but Lynn in less than a year has gone from the guy everyone irrationally fretted about when he was on the mound (He has no mental game! Oh no, here comes the big inning!), to arguably being the one guy in the starting rotation without a question mark heading into 2015. A 200+ innings pitched year with a 2.74 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 1.262 WHIP, and 134 ERA+ will do that.
This is what we know about John Lackey: He’s dependable, he’ll give you a lot of innings, and even at age 36, he’s a perfectly fine third or fourth starter. Also, I’ve always been a little bit afraid of him.
The most exciting storyline heading into 2015 might be Michael Wacha. Thinking of him as a number four starter will hopefully seem absurd once the season is underway because he was essentially a “co-ace” in 2014 with a 2.79 ERA in 90.1 innings pitched before his DL stint. And then there’s his dominant pitching at the end of 2013, which won him the MVP of the NLCS. But what has me excited is, according to here and here, his changeup is back. His shoulder injury is cause for concern because there really isn’t a good model in how to deal with this injury. But every report I’ve read out of spring indicates that the injury right now is a non-factor. Maybe that’s a typical overly optimistic spring training narrative, but it’s so universal I have no problem following suit.
It was assumed that the battle for the fifth rotation spot would work itself out naturally, i.e., someone (Jaime Garcia) would get hurt in the spring and everything would fall into place. That hasn’t happened, in fact, Garcia, the only lefty of the bunch, has pitched very well so far with no sign of injury or breaking down. Observers have marveled about the movement on his pitches and he’s logged 13 strikeouts in just 9.1 innings. I’ve mentioned before how good Garcia has been when healthy, and leaving a healthy Garcia on the outside of the rotation looking in seems completely foolish. On the other hand, how would Carlos Martinez handle another trip to the bullpen after essentially being groomed all winter and spring to be a starter? And does this make the Cardinals look silly for deeming Martinez untouchable in offseason trade talks? I kept trying to figure out the correct answer to these questions until Miklasz correctly pointed out that there really isn’t one. As of now, the Cardinals are going to have to wait and see whether this is a good problem to have or just a problem.
All that being said, if I had to take an uneducated stab at it, I think we’ll see Garcia in that fifth spot and Martinez designated with the long man assignment.
When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?
Matheny sticks with the script when it comes to bullpen assignments. I grimaced while listening to the Effectively Wild Podcast the day after Travis Ishikawa ended the Cardinals 2014 season with a walk-off three-run home run in Game 5 of the NLCS, because the podcast had been taped late the night before and it was clear host Ben Lindbergh had not yet caught wind of Matheny’s reasoning for not using closer Trevor Rosenthal in the 9th. Matheny stated he gave the ball to a very rusty Michael Wacha instead of Rosenthal because it wasn’t a “save” situation. (Sigh.) Lindbergh learned of the quote in the middle of the podcast while heroically trying to defend Matheny’s choice of Wacha, and you could almost hear the heartbreak and befuddlement in his voice.
Truth is, any honest Cardinals fan will tell you that closer Trevor Rosenthal was incredibly agonizing in 2014. (Though he was still a better option than Wacha in that situation and that doesn’t excuse Matheny’s primitive outlook during an elimination game.) His walk rate skyrocketed to an unsightly 5.4 BB/9, and he consistently struggled to retire the lead-off batter. He still converted most of his saves – 45, in fact – but a lot of them happened while we were all collectively covering our eyes. Derrick Goold reported that pitching coach Derrick Lilliquist is experimenting with Rosenthal throwing exclusively from the stretch to try and get him back on track. If that doesn’t work, the Cardinals have a solid bullpen to back him up with Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle being added to a stable which already included Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, and LOOGY Randy Choate. And what I really mean by this entire paragraph is this: It’s a bullpen, I haven’t the slightest clue how effective/non-effective it will be this year.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
A majority of Cardinals fans might exaggerate Yadier Molina’s importance behind the plate because we love him dearly and the stuff he is often lauded for (leadership, pitcher whisperer) is tough to quantify. Still, there’s not another catcher in baseball who I would rather have guiding the pitching staff and making sure that Adrian Gonzalez comes correct. In a post from this past Monday, Eno Sarris from Just a Bit Outside noted that Molina is still the Cardinals’ most indispensable player. Highlighting that Molina’s been the second best defensive catcher in baseball the last eight years, and that the Cardinals’ pitchers got noticeably worse last year when he was out with a thumb injury, it’s obvious they don’t want another season where backup Tony Cruz has to play for a significant stretch.
Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
After the Cardinals acquired Jason Heyward, someone, I can’t remember who, tweeted something along the lines that the Cardinals new outfield should just be Peter Bourjos and Heyward, with Matt Holliday lying down just beyond second base so his body could block singles up the middle. Holliday is the team’s best hitter, and has been greatly underappreciated by Cardinals fans (although I think that’s starting to change), but his defense in left field is merely tolerated because of his bat. On a recent Viva El Birdos Podcast it was revealed that Holliday’s also not an option at first base because he hasn’t taken practice grounders in nearly ten years, I believe. Definitely look for Bourjos to take over center field later in games with Jon Jay shifting to left. Randal Grichuk is another option, and although he’ll be looked upon more to provide pop off the bench with his bat rather than as a defensive sub, his defense is completely fine.
What’s up with the manager? He should be canned, right?
I have been overly harsh on Manager Mike Matheny in the past. He’s been the manager for three years and the Cardinals have played deep into the postseason all three of those years. Yet before Ishikawa’s aforementioned home run cleared the right field wall, I was not against Matheny being fired. Of course, time heals wounds, and eventually helps us think straight again. When Oscar Taveras drove drunk last October and killed himself and his young 18-year old girlfriend in the Dominican Republic, Matheny came through with a pitch-perfect statement that I’m not sure many other managers could have delivered. I can’t stress how important that statement was to my understanding of Matheny. He’s far from perfect but it made me believe the meme that this squad truly wants to play and win for him actually does exist. I’m in his corner.
What’s likely to happen? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
First (bold) prediction: Kolten Wong will finish second on the team in WARP behind Jason Heyward. Second prediction: The Cardinals will win 91 games and win the NL Central by four games over the Pirates and five games over the Cubs.
The Cardinals aren’t done. Not yet.
Thanks to Viva El Birdos, Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and the Baseball Reference Play Index for some of the stats for this post.Next post: 2015 Wild Four Tournament (Round of 16)
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