The St. Louis Cardinals are National League champions for the second time in three years. Their 9-0 thumping of the Los Angeles Dodgers Friday night put an exclamation point on a series that showcased all the things that set the Cardinals apart from their competition for NL supremacy. It was depth of power arms, homegrown talent, big innings and lots of contact.
They Just Keep Coming
It’s no longer possible, given the way teams build rosters and deploy pitchers, to reach the postseason with a truly poor bullpen. Every good team has at least one or two guys who can come in throwing 98, with a slider at 89.
The Cardinals, though, don’t have one or two. They have, depending on whom you ask, four or five. In the four St. Louis wins during this series, the bullpen threw 15 shutout innings. John Axford and Edward Mujica were once solid closers, but neither even gets the ball in the eighth inning for the Cardinals.
Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez make up the back end of the corps. Then, alongside Axford and Mujica, there’s flame-throwing lefty Kevin Siegrist, once-in-a-decade ground-ball inducer Seth Maness and southpaw specialist Randy Choate. That’s not to mention stowed-away starter Shelby Miller. They have someone for every situation, is what I’m saying.
Where Did This Guy Come From?
Surely, fans of the Pirates and Dodgers have grumbled that to themselves at various points throughout this month. Where did this Matt Carpenter guy, 27 years old before he became a big-league regular, find 55 doubles during the season, and a big one (after an 11-pitch at-bat) off Clayton Kershaw to start the rally that ended the Dodgers season, even come from?
Or where, Mark Melancon’s melancholy men might mutter, did Phat Matt Adams come from? How did he come to be laying around when Allen Craig got hurt, so the Cardinals could just plug their first-base hole and not worry about it? And where had he been hiding, with the insane raw power that sent a kill-shot two-run homer into the night during St. Louis’s Game Five win over Pittsburgh?
For that matter, a whole lot of people must now be wondering where Michael Wacha came from. Wacha, the one who made it to the Majors within a year of being drafted 19th. Wacha, who nearly threw a no-hitter against the Washington Nationals in his last regular-season start, then nearly no-hit the Pirates in his first-ever post-season appearance, then won the NLCS MVP by beating the best pitcher alive, twice, and not allowing a run while recording 41 outs. Where did he come from?
Cardinals fans never have to wonder, though. Oh, sure, a splashy addition like Matt Holliday or Carlos Beltran comes along every now and then, and the middle-relief group doesn’t have much stability, but if one were to simply guess that every Cardinal on the NLCS roster had been a Cardinal for his whole big-league career, one would be correct about roughly 70 percent of the team.
That kind of player-development and scouting excellence creates flexibility, to spend money where needed. It ensures depth, so that no single injury or underperformance is a fatal blow. It also fosters a team concept, and allows the staff to instill key coaching points and philosophies.
Kings of the KO
That ability to draw on deep wells of homegrown talent is the hallmark of the Cardinals’ roster construction, but when it comes to their game on the field, the signature trait is their ability to hang crooked numbers on opponents.
You’ve had this presented to you a different way. There’s been no end of discussion about St. Louis’s clutch hitting, their batting average with runners in scoring position, all of that. And the two feed each other.
To me, though, the more compelling fact about the Cardinals–and the one I find more likely to be a skill, a systematic truth rather than a statistical artifact–is the way they extend and break open innings.
No NL team scored four or more runs in an inning as many times as the Cardinals, at 46. No one was all that close. The Tigers did score four or more 51 times, and the Red Sox 46, but those are AL offenses, meaning they get to used the designated hitter, and avoid the rally-killing automatic out that is a pitcher trying to hit. Given that St. Louis had not just that sinkhole, but another (their shortstops hit .222/.280/.303 in composite) in their lineup all year, so many big innings is a marvelous achievement.
Part of it is being an OBP-driven offense. Despite the lack of huge power in their lineup, they could always string hits together because their individual parts all had that skill. Their batting average by lineup slot from 1-6 were as follows: .300, .304, .290, .310, .290, .272. That sets you up nicely. Another part is hitting a lot of doubles, which lets you cash in baserunners more than one at a time but also keeps pressure on the opponent. The Cardinals hit a league-high 322 of those.
The rest is a mixture of timing, luck and the refusal to change approach. The Cardinals never let a struggling pitcher off the hook. They succeed by not changing their approach when they start to get to a guy, by forcing him to throw lots of pitches, by still swinging at and taking the same pitches they would otherwise.
This skill showed up in a big way Friday night. The Cardinals scored in only two innings, but still posted nine total runs. In the third inning alone, they forced CLayton kershaw to throw 49 pitches. Some bad Dodgers defense helped them out, but the feat remains impressive.
Always In Play
The last skill that facilitates all those big innings for St. Louis is also the best leading indicator that has popped up in a while for projecting playoff success. They don’t strike out. Only four teams fanned less often during the regular year than this one, and since 2009, the team with the better offensive contact rate has won roughly 80 percent of all playoff series.
Contact is the skill that stabilizes most quickly for batters. It still isn’t stable at the end of one series, but by the end of a second, it can be. It might well be that the reason contact better predicts success in the tiny sample of playoff action is just that contact shows up most reliably. Still, it’s held true for the last five years, and the Cardinals are a model team for the narrative. Their contact permits them to chain and cluster good things together, and it doesn’t evaporate even in the face of great strikeout pitchers. The Dodgers led the NL in pitcher whiff rate, but the Cardinals only struck out 50 times in the series, in six games—one of which went to 13 innings.
The off-the-field things about the Cardinals are annoying. Their fan base’s self-characterization as the best in baseball (a monster the national media gleefully feeds with both hands) is obnoxious and unearned. The team’s apparent interest in declaring itself the defenders of a certain code of conduct within the game is equally grating, and pedantic. On the field, though, and in the way they were built and in the way they prepare and in the way their games unfold, this is a fun team to watch, and they’re rapidly becoming a mini-dynasty in a post-dynasty baseball world.Next post: Red Sox Win Pennant, With Ellsbury and Tazawa Leading the Way
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