strained oblique grief counseling and Game 56 Open Thread: June 4, 2006

it's like i keep saying: you can beat the cardinals this year, but you still can't beat . . . .

. . . um . . .

. . . . .(cough).

the official word on albert's injury is "right oblique strain"; prognosis is 2 to 6 weeks on the shelf, maybe longer. doc paletta calls it "a serious concern" and adds: "This is an injury that we are going to be extremely cautious with, because if you send the guy out there too early, then you have a major setback and a major re-injury." and doc la russa says, "he's going to miss a significant period of time -- anywhere from little significant to real significant."

i checked in with will carroll of baseball prospectus, who concurs that the worst thing you can do vis-vis this injury is come back too soon from it; make that mistake and it can become a chronic condition that dogs you your whole career. neither the cardinals nor pujols can afford to let that happen; they'll err well on the side of caution, which makes a long disablement almost certain.

time to panic? definitely not; i mean, you panic when you can't find your kid in a crowd at the mall. but it is absolutely time to adjust our expectations. the playoffs are no longer a given; visions of a world championship run are now, let's say, premature. if you think the cards aren't in deep doo-doo, you're in deep denial.

just how deep is the doo-doo? let's wade right in. first question:

how bad will the offense be without albert?

we have various means of estimating the cardinals' albertless run-scoring ability, the first and most direct being baseball prospectus' marginal lineup value rate, or MLVr. this stat estimates (per BP's glossary) "the additional number of runs a given player will contribute to a lineup that otherwise consists of average offensive performers."

per this stat, albert is worth an extra 2/3 of a run per game -- easily the best total in the league among everyday players. the cardinals could replace albert with an elite hitter having a good year -- a-rod, vlad guerrero, manny ramirez, jason giambi -- and still be expected to lose 1/4 to 1/3 run per game. ditto if it were possible to clone scott rolen and stick the clone at 1st base -- or if the cardinals can pry bobby abreu free from the phillies. if they put spiezio at 1st and he maintains his improbably high level of production, they'd lose an estimated .4 runs per game -- and if speezer reverts to his career norms . . . . well, forget it. if the cards go out and pick up craig wilson or shawn green, they can expect the team's output to drop by half a run a game. and if they bring in a guy who's right around league average -- torii hunter, garrett anderson, cliff floyd, ken griffey -- they can expect to lose the full 2/3 of a run.

there's only one player in baseball who might be expected to step in and approximate albert's value to the lineup -- miguel cabrera.

david pinto gives us another way to estimate the per-game cost to the offense: his lineup toy, which i played around with often during the off-season. let's start by calibrating the toy against the cards' real-life statistics. it estimates that st louis (including albert) ought to have scored 5.088 runs per game so far in 2006; in reality, the cardinals have scored 5.074. damn near a bull's-eye; i guess we can place a fair degree of confidence in the toy's estimates. now let's replace albert with a generic .900 ops player, ie .375 obp .525 slg -- as if those sort of hitters are floating around for free. the toy estimates that this lineup would score 4.748 runs a game, or 1/3 run less than the albert-led lineup. if you plug in an .850 ops hitter, like craig wilson, the lineup loses another .1 run per game.

both of these exercises suggest that in a best-case scenario -- ie, the cardinals bring in a very good hitter to replace albert -- the offense is going to lose about 1/3 run per game. it's more likely the cost will be about half a run a game. what does that mean in terms of wins and losses? onward.

how will albert's lost run production affect the cards in the win column?

through 54 games, the cardinals were right in line with their pythagorean projection -- they had scored 271 runs and allowed 218 for a pythagorean record of 33-21, vs their real-life record of 34-20. (if you're not familiar with the whole pythagorean deal, click here.) if we replayed those 54 games with the albertless offense -- ie, the one described above that scores half a run a game less -- the cards' run total would drop to 244. plug 244 runs scored, 218 allowed into the pythagorean formula and you get a projected won-loss of 30-24 -- a three-game differential over the course of two months. all else remaining equal, then -- and we know it won't remain equal, but just go with it for the moment -- a two-month absence could be expected to cost the cardinals 3 games in the standings. a three-month absence would be expected to cost 4 to 5 games.

this might be a trustworthy estimate if ballplayers were robots, or if we were playing strat-o-matic baseball. but we're dealing with human beings, and their performance is going to be affected by albert's absence. fewer runs means tighter games, more pressure-packed at-bats, a slimmer margin of error for pitchers and fielders -- an altered work environment. some guys will rise to the challenge and raise their games for a few weeks; others will be placed in situations they're not suited to or start trying to do too much (not "stay within themselves") and play beneath their true capabilities. it can go either way. in 2003 the loss of one player -- isringhausen -- had a ripple effect throughout the whole team; they blew a bunch of winnable games early, morris and woody williams got overworked, and the failure to trade for a pitcher caused ill will in the clubhouse. in the end, that injury and its fallout probably cost the cardinals the division title. but in 2002 a much crueler loss -- the death of darryl kile -- seemed to bring out the best in the cardinals. andy benes returned from semi-retirement to stabilize the rotation, scott rolen's arrival provided a huge psychological boost, and the cardinals turned a close race into a runaway.

we'll just have to see how the cards react this time, but my gut tells me that if albert is gone for two or three months, it's going to cost the cardinals a lot more than 3 to 5 games in the standings. i think they'll do well to play .500 without him. consider this: if they'd had a league-average 1st baseman through the first 54 games instead of pujols, the cardinals would be 28th in the majors in home runs, ahead of only the royals and cubs. if that were the case, does anybody think they'd be much above .500 right now? (among mlb's bottom 10 teams in homers, the best record is san diego's 29-26). more to the point, as i noted a few days ago, albert is virtually the only cardinal hitter with a positive WPA (win probability added); he's at plus 456, while the other position players are a collective negative 176. i won't explain the whole win-probability thing here, but the upshot is that those numbers quantify what ev'y cardinal fan already knows: albert not only gets lots of hits, he gets meaningful ones -- game changers. as long as he's on the field, the cardinals never feel like they're out of it, and the opposition never feels too comfortable. sabermetricians haven't invented a tool to quantify that type of advantage, but i believe that it exists. i believe that, by his mere presence, he makes the team play sharper and with more confidence.

if the cards play .500 for the next two months, they'll be 61-47 come early august. if albert comes back at that point and they go, say, 32-22 down the stretch -- a couple of 16-11 months -- they'd finish with 93 wins and probably still be playing in october. but if albert's gone three months and the cards play .500 in his absence (hardly a given), they'll head into september with about 75 wins and likely need a red-hot stretch run -- say, 18-9 -- to nail down a postseason berth.

lot of assumptions in the foregoing paragraph, some of which will surely be way off base. but i'm just sketching out parameters. this is not going to be easy.

what are their options?

one, do nothing -- bring up daubach or chris duncan, platoon him at 1st with spiezio, accept the loss of elevation in the standings, and see where things stand at the trade deadline. don't commit prematurely; keep all options open. if, by mid-july, albert's back playing or close to it, and the cards are still in first place or within shouting distance, then the cards would still have time to upgrade the roster for the stretch run / playoffs. . . . but if albert doesn't look ready to get back onto the field any time soon, then it may make more sense to trade mulder supps and/or marquis for younger players, stick wainwright / reyes into the rotation, and be prepared to write off 2006 as a rebuilding year.

two, make a mid-level trade immediately to ward off a freefall. the cards already needed a bat but were hoping to bide their time until an advantageous partnership presented itself; now they may have no choice but to be the aggressors and overpay slightly to acquire craig wilson or eduardo perez or reggie sanders or trot nixon. at the upper end of this category, the cards might get soriano (see more info below in this comment) or shawn green or luis gonzalez -- if they're available, and if they won't cost the cards wainwright or reyes.

three, shoot the moon: gamble ev'ything to land an impact player like bobby abreu or miguel cabrera or dontrelle willis. by "gamble ev'ything," i mean be willing to break up the rotation or send wainwright/reyes abroad.

of the three, #2 seems like the likeliest option to me. while #1 does have some advantages, the cardinals can't run the risk of being noncontenders this year -- not after all the flak they've taken for the passive off-season and their perceived refusal to pay the salaries necessary to field a championship team. fans may hold their noses and live with the feeble replacements for walker, sanders, and KMOX -- but brian daubach standing in for pujols?? st louisans will be writing their congressmen. from a pr standpoint alone, they are gonna have to make a move. they'll wait a couple of days until they can get a better read on the probable duration of albert's recovery; i'd expect the trade to happen pretty shortly after that.

but i hope the cardinals won't overreact and go for option #3 -- not unless walter can somehow pry abreu free without giving up reyes or wainwright. i don't really see how that's possible, but the world is full of wonders.

Update [2006-6-4 12:24:21 by lboros]: late word on edmonds (thanks to steve in georgia): he's in the lineup today, playing 1st base.

Update [2006-6-4 13:46:37 by lboros]: here are the full lineups.

Update [2006-6-4 14:16:14 by lboros]: albert has been disabled; chris duncan recalled, is available for today's game.


marquis             maddux
7-4, 4.75            6-4, 4.32


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