the month that was

buzz bissinger might not like will leitch’s blogging, but he’s got to respect the dude’s managing. with 158 games down and 4 left, leitch still has the 1986 Replay Cardinals in first place by a game over the pond scum. they play their last home game of the season tonight against the pirates (4th place, 6 games under .500), then finish the regular season on the road at wrigley (the sim cubs are in last place at 68-91); the mets are at montreal (5th place) today and at home over the weekend against the pirates.

the sim-86s' performance is nearly as surprising as the real team’s. it’s only 30 games --- mostly at home, against bad teams --- but they do count. can we conclude anything from them at all? being historically inclined, i went back and looked at all the cardinal teams of the last 50 years that won at least 18 of their first 30 games:

year thru 30 next 30 final place
2006 18-12 18-12 83-78 1st
2005 19-11 20-10 100-62 1st
2000 19-11 14-16 95-67 1st
1983 18-12 14-16 79-83 4th
1982 19-11 17-13 92-70 1st
1981 20-10 10-10* 59-43 1st*
1977 19-11 15-15 83-79 3d
1968 20-10 16-14 97-65 1st
1967 19-11 19-11 101-60 1st
1964 18-12 11-19 93-69 1st
1963 18-12 16-14 93-69 2d

this list is too encouraging. out of the 11 teams who played as well in april as the 2008 cardinals, 8 went on to finish with the best record in their division (one of them, the 1981 team, didn’t appear in the postseason because of the strike). that vastly overstates the current team’s chances of winning the division, in my opinion; i still think they’re way below a 50-50 shot, but they’re obviously better than 1 in 15 shot (which is about where i would have put them heading into the year). a more realistic way to frame this is to note that all but one of the teams finished over .500, with the lone exception (1983) finishing pretty close and staying in contention into september. in the last 50 years the cards have never had a completely fraudulent april --- ie, a very hot start by a team that later proved to be no good at all. that doesn’t mean it can’t happen this year, of course --- but if it does, it’ll be a surprise. based on what we’ve seen so far, the odds are that this is at least a .500 team.

we should also note that a majority of these teams slipped in the 2d set of 30 games:

1st 30 2d 30 final
.627 .531 .567

the tendency to fall off in games 31 through 60 was particularly marked among the three "fresh start" teams on this list --- the teams that, like the 2008 team, entered the season significantly made over from the year before. the 1977 cards were the first in 12 years to be managed by someone other than red schoendienst --- new manager (vern rapp), new no-nonsense (and no facial-hair) style. the 1981 team was the first to open the season under whitey herzog’s leadership; they had a new catcher, new second baseman, new right fielder, new closer, and above all new speed-n-defense philosophy. and the 2000 cards had a almost completely new rotation --- the only two holdovers were ankiel and stephenson, who combined for just 17 starts in 1999) --- plus new starters at 2b and cf. each of those teams started the year with something to prove --- all were coming off sub-.500 finishes the previous year --- and came roaring out of the gate, but couldn’t sustain the momentum and dropped back to .500 in the next 30 games.

the 2008 cards are a pretty good candidate to suffer that kind of a lag, and here’s why: they don’t pitch very well on the road. it’s very early, but they’re exhibiting a home-road split that’s consistent with one that has existed ever since the cardinals moved into busch III:

ERA hr/9 opp avgs
2008 home 2.60 0.7 .225 / .290/ .349
2008 road 4.76 0.7 .272 / .323/ .435
2007 home 4.17 0.8 .269 / .330 / .409
2007 road 5.21 1.3 .273 / .343 / .455
2006 home 3.93 1.1 .253 / .322 / .410
2006 road 5.19 1.3 .284 / .352 / .476

the cardinals only played 10 of their first 30 on the road this year; they play 15 of the next 23 on the road. by the end of those 23 games there will likely be a lot of "why does our pitching staff suck?" conversation, and very likely the answer will simply be that the pitchers had to pitch on the road instead of at home. looper had a huge split last year (3.34 home, 6.81 road) and has a smaller, but still significant, one again this year. pineiro had a 3.38 at busch III last year, 4.74 everywhere else; lohse has an era of 1.08 at home so far this year, 5.79 in his 2 road starts. . . . .

items:

  • if you’re around this weekend, look for the United Cardinal Bloggers’ progressive blog of the Cubs-Cards game. each inning of the action will be covered by a different blog; C70 at the Bat will have the pregame, Stan Musial’s Stance will take the first inning, and off they’ll go from there. it is not a live blog, so don’t check in while the game is in progress; posts should be up sat night / sun morning. 
  • judging by the early returns, jason larue (.077 average) has a decent shot to break the franchise record for lowest single-season batting average by a position player with 100 or more at-bats. that honor currently belongs to mike laga, famed as the only man to hit a ball (albeit foul) clear out of busch II; he batted .130 in 1988. behind him are a couple of backup catchers, irish-born jack o’neill (one of four brothers to play in the majors), who batted .141 for the 1902 cardinals, and scotty hemond (.144 in 1995). i also need to recognize dwain anderson, a shortstop who began the 1973 season with the cardinals and took 17 at-bats for them (2 hits, .118 average) before being sent to san diego, where he completed the season. final line: 15 hits (all singles) in 124 at-bats for a .121 average. since 1960, that’s the lowest single-season avg by any big-league position player with at least 100 at-bats. laga’s .130 average ranks 7th on that list. the #4 guy? dave duncan, for batting .126 with the athletics in 1969.

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