It was an outstanding game last night; a complete team effort on both sides of the ball. Wainwright looked the best we've seen him since returning from the disabled list, and the offense certainly did their job effectively. I'm not a fan of Troy Glaus hitting second, though, I must admit. I know, I know, there are plenty of arguments that one can make in favour of it. I still don't like it.
What I was struck by last night while watching the game, more than anything else, was just how much better I thought Arizona was going to be than this this year. I looked at them coming into the season, and I thought they would be an absolute juggernaut, just laying waste to a weak division around them on their way to the National League pennant. Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, and Randy Johnson at the top of the rotation? No team in their right mind would want to face a tandem like that. The only real question, to me at least, was just how deep they would manage to go in October.
As we've seen, of course, that hasn't been the case for the Diamondbacks this year, not by a long shot. For one thing, the back of their rotation hasn't been nearly as good as everyone expected. Micah Owings, who looked like a great #3 with possible #2 potential last season, was flat out awful this year, posting an ERA over 6.00 before being demoted. He hasn't thrown an inning in the minors since the eighth of August and is reported to be trying to improve his shoulder strength. Outlook not so good on Mr. Owings. Doug Davis has been pretty solid this year, but he missed a fair chunk of time early in the season due to receiving treatment for cancer. Yusmeiro Petit has actually pitched pretty well, but he is still, after all, Yusmeiro Petit.
The DBacks bullpen has also been a point of concern. Brandon Lyon, their closer for most of the year, is currently sporting a nifty 5.76 ERA. While Tony Pena and Chad Qualls have both been mostly solid, guys like Doug Slaten, Brandon Medders, and Jon Rauch have undone a lot of good work. If you think the Cardinals are the only team who face an adventure in the bullpen most nights, you need to check out some Arizona games. It's always interesting, and usually not in a good way.
Most of all, though, the Diamondbacks have suffered from an offense that just flat out isn't very good. Of all the aspects I find surprising about the DBacks this year, their offense's inability to score enough runs to support that pitching staff is probably the biggest surprise of all.
When you look at the Arizona offense, it becomes apparent fairly quickly what the real problem is. The Diamondbacks have a ton of talented young players; more than enough, in fact, to constitute what should be a dangerous offense. Where the issue lies is largely in their approach at the plate. The DBacks rank 9th in the National League in on base percentage, at .326. They're even worse in batting average, coming in 12th in the league at .252. The Cardinals, on the other hand, rank second in the league in both categories, at .351 and .280, respectively. You watch the Arizona players take at bats, and what you see jibes up well with the numbers. As a whole, the DBack hitters are impatient in the extreme, hacking away rather than working the count. You want to see exactly what the Arizona offense looks like? Look no further than their former leadoff hitter, Chris Young. Young is monstrously talented; he was a 30/30 man last season. Yet this season, Young is putting up a slash line of .246/.307/.440. He has struck out 144 times already. I'm perfectly aware that strikeouts aren't as evil as Joe Morgan and his ilk would have us believe, but that 144 represents an awful lot of empty swings.
Or try Mark Reynolds, the team's talented young third baseman. Reynolds has what baseball types like to call light tower power; he can hit it out of any part of any park. Still, his slash line- .242/.320/.480. Not bad, no. But not nearly what it should be for a player with his kind of tools.
Some of this, of course, has a lot to do with simple youth. When you have a team as young as that of the Diamondbacks, there are going to be some warts. But even so, the biggest problem isn't the youth of the team, it's the philosophy of the team.
Arizona preaches aggressiveness. From the bottom level of their farm system on up, the DBacks push their players to constantly be aggressive. They attack pitches early in the count, without trying to work a walk or simply to work a pitcher much at all. The Diamondbacks have emphasized athleticism and trained their players to be super aggressive; what they have now is a team full of athletes who are all intensely vulnerable to intelligent pitching. Their hitters simply do not do a good job of getting good pitches to hit; rather, they hack early in the count and get themselves out on pitchers' pitches.
For all of the flack that the Cardinal coaching staff takes from a lot of people, myself included, you really see the value of a good approach when you watch two teams like this go head to head. Arizona should have a dynamic, multi faceted offensive attack, capable of beating you in myriad ways. Instead, they have a team that doesn't hit for power (.415 SLG, 9th in NL), despite having players with huge power potential, because they don't swing at pitches that are drivable. They don't steal a whole lot bases, either, having less steals than the Cardinals do- 50 vs. 63. Guys like Young and Stephen Drew should be swiping bases left and right, but they're not on base enough to make proper use of their speed.
The Diamondbacks have huge talent all over the diamond. Why they aren't better is not that hard to see: they simply don't have a sound approach to the game. When you compare them to a team like the Cardinals, who rank 2nd in the NL in batting average, on base percentage, and 3rd in slugging, the difference is clear. A lot of us like to criticise Hal McRae for the seeming lack of a plan that the Cardinal hitters show sometimes in the late innings of games, but either he or the assistant hitting coach, whose name escapes me at the moment, is definitely doing some kind of job with the Cards' hitters. They're patient, prepared, and for the most part at least, hit their pitch, rather than one that the pitcher wants them to swing at.
All stats were from Baseball Reference.
Just a few more things, as Columbo would never say:
Today is the seventh anniversary of Bud Smith's no hitter. Erik over at Future Redbirds had a very nice retrospective on Bud's career, both as a prospect and a major leaguer yesterday. Check it out. That was the last no hitter by a Cardinal pitcher; the closest since then that I can think of off the top of my head was the one hitter that Carpenter threw against the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre in 2005. That was the game that kicked off his historic run of seven innings, no more than three runs, etc. that hadn't been done since the dead ball era. I'm also doing a little piece on Mr. Smith's no-no over at my full time gig; it turned out pretty well.
Chris O' Leary did a pretty cool breakdown of Colby Rasmus' swing over at his site and likes what he sees. I know this season has been a bit of a letdown as far as Rasmus goes, but he still has the potential to be something truly special.
Two other notes actually related to last night's game. One, I was really disappointed not to get to see Jason Motte make his major league debut. I thought it was a perfect opportunity for him to get his feet wet in the big leagues; a six run lead and a team that lacks patience. Sadly, it wasn't to be. I suppose we'll just have to wait a bit longer.
Two, Chris Perez looked absolutely terrifying last night. The Diamondback announcers were in absolute awe of him, and these are guys who watched Valverde throw all year last year, so it's not as if they aren't acquainted with great stuff. Perez threw only one slider, and it was as nasty a pitch as you're ever going to see. Other than that, he just went with the heat, and the Arizona hitters looked utterly helpless. There are plenty of positives to take from this season, and seeing Perez come up and completely dominate in his second tour of duty is a huge one. He may just be the shutdown closer we all thought he could be after all.
Game is at 2:40 CT today. I'll have a game thread up about two. Take care of yourselves.