Two La Russa Tropes in one: Yesterday the Cardinals proved that You Can't Look Past Today's Game, losing to a team that's staked an early claim as the worst in the league, but also that if you just keep winning two out of three you're in pretty good shape as a team. 6-3, and as one Astros-Cardinals whammy, Wandy v. Pujols, falls out of the firmament it's time to induct another one: Bud "of all people" Norris v. the Cardinals in general.
Norris has pretty good minor league numbers to his credit, and a fair adjustment to Major League ball in 2009, so while it might be less cathartic than an Albert Pujols home run it seems like this whammy could end by default, when he proves effective against the rest of the National League. To the Cardinals' credit, they drew their walks; Norris's four walks per nine across AAA and MLB in 2009 would have been a nice test case for the new, Mark McGwire Cardinals, had they followed that plate discipline up with some runs batted in. Since the team failed to walk, for that matter, after Norris left the game following the fifth inning, they remain on the bad side of league average in that category, despite none other than Colby Rasmus remaining fourth in the league in it.
For Mark McGwire, to this point, middling returns, though dingers have indeed been hit at a prodigious rate—only Arizona has more. But our other coach-savant has hit all his marks so far: through nine games St. Louis pitchers have walked just 22 batters, tops in all of baseball. Everyone's pitching in (not a pun) in his own way: even Mitchell Boggs managed to have his relief meltdown without allowing a base on balls!
How good have they been so far? If the Cardinals staff, all of it, were one pitcher, the Cardinals wouldn't be able to afford him—with Lohse's walkless performance they're down to 2.47 walks per nine innings, or a little lower than Adam Wainwright's career average.
Of course, they've given some of that back in a low strikeout rate—the league average is a little high in the early going, 7.3 per nine against a 2009 mark of 7.1, but the Cardinals remain a full strikeout below it. As anybody who's calculated FIP in his head, or attempted to, knows, they come out ahead on the Dave Duncan plan by trading a strikeout for a walk, but the fact remains that they're doing it.
For the 2010 Cardinals, though, the usual story about starters who pitch to contact skewing the strikeout totals is misleading, or at least not the full story—what leaves this year's club in the strikeout dust is that none of its relievers have brought the strikeouts in the way that their job requirements demand. In the NL this year starters have struck out 6.9 batters per nine innings, relievers 8.03; for the Cardinals those numbers are 6.2 and 6.3.
It's just another way of saying what we already know: the relief pitching is not there yet. Their walk rate's high, too; 4.34, against the starters' 2.2. Yesterday they didn't take the loss, for the first time this year, but Boggs pitched as though he was looking to keep the streak alive. Boggs in particular—I'm not sure how the Astros avoided swinging through his fastball even once, but I guess you have to have at least some idea of where it's going to keep the hitters from knowing exactly where it's going.
Through half of April Boggs, for all our offseason excitement about his newly explosive fastball, is in some danger of spending part of his bullpen internship in Memphis, where Fernando Salas has thrown three strikeouts in as many scoreless innings. (While I'm playing bullpen GM, what is VEB favorite/dancing zombie Casey Mulligan doing repeating Palm Beach after ending 2009 as a completely capable Texas League reliever? He struck out 34 in 28 innings in his last trip to the FSL, and eight strikeouts in four innings later he appears to still be too good for the low minors.)
Tonight the Mark McGwire side of the Cardinals have a chance to pad their walk totals against Oliver Perez, who is looking to remain an enigmatic young left-hander for a record sixth straight year. (Even Rick Ankiel gave up and started hitting at this point.) He's been playing this same game so long, and started so young, that he first tantalized Major League GMs by striking out a batter an inning with mediocre control in 2002, as a Padres teammate of Ray Lankford. But he's still just one baseball-year older than David Freese.
For the Cardinals, it's a matter of seeing if Chris Carpenter is done being bad in his peculiar way. I'm still a week from being able to watch him on TV, but it'll be interesting, if he's still ineffective, to see how long his gameplan would remain unchanged in the face of different results.
(Dear gods of baseball: it would be more interesting still to see him effective. Yours sincerely, danup.)