12 for '12: A St. Louis Cardinals Season Preview

PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 12: National League All-Star Yadier Molina #4 of the St. Louis Cardinals, National League All-Star Matt Holliday #7 of the St. Louis Cardinals and National League All-Star Lance Berkman #12 of the St. Louis Cardinals pose during batting practice before the start of the 82nd MLB All-Star Game at Chase Field on July 12, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Throughout the offseason we've had posts on Viva El Birdos that have looked back at the 2011 and forward to 2012. These posts have focused on individual players, the bullpen, the starting rotation, and the offense as a whole. In honor of the Cardinals pursuing the franchise's twelfth World Series championship in this 2012 season, I thought we might look at the twelve stats I'm going to paying attention to as the season progresses.

FIRST BASE: 66 EXTRA-BASE HITS

By agreeing to a contract extension with Lance Berkman during the 2011 regular season, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak purchased an insurance policy of sorts against the possibility that all-universe first baseman Albert Pujols would no longer be a Cardinal in 2012. Pujols chose to leave the Cardinals for a bigger payday with Anaheim. Even with 2011 being Pujols's worst season, it was still quite good for a big-league hitter. Pujols posted a .906 OPS, .385 wOBA, and led St. Louis with 5.1 fWAR. In the campaign, he also tallied 66 extra-base hits (XBH).

Berkman is a very good fallback plan. In 2011, while manning right field for the Redbirds, he posted a .959 OPS and a .402 wOBA--both higher rate stats than Pujols. Berkman's fWAR was only 5.0, however, because of his awful defense in right field. By UZR, the lumbering Puma was worth -10.3 runs on defense in 2011. Berkman's defensive shortcomings will largely be wiped away by his move to first, where he's a roughly average first baseman according to the metrics. A season removed from his injury-plagued 2010 campaign (.781 OPS, .345 wOBA, 2.1 fWAR), health is a concern. This is why I'm focusing on a counting stat at first base: XBH.

Berkman made 587 plate appearances (PA) in 2011 to Pujols's 651 and had ten fewer XBH. Manager Mike Matheny will likely follow former manager Tony La Russa's handling of the aging Berkman, meaning Berkman will total far fewer PA than we had come to expect from Pujols. Once Allen Craig returns from the disabled list, he will likely get the call when Puma gets a day off. Can Berkman and Craig combine to equal Pujols's XBH total from 2011?

SECOND BASE: .345 OBP

Last season, the following Cardinals logged PA at the keystone: Skip Schumaker (341 PA), Nick Punto (109), Ryan Theriot (82), Tyler Greene (57), Daniel Descalso (37), Allen Craig (25), and Pete Kozma (10). The Cardinals managed a .345 OBP from their second base collective, thanks largely to players not named for the trade of cobbler (Schumaker posted a .333 OBP in 2011). This season, the defensively inept Schumaker will be replaced by the duo of Descalso and Greene. Both represent a significant defensive upgrade over the rangeless Schumaker, who was hands down MLB's worst defensive second baseman over the past three seasons. Descalso has a career big-league OBP of .333 and Greene one of .307. That being said, Descalso's OBP in AAA was .344 from 2009 through 2010 and Greene's was .373 in AAA from 2008 through 2011, so there is the potential for improving on their career MLB numbers. That the duo may very well receive a fair amount of PA's in the leadoff spot makes their OBP all the more important.

SHORTSTOP: .320 wOBA

To say that Ryan Theriot was an unmitigated disaster at shortstop last season would be accurate. Thankfully, the Cardinals replaced their weakest link by trading for Rafael Furcal at the trade deadline. For fans who had suffered through watching three months of Theriot at short, Furcal was a revelation: strong throwing arm, decent range, good at running the bases, and some power at the plate. Despite bad batted ball luck in the form of a .250 BABIP, Furcal posted a .323 wOBA in his 217 PA with the Cardinals largely due to the 7 homers he hit. Furcal's .163 ISO with the Cards in 2011 seems unlikely to be repeated; however, normal batted-ball luck will help make up for his decreased power. Averaging the publicly available projections for Furcal gives us a .320 wOBA for 2012. In 2011, MLB shortstops posted a .303 wOBA. If Furcal produces a .320 wOBA for the Cardinals this season, he will give them excellent value at shortstop.

THIRD BASE: 20 HR

After being acquired straight up from the Padres in a trade for Jim Edmonds, David Freese was named the 2008 Minor League Player of the Year by the Cardinals organization. With Triple A Memphis that season, Freese hit .306/.361/.550 with 26 home runs in 510 PA's. Freese's ZiPS projection for 2009 foresaw 18 homers and an ISO of .163. After an ankle injury delayed his big-league debut, Freese hit 10 round-trippers in 225 Memphis PA's. In the minors, Freese hit 68 minor-league home runs in 1,658 minor-league PA's. That's a homer in every 24 PA's. He was a third base prospect with power. But his power hasn't translated in the majors.

In 2010 with St. Louis, Freese hit 4 home runs in 270 PA's with a .108 ISO before an ankle injury ended his season. Last season, his power improved a bit with Freese making 363 PA's, hitting 10 dingers, and posting a .144 ISO. Before the 2011 postseason, Freese had whacked 15 home runs in 667 PA's in the big leagues; or, one dinger for every 44 PA's. During his incredible 2011 postseason, Freese tallied five homers in 71 PA's (one every 14 PA's), but that rate of home-run hitting in 2012 is highly unlikely. If Freese can stay healthy and hit for more power in 2012, the counting stat of 20 HR (a homer every 30 PA, if he totals 600 PA) is within his reach.

CATCHER: .401 SLG

Last season was Yadier Molina's best with the bat. He posted a line of .305/.349/.465/.814 which equaled a wOBA of .349. Molina's 32 doubles, 14 homers, and .311 BABIP were career highs that fed a SLG 73 points higher than his previous career high. With 2011 also counting as the worst defensive season of his career, this power surge was a big reason behind Molina's career-high 4.7 fWAR. Will Molina be able to hit for that high an average and slug at that high a level in 2012? An average of the publicly available projections on Fangraphs says he won't, but I'll be watching to see if Yadi is above or below his average projected .401 SLG, which, if reached, would mark the second-highest SLG of his career.

LEFT FIELD: 676 PA

Matt Holliday is not injury prone. He has tallied the following PA totals since becoming an everyday big-leaguer: 667, 713, 623, 670, 675, and 516. That 516 PA total is from 2011, when Holliday's torrid start was derailed by numerous injuries. A finger injury caused him to watch Game 7 of the 2011 World Series from the bench. Because of this, ignorant talking heads were yapping about his ability to the stay on the field and this yapping prompted Holliday to call in and challenge their baseless assertions. Holliday will take over the third spot in the batting order from Pujols, who averaged 676 PA per season since becoming the regular third-place hitter in 2003. The Cardinals will need that high a PA total from Holliday in the No. 3 slot this season.

CENTER FIELD: .331 BABIP

The single most important aspect of Jon Jay's offensive game is contact. Last season, Jay posted an abysmal walk rate of 5.6%. While Jay hits for okay power, he doesn't walk enough to justify playing if he doesn't hit for a high average. Luckily, with a .298 BA, he has done so during his short MLB career. Unfortunately, that high BA lies on the shaky foundation of a .344 BABIP over 826 career PA. How difficult will keeping that high a BABIP be? Since 1871, 50 players with 850 PA or more have managed a BABIP of .344 or higher. It's a list that includes names like Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Rod Carew, Ichiro Suzuki, Joe Jackson, George Sisler, Matt Holliday, Miguel Cabrera, Derek Jeter, and Matt Kemp. It's no surprise then that the majority of the projection systems see Jay's BABIP falling in 2012. The averaged BABIP projection for Jay from those found on his Fangraphs page is .331. Hopefully it doesn't fall much further than that.

RIGHT FIELD: .283 BA

With a .300/.385/.525 line, Carlos Beltran had a monster season in 2011 while with the Mets and Giants. Beltran's .910 OPS ranked him amongst the top 15 in MLB, ahead of Pujols and two points behind Holliday. A big part of that OPS was his .300 BA, which was helped by a .325 BABIP, which was a career high. Earlier this year, we looked at which Cardinals players had the luckiest BABIP based on Expected BABIP (xBABIP). Beltran was at the top of the lucky list with an xBABIP of .302 that was 23 points lower than his actual BABIP. This xBABIP works out to an Expected Batting Average (xBA) of .283. It just so happens that Beltran's career BA is .283 and, believe it or not, that the average BA of the publicly available projections on Beltran's Fangraph's page equals .283. Beltran will be a very good offensive player if he hits .283 in 2012 and an elite one if his average is higher than that.

STARTING ROTATION: 6.1 IP/GS

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the Cards rotation through the prism of average starts. Carpenter average 7.0 IP/GS; Lohse, 6.3 IP/GS; Garcia, 6.1 IP/GS; and Westbrook, 5.6 IP/GS. In 2010, Wainwright average 7.0 IP/GS. Carpenter will start the season on the disabled list due to nerve irritation. While he may be ready to pitch again in May, Carp is being replaced by Lance Lynn in the rotation. Wainwright is coming off of Tommy John Surgery. Needless to say, there are legitimate questions about the Cardinals rotation in 2012. In 2011, the rotation totaled 999 IP and averaged 6.1 IP/GS (six and one-tenth, not the baseball decimal six and one-third). Without Carpenter providing 237 IP and Wainwright unlikely to provide even 200 IP, can the rotation eat as many innings as it did in 2011? To do so, it needs to average 6.1 IP per start. If a starter records an out in seventh inning of a game, it's been a longer outing than the average from 2011.

BULLPEN: 9.9 SwStr%

For all the bullpen woes of 2011, the Cardinals relief corps posted a swinging strike rate (SwStr%) of 9.9, which was slightly higher than the MLB average reliever SwStr% of 9.6. With its SwStr%, it's no surprise that the Cardinals relief corps posted an 8.18 K/9 that was above the league average for relievers of 7.91. Jason Motte (11.9%), Marc Rzepczynski (11.7%), and Fernando Salas (11.2%) were above average in their ability to induce swinging strikes last season. Gone from the pen are Lance Lynn (10.4%), Octavio Dotel (13.4 SwStr%), and Eduardo Sanchez (13.0%). The Cardinals add J.C. Romero, who, with a SwStr% of 9.6%, was exactly average in 2011 over 24.2 IP. Rounding out the pen will be Mitchell Boggs (9.0%), Scott Linebrink (8.7%), and Kyle McClellan (6.2%), who were all below average at inducing swings-and-misses last season. The lack of swing-and-miss stuff in the 2012 bullpen is cause for concern.

BENCH: .650 OPS PINCH-HITTING

Last season, Cardinals pinch-hitters posted a .650 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) in 224 PA. This was the third-highest OPS for pinch-hitters in the National League behind the Reds (.788) and Astros (.711) and equaled a 114 sOPS+. (For some context, the Cards offense--which led the NL in OPS--had an OPS+ of 113 in 2011.) The bench players that will start the 2012 season are short on big-league experience. Descalso leads the potential bench players with 412 PA and Greene's 359 PA come in second. After that, the players have tallied very few PA in the majors: Tony Cruz (72 PA), Shane Robinson (34 PA), Matt Carpenter (19 PA), and Erik Komatsu (0 PA). Chock-full of young players as opposed to grizzled veterans, this is not a Tony La Russa bench. How will it perform while the club awaits the return of Craig?

DEFENSE: 0.14 PARK ADJUSTED DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY

Bill James created a system for measuring team defense by looking at how many balls in play a club converts into outs. Because converting batted balls into outs is easier in some parks than others, Baseball Prospectus has added a park-adjusted factor to James's defensive efficiency metric and given it the nifty acronym "PADE." The Cardinals' offense-over-defense approach to constructing the 2011 roster is well-chronicled. Nonetheless, the Cardinals were still pretty efficient at converting batted balls into outs. The Cardinals' 2011 PADE of 0.14 ranked them fourteenth in MLB. With Theriot gone, Schumaker no longer playing second base, and Berkman playing first base instead of right field, I'm interested to see how much the Cardinals' defense improves this season.

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