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it's all in the RISP

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at his blog the other day, derrick goold did some pencil-n-paper noodling vis-vis albert's performance with runners in scoring position, trying to get a read on how realistic it is that albt might challenge hack wilson's single-season rbi record. david pinto ran a similar exercise yesterday at baseball musings. head over to their sites to read their conclusions; what jumped out at me was this fact from one of pinto's tables: albert has batted with more runners on base this year than any nat'l league hitter except andruw jones.

i found that pretty heartening, insofar as one of the big concerns coming into the year was "who's going to set the table for albert?" the cardinals must be faring pretty well in the #1 and #2 slots; i went over to to check the team stats, broken down by batting-order slot.

there i learned that the st louis leadoff men have a league-best .397 on-base pct, 23 points better than the next-best nl leadoff corps (san francisco). fyi, stl's leadoff corps consists almost entirely of eckstein -- he has taken all but 8 at-bats out of that slot this year -- but for the sake of discussion i'll maintain the collective reference. surprisingly enough, st louis is the only team hitting better than .300 out of the leadoff spot -- .327, or 29 points better than the next closest team (the marlins). the cards have only drawn 17 walks out of the leadoff slot, 13th among the 16 nl teams, but they have been hit 10 times, which leads the league.

but despite the great on-base performance, the stl leadoff men are only 10th in the league in runs scored. there are two reasons for that: they've only gotten 10 extra-base hits, which is dead last among nl leadoffers, and they've only stolen 4 bags, which ranks 15th. which means that while eckstein is getting on base a ton, he's not getting himself into scoring position. eck has only reached scoring position under his own power -- via stolen base or extra-base hit -- 14 times, far and away the lowest total in the league. the next lowest total is 22, by the milwaukee leadoff guys; the league average is 27.

i'm gonna get accused of "trashing" eckstein now, so let's fend off those 40 posts if we can: he's a fine leadoff man. i'm a big fan of the guy; i even named him the highlight of the cardinals' 2005 season. but i want to understand how this offense functions, and the facts are the facts. eck is a great leadoff guy, but his lack of power and speed make his high OBP less valuable than it might appear at the surface.

stl's #2 hitters have come a long way since encarnacion was banished from that tier on the lineup card. they now rank 11th in the league in OBP at .336, which is a huge improvement; the non-juan #2s (mostly rodriguez, luna, and speeze) are reaching base at a .357 clip, which is about the league average for that lineup niche. but they, like eckstein, can't get themselves past 1st base. the #2 hitters have only 11 extra-base hits this season, all doubles, and only 1 stolen base, so they have propelled themselves into scoring position only 12 times -- less often even than eckstein, and only half the league average for #2 hitters.

this may not be a bad thing, insofar as getting to 2d base leaves 1st base open for pujols; maybe the cardinals don't want their #2 men to cultivate that particular skill. if i were a little more facile with linear weights, i could calculate what the tradeoff is, and whether or not the cardinals are coming out ahead on the deal. for now, let's simply appreciate what pujols is doing -- not only driving in runs at a prodigious rate, but seemingly doing it the hard way, pushing guys almost all the way around the basepaths.

but wait -- there's more. per goold, this season albert has about one at-bat per game with men in scoring position, the same frequency of RISP at-bats he had last year -- when walker/edmonds batted second. how can this be, if the #1 and #2 hitters aren't getting themselves into scoring position very often? the answer lies at the bottom of the order -- the #8 hitters, who essentially hit four slots "in front of" albert. like eckstein, the #8s (primarily miles) lead their league counterparts in OBP, at .374; they've put themselves in scoring position 18 times via stolen base or xbase hit, and they frequently get bunted over by the pitcher or moved into scoring position by an eckstein/rodriguez single.

those factors not only explain why the cards are near the top of the league in 8th-slot runs scored; they also help explain how pujols keeps coming to bat with men on base.