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forever young

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programming note: i'm going on vacation next week and will not be doing much blogging --- as little as possible. i've lined up two or three more-than-capable guest hosts to take the reins while i'm gone, and there'll be a Q+A with 1st-round draftee adam ottavino at some point to hold space. as for me, i'll be on the beach wiping sand outta the kids' mouths and trying to check out the beauties without my wife noticing. i depart sunday afternoon, so regular posting through that morning; guest hosts at the helm monday 14th through sunday 20th.

this damn division better be locked down by the time i get back.

i'd like to tie off a little thread from the other day, vis-vis the cardinals' deployment of rookies. to refresh your memory, i learned tuesday that in the la russa era only two cardinals have amassed 500 or more at-bats in their rookie season: albert pujols and joe mcewing. i wondered aloud how stl's rookie-playing-time pattern compared with that of other perennial playoff teams; here, as promised, is a summary of the comparison. the column headings represent at-bat totals, broken down into 100-ab increments; each cell shows the number of rookies to fall within the corresponding at-bat range between 1996 and 2006:

500+ 400s 300s 200s 100s
yanks 3 0 1 4 4
cards 2 0 2 3 8
red sox 1 1 3 2 3
astros 1 1 2 2 3
braves 0 1 2 9 5
giants 0 1 2 3 8

for those of you who just gotta know, i'll post the names of all the rookies represented in this table down in the comments thread.

turns out the cardinals give full-time jobs to rookies about as often as other year-in-year-out contenders -- ie, rarely. i guess such teams simply have fewer openings and a lower tolerance for risk. the six clubs combined for only seven 500-at-bat rookie seasons over the last decade, and only 11 seasons of 400+ at-bats; in an average year, these teams together filled only one opening with a rookie on an everyday (or semi-everyday) basis.

la russa does use quite a number of rookies, but he generally works them in around the margins -- just about every season he gives some rookie 100+ at-bats. the braves take the same general approach but give their rooks larger understudy roles -- 200+ at-bats for one freshman every year.

this little inquiry began with a quick look at chris duncan, whose two homers yesterday leapfrogged him into 3d place on the st louis rookie HR leaderboard (TLR era). he'll probably pass jd drew before the year's out and finish 2d only to pujols in this category. we had quite a little discussion going on last night's postgame thread about duncan's potential, a subject i wrote about at considerable length during spring training (see this post and that one). can he slug .550 ? blast 30 hr a season? the way he's going right now, it sure seems like it. but insofar as he never hit more than 21 homers in any minor-league season, nor slugged higher than .473, it seems a little premature to start penciling him in for all-star/mvp production. i think he's playing over his head, as rookies often do before the league figures out how to pitch them; he's almost certain to come back to earth at some point. that's not a knock on duncan; he's hitting so well that he can backslide a ways and still be a decent run producer. the marked improvement in his batting eye this summer has been encouraging; although old for a rookie (he's 25), duncan still has a little bit of development trajectory left and might continue to raise his game for a few more years. from a payroll standpoint, the cardinals desperately need a young position player who can hold down an everyday job while making the minimum; duncan might very well be up to that. but if he puts up a .270 / .360 / .480 line over a full season, with 24 hr or something, he's a smashing success; anything more than that i'll accept as a pleasant surprise.

how does duncan's debut stack up against other great cardinal rookie years? using the lazy man's measurement of production, OPS, here are st louis' best rookie performances (minimum 250 plate appearances) dating back to 1970:

year player OPS
2001 pujols 1.013
2006 duncan .955
1970 jose cruz .802
1979 oberkfell .784
1983 v slyke .778
1984 pendleton .777
1999 drew .764
1974 mcbride .763
1995 mabry .752

i'm pretty sure that's a complete list; if you find somebody i missed, please post the info and i'll amend the table. john rodriguez's ops last year was .818 in 176 plate appearances, by the way. duncan currently has 151 plate appearances, so he has another 99 to go before he "qualifies" for this list. but unless he goes into a terrible slump and puts up, say, a .600 ops for those 99 pa, he will end up with the 2d-best ops for any st louis rookie of the last 37 years. these numbers are not adjusted for the rising/falling offensive norms of disparate eras, but that's a moot point given duncan's massive lead over ev'yone else. offensive standards are higher now than they were 20 years ago, but not that much higher.

every player on this list became a longtime major-league regular; five of them went to at least one all-star game, and two won an mvp award. so regardless of whether his long-term ops stabilizes at .950 or at .825, it's an excellent bet that chris duncan will establish himself as a good everyday player -- at least league average for his position. and that's fantastic news.

yesterday's other rookie, tony reyes, was released from the 2-seam straitjacket for the 2d consecutive start and got his 2d straight win. as discussed in this post, when reyes complies with the organizational imperative to get groundballs, he's not a very good pitcher. yesterday, for the 2d straight game, he got to do it his way -- 2 groundballs (one a dp), 7 flyouts, and 5 ks. whether or not he gets a chance to make it 3 in a row may depend on jeff weaver and jason marquis; unless one of them stinks it up this weekend, i suspect it's back to memphis for the kid.

who, if i haven't mentioned it lately, sports the best era, best whip, best k/w, etc etc, of all st louis starting pitchers not named carpenter . . . .