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First Month Surprises

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Was it father-son day at the ballpark yesterday? In the bottom of the 4th or 5th, Lohse popped up to 2nd and Fontenot caught the ball standing next to Derrek Lee. It looked like it was "Take your son to work day."

There have been a lot of surprises for the Cards the first 5 weeks or so of this season, not the least of which is their record and the fact that they're hovering around 1st place. Certainly, Wellemeyer, Looper, and Lohse have all been surprisingly good, though it appears that Wellemeyer may be coming down to Earth. Three of his last 4 starts have been below average. Few of us expected Looper to pitch well this year but we didn't expect it last either and on May 17 of last year, his ERA was 2.29. Hopefully he can keep his ERA around its current level. Even if it increased half a run, it would still be much better than most of us expected. Lohse has been excellent as well, yesterday's 4th inning notwithstanding.

Wainwright's been positively fantastic -- better than I and most expected from him but I'm not sure I'd call his start surprising. The 2nd half of last year he emerged as one of the better starters in the NL. He's begun this year as one of the BEST starters in the NL.

Kyle McClellan -- need I say more?

The lack of homers has been somewhat surprising as well. So far, we have only 23 homers in 31 games. This is a pace for 120 homers for the season. Last year's version hit 141 homers and I, and I think most of us, expected more homers from this year's bunch. Pujols has just 6 -- not awful, but on pace for just 31. Duncan has the same # of homers as Molina and Skip Schumaker. Glaus has only 1. Maybe as the weather warms up, the Cards will be able to pick up their pace a little. Also, could our low homer total be a result from so many games at home? Busch III is notorious for surpressing homers and we've played a surprising 20 of 31 games at home so far this year. Maybe as the Cards play more games in smaller parks, the homer totals will increase.

Albert Pujols has reached base in every game this season -- a streak, of course, of 31 games. Again, I'm not sure if this is surprising but it's a hell of a feat, nonetheless. In 2004, Barry Bonds had an OBP of .609 and an OPS of 1.421. He walked an unbelievable 232 times that season but his longest streak of reaching base was 29 games. Pujols is walking in some pretty high cotton right now. Can there be any doubt as to who the best player in the game is -- 6 homers or not?

The defense, IMO, has been quite a pleasant surprise. No one expected Troy Glaus to be Rolen but he's been solid. In fact, he's first in the NL in RZR. There was some concern about Ankiel's ability to handle CF but he's been terrific. It's been 3-4 years since he handled CF as well as Ankiel's handled it so far this year, yesterday's misplay notwithstanding. Everyone's entitled to one, right? Like Glaus, Ankiel is first in the NL in RZR among CF's. There was concern that Izturis was no longer a solid SS and quite a bit of angst among the faithful about his numerous errors this spring. He's been very good as well and is 2nd in the NL in RZR. Schumaker's been very good everywhere he's played. The bottom line is that the new guys are all performing, defensively, as well as or, in most cases, better than their predecessors.

The biggest surprise IMO, however, is our walk differential. Our hitters are first in baseball in receiving walks -- 150. The team OBP is 2nd in the majors to the Cubs. From the mound, our pitchers have yielded the 4th fewest walks in the majors -- just 92. That means that we've had a net gain of 58 walks so far this season -- almost 2 per game. However, the surprises don't stop there.

Schumaker is seeing 1/2 a pitch more per PA than last year and Ankiel's P/PA is up .38 over last year. Still, many of the Cardinal regulars are actually seeing FEWER pitches per PA than last year. Pujols, Kennedy, Duncan, Molina have actually seen their P/PA fall from last year. Duncan's is down about the same amount that Skip's has gone up but he's walking at a higher rate. How about that? Fewer P/PA but a higher BB rate. Pujols, too, is walking more often despite actually seeing fewer pitches per PA.

To me, this says 1 of two things. The first possibility is that we've seen a lot worse pitching so far this year than we saw last year -- pitchers who walk batters more often than the average pitcher. If this is the case, our hitters' lives are going to get considerably more difficult over the course of the next 5 months.

The other possibility is that our hitters have a lot better pitch recognition than they did last year. They're hitting the pitches they should hit (as opposed to taking them or fouling them off) and taking the pitches they should take. Hopefully, this is the correct answer but I haven't explored the first possibilty at all. It may be that some combination of both is true. If this possibility is correct, obviously, our hitters deserve a lot of credit. Hal McRae, though, would deserve a ton of credit as well. He's taken a lot of heat from Cards' fans over the last year and a half or so but the entire team can't have better pitch recognition w/o some help from the hitting coach. One or two people maybe, and I'd bet he's had a lot of influence on Skip and Ludwick but, for an entire team to have better pitch recognition, he's got to have had a ton of influence on them and deserves credit.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a Sunday if I didn’t piss people off, so here goes:

The fact that LaRussa extended Wainwright too long vs. the Astros last week had an effect on Friday’s start vs. the Cubs. Wainer was removed after 85 pitches w/ the Cards up 1 in the 7th Friday. Tony almost even admitted to being careful w/ Wainwright after throwing the 2nd most pitches in the majors this year. If we’re going to compete in the NL Central, we’re going to have to win games against the Cubs and, normally, you’d want your best pitcher in the game w/ a 1 run lead in the 7th. Wainer’s FB was still in the low 90’s and his pitch count wasn’t too high. He had just given up a single but they weren’t exactly hitting lasers off him. Tony pulled him to be careful w/ the pitch count after having him toss 126 vs. the Astros.

There are 2 problems w/ this. The first is that the pitch count in the Cubs game becomes irrelevant after having thrown so many vs. the Astros. We know that there is a relationship between pitching WHEN TIRED and arm injuries. There is no relationship between THROWING OFTEN or the total number of pitches thrown and arm injuries. Keeping Wainwright at 85 can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube after he threw 126 in the previous game. It may seem counterintuitive, but that’s what we know, empirically about pitch counts and arm injuries. See Baseball Between the Numbers if you need to for reference.

Second, the Cubs are a tougher team than the Astros. Tony felt forced into pulling Wainwright against the better team after leaving him in there against the weaker team. Does this make sense? Tony knew he’d be facing the Cubs in his next start and, if he believes that a pitcher needs to throw fewer pitches in the subsequent start after throwing a lot in the previous start, it makes no sense to risk his having to be pulled early against the Cubs. If anything, it would make more sense, though still be wrong empirically, to save him for the Cubs start by having him throw 85 against the Astros. In 2007, the Cards had no pitcher finish in the top 30 in Pitcher Abuse Points. In 2006, Jeff Suppan was 23rd, and Carp was 38th. In 2005, Marquis, strangely finished 9th, and Carp was 39th. In ’04, Woody Williams finished 23rd. Carp wasn’t in the top 60. In 2003, the year Tony had no bullpen whatsoever and, IMO, overextended Woody and Matt Morris to compensate for the loss of Izzy and turmoil in the pen, Woody finished 7th in baseball in PAP. Right now, Wainwright is 2nd. It’s early, but it’s problematic. Having Wainer go 85 the start after throwing 125 isn’t going to solve the problem either, regardless of the fact that he felt fine after the Houston game. It is a big deal.

The Cards, so far this year, are 4-1 in rubber games -- losing only to the Giants at home 2 sundays ago. They're also 2-2 on Sundays -- so that makes today's game another kind of rubber game. Let's get a win for the home team as we finish off this homestand.