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The Rule of Three

I'm tired of writing about the bullpen. I really am. It seems sometimes that it's the only aspect of this team that I ever pay attention to. I've written about the Cardinals' pen problems over at my Rundown gig until I'm blue in the face. Wrote about it Monday. Wrote about it Tuesday. Hell, I'll probably write about it today too.

But you know what? As much of an asshole as I think Tony La Russa is a lot of the time, including during last night's postgame conference, the man absolutely had a point. When Derrick Goold of the P-D asked Tony about the bullpen problems, Tony responded with a tirade about the offense. Of course, I'm sure part of it was just to try and deflect attention from a difficult situation, but there was a lot of truth in what TLR said. If the Cards' offense had been able to put more than three lousy runs on the board against an average pitcher who was making his first start since coming off the disabled list, they probably wouldn't have found themselves in the position of relying on Kyle McClellan, or any other reliever for that matter, to try and be perfect just to keep the game tied. Come to think of it, if the bats had put some more runs on the board, we may not have seen Tony so afraid to go to the 'pen that he left Lohse out there when he was struggling because there aren't any other good options.

They started off well enough, of course. They took good at bats, they knocked a few hits around the park, and jumped out to an early lead. Then, as we've seen all too often this season, the bats simply went to sleep. The offense mustered only two hits after the third inning. Look, I love Jeff Suppan just as much as the next Cardinal fan, but he's not that guy. He's tough, but you've got to be able to get something going off of him.

I thought that maybe my impression was wrong, that the Cardinals don't just give up the ghost after about the third inning. Maybe it's just one of those things, I told myself. You're frustrated that the team seems to lose a lot of these games, and so you construct scenarios that don't really exist. So I headed over to Baseball Reference to check it out.

I wasn't just making it up.

In the first three innings, the Cardinals are an absolute juggernaut. They have an OBP of .374 and a SLG of .435. That's an OPS of over .800 for the whole team in the first three innings of the game. Not surprisingly, they've scored the bulk of their runs in innings one through three, with 185 of them coming in those frames. And to be perfectly frank, almost all of the damage has come in innings one and three. The second inning is actually one of their weakest. They've only managed to post a .723 OPS in the second this year. That's the single lowest inning OPS for the Cards. It seems a little bit random, but I think you could probably attribute it to the fact that we see the 7-9 hitters in the second inning an inordinate amount of the time. Even with the weak second, though, the Cards are fantastic in the first third of the game.

Unfortunately, once the Cards get into the fourth inning, they suddenly take a pretty significant downturn. In the middle third of the game, the Cardinals' OPS drops down almost forty points, to .772. The odd thing is that their slugging % actually goes up a couple of points; the loss is entirely in on base percentage. In innings 1-3, the Cards have drawn 148 walks this season. In innings 4-6, they've only taken 109 free passes. They've also garnered almost thirty less hits in the middle innings; 350 for 1-3 vs. 322 in 4-6. Altogether that's almost eighty less baserunners in innings 4-6 than in the first three innings.

This seems very odd to me. Ordinarily, you would expect to see hitters doing better against pitchers as the game goes on. The hitters get the benefit of having already seen the pitcher that evening; they should take better swings. In addition, the weakest part of the opponents' pitching staff is always the middle relief/ mop up type guys. When do you typically see those pitchers? Right in the middle of the game. Yet somehow the Cardinals become appreciably worse hitters in those innings. Overall, the Cards have scored only 151 runs in the middle innings.

In the late innings, it actually gets slightly worse, but that's not really all that surprising. Considering that you're likely seeing the other team's closer and setup relievers, you would expect the offensive numbers to go down in the last third of the game. (Unless, of course, you happen to be facing the Cards' bullpen, but that's a whole other issue.)

Overall, the Cards' OPS in innings 7-9 is .762, ten points lower than in the previous three innings. Again, though, when you consider the constant matchups and the calibre of pitcher you're likely facing, that's to be expected. I don't have the time to go through and look, but I would bet that pretty much every team hits worse when facing the back end of their opponents' bullpens.

What I really find puzzling is that dropoff in the middle. If the Cardinals performed in the middle innings to the same standard that they do in the first three, they would have a full three pythagorean wins on their record. I would be willing to bet it would be significantly more real wins.

Unfortunately, I don't have any idea how the team should go about fixing this issue. Why do they seem to lose patience in the middle innings? Even though they should be getting better looks at the opposing pitcher, the hitters just don't seem to have nearly as good of an approach that second and third time through the lineup. Their BABIP goes down significantly after the first three innings as well, which tells me that they aren't making the same quality of contact either. Is it simply a mental approach issue? Do these hitters let up after they put a run or two on the board? Or are they trying to do something different with their at bats, rather than just looking to get on base?

Personally, I always get irritated when I see Tony go off on a member of the media. Those guys have jobs to do, just like Tony himself does, and there's no reason for him to take his own frustrations about the team out on the scribes. When it comes down to it, Tony has it incredibly easy here. The kind of softballs he regularly enjoys here are absolutely nothing compared to the way they cover sports in New York, or Boston, or Philly, or even Chicago. But when he went on his little tirade last night, Tony had a definite point.

Where did the bats go? And for that matter, where do they go almost every night, right around the fourth inning?