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The New Kids on the Block

It’s disappointing that we couldn’t win that game last night. Blanton pitched well – 67 of his 106 pitches were strikes and Looper was just about as good. It had all the makings of a shootout, provided our offense could keep up, but the two pitchers really threw well. The 2 homers Looper gave up (he leads the staff w/ 19 HR surrendered) were too much for our offense to overcome, however.

In the pen, the news was quite a bit better for Adam Wainwright. He had a great, 80 pitch, bullpen session yesterday and remarked on how well he threw. There’s still no indication whether he’ll return to the rotation or the pen but he could be due to begin a rehab assignment following the simulated game he’s going to throw Tuesday. Good news, indeed!

On the Chris Duncan front, things aren’t so rosy. He’s apparently suffering from a herniated disk in his neck – the same sort of injury that debilitated Larry Walker during his final season in St. Louis. According to the p-d article on Duncan, a specialist said that this type of injury "has to be considered career threatening." Wow! As one who remembers how difficult it was for Walker to play w/ his very well-publicized injury, I’m willing to forgive Duncan his poor performance this year. Career-threatening? How disappointing for a fairly young guy who could have emerged as a very good, young power hitter developed straight out of the system. He’s since been passed by Ludwick, Ankiel, Schumaker, and probably Mather even if he is able to return to form. It does speak to how well the Cards’ system has performed of late while creating a genuine question as to whether or not Duncan will figure prominently into the Cards’ plans ever again. Good luck, Chris – I’m pulling for you.

On that note, so far the Cardinals have had 10 players make their major league debuts w/ the team this year. That’s usually a characteristic of a bad team, yet the Cards are in contention for the division and the Wild Card and are, by most people’s estimations, playing better than everyone thought possible. I don’t honestly know when the last time the Cards had 10 players make their major league debuts in one season, but I can tell you it hasn’t happened in the previous ten years. I went back to the 1999 season, and no Cards’ team between 1999 and 2007 had as many as 10 make their major league debut in that season. They’ve gotten quite a bit out of their young players this year.

Clearly, some of the youngsters have played better than others, but those who have played well would seem to be lined up to play vital roles as the Cards make their playoff push. Collectively, the hitters (Barton, Mather, Stavinoha, and Washington) have combined for a slash line of .246/.320/.396 – an OPS of .716. The NL league-average OPS is .742 so our first year hitters have, for the most part, held their own so far. The pitchers haven’t fared quite so well but that’s largely due to the pretty crummy numbers put up by Boggs and Parisi in their 57 combined innings.

In terms of WPA, win shares (and win shares above bench), and WARP1, McClellan, Perez, Mather and Barton have performed quite well. The table below shows how the 10 players have performed so far this year.

McClellan 0.55 6 3 2.7
Mather 0.60 1 1 0.9
Barton 0.05 2 0 0.8
Perez -0.20 2 1 0.9

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to include the others in the table as they’ve (so far) been mostly fillers. Break glass only in case of an emergency! Nonetheless, as a group they’ve been worth 9 win shares (3 full wins) and, according to BP, nearly 4 wins above replacement. (BP and the Hardball Times calculate win shares and wins above replacement differently.) Regardless of whether you prefer the BP or the Hardball Times’ method better, the 10 Cardinal rookies have provided genuinely meaningful contributions to this season’s success and it’s likely to continue.

If the Cards are going to compete for the playoffs, it stands to reason that McClellan, Garcia and, hopefully, Perez will all play integral roles in helping the team maintain leads and giving the offense opportunities to come from behind. On offense, Mather, in particular, seems to be very important down the stretch. With Duncan hurt, and Skip struggling to reach base against lefties, Mather will likely become the left fielder when facing a southpaw. He’ll also provided necessary sock off the bench when a pinch-hitter is needed and can play all 3 OF positions. Barton’s due back from the DL soon as well and can also hit lefties and, certainly, give the team a pinch-runner when one is needed.

It’s generally not a good thing when a team is forced into using a lot of rookies and is usually indicative of a bad team rather than one contending for a playoff spot. Certainly Boggs and Parisi were forced into duty b/c of injuries to the rotation and weren’t quite ready to be thrust into such a role. McClellan, on the other hand, has emerged as one of the best, if not the best option from the pen and Mather, Perez, and Garcia have given indications that they can be valuable contributors the rest of the way as well. The improved farm system is truly beginning to bear fruit.

Finally, there’s been a lot of discussion about the Cards’ problems scoring runs, particularly in the middle of games. We’ve done quite well in innings 1-3 and pretty poorly, overall, the rest of the way. It’s not that surprising that we’ve struggled late in games – most teams do. These are the innings when teams use their best relievers and take advantage of platoon matchups so we probably shouldn’t expect our offense to perform as well late in games as they do in innings 1-6. But what about innings 4-6? Shouldn’t we perform at least as well during the 2nd 3 innings as we do during the first 3? I may have found one reason for the disparity.

Below is a table of the number of plate appearances from the Cardinal hitters who have had the most PA’s for the season, divided into 3 groups. See if you notice what I noticed.

Innings 1-3 Innings 4-6 Innings 7-9
Molina 112 125 115
Pujols 162 136 123
Kennedy 83 83 93
Izturis 85 99 104
Glaus 159 151 136
Skip 159 117 133
Ankiel 134 123 120
Ludwick 137 126 131
Miles 93 87 104

Pujols has 26 more PA’s in the first 3 innings than in the 2nd 3 innings and Skip has 42 more PA’s in the first 3 innings than in the 2nd 3. That might have something to do w/ it. Molina and Izturis actually have more PA’s in innings 4-6 and Adam Kennedy has the same number of PA’s in the 2nd 3 innings than in the first 3. Aaron Miles is very close.

What I see is that our best hitters – Albert, Ludwick, Glaus, Ankiel and Skip all have several more PA’s early in the game than they do in the middle. And only Skip and Ludwick see their PA’s increase in the last third. Pujols and Glaus, in particular, see a big dropoff in their number of PA’s in innings 7-9. Tough to make that late inning comeback if we can’t get our best 2 hitters (or 2 of our best 3) to the plate!

In the middle of the game, when our offense is struggling the most, our middle infielders and our catcher are receiving a disproportionately high percentage of the PA’s. As good as Miles and Yadi have been at the plate this year, they’re still very limited in the amount of offensive help they provide. Would we not rather have Pujols, Ludwick, or Glaus at the plate than Miles or Yadi? I certainly would.

So it appears that at least part of our problem in the middle of the game is that our worst hitters are hitting more frequently than our good hitters. Remember, if the middle infielders and Yadi are batting more frequently in the middle innings, the pitcher’s spot is also coming up more frequently in these innings. So we’re getting a disproportionately high number of PA’s in these innings from the pitcher, the catcher, and our middle infielders – not exactly a recipe for great offensive output.

Now, some of you will point out, correctly, that if our batters were hitting better in innings 4-6, then the lineup would turn over more frequently and it would give Pujols, et al more PA’s in these innings. So the other part of the problem is that people like Kennedy and Izturis are so suck-tastic at the plate. If they were even league-average for their position, we’d get Albert more PA’s in the middle of the game and, consequently, we’d score more runs in innings 4-6.

The point is that I don’t think that our hitters get complacent or lose concentration or are less patient or less aggressive in the middle innings. I think that the main problem is that our best hitters aren’t getting to the plate enough during those innings AND that our worst hitters are so incredibly bad (thus helping to create problem #1). Discuss at your leisure.

I’ll be up w/ a game post in a few hours as the Cards try to squeeze out another series win on a Sunday afternoon. I really love the Phils’ offense so a series win would be good to get as we finally get the players a day off tomorrow.