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What a long strange trip...

We’ve reached game #162. It’s been a wild ride and a somewhat disappointing ending but, all in all, it’s been a pretty good season – certainly much better than most of us expected. And, though the Cardinals’ season is over, I still love the game and enjoy the hell out of watching the playoffs. The best baseball, the best teams, the highest stakes. I wish the Cards were going to get to take part but I’ll enjoy them nonetheless. Maybe next year.

We know that #1 on Tony’s offseason wish list is a "difference maker" in the middle of the lineup. While I’m not yet sure we need that guy, I can’t deny that it would be nice to be able to pencil a Matt Holliday-type into our lineup 155 times in ’09. I also can’t deny that we have problems offensively. In fact, in many respects our offense is downright offensive but it’s reasonable to wonder how much of a priority it should be in the offseason.

For instance, our offense’s win probability added is 1.75 this year – more than 10 NL teams. The team’s batting average – tied for 1st in the NL. The team’s OBP – 2nd in the NL. What about our lack of "pop?" That’s why Tony wants some sock in the middle, right? Team slugging % is 5th in the NL. Ok, it’s not quite as good as our batting average or OBP, but it’s still above average in the NL and better than the Dodgers, who’ll be 1 of the NL’s 4 playoff teams. In all honesty, the top 4 NL teams by slugging % are the Cubs, Phillies, Marlins, and Brewers – at least 2 of which will make the playoffs and the other 2, or 1 if the Brewers pull this off, (disclaimer: I’m typing this Thursday night as I’m heading out of town for the weekend.) will have been in the race well into September.

Team OPS is 2nd in the NL. Team batting average w/ runners in scoring position – 2nd. Runs per game – 5th in the NL. There’s little question that the team has 2 or 3 pretty ginormous holes and absolutely no team speed but the offense really has done a solid job. Remember also, these numbers are somewhat skewed by the recent injuries to Ankiel and Mather b/c they’ve been replaced in the OF largely by Miles and Kennedy. Say what you want about Aaron Miles (few of us will defend Kennedy’s offense), he doesn’t offer the offense that either Ankiel or Mather do.

There are two areas on offense where this team has been pretty bad, however. First, as I alluded to a minute ago, is our overall lack of team speed. Each of the 4 teams who scored more runs than the Cards this year were better at stealing bases (though Florida was just barely) than the Cards were. We finished 11th in the league in stolen bases and 10th in the league w/ our 70.2 stolen base success rate. It would really help, though I don’t think it’s mandatory, if we could improve both of those numbers next year. I hasten to add, however, that Tony’s idea of a "difference maker" in the middle of the order (such as Holliday) will do little to help in this area.

The other element to the team’s offense that could use some work is the players’ patience at the plate. While the team’s OBP is the 2nd highest in the big leagues, only 1 NL team saw fewer pitches per plate appearance than the Cards. The Cards averaged 3.68 P/PA. The NL average was 3.81 P/PA and the Giants finished last in this category w/ 3.67 P/PA. There’s good reason to believe that if the Cards were a little more patient at the plate – even as patient as the average team – the team would score considerably more runs. It would mean the players were hitting in more favorable counts, forcing opposition pitchers to throw more pitches, and get into other teams’ bullpens earlier. In so doing, we would have the opportunity to get deeper into teams’ pens – thus facing more weaker pitchers.

If the Cards had seen even the league average number of pitches this season, our hitters would have seen 806 more pitches over the first 158 games. That averages out to 5.10 additional pitches per game. It doesn’t sound like much but at 3.81 P/PA, that’s an additional 1.34 plate appearances per game. The Cards’ offense scored 1 run every 8.37 plate appearances this season so, even if the Cards would have continued at the same rate, the additional 217 plate appearances would have increased the Cards’ run total by 25.9 runs.

The extra 26 runs would have added about 2.5 wins to the team’s total. Instead of waiting for the season to end, we’d be entering the final weekend w/ a chance at the Wild Card. Again, this all assumes that the offense doesn’t benefit from facing weaker pitchers, doesn’t benefit from facing tired pitchers more frequently, and doesn’t benefit from hitting in more favorable counts. These assumptions are all entirely based on the team’s present rate of runs per plate appearance. Being even league average in terms of seeing pitches would have made a substantial difference to the team’s results. If it had also led to, as it surely would have, facing more fatigued pitchers and weaker pitchers, and more favorable counts, the run total and win total would increase some more.  It's entirely possible that most of the present gap between the Wild Card leaders and the Cardinals could have been made up simply by our worst hitters being more selective at the plate.

So who were the team’s worst culprits in this regard? It should come as little surprise that the team’s best hitters this year saw the most pitches per PA. Among regulars, Glaus led the team at 4 P/PA, followed by Pujols, Ludwick, and Ankiel who all saw 3.8 P/PA. For Ankiel, particularly, he made tremendous strides at the plate raising his P/PA from 3.4 last year to 3.8 this year. Make no mistake, patience at the plate is a skill that is difficult to teach veteran ballplayers. It’s not a skill older players develop. If they never had it to begin with, they’re not likely to change so the improvement that Ankiel made in this regard is profound.

For what it’s worth, since becoming a Cardinal Felipe Lopez has seen 4.1 P/PA which is actually right in line w/ his career numbers. His early season #s w/ the Nats were 3.7 P/PA but he’s consistently been over 4 P/PA throughout his career. The problem lies w/ the weaker elements in the lineup, however. The Cardinals had 5 players w/ more than 350 PAs who saw 3.6 P/PA or fewer. Skip was at 3.6. Kennedy and Izturis were at 3.5, Molina at 3.4, and Aaron Miles saw 3.3 P/PA. It’s worth noting that Miles numbers, also, are right in line w/ his career numbers. He’s seen 3.3, 3.5, 3.4, and 3.3 P/PA in 2005, 06, 07, and 08, respectively. I’m stunned every time I read someone’s post that says that Aaron Miles "works counts well" b/c nothing could be further from the truth. He had his best season this year. That’s beyond dispute. But he definitely does not work counts well. Never has. Never will.

Now, it’s only natural that the better hitters would see more P/PA as pitchers are less inclined to pitch carefully to singles hitters like Skip, Molina, Miles, Kennedy, and Izturis. Pitchers are more likely to go right after them b/c they are less capable of inflicting the damage that Pujols, Ludwick, et al can inflict. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to argue that they wouldn’t be any better at the plate if they didn’t see more pitches. David Eckstein has routinely seen 3.8 P/PA throughout his career b/c, despite the fact that pitchers do go right after him, he has always had a tremendous ability to foul pitches off and make pitchers work. If Skip and the others had that sort of skill, they too might be able to get their P/PA up to league average or so. You think Tony would be a little happier if the team had scored an extra 26 runs (or more?)and were in the hunt for the Wild Card in the final weekend? Me, too.  Might he have been more vigilant about putting the best lineup on the field these past couple of weeks if the team were still in the playoff hunt?  I think so.

Well, this is it for the season. I’ll have a game thread up later. I’m hoping the final game of the season brings some lively discussion and I hope the team can close out the season w/ a win.