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The 2009 Cardinals: A Positional Progress Report

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Well—eventually the pitching was going to go from Dennis Eckersley 1990 to, uh, Joel Pineiro 2009, and the offense still isn't there. Even within the win streak the team hit .231/.302/.406, which would nestle them, for the year, tightly between Florida and San Diego at the bottom of the National League. 

Baseball Reference's team splits are an interesting way of measuring the team's offensive malaise, as the new B-R's splits pages can now illustrate a team's production at individual positions relative to league averages. First base, for instance, is obviously the team's strong point—offensive production there, no thanks to Chris Duncan and his piddling 0-4 performance on May 2, is 54% better than the league average at the position. Aside from that day Pujols is the only Cardinal to stand at first base this season, but things are a little more nebulous around the diamond. 

In second place—well, who do you think it is? The Cardinals have lost their two, three, and four options on offense for significant portions of the season. The most consistent second banana still on the active roster to this point has been Skip Schumaker, OPS .777, who's probably spent most of his team watching his UZR/150 on Fangraphs. (It's going up! I think!) Chris Duncan and Colby Rasmus, last outfielders standing, have found whatever Ludwick and Ankiel were struggling with on the DL contagious. 

So second place is—and I've cheated, here, as only bloggers can—the pitchers. Their .395 OPS is 24% better than the NL average. The only subpar starter to this point has been Joel Pineiro, who nearly won himself the game yesterday. I think about this a lot: How many runs has this offensive outburst earned the Cardinals?

Well, the most basic Runs Created formula—OBP times SLG times plate appearances—you can estimate that the Cardinals pitchers have Helped Themselves to 4.1 runs in their 105 plate appearances. If they were hitting .135/.187/.167, like the NL pitchers—at this point all position players with an isolated discipline below .052 should tip their caps and spend tomorrow in a convenient batting cage—they'd have created... 3.3 runs.

As Rick Pitino will tell you, Babe Ruth isn't walking through that door. Rick Ankiel isn't walking through that door, hopefully. The Cardinals pitchers have done enough to get this team off the floor; they aren't going to lift this team up with their hitting. (That said, half a win over the course of the season... I'll take that. Keep stressing pitchers' hitting, TLR and co., right up to but not including the point where it deludes you into thinking that Adam Wainwright is a valid first bat off the bench.)

Hitting the list at number three is Yadier Molina are the catchers, 13% above average. I hadn't noticed it, because he's not hitting .300 and it's always seemed pretty easy to judge his offensive performance by his empty averages, but Molina's off to a start that's a marked improvement over his nice 2008, even after his awful May. The difference is mostly in his walk rate; after spending last year below the aforementioned pitcher's line he's walked 15 times in 134 at-bats in 2009. 

Pegging average almost perfectly, to this point, are left and right field. In left you've got Chris Duncan, mainly, who's cooled off sufficiently to make all of the breathless comeback articles seem a little premature but remains an average corner bat, and a bunch of mixed leftovers, among them Joe Thurston's shining moment (5/21 never forget), a little Colby Rasmus, and Skip Schumaker's 10 fragmented games as defensive stand-in. In right there's Ryan Ludwick, Rasmus holding down the fort for six games, and then Stavinobinson's ugly fill-in job.

Ankiel is apparently the right fielder of the foreseeable future, but the performance of the depth to this point has been all the time I've needed to appreciate Thudwick, wherever he ends up. That switcheroo leaves Colby Rasmus to patrol center field for the foreseeable future, but we won't be seeing center in bold for a while, he said, allusively.

Meanwhile, on to the middle infield, which is just barely below average to this point. It surprised me to see them so close, with sOPSes+ of 96 (2B) and 94 (SS). It turns out it's mostly fancy bookkeeping—take a look at this: 

           G  PA  AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO   BA  OBP   SLG   OPS tOPS+
Barden     1   4   4  1  1  0  0  1   1  0  1 .250 .250 1.000 1.250   186
Schumaker 33 130 121 20 37  8  1  3  12  9 12 .306 .354  .463  .817   110
Ryan      10  32  29  4  6  2  1  0   1  1  6 .207 .226  .345  .571    71
Thurston  12  20  17  2  2  1  0  0   1  3  3 .118 .250  .176  .426    20
Greene     2   2   2  0  0  0  0  0   0  0  1 .000 .000  .000  .000  -100
Total     43 188 173 27 46 11  2  4  15 13 23 .266 .316  .422  .737    95

tOPS+ is the player's OPS in this split relative to his total OPS. It's only 52 plate appearances, but Ryan and Thurston have brought their z games to their brief time at second base. That brings Schumaker's .817 OPS—17% above average for the position—down to .737. Meanwhile, at shortstop, the opposite phenomenon:

           G  PA  AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO   BA  OBP   SLG   OPS  tOPS+ 
Barden     3   8   7  2  2  1  0  1   1  1  2 .286 .375  .857 1.232    193 
Greene    10  33  30  4  8  3  0  1   3  1  8 .267 .313  .467  .779     98 
Ryan       8  24  20  4  6  1  0  0   1  3  1 .300 .391  .350  .741    125 
Greene    27 106  93 13 20  4  0  2  10  9 12 .215 .295  .323  .618    107 
Total     43 171 150 23 36  9  0  4  15 14 23 .240 .315  .380  .695     85 

Everybody brought their best for the shortstop split, which boosts Greene's miserable start—a 76 sOPS+—up to 85. Predictively this is useless, but I think it does explain, to some degree, the optimism over Brendan Ryan. All of his best work has come as a shortstop, and most of that since we've heard that Khalil Greene might not be ready to play mentally, rather than physically. 

Third base: Well, as Bill James once said, pass. This entry's getting on in years, and the third base situation, frustrating as it is, deserves a full treatment. Apparently they've hit .253/.331/.387, which sounds exactly right. 

Does it surprise you, then, that the biggest hole in the Cardinals' lineup through May 24 has been center field? Rasmus, who is officially not having a good year at this point, has hit .181/.261/.337 in center, and Ankiel's slow start—.238/.311/.375—was well documented back when that was the most incredible thing that had happened to him this year. In a way, knowing that center field has been the Cardinals' #1 sinkhole is reassuring—there are no reinforcements coming at short, and a renaissance at third base would require the unlikely like-a-trade-only-he-has-to-recover-from-a-vague-injury return from Troy Glaus, you know it really would. 

But center field—Colby Rasmus is going to hit the ball. Rick Ankiel—well, he's going to play another position. There's some offensive potential left in this team, even if the left side of the infield looks like a bunch of mediocre pegs in round holes.