Watching on Gameday, there's something especially thrilling about a team whose every starter is a threat, at least, to get on base, to keep things going for another competent hitter. Last year's team had, variously, the left field platoon of desparation; the perpetually sad third basemen; and the shortstop position, pre-Ryan, which already seems further back in history than the rest of the season. (It seems like I had already started my Khalil Greene boosting some time in 2007.) Yesterday the Cardinals left a number of runners on base but still managed to hit 5-15 with them in scoring position, and with the rotation still in Carpenter-Wainwright territory that's enough to guarantee a win, most of the time.
What had Colby Rasmus done after two games last year? Shockingly enough, given the composition of the rest of the year, he'd already walked three times—three times more than he would in all of June, the same as in all of May—and scored twice on two base hits. At close of last April it seemed like his batting line was designed expressly to be built upon—.254/.357/.305, the advanced plate discipline in place a little ahead of the advanced power in translating from scout-speak to the statistical record.
If he looks more dialed in this year, more ready to perform at the level we've already expected, I think it's because we come to 2010 having watched him muddle through so much of last season. In 2009 his tools, aside from that defensive smoothness we know and love, came and went on a conveniently month-to-month basis, when we saw them at all. He hit five home runs in May but hit just .212; he hit .333 in June but didn't walk; in April, when he seemed just on the verge of breaking through, he got on base but slapped the ball around to do it. His speed game didn't show up at all.
It's probably a little early to extrapolate a breakout season from two extra-base hits—he had three in April, 2009—a stolen base, and continued defensive excellence, but recognizing that some sample sizes are too small to serve as the foundation for some idea and being able to prevent oneself from hoping irrationally for great things based upon them—those are two different things. And after 2009 this version of Colby Rasmus, the one that does everything at the same time, is worth a little irrational adoration.
If we didn't have something on VEB once a day I'm convinced I wouldn't be quite so worried about Ryan Franklin; I'm much better able to control my negative small sample size concerns than my positive ones, and as a fan, alone, watching a game on TV I can be annoyingly anodyne about things. (Following them on Gameday after having slept through the beginning, my nascent in-Japan routine, things get even less exciting.)
But news has to be made every day now, and Ryan Franklin continues to frighten the Cardinals' faithful (as nine multi-year closers out of ten do in Major League Baseball), so I get nervous. I'm not yet ready, of course, to assume he is done as a useful reliever, but here is the current problem with Ryan Franklin: when he's bad, he looks bad in an especially hopeless way. Through his first 29 pitches, one batter has swung and missed. (The honor goes to Chris Dickerson, who missed a first-pitch fastball then singled to center field on Monday.) When he's pitching badly his pitches just out of the strike zone seem like a depressing realization that he can't pitch in the strikezone, and not last April and May's signs of a crafty veteran coaxing called strikes (31% of his strikes in 2009 were called, a career high) from umpires on each corner.
Without Ludwick's diving game-ender this post probably would have led with Sad Franklin Talk, instead of closing with it, but one can play that game, unproductively, all season; Chris Carpenter's first outing would have been less about no news being good news if Scott Rolen's second long fly ball had been those few extra inches out of the new new Colby Rasmus's reach.
This morning the Cardinals leave the rotation safety zone and start Brad Penny, who is ready to add 100 pitches to vivaelpujols's PitchF/X database. The first few trips through this rotation will set the tone, in a lot of ways—and I mean that in the most literal way possible, this side of musical tone—for the way we watch the 2010 season.
If no two of Penny, Lohse, and Garcia appear to be stable by the end of May, the Cardinals will have a new first priority for any midseason retooling, and Ryan Franklin will find himself, delightfully, out of the spotlight. If two or all three of them pitch well, this is a team that could cruise for long stretches without revealing any obvious problems, even the ones that are really there.