Since an April that began just shy of perfect—that brushed aside all the Spring Training questions we'd been turning over for two months—the Cardinals have obligingly given baseball writers and fans across the former KMOX listening area a number of new things to worry and complain about, beginning with insufficient run-scoring and getting, generally, more specific about the causes of same.
Having watched the Cardinals appear, in announcer-speak, listless for so long now I think I wouldn't mind at all watching a team that coasted to victory in the regular season, the playoffs, the World Series. But maybe part of our baseball fandom demands this kind of thing to dissect, diagnose, and cure. In any case: part of writing about baseball fandom demands it.
Baserunning is the closest thing to timely, so I'll come to it first. The Cardinals don't seem like they should be a bad baserunning team; they aren't that old, their outfield is devoid of slugs, their star hitter is famously reckless and, to his credit, an excellent base-stealer, and their only truly immobile player is the fastest of the Catching Molinas. But .
Ludwick, for instance, has made four outs on the bases this year—more than he had in all of any one season before now. Schumaker, normally an average baserunner despite being a little slow for both the middle infielder with no power and center fielder stereotypes, has made four himself, tying his own career high. Colby Rasmus was having an outstanding year before last night's cavalcade of baserunning comedy; he'd earned seven additional bases with his baserunning, though he's given some of it back with his inefficient base-stealing.
The Cardinals' starting eight are at -21 bases so far this season—last year, the same eight batters were worth 19 additional bases, despite Holliday (-2) and Pujols (-15) having the worst seasons of their career and Rasmus (26) and Molina (-26) canceling out one-another's career years.
That's the thing about baserunning numbers, though. They correspond pretty well with reality, inasmuch as the fast guys and the guys usually thought of as outstanding baserunners (Scott Rolen, for instance) do well most years, but there's a lot of year-to-year variance as guys make a few more ugly mental errors than usual, or nurse sore hamstrings for a month. The Cardinals' poor baserunning corresponds to real mental lapses and poor decisions, but its performance to this point can't necessarily be expected to persist over the rest of the season.
But the baserunning is just a prologue. What we're really feeling, at this point in the season, is the Cardinals' seeming reluctance to ever drive in baserunners they've been lucky enough to find in scoring position. But would you believe the Cardinals have the tenth highest OPS in baseball with runners on? .815—higher, even, than their overall OPS.
Now for the post-jump cold water: that OPS is pretty OBP heavy. The Cardinals are hitting .256/.373/.443 with runners on. The Cardinals' struggles aren't Albert's fault, but that line is—he's hitting .317/.548/.610 with runners in scoring position this year, thanks to 14 intentional walks.
The fact is that most of the Cardinals have had success with runners in scoring position this year; in addition to Pujols, everyone but Skip Schumaker and Matt Holliday—now up to .182/.274/.236—have OPSes considerably above their seasonal totals with LOBsters in the pot. But all those walks—29 intentional—are just additional torture when a team's hitting .256, more stillborn runs over which to fret.
I don't believe in a long-term clutch skill; I think it'll even out, or at least be less terrible, over the course of the season. But it's been an incredibly frustrating month with the middle of the order struggling, and I'd love for the luck correction to start... now.
As for the middle of the order struggling, it's not all Holliday and Pujols—as Bernie noted yesterday, Colby Rasmus was a huge part of the offense in April and has been a huge hole in the offense in May. It's less damaging to our psyche than Albert Pujols's month as a basically average hitter, but it's just as damaging to the offense. Holliday, meanwhile, is hitting, if not with power or runners on base—his .811 OPS is about the same as he managed in April, only OBP-heavy instead of slugging percentage-biased.
All of these problems are real, and frustrating, but the most significant concern is this: Albert Pujols is not hitting like Albert Pujols this month. Until that happens again, and I'm confident it will, Cardinals baseball will be a nervous affair.