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The Last Time I Saw Benes

Further housekeeping: SB Nation St. Louis officially launches today.

Everybody involved has been putting a lot of work into it, and I'm excited to finally be able to show it off. To celebrate, SB Nation has coordinated a meetup that I've already mentioned a few times, but what's one more between friends? Here's the e-vite:

Please join your friends from SB Nation and your fellow St. Louis sports fans for an evening of good company, great sports conversation and free stuff.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010
6:00 - 8:00 PM
Schlafly Tap Room
2100 Locust Street (at 21st), St. Louis, MO

I can't endorse the lack of a perfectly good serial comma, and I'm not yet sure how much free stuff is being provided, but if you'd like to visit and come talk acronyms with your internet friends, RSVP at this link! I'll be there! Wearing a nametag!


Gods of Baseball theology question: do you believe in a benevolent lineup that is deeply involved in life and blog morale? I could always use a serious run-scoring binge delivered by the top of the order, but with Jeff Suppan not just signed but starting today—with Aaron Miles still on the roster instead of, say, Tyler Greene, who's now hitting .308/.374/.487—with the team having hit .227 with 19 runs on their long road trip, it was especially gratifying to see a lineup whose top hitters couldn't be retired. 

And whose top hitters were ordered in such a way as to maximize their performance to this point and minimize the fan criticism that's sprung up around Matt Holliday's bizarre inability to drive in runners! There hasn't been such a boost to the stathead fanbase since the Cardinals opened the season with Jaime Garcia and Allen Craig on the roster, and it comes right before the Cardinals enter a part of the season that relies more than any other to date on the intuition of Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. It didn't happen for us, but it certainly worked out pretty well. 

The Ryan Ludwick the Cardinals find in the clean-up role is somewhere between the one we optimistically projected back in 2009 and the one that ZiPS saw back then. That .292 isolated slugging percentage from 2008 is looking more and more like an aberration; since 2008 only Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols (twice), Carlos Pena, and Prince Fielder have managed higher ones. But if it turns out the batting average was more real than we thought—ZiPS projected it at .274 in 2009—Ludwick is a valuable, well-rounded hitter who in 2010 has turned into an incredibly tenacious defender. How tenacious? Last night he kept a similarly overqualified right fielder, Ichiro, from scoring by making a perfect throw home. This year his UZR/150 is actually slightly higher than Ichiro's, at 17.9. 

The sample sizes are small, but it's so clear visually, too; Ludwick just looks like a different oufielder. I have no better word for it: in 2008 and 2009 he seemed goofy in right field, running gingerly to the ball, taking weird routes. If something was bothering him physically, it isn't now. 

But as La Russa is no doubt saying, now's no time to congratulate ourselves. Tomorrow Jeff Suppan is making his first start in a Cardinal uniform since 2006. Statistics had no part in this decision: It was all about Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa discovering a flaw in his mechanics, believing in him personally, and trusting their judgments over what the number might say. So that leaves us analysts without much to say, except "blech" (qualified by the blechiness of the other options.) If you want to make an optimistic comparison about this, you can remember Andy Benes. If you want to make a negative comparison about this, I offer, with some reservations, Mike Maroth

Andy Benes's stunning run in 2002 occasioned one of my all-time favorite Baseball Prospectus capsules: 

Went out in a blaze of glory, with his best bud at his side and the Bolivian Army waiting for them armed to the teeth, and then Newman says to Redford...oops, at any rate, let's just say Benes went down fighting. Unlike his stretch drive performance for the Mariners in 1995, Benes was desperately needed for the Cardinals in August and September. After reconsidering an early decision to retire with knee trouble that was never going to go away, he gave the Cards a dozen starts down the stretch where he gave up as many as three runs only once, and finishing the year with a game effort against the Giants in the NLCS. And then, rather than being carried off on his shield or waiting for them to mail it to him, he said "enough." It was a hell of a career, and he'll be missed.

Which is about what it felt like at the time. After putting together three awful starts in April, including 12 walks in 10 innings, Benes was a disabled list ghost all year; at one point I remember the camera drifting to him warming up in the bullpen, and one of the announcers wondering, honestly, what he was even doing out there. 

But in July the Cardinals had nobody left to try. Darryl Kile had died, Garrett Stephenson was gone, Bud Smith was injured and about to be traded, Travis Smith hadn't impressed, and Jason Simontacchi's invincibility star had worn off. The Josh Pearce experiment had ended and the Jamey Wright experiment hadn't yet started. So out of the bullpen trots Andy Benes, who appears to have nothing left at all, is wearing this enormous, tumorous brace on his knee, and walks around the field with all the easy grace of a man who's spent six months under the effects of moon gravity. 

And nobody can hit him. Benes allows one run or less in 9 of his last 15 appearances. He loses twice, once when he goes four and two-thirds innings and allows one run and again when he goes six and one-third and allows two. The Cardinals go 10-4 in his starts, and along with Chuck Finley he stabilizes a rotation that makes this one look—well, like a rotation, and then vanishes into the night, returning only to host Cardinals Clubhouse with Fredbird. It was perfect.

Mike Maroth's 2007 Baseball Prospectus capsule went a little like this: 

Last season, the Cardinals traded for, claimed, or signed Todd Wellemeyer, Troy Percival, Tomo Ohka, Joel Pineiro, and Maroth. If you knew nothing else about their season, you would still be able to diagnose precisely what the problem was. Percival and Pineiro sort of worked out, but the Cards lost 12 of the 14 games in which Maroth pitched. He just didn't have enough stuff to survive his first major injury, and is likely done as a relevant pitcher.

Yep. (Also, remember Tomo Ohka?) Mike Maroth steps into a rotation that is using Kip Wells, Todd Wellemeyer, Brad Thompson, and the bad version of Anthony Reyes. Adam Wainwright was only the ace by default, and Chris Carpenter was due back sometime in 2008. 

And no one can hit him. For one game. Maroth engenders some early sympathy for not being Chris Lambert and allowing just one run in this hard-luck loss. From then on he allows 55 runs in 30 and two-thirds innings, which is astonishing, and finds himself used in eight consecutive games in which one of the two teams has scored at least 10 runs. The team goes 2-12 in games in which he appears. 

Maroth's last brief stab at relevance is fair warning: no matter what happens, if the Cardinals are desperate enough to use Jeff Suppan they're also desperate enough to see what happens, whether the early returns are good or bad.