A Thing We Can Know
The Cardinals have lost two really ugly games in a row. Really, really ugly. The bullpen's been terrible in both games, the starters have been acceptable but shaky, the offense has been excellent.
Things We Can't Know
I'm not saying any of this isn't real, and I'm not even saying that it's irrelevant if it is.
But we can't know if the team's listless or unmoored, or at least those of us who are bloggers with no clubhouse sources can't. It's hard to observe; working from perceived listlessness seems so often to be little more than reasoning after the fact of ugly losses. I don't think I've ever seen someone call incoming listlessness on a team that's on a five game winning streak; in general it seems like we project our own tiredness with a team and its performance on the team itself.
That says a lot about the way a team has lost; like RBI and pitchers' wins and batting average, it's an excellent descriptive metric. Two regular losses—Hawksworth gives up four runs in five innings and the bullpen adds an insurance run somewhere along the line, then Garcia isn't quite sharp enough to hold off the Rockies in game two—are easily shaken off by a fanbase, and two like this aren't. But I don't think that tells us anything about how well a team will do in the future; our problems aren't theirs, even if their problems are ours.
So maybe Tony La Russa breaks into LeBron's press conference tomorrow to do a heel turn and smash a steel chair over Mean Gene's head, or maybe Albert Pujols comes right out and says that he isn't hitting very well because he saw that Matt Holliday's paycheck and they've started sitcom-feuding over it. (Joe Mather and Brendan Ryan have painted a thick white line across the center of their apartment, and neither is allowed to cross it.) But even when clubhouse whispers do come out their utility is limited; the team might be losing because it's sad, but it seems reasonable to believe, until proven otherwise, that the team is sad because it's losing.
Things We Can Know
The problems we can know about manifest themselves in runs scored and runs allowed. If you go to the Cardinals' Baseball-Reference page and look at it as though you hadn't watched a single game all year, it's easy to see why they're so disappointing. You could run it off in bullet points.
- Albert Pujols hasn't been Albert Pujols. He's actually better than he was at this moment in 2007, and he's still been one of the best players in baseball, but for several years running we've adjusted our expectations of the Cardinals based on Albert Pujols being on his own tier. That costs the teams runs and wins relative to our expectations.
- Matt Holliday and the runners in scoring position thing. Okay, maybe you have to watch the team to be up on this one. I never believed that this was a Matt Holliday issue, and I think over the last few weeks it's been proven that it wasn't, but the runs were real, and the opportunities were really wasted.
- Three of the Cardinals' starters haven't hit at all. We're halfway through the season and Brendan Ryan, Skip Schumaker, and Yadier Molina have combined—thanks entirely to Baseball-Reference's high opinion of Yadier Molina's defense—for 0.2 wins over replacement players. Depending on how optimistic you were about each player that's three more wins we expected to exist that just do not.
- Jeff Suppan, Blake Hawksworth, Adam Ottavino, and P.J. Walters have combined to become, in terms of games started, the team's fourth starter. That's thirteen more starts from guys who are basically replacement level.
We can disagree about the causes; I don't think any of these seem like clubhouse malaise so much as they do injuries and players who were fair bets to underperform, but for me the why isn't even what's important. The reasons the Cardinals have underperformed aren't a big mystery—they're right there in the numbers, and two losses, however terrible they were to watch, have done nothing to make any of them worse.
So look at the numbers and determine, for yourself, whether they seem like problems the Cardinals are going to continue to deal with for the rest of the season. I don't think they will, at least to this degree, but I can't be sure about it.