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The St. Louis Cardinals and the Last Time I Saw...


Carlos Beltran act like Carlos Beltran. This Carlos Beltran doesn't look like the one who thrashed the Cardinals in 2004 and 2006. He's stouter—he looks oddly bulky, or bloated, like a fin de siecle strongman wielding bulbous dumbbells. He's top-heavy. But his play has inspired the decade-old Beltran adjective with starting frequency from Dan McLaughlin already: He's smooth.

Five smooth stolen bases; five smooth home runs. But I think it's his smooth outfield play that says the most about what it means to be smooth, and graceful, and loping and all the other Carlos Beltran words. When he plays the outfield now his range is clearly diminished; he's a step behind line drives I'd expect the other Beltran to catch standing up. But when a ball flies into his diminished range he goes full-smooth on it—glides toward it, bare hands it off the wall, shifts into a low-gear sprint. Smooth must be some kind of talent, not a physical attribute; it's like an excess, or an embarrassment of skill.

Beltran hasn't stolen five bases in a year since 2009; he hasn't stolen five bases in a month since that May, when he hit .323/.425/.563 with four home runs and six stolen bases. That was the last month's worth of vintage Carlos Beltran until this one.

A new starter pitch like Lance Lynn. With his eight-inning performance on Wednesday I think Lance Lynn's start to the season has officially moved from "weirdly good" to "really good"—he's averaging nearly seven innings a start, now, and he has, to show for it, above-average strikeout and ground ball rates, a K:BB ratio of four, and an ERA of 1.33. He's also a start like that one away from having thrown as many MLB innings in 2012 as he did in 2011.

The player that comes to mind when I watch a Cardinal do this kind of thing is Jaime Garcia, but he wasn't as good—he carried a 1.04 ERA through his first four starts, but he did it by not allowing a home run until mid-May and not allowing any hits on balls in play. What Lynn's doing, he's doing sustainably—not at an ERA under two, but at a star level—and that's what makes it so strange to watch.

Lynn's been a difficult prospect to categorize for a while now, ever since his 16-strikeout game in the 2010 Pacific Coast League postseason suggested that he'd completely disavowed the high-80s-sinker label he'd cultivated since being drafted. For the new Lance Lynn—the one who exhales smoke like a cartoon bull and stomps around the mound and throws fastball after fastball with a confidence Jason Motte probably envies—we have 12 AAA starts and 35 MLB innings as a reliever to go on definitively.

The AAA starts quickly prove just as confusing as the rest of his career. Finally given the chance to throw his four-seam fastball all year, Lynn's home run rate went down from 2010, with his strikeout rate, after 12 starts, identical to the one he managed in 29 the year before.

In 2012 he's at least offered us one bit of continuity: His gameplan looks nearly identical to the one he carried out as a reliever. It reminds me of Brad Penny, before Dave Duncan caught up with him: He's throwing low-to-mid-90s fastballs six times out of ten, and hitters seem surprised until the end that he's able to maintain his velocity the third time they see him.

He doesn't seem surprised. He seems surprised, sometimes, about how ineffective his breaking balls are, but never when somebody who's thinking fastball the entire time swings through one anyway. And that, presumably, is how he's been successful so far.

The Cardinals haven't quite been flush with pitching prospects, of late, but it's hard to find an analogue for Lynn. Anthony Reyes was good over his first four starts—25 innings, 17 strikeouts, six walks, an ERA of 2.16—but then he turned into Anthony Reyes, Constant Frustrating Disappointment. Dan Haren was knocked around in his second start before peaking in his sixth, with an ERA of 3.38. We might have to press the Rick Ankiel Button, and I apologize for that; in April of 2000 he went 3-1 with an ERA of 2.16, though it was with 21 strikeouts and 20 walks in 25 innings.

A Cardinals star struggle like Matt Holliday. Albert Pujols's struggles last year were a little more frightening than Holliday's this year, I think, because he was so normal; he wasn't terrible, he'd just fallen into average. Matt Holliday will hit again, and probably soon. You can worry yourself and others by moving your start-point for his futility back to September, but the same starting-gun would leave you with David Freese As George Brett and Yadier Molina As Johnny Bench, which is a trade I'd have to consider making.

The canonical Cardinals examples of struggling stars are all a few crucial years older than Holliday, and more clearly banged up—there's Jim Edmonds in 2007, and Mark McGwire in 2001. Scott Rolen in 2005 is the scariest example, but it comes with obvious physical reasons attached.

The last time Matt Holliday did this—a few years ago this month, in Oakland—is perhaps the most useful example there is, unless you're convinced the moth issue is going to be chronic.

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