St. Louis has now broken records for temperature on three consecutive days. The heat is stifling and direct. It's atypical in the lower levels of humidity than what St. Louis typically copes with. It dramatically alters the best of plans if they involved being outside. It seems to envelope everything.
The Cardinals are 5th in major league baseball in wOBA. Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran are hitting for wOBAs over .400. Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina are not far behind. Excepting Andrew McCutcheon, the Cardinals top 7 active hitters are better than the Pirates best hitter. The Cardinals have scored the most runs in the NL besides the Colorado Rockies. By all indications, what the Cardinals are doing at the plate is turning into real, tangible runs. They're doing all this with their best hitter, Lance Berkman, sidelined for much of the first half. This is a potent offense. So why doesn't it feel that way?
Cardinals starters are second in FIP. They trail only the Nationals and, unsurprisingly, it's because they walk a miniscule number of batters and don't allow many home runs. Despite the absence of Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia. Despite Adam Wainwright's adjustment to post-tommy john pitching. The Cardinals have leaned heavily on Lance Lynn who has come through in a major way. Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook have performed far better than many would have guessed. Even Joe Kelly has shown himself to be capable of keeping the team in the game for 5-6 innings every 5 days. Yet the absence of Chris Carpenter looms. Waiting for St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates on throwing programs and Garcia's rehab (sans surgery) has almost become a sport in and of itself. Why doesn't it feel like the Cardinals' starters are as good as they've shown?
Despite the core of the Cardinals team being not just good but stellar, there's a combination of things going on:
1). No team that feels like a bad team has a good bullpen and no team that feels like a good team has a bad bullpen. And make no mistake, despite a bevy of high octane arms, the Cardinals bullpen has been bad so far. They've been bad in a way that highlights the true ephemera of relievers. Former saviors like Ferndando Salas and Marc Rzepczynski are now unable to contribute in tight situations. Outstanding arms like Eduardo Sanchez -- once lights out in the high minors -- have seen their mechanics fall apart and are completely unable to find the plate. Jason Motte's 96 mph fastball suddenly finds itself on the wrong side of the outfield fences more frequently than ever before. The Cardinals bullpen isn't even failing because of the predictable culprits anymore. And that's the axiom.
A trade feels inevitable at this point. Given the pure talent of the arms in the system right now, it doesn't seem like a good idea. It does seem like one of those trades that, if things turned around, would be pointed to as a wild success. Action for the sake of action.
2). The Cardinals are in third place in the standings behind the Reds and the Pirates. The Reds I can understand. The Pirates ... well, that is inexplicable. The Pirates are not a good team. They have a bottom third bullpen, middle of the pack rotation and basement dwelling offense. How can a nominally good team like the Cardinals be trailing a team like this?
3). It's just a flesh wound. The Cardinals have lost two of their top three projected starting pitchers. They've seen their starting centerfield -- who lacks anything resembling a real replacement -- miss time with a shoulder injury. They've lost their starting first baseman and best hitter for over a month. Regardless of whether the team has played around those injuries or played well despite those injuries, from a fan's perspective, much of the team has been on the gurney this season.
It's the curious nature of defining a team. Heading into the season, you have expectations for how critical players are only to have a player like Yadier Molina blow that all out of the water and hit like an MVP candidate. You expect 200 innings from Chris Carpenter and instead you get 150 excellent innings from Lance Lynn. It's an irrational fear based in our inability to predict what will happen. "I expected the team to need these players. Since those expectations are being met, clearly the team must be doing badly."
All this leads me to disagree with Danup's comment from yesterday:
The real pleasure of being a sabermetrically inclined baseball fan is that this is--if not quite good news--not the kind of thing that leads you to believe your team is facing an existential crisis and must fire everybody.
This feels exactly like an existential crisis. I can assume that, going forward, things should get better but looking backwards, they should have already been better. When my expectations aren't met and I ask why only to lack a clear and poignant answer, the inability to explain the team's circumstances based on the information at hand makes me wonder if we shouldn't fire everybody. The bullpen, gone. All the second baseman, gone. The coaching staff, gone. Blow it up. I can't explain why it isn't working but once I've blown it up an answer for why the new group isn't working should present itself.
Obviously, that is hyperbole, but I find this to be the most frustrating aspect of sabermetrics. Ascribing things to luck (bad or good) is easy and often accurate. Accepting that luck plays such a vital part in the outcome of any game, much less accepting the role it plays in life writ large, is difficult and terrifying.
And thus we find ourselves in the dog days of summer. The temperatures are high. The team is full of whelming results. This is the thick of baseball. This is almost the halfway point where it's too far to go back but, holy crap there's so much more to go. Things should be better than they've been to date. They should be better moving forward but right now, today, I can only wonder how the Pirates are on the verge of a sweep.