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Individual Performances Stand Out on an Underperforming Team

Lego no understand.
Lego no understand.

This continues to feel like a season where the sum of the team is less than the parts. Maybe it's looking up in the standings at the Pirates and, to a lesser extent the Reds. Maybe it's the underwhelming performance of what was expected to be a solid bullpen. (Baseball axiom #287: Never trust a reliever.) Maybe it's the starting rotation that's missing core pieces.

Regardless, it is difficult to wrap a cogent narrative around an inconsistently performing team. And that's fine in the sense that not every season has a true narrative. It's less fine in the sense that once a week I try to pen that narrative into existence.

  • In case you missed it, Matt Holliday has taken over the team lead in fWAR from Yadier Molina. On the back of his recent increased home run rate, Holliday has pushed himself past the 5.0 WAR line. Holliday continues to seem chronically underrated -- especially in a national context -- and his contract continues to look like a complete win for the Cardinals. If there was a void to be left by the player that Albert Pujols was, Holliday has no real opportunity to fill the once-in-a-generation type abscence. He has, however, filled in admirably relative to what Albert Pujols actually is for the Angels.
  • Part of the reason Holliday is being overlooked, in my opinion, is the amazing offensive performance of Carlos Beltran. What's surprising is that Beltran actually had a more productive 2011 on a rate basis (.389 vs .377 wOBA). The difference is that 2012 has been marked by the kind of gaudy power performance that invariably attracts casual attention -- 28 home runs and counting. Beltran looks like another gem of a contract given the rather modest $13M per year for 2 years.
  • Combine Beltran's selfish attention stealing home run production with the offensive performance from two somewhat unexpected players -- Allen Craig and Yadier Molina -- and it's easy to see what Matt isn't as conversed about as he should be. Both Craig and Molina make for much better narratives. Craig is the "future" if he can stay healthy and Yadier Molina is a catcher that found his swing at age 30. Relative to those two, Matt Holiday is simply doing something he's done for a number of years. Craig and Molina offer a unusual and new twist on their performance levels.

All of this just further reinforces my perception that we still haven't seen this team really fire on all cylinders for a while now. This is an offense that ought to drub teams on a routine basis. The Cardinals can, at any time, field a team where every position player, except for shortstop, is a well above average hitter (this is also a little dependent on what you think Schumaker's true talent level is). The Cardinals have 4 positions where the player's 2012 wOBA is .370 or higher: RF, LF, 1B, C. The Reds and the Pirates can only field 2 players like that.

Dan has talked about the depth the Cardinals have built. We've seen guys like Matt Carpenter (.371 wOBA) and Joe Kelly (3.98 FIP) fill in and not only keep the team afloat but do more than that and be well above replacement level players. Lance Lynn is half a walk per 9 innings away from being Adam Wainwright in a year that started without a rotation spot for him.

I've yet to see a satisfying way to explain the rather gross underperformance the Cardinals are working their way through in 2012. By any measure, other than their actual wins and losses, the Cardinals should be leading the NL Central. The club has also seen their underperformance timed to coincide with an overperforming Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates. There's an argument that, after the Washington Nationals, the Cardinals are the best team in the National League. Their won loss record has them tied for 6th thus far.

Perhaps it should be reassuring that the Cardinals are a better team than they've shown. This year, I find it frustrating. The difficult to identify nature of the underwhelming performance certainly is encapsulated in that but, on balance, I'm just frustrated that the Cardinals are beating the crap out of other teams.