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When the St. Louis Cardinals' Batting Approach Backfires

The St. Louis Cardinals scored the second-most runs in the National League this season, so why is the club's lineup so painful to watch at times?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2013 regular season the St. Louis Cardinals were second in the National League in batting average (BA). Their .269 BA trailed only the Colorado Rockies, who hit for a .270 average while playing their home games at Coors Field a mile above sea level. Only two Designated Hitter league teams--the Detroit Tigers (.283) and Boston Red Sox (.277)--hit for a higher average.

The Cardinals finished the season with a .332 on-base percentage (OBP), which was the highest in the NL and third-best in MLB behind the Red Sox (.349) and Tigers (.346). The Redbirds' .322 wOBA was second-highest in the NL behind only the Rockies and tenth-best in MLB behind Colorado and eight DH teams.

The Cardinals have a very good lineup that is filled with very good batters. This is a fact they demonstrated just Thursday when they chased A.J. Burnett from the game while plating seven runs in the third inning and nine runs total. That this excellent run-scoring performance was followed up with one run on four hits makes Friday's effort confounding. The efficiency with which young Gerrit Cole dispatched the Doublers Row makes Game 2 angering.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 2011 MLB amateur draft looked every bit the pitcher his pedigree suggested he should be. Cole attacked the zone with mid-to-upper 90s fastballs throughout the game. His average fastball--sinker and fourseam alike--shot toward the plate at an average of 97.4 mph, setting batters up for a nasty array of offspeed pitches at which the home team flailed. When the Cards made contact, they beat the horsehide into the ground. At the end of his six innings, Cole had allowed one run on two hits and a walk with five strikeouts.

Such batting performances are not new to the 2013 Cardinals. The lineup sprinkled in games such Friday's throughout the summer, frequently against Pittsburgh. In fact, the offense's worst slump of the year included four consecutive losses to the Pirates with the offense going a collective 15 for 103 (.146 BA) with nine walks (.214 OBP) in the first three of those games before coming alive for 13 hits and a walk in a 5-4 loss. (The Redbirds then won the fifth game of that series by a tally of 13-0.)

Such frustrating performances are not due to lack of aggression. During the regular season, el Birdos saw 3.76 pitchers per plate appearance (P/PA). This P/PA ties them for second-lowest in the big leagues with the Tigers, White Sox, and Rockies. The four clubs are just behind the Brewers, who saw 3.74 P/PA on the year.

The Redbirds' approach is a selectively aggressive one. Go up there looking for a pitch to drive and when you get it, swing. When it works, it's fun. Carlos Beltran roped a double on the second pitch Cole threw him in the first inning. In the fifth inning, Yadier Molina whacked Cole's second offering of the at-bat over the wall for a solo homer. However, these were the only extra-base hits el Birdos managed against the rookie right-hander.

Game 2 was an example of the dark side to the Cardinals' bizarre regular season RISP split. While the Redbirds put up the greatest numbers a team ever has with RISP (.330/.402/.463/.865), they were bizarrely putrid when batting with the bases empty (.236/.297/.356/.653). Their RISP sOPS+ was 139 and 86 with the bases empty. The difficulty the Cardinals have had revving up their RISP carousel was on full display Friday afternoon at Busch.

The combination of Cole's stuff and the Cards' approach was brutal to behold for a fan in Cardinal red. Other than the Matts, Holliday and Adams, digging in with Beltran on second in the first, a Cardinal did not take PA with a runner in scoring position against Cole. The Pirates righty did not throw more than 14 pitches in an inning through his first five pitched; the Redbirds saw 3.71 P/PA. Cole was the model of pitching efficiency; the Cards, conversely, the epitome of offensive ineptitude.

In the sixth inning, Carpenter, Beltran, and Holliday ground out lengthier PAs against Cole. Carpenter worked a six-pitch walk and became the Cards' first baserunner since the first inning. Then Beltran struck out looking on the eighth pitch of his at-bat and Holliday grounded out on Cole's seventh offering. After the 23-pitch inning, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle gave Cole the hook. The game was in hand.

In Sunday's pivotal Game 3, the Cardinals will face the Pirates ace. Southpaw Francisco Liriano takes the ball for Pittsburgh. Liriano has had some efficient outings against the aggressive Cardinals batters not unlike Cole's Game 2.

On August 14, the Pirates bested the Cardinals 5-1. Liriano tossed a complete game, allowing one earned run on four hits and a walk. The Cardinals did not send more than four batters to the plate in any inning. St. Louis batsmen saw 3.13 P/PA.

Liriano had a similarly dominant outing against St. Louis on August 30. The Pirates won the game 5-0. Liriano blanked the Redbirds over eight innings, allowing two hits and two walks. Like August 14, the Cards did not send more than four batters to the plate in any inning. El Birdos saw just 3.51 P/PA.

In order to beat Liriano and the Pirates at PNC Park in Sunday afternoon's Game 3, the Cardinals will have to enjoy success when swinging early in the count. If they do not, Game 3 will follow a painfully familiar script.