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Improbable NLDS power surge propels St. Louis Cardinals to NLCS

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The Cardinals struggled to slug all season. This being October, it was only natural that power-hitting propelled St. Louis past the Dodgers in the NLDS.

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals offense underperformed preseason expectations. One particular problem area was the lack of power-hitting. In April, the Cardinals as a team didn't hit a home run for over 300 at-bats. When questioned about the 300-at-bat power outage, an exasperated Mike Matheny replied that he didn't care about extra-base hits:

"It didn’t mean anything to me," Matheny said. "I don’t think it means much to our guys except people want to keep making a big deal about it. When we’re scoring runs like we did last year, the home runs or the power production numbers, they don’t mean anything to us. When we’re not scoring runs it stands out.

"… We’re going about it the same way. We have to try to improve. Part of that is knowing counts to drive the ball. It’s about grinding at-bats. That’s the offense we are. If we get our guys up there thinking about home runs and extra-base hits, you’re going to see popup after popup. You’re going to see poor at-bats.

"That’s not the case with what’s going on right now," Matheny continued. "But it’s a trap. It’s a distraction."

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"Home runs are going to come from putting a good swing on the ball and not necessarily trying to lift and separate," Matheny said. "I’m not concerned with (homers). I think we’ll have power numbers. But it’s not a focus of ours. Our goal is to score one more than the other guys. We need to get guys locked in. Taking good at-bats. Their natural ability is going to allow the ball to travel a little further at times than others.

"Those numbers will most likely be there, but it’s not a focus."

The Cardinals' lack of power-hitting continued throughout the season. When St. Louis faced the Dodgers, former St. Louis and current L.A. hitting coach Mark McGwire participated in a Q&A with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in which he echoed Matheny's sentiment from late April:

["]I wouldn’t worry about (the lack of homers). I never thought of any of those hitters as home-run hitters anyway. They’re absolutely line-drive, RBI guys who when they get pitches they’re going to get home runs and they get them in bunches. All those guys get them in bunches.

"If they try to do it, that’s when I would worry."

During the regular season, the homers never arrived in bunches or otherwise. The Cardinals finished the regular season with 105 home runs as a team, the lowest total in the National League and second-lowest in MLB behind the Royals. The Cardinals whacked a homer once every 58 plate appearances. Given the lack of dinger power, it's not surprising that the Cardinals' posted a collective .116 Isolated Power (ISO), ahead of only the Padres (.115) and Royals (.113). The Cards simply didn't bring much pop to the ballpark in 2014.

So naturally the Cardinals knocked the Dodgers out of the postseason with a power-hitting barrage.

Matt Carpenter

NLDS Game 1 provided a Cardinals offensive cocktail: a bit of the single-dependent attack we've come to know and resent along with the power that would come to define the series. Matt Carpenter's power-hitting dipped from his breakout 2013 to 2014. Carpenter's doubles total fell from 55 to 33; his homer total from 11 to eight; and he hit seven triples in 2013 compared to two in 2014. So Carpenter's ISO dropped from .163 to .103. Against lefties, Carpenter was a bit less powerful, but not by much. He posted an ISO of .098 against southernly pawed pitchers to a .104 ISO against righties.

It being October, Carpenter rapped out three homers and three doubles for a total of six extra-base hits in four NLDS games, displaying long lost pull power. His four-game series ISO came in at an eye-popping .750. I'd say Carpenter's power-hitting was Bondsian, but that would undersell the extent of his four-game tear. Barry Bonds's highest postseason ISO was .655, which game over 17 games during the Giants' 2002 World Series run. The home run king's highest single-season ISO was .536. (I know, I know. I just love looking at Bonds stats. They're like watching a cartoon.)

Kolten Wong

Even though Kolten Wong posted a healthy .163 ISO over 463 Triple-A plate appearances in 2013, the rookie second baseman wasn't expected to hit for a lot of power in his big-league debut season. For example, ZiPS projected him to post a .114 ISO. That's right in line with what MLB second baseman—not the most powerful of hitting collectives—combine to hit for in a given season.

But Wong hit for power at a rate as solid as it was surprising in 2014. The Hawaiian's punch at the plate gave him a .139 ISO at season's end that ranked fifth on the Cardinals and that tied Robinson Cano, last year's American League Silver Slugger at the keystone, for 12th among MLB second basemen with at least 250 PAs (seven points behind Ian Kinsler and one ahead of Chase Utley).

For whatever reason, Wong's power-hitting during his rookie campaign came with a reverse split. Against lefthanded opposition, he powered up to a .151 ISO. When facing righties, Wong's posted a an ISO of .137. Not a huge difference, but a curious one—especially since Wong's career minor-league ISO platoon split was .116 vs. LHP and .159 vs. RHP (according to Minor League Central).

In the spirit of the season, Wong stepped to the bat against Dodgers portsider Scott Elbert and clubbed the roundtripper that won NLDS Game 3 for the Redbirds.

Matt Adams

Matt Adams was one of the Cardinals few power sources this season. Big Mayo's .169 ISO, while not particularly impressive when compared to batters league-wide, tied Matt Holliday for second the Cardinals. But Adams's power-hitting has always rested on a foundation of mashing righthanded pitching. Entering this postseason, his MLB career power platoon split was .107 ISO vs. LHP and .187 vs. RHP.

It being the MLB postseason, Adams dug in against all-universe lefty Clayton Kershaw and smashed a game-winning, three-run homer into the Cardinals bullpen that also sealed the series.

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All of this is even more amazing if one considers the opposition pitchers against whom the Cardinals' individual players whacked dingers. Against 143 lefthanded batters in 2014, Kershaw allowed three doubles, one triple, and one homer—five extra-base hits. In the NLDS, Carpenter smacked a homer off Kershaw in Game 1 and added a three-run double that gave the Cards the lead and ended the L.A. ace's night. Adams slugged a homer of his own in Game 3 that chased the soon to be back-to-back-to-back NL Cy Young winner from the game. The Cards' routing of Kershaw was improbable, but the fact that the charge was led by lefthanded power-hitting was the most surprising of all.

'Tis the season.