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An Entirely Too Early Look at the Cardinal Offense

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With roughly a week's worth of games in the books, how has the Cardinal offense acquitted itself so far?

Why don't they just build the whole offense out of Aledmys Diaz?
Why don't they just build the whole offense out of Aledmys Diaz?
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Thankfully, yesterday was the last interseries day off we should have to put up with for a good long while; the day off following a season opener, or home opener, is one of my least favourite things to deal with in baseball. Hey, everybody, look! Baseball is back! We know you've all been waiting, sitting and starting out the window as the line goes, and here, at last, we have the return of the game you love! Are you excited? Sure you are! Oh, by the way, this one game is all you get for now; we need a day off tomorrow. Make sure you don't get too very comfortable with having the game back just yet. Mid August? Oh, no, your team has a stretch of thirteen in a row in mid August. Days off in August are stupid. Second day of the season, though...that's when you really need a breather from the game.

The offday was, of course, made even more frustrating by the fact you never really want to see your team have a day off in the middle of a stretch when they seem to be playing kind of amazing baseball. Is there anything to the idea that a day off when things are going really well can take a team out of its rhythm, and kill off the momentum? Well, probably not; I would imagine that's just another of those things that would be proven patently false if we looked into the actual numbers of the matter. It sure feels like it, though, doesn't it? And at the very least, when the ballclub you follow has scored ten runs three days in a row, you mostly just can't wait to see them take the field again as soon as possible.

So what I'm saying is screw days off in April. It seems incredibly stupid to have fits and starts the first two weeks of the season, when everyone is pumped to have the game back finally after the long winter, and then play 29 games in 31 days in July. Get your shit together, MLB, and make some better decisions on scheduling.

Anyhow, seeing as how there was no game last night, and I'm too excited about where this season might potentially be heading in the short term to write about the draft this morning -- I'll return to the amateur side of things next week, but right now I want to stick with the big league team -- I thought maybe it would be interesting to take a look at where the Cardinal offense stands at this exact moment in time, for a variety of reasons.

Chief among those reasons, I'm sure is fairly obvious, is the fact the Cards' offense of the past few games has been flat-out unbelievable. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that went on in the opening series of the season, in which the Redbirds scored only seven runs in three games -- and don't get me wrong; the wailing and gnashing of teeth certainly has a place in this discussion -- the last four contests have seen run totals of seven, twelve, twelve, and ten runs. Interestingly, in that opening series where the Cardinals struggled so badly to score, they still managed to put up a five spot on the Pirates in the middle contest (unfortunately, it was sandwiched by an awesome Francisco Liriano performance and an inexplicable Juan Nicasio start, both of which resulted in the loneliest number of runs, leading to an excessively bad taste in pretty much everyone's mouth), meaning that in the seven games the St. Louis Cardinals have played in 2016, they've scored five or more runs in five of the seven. Again, not to diminish the darkness of how that opening scrum in Pittsburgh felt, but there just might be a trend forming here all the same.

Beyond the recency bias of watching the Cards kick ass over the past several days, though, is also the fact that the offense this team fields, for better or for worse, is going to not only determine a huge proportion of how the season goes, but also will serve as a referendum on the club's direction, and certain aspects of the front office as well. All through the offseason, the frustration over the Cardinals' refusal to go out and make a splash to upgrade the offense was a bubbling undercurrent to all discussions, in every outlet. Failing to sign Heyward was the big crusher, of course, but there were those who wanted to sign Chris Davis. And those who wanted to sign Justin Upton. And those who wanted to sign Yoenis Cespedes. And those who wanted the Cardinals to just sign fucking someone, damn it, because the Cubs are eating our lunch and that tool Mozeliak doesn't seem worried about anything except his bow tie and scarf game. All of which are meaningful points of view, and with certain understandable underpinnings. We can debate the potential merits of any of those possible moves, even now that they haven't been made, all day long, but the more interesting, and even more meaningful, debate is going to be that of the Cardinals' own internal viewpoint, which amounted to, essentially, "We think we'll be better."

The problem with that viewpoint is that it relies on a whole lot of hope, and perhaps less real reasons for improvement. There's an awful lot of faith in the internal options required to feel about the 2016 offense the way the front office apparently felt, and questioning how viable hope as a strategy really is is a very fair question.

That first series in Pittsburgh, combined with the copious amount of evidence from spring training, not to mention the offense of last season which did not appear to have been meaningfully upgraded over the offseason, offered plenty of reason for pessimism. The young season taken as a whole, though, seems to paint a much, much rosier picture.

All stats used here come from ESPN's easily sortable team batting statistics, and are current as of right now as I'm writing this.

The 2016 season has seen the Cardinals play seven games. Currently, they rank second in all of baseball with 48 runs scored, just behind the San Francisco Giants, with 50. However, the Giants have scored their 50 in eight games, giving them a per-game average of 6.25, while the Cards come in at 6.86. Interestingly, moving down one spot to number three in all of baseball, we find another club with only seven games played just one run behind the Redbirds. The Chicago Cubs have scored 47 runs. Beyond that, we find the Los Angeles Dodgers with 44 runs in eight games, then Boston, Baltimore, and Texas all coming in at 40. (Texas has played nine games already.)

Sorting by OPS, we find El Birdos at number four, with a team on-base plus slugging of .840, trailing Baltimore (.877), San Francisco (.860), and Colorado (.856). Immediately following the Cardinals in the standings are Detroit, at .835, the Yankees at .830, and the Cubs again, at .812.

It's interesting to note that the primary driver of the Giants' huge offensive totals so far this season has been a shocking number of home runs, as they've hit 17 already this season, tied with Colorado for the most in baseball. There are a couple teams with 13, one with 12, several with 10, and then, all the way down in the middle of the pack, having hit a relatively modest eight homers on the year, we find our Cardinals. We also find the Cubs, sitting on that same number. We have to slide all the way down to nearly the bottom of the list before we find the division rival Pirates, who have only hit three dingers. That's tied for the second-fewest in baseball (a four-way tie), one ahead of the punchless New York Mets.

The Cubs' offense is getting some press at the moment for walking at an historic clip, having drawn 38 free passes in their first seven games. And, to be fair, that is a remarkable number. Nearly as remarkable, but not really commented on yet: the Pirates have drawn 36 in eight games, which isn't historic, but still an average of 4.5 walks per game, which would put them at 700+ for the season if they continued at that pace. Also somewhat remarkable: the Cardinals have drawn 32 bases on balls in seven games, tied for third-most in baseball, with the Braves of all teams. Again, 32 in seven isn't as amazing as 38, but it's still better than 4.5 walks per game.

The Cubs and Cardinals are, in fact, extraordinarily similar offenses so far this season. They've gotten on base at extremely similar clips, with the Northsiders having a slight edge, .372 to .369. The Cardinals have more hits, more doubles, and more triple. So a little more hitting, with a little less patience, essentially.

The one really concerning number for the Redbirds so far: they've struck out 72 times already on the season, a shocking 10+ per game rate that wouldn't seem to bode well for future success. Of course, a huge portion of that total came in that first series against the Pirates, but that doesn't mean they don't count. Whiffing over two dozen times in the first two games of the season still says something about you as a team.

By contrast, while the Cubs' and Cardinals' overall offensive performance so far looks very similar, Chicago has a huge edge in contact, having struck out just 58 times. That 38:58 ratio is much, much healthier than what our Redbirds are rocking at the moment. (Then again, I believe roughly 85% of the Cardinals' strikeouts were accumulated by Randal Grichuk in the space of four at-bats, somehow, so perhaps there's some room for improvement.) Pittsburgh has been even better at making contact than the Cubbies, whiffing 56 times in their eight games. And all the way down at the other end, on the positive side? The Giants, who have struck out just 40 times, giving them a strikeout to home run ratio that's only slightly higher than 2:1.

The Cardinals and Cubs have very similar home run per plate appearance rates. The Cardinals have actually hit more fly balls, which I find somewhat surprising considering the type of offense the Redbirds seemed to have at times last year. The Cards have 29 total extra-base hits on the season, tied for the third-most in the game and just three back of the leader -- yep, you guessed it, the Giants are on top in this category, too. Somewhat worryingly, a ton of the damage the Cardinals have done this season has come from pinch-hitters, but considering two of those pinch hitters (Aledmys Diaz and Jeremy Hazelbaker), now appear to have starting spots for at least the short-term future, perhaps that isn't such a bad thing after all.

The Cardinals have a team .278 batting average, good for eighth in the league. Of the clubs ahead of them in the BA standings, though, only Baltimore has more total bases in the same number of games.

Finally, perhaps as indicative a stat as anything is this: in on-base percentage, the Cardinals currently rank third in all of baseball, with a .369 mark that is a full eleven points clear of the fourth place team, Detroit. And the only two teams ranked ahead of the Redbirds in OBP? The Chicago Cubs, at .372, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, with an MLB-best .387.

So what does all this tell us? Well, honestly, perhaps not a ton. It is, after all, seven games, a sample size far too small to draw much in the way of firm conclusions. Maybe, if anything, it simply tells us the Cardinals have faced some lousy pitching so far, and are feasting on the dregs of the league, while their competitors are somehow doing it against Clayton Kershaw day in and day out and the third-order wins are going to point and laugh at our club all year. But we can also look at what they've done so far, what the results have been, and say that in seven games, the Cardinals have scored five or more runs in five of those games, gotten Liriano'd once, and had one real clunker of a performance. They're drawing walks at a very high clip. They're hitting for tons of extra-base power, even if the balls aren't going over the fences at a high rate yet. (And, to be honest, probably aren't going to start anytime soon.) And just watching the games, without worrying so much about the numbers, we can say already that this is a very interesting approach to building a lineup, with remarkable depth and what appears to be, at least in the early going, to be a complete lack of black holes on offense.

But then again, it could also just be the terrible teams and terrible pitching thing. We'll really have to wait and see. But considering how dark things felt leaving Pittsburgh, and how concerned we all were with the club's anemic offense throughout spring training (and, you know, the last time we saw them play meaningful games, in 2015), seeing them sitting where they are currently in the offensive standing is, if nothing else, an exciting glimpse of how the strategy employed by the front office over the winter, maligned in so many corners (including, admittedly, this one), just might be coming together.