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Did the Cardinals Give Up Too Much Power?

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The 2017 Cardinal offense is going to look much different from that of 2016. Is that a good thing? Or a potential problem?

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The 2017 season is fully underway. Not exactly the way most of us would prefer, probably, but the 2017 season is most definitely underway.

The fact the club is 2-6 through their first eight games is obviously frustrating, but there have been bright spots. The rotation’s first go round was very good, and while it’s certainly been a rougher time so far this second time through, you can look at the games and point to a play or two here or there that, had they been made, would have changed the way things went. There have been close calls on balls and strikes that have seemed to mostly go against the Cards’ starters. (Not making a conspiracy claim, for the record; these things tend to even out, but in the early going it just seems like the calls have gone against our boys in red.) There have been a couple of notable double play chances not converted that would have made a big difference. In short, things just haven’t gone well so far, in addition to the team not playing all that well.

There’s a column to be written, I think (and probably a very angry one at that), about the disconnect between what the Cardinals said they were going to accomplish over the offseason and what they actually did; paying endless lip service to the idea of defense and athleticism, but not really upgrading the defense (especially on the infield), and then starting Matt Adams in the outfield multiple times within the first week all kind of sits a bit wrong.

However, more curious to me so far has been the Cards’ almost completely impotent offense to this point. Last season, the Redbirds boasted one of the most imposing offenses in all baseball — even if, for whatever reason, the various broadcast employees of various media outlets just could not stop talking about how limited and inconsistent the club’s homer-heavy attack was — and very nearly bashed their way past all the pitching issues, bad defense, and a near-endless stream of outs made on the basepaths into the playoffs.

Quick side note: why are broadcasters so obsessed with stolen bases and hate home runs so much? Don’t get me wrong; I wish we would see a bit more dynamic game, with fewer strikeouts and more balls in play (more actual action, in other words), but I certainly enjoy a good home run pretty much any time of the day. But for some reason, the broadcast and colour commentator types just despise the home run for some reason. Every offense that hits a lot of dingers is somehow flawed, somehow limited, and if they aren’t hitting home runs are up shit creek without a paddle. Meanwhile, one of the most inefficient (albeit admittedly fun), occurences in the game, the stolen base, is lionised to a bizarre degree, with the Hortons and Hraboskys and Danny Macs of the world constantly hammering on how much better the offense would be if the club were just more aggressive on the bases. I really don’t understand why this dichotomy exists.

Anyhow, the Cardinals of 2016 didn’t do a whole lot of things all that well, but they did do one thing: they hit dingers. Lots and lots and lots of dingers. The 225 home runs hit by last year’s iteration of the club led the National League. The team scored 779 runs; that ranked third in the NL. Their .442 slugging percentage ranked second in the senior circuit. They ranked third in OPS, sixth in on-base percentage, and ninth in batting average. In other words, it was a power-heavy OPS the Cards were rocking in 2016, and it led them to score runs at a rate near the top of the league.

So far this season, though, the power hasn’t shown up. After last night’s loss to the Nationals, the Redbirds have just six home runs on the season. Half of those belong to their shortstop, Aledmys Diaz. (Who, by the way, in spite of having not drawn a single walk yet in almost 40 plate appearances has been far and away the club’s best hitter, hopefully assuaging some fears about his potential flash-in-the-pandom.) The club as a whole isn’t really hitting; the only thing the team has really done well so far offensively is draw walks, which isn’t all that surprising considering you have Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler in the same lineup most nights. (Get Greg Garcia some more consistent playing time, say, at third base, and you could potentially have three guys in the lineup with walk rates above 12%.)

Now, I realise I am somewhat talking out of both sides of my mouth here, complaining about Matt Adams playing in left field while simultaneously suggesting the Cardinals need more power, but in reality I’m not necessarily saying I think they need more power. I am, however, wondering if the club may have moved away from the power bats they had last year a bit too far.

In 2016, the Cards received 28 home runs from Brandon Moss, 20 from Matt Holliday in fairly limited playing time, and 30 from Jedd Gyorko, who started nearly as many games at second base as Kolten Wong. That’s 78 homers from three players, two of whom are no longer with the club, and the third of whom is most definitely not in a platoon at second base (or so we’re told), and not playing much at third base so far either. The left field combo of Holliday and Brandon Moss, along with Randal Grichuk in center, has been replaced by Grichuk and Dexter Fowler, and while I’m way in to Dexter Fowler as part of this club and setting the table at the top of the lineup, he’s no one’s idea of a power hitter.

To this point in the season, it looks like we’re going to see less of Gyorko, at least so long as Jhonny Peralta is healthy enough to take the field. And, to be frank, it seems exceedingly unlikely that Jedd would be able to replicate his 2016 homer output even given near-full time playing opportunities. He seems to have pushed his batting profile closer to that pull-heavy flyball approach that some other hitters have ridden to big power numbers, but even so he’s not going to put nearly a quarter of the fly balls he hits over the wall again. (Particularly considering his previous HR/FB% high was just under 16%.)

A friend of mine texted me during the first series of the season, and asked a simple question: “where is the power going to come from this year?” My answer at the time was something along the lines of, the power is going to have to come from the whole lineup, and there isn’t going to be nearly as much this year. Aledmys Diaz, Stephen Piscotty, Matt Carpenter, and Randal Grichuk all have 20+ homer potential, but it’s hard to see any of them having 30+ potential in there. Grichuk almost certainly could hit that many, but the contact issues are always going to make him a risky bet to hit and perhaps even to simply stay in the lineup. There are some ugly, ugly slumps in Randal Grichuk, and it isn’t hard to imagine him ending up on the bench from time to time as he tries to ride out a bad case of slideritis.

If Kolten Wong is, indeed, getting the bulk of the playing time at second base, though, there’s probably one position we can pencil in for <15 homers. Ditto for center field, where Fowler will probably struggle to reach even the modest power totals he put up in Wrigley Field. The Peralta situation at third base is worrisome; depending upon how long Matheny sticks with Jhonny, the Cardinals could end up with something approximating zero production at the hot corner this year. Yadi is no longer much of a power threat, even when he’s hitting well. And as much as I really would be intrigued to see what a full season of Greg Garcia at third base would look like in terms of on-base production, he would not help the power dynamic in any meaningful way.

It’s obviously early, and I’m not really worried about the offense just yet. No one is really hitting much so far (even Aledmys Diaz, for the power he’s shown, has posted a crazy low BABIP and absolutely zero patience to this point), and for the most part we can look at the hitters and pretty easily conclude most of them will be better. But I do find myself wondering if the on-base boost we should see coming in the near future will be enough to overcome the fact that it looks as if power could be tough to come by this season.

Of course, the power isn’t to be looked at in isolation; a speedier team can partially make up for a lack of power, as can a team with great on-base skills. And just as importantly, the hoped-for improvement in the run prevention department should offset some fall off in the offense. But still, this year’s model of the Cardinals is not going to bash their way to much of anything, and it feels like many days there could be a serious lack of thump in at least half the lineup, if not more. Oh, and if you’re hoping for that thing I said about a speedier team making up for some power shortfalls, well.....the baserunning has already looked like a recurring bad dream.

So, keeping in mind the sample so far is extremely small, and we should see some things definitely come around, let me ask the question of you, dear reader: considering what we’ve seen so far from the Redbird lineup, did they shed too much power this offseason? Or will this revamped offense have enough on-base abilities to keep pace and score enough to support the overall effort?

It’s interesting to look at this Cardinal lineup; they’re clearly constructed to fill up the bases with their top three hitters, and then hope a pretty mediocre middle of the order can push them around toward home. It reminds me a bit of the Minnesota Twins of a decade ago; the infamous ‘Pirahnas’ of Ozzie Guillen press conferences. That would seem to be the template for a successful offense of the type the Redbirds are hoping to put together this year.

I’m just not sure it’s going to work.