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The Cardinals offense has been led from behind

With the top of the order’s results not always sunny in 2018, the powerful bottom of the order has been doing most of the work.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Entering play last night, the Cardinals were in first place in the NL Central, with the third-best record in the National League (I’d ask for a show of hands from people who predicted Atlanta, St. Louis, and Arizona to lead the NL with close to a quarter of the season played, but that wouldn’t achieve anything but the identification of liars). They’ve had a healthy dose of good fortune that needs to be acknowledged: for example, their BaseRuns record, which strips out good/bad luck in the sequencing of events, says they’ve played more like a 19-16 team than a 21-14 one. But that’s a small quibble. They’ve been good.

How they’ve been good, though, wasn’t exactly what most people expected. It’s almost entirely been on the back of their starting pitching, which has the second-best ERA in the NL. The rotation was expected to be solid to good this year, just maybe not top-of-the-league good. And they’ll likely fall off their early pace, but the pace has been what it’s been. Meanwhile, the offense — bolstered by the team’s biggest offseason acquisition and the full-time presence of Jose Martinez — was expected to be one of the NL’s best.

It hasn’t been. Not yet, anyway. It’s been good enough for the Cards to open 21-14, though. Collectively, the Cardinals’ 94 wRC+ puts them in the creamy middle of the NL, tied for 8th with Arizona and a single point behind the Giants. If your starters are preventing runs as well as anybody out there, that’ll play. It’s not what was advertised (and I think things will get better, personally), but it’s fine.

Most of the attention devoted to the offense so far has been, understandably, to the cold bats at the top. Matt Carpenter has been hitting the ball hard when he hits it, but the hits haven’t been dropping in (or carrying over the fence) just yet — and he’s developed a maybe-troubling new tendency to swing and miss. Marcell Ozuna has been pounding the ball as expected, but pounding it far too often into the dirt instead of up in the air — and he’s shown a maybe-troubling lack of patience. Dexter Fowler’s hit into lots of bad luck, but has also just not hit the ball all that well yet. You’re all familiar with this stuff.

Collectively, the Cardinals’ #1-4 hitters have the second-worst wRC+ in the NL (96). That’s very bad; only Miami is worse, and they are basically not MLB team this year. The team having an average overall offense so far despite the struggles of their best hitters has an obvious explanation, though: the bottom of the order has been (for a bottom of an order) really good.

The Cards’ #5-8 hitters entered play last night with a collective wRC+ of 110 — markedly better than their #1-4 hitters, and the third-best figure for such a group in the NL (if you’re curious, the Cubs are slightly ahead of the Cards, and Pittsburgh has an absurd 130 figure). It’s not an exaggeration to say that the bottom of the Cardinals’ order has carried the offense this year. The bottom has supplied most of the power (.187 ISO, 25 homers vs. .136 and 16 from the top).

I don’t think this is a bad thing. I don’t, at this stage, think it’s really anything. The Cardinals’ current roster theme — tremendous depth everywhere, but searching for more star power — always made it likely that the back half of their batting order would be quite a bit better than most in the league, even if it was possible the front half wasn’t one of the best in the league. A lineup with (for lack of better terms) lots of width but not much height should be expected to have a good bottom half. At the end of the day, the Cardinals’ #5-8 hitters performing collectively like a slightly above-average hitter for 6-7 weeks isn’t even that surprising. It’s better than they’re likely to sustain over a full season, but it’s less unusual than the underperformance of the top half of the order.

Still, the backwards-ness of the Cardinals’ offensive production to date is weird. This doesn’t usually happen. So, since it’s Saturday morning and you’re not doing anything productive anyway right now (I hope; you gotta take some time for yourself), I decided to take a pointless look at just how weird it is.

I’m leaving the American League out, because I feel like the pitcher batting screws this up. So far this year, there are two other NL teams whose #5-8 hitters have outperformed their #1-4 hitters: the aforementioned Pirates and Cubs. For the Pirates, it’s more about guys like Francisco Cervelli and Corey Dickerson (who hit low in the order) having huge starts than about their bigger names having slow starts — though with a 99 wRC+, it’s not like the top of their order has been good. For the Cubs, the story is much like the Cardinals: some of their best hitters have started slowly, but it’s not like you’re going to move Anthony Rizzo down in the order.

So, okay: a little less than a quarter of the way into the season, there are three NL teams with weird batting-order splits. That’s a fifth of the league, so, you know — weird but not that weird. At what point would it officially be weird?

To answer that, let’s go back a year. By date, here are the NL teams with this kind of batting-order split on various dates last year:

  • May 12 — one year ago today: Reds, Rockies, and... Cardinals.
  • June 12: Pirates, Reds
  • July 12: Pirates

There are the Pirates again — they have this year’s weirdest top vs. bottom split, and last year they had one that lasted all the way to the All-Star Break. Probably meaningless, but I’ll leave that to the Pirates people. (Just for fun: the top half of the Pirates’ order never did surpass the bottom half last year. Their #1-4 hitters finished the year with a 93 wRC+, and so did their #5-8 hitters.)

So: the Statcast data tells us Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna are very likely going to be fine. In the meantime, it’s been nice, albeit weird, that the team’s less heralded hitters have carried so much of the offensive load. If we look up in another month and this is still the case, that’ll seem weirder yet. If they make it all the way to the All-Star Break like this, they’ll be in rare territory (and, it’s worth mentioning, territory that good teams don’t seem to inhabit).

If it lasts all year... I guess Clint Hurdle and Mike Matheny should start hosting classes in how not to order your hitters?