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The early returns on the top of the Cardinals’ lineup

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Last night’s bottom of the 3rd inning is hopefully a sign of things to come

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

Personally speaking, this is the hardest time of the year to write about baseball. The offseason is over, the “this is what the Cardinals need to do to be successful in 2017”-type posts no longer feel as relevant. And we are nowhere close to when Russell Carleton tells us that the stats now matter. To the contrary, we are only 1/162 of the way on our march to figuring out the 2017 Cardinals. So let’s talk about the 1.

One game, especially the first of 162, is rather meaningless. Last year, after the Cardinals dropped the first game of the 2016 season with a lifeless effort from their offense (no runs, 14 strikeouts) on a miserable, cold day in Pittsburgh, I wrote in defense of freaking out about that one loss. I didn’t really believe it. And even though that one loss was the difference in the Cardinals playing extra baseball last season (just as the other 75 were), it really told us nothing about the team. They scored zero runs on that day, yet we soon found out that they had a high-octane offense which would go on to score more runs than all but two National League teams.

So that game didn’t really matter, and last night’s thrilling 4-3 walk-off win over the Cubs didn’t really matter but for the fact that had they lost - a game which they had no business losing - walking around today would have been slightly worse depending on your ability to push these things aside (note: my ability is poor), and the Cardinals would have been a game worse in the standings. Still, I want to zero in on the top of the lineup because that’s been my focus as to why I believe the Cardinals can be a dangerous team.

Here’s what I wrote in early February about Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, and Matt Carpenter:

To that end, a statistic in the 2017 Athlon Baseball Preview (well worth your time, find it next to the paperback romance novels at your local Walgreen’s) caught my eye: The Cardinals likely top three hitters in 2017 (Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, Aledmys Diaz) had a combined .381 on-base percentage in 2016. The overall NL average last season was .322. League average for hitters 1-3 combined was around .343. A .381 OBP would have tied a Coors-inflated Charlie Blackmon for 11th in the league.

...

Whatever the case, the dream scenario for the Cardinals in 2017 is Fowler on the third, Carpenter at first, and Diaz stepping up to the plate in the 1st inning with the pitch count already in double-digits.

Checking in on the very early returns from last night, this trio reached base five times in 15 plate appearances, a fine, hardly remarkable stat line for the top of the order. The bottom of the 3rd, however, hopefully foreshadowed what we will be seeing a lot this season. Swap Carpenter and Diaz in the lineup and change the inning, and it almost mirrored the last quoted paragraph from above.

Fowler led off and battled through a 1-2 count by fouling off several pitches before squeezing an infield single up the first base line just past pitcher Jon Lester. Had any pitcher but Lester been in the game to make a play on it, Fowler may have been out. (I don’t remember who gets credit for saying Jon Lester is good enough at pitching to cancel out being terrible at every other part of baseball but it’s not me.) Diaz then on an 0-2 count made solid contact to the opposite side of the infield, which was misplayed (or never saw) by Javier Baez and Fowler advanced to third. Carpenter followed up by taking advantage of a 2-1 count and lining a pitch to right, allowing Fowler to tag up and score the first run of the game.

The three of them pushed Lester, arguably a top-three pitcher in the NL, to 14 pitches and a run scored by the time he recorded his first out. Perhaps a series of flukes with Fowler and Diaz’s back-to-back hits, but by the time the inning was over Lester’s pitch count was already up to 73. To Lester’s credit, he saved himself by recording the next five outs on just ten pitches, which allowed him to last into the 6th inning or otherwise I’m not sure he makes it to the 5th with his spot due up that inning.

They ran on Lester, too, which is all a lot of us have ever really wanted. Or at least Aledmys Diaz did. He swiped second in the 3rd with one out, and then would have easily taken third had the pitch not been fouled off by Jhonny Peralta. No matter because he then took third a few pitches later with Yadier Molina at the plate. The last stolen base was probably ill-advised, there were two outs and Diaz likely gets a good enough jump off Lester to score on most any hit to the outfield, but the chance to exploit Lester’s weakness doesn’t come around too often so they might as well take advantage.

This inning might be meaningless, might not tell us anything about the 2017 Cardinals when we look back a year from now. In fact, maybe Carpenter’s inexplicable fielding blunder in the top of the 9th will better encapsulate a team that is still not fundamentally sound. Or, preferably, we’ll remember this as Carlos Martinez’s first start in a season when he was firmly declared a bonafide ace. What we probably do know is that the lineup at 4 through 8 is going to be very fluid throughout the season (with the easy cliche being that Randal Grichuk is the likely new cleanup hitter until Stephen Piscotty gets a few big hits). The top of the lineup should be stable though and I think they have a good thing going here.