So whatever happened to the Cardinals' hitting?
The Gods of Baseball can be a highly capricious lot. For dramatic evidence, we need look at only two teams: the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, who battled in the World Series less than one year ago ...
Now? The Red Sox have given up on this season, with good reason. The Cardinals have hardly given up, but they’re in a death struggle for their postseason chances. And coincidentally enough, both teams have suffered from the same illness: a precipitous decline in their ability to score.
Last season, the Cardinals led the National League in scoring. This season, they’re next-to-last.
Last season, the Red Sox led the American League in scoring. This season, they’re last.
How in the hell does this happen? I’d say it’s Chinatown, Jake, except I still have the better part of a column to fill. So instead let’s break down the Cardinals (and ignore the BoSox, since they’re dead and did I already mention that yeah probably).
You’ll recall, I’m sure, that the Cardinals boldly broke up a pretty tremendous lineup last winter, essentially changing six of nine positions. Three of those six were holdover Cardinals switching positions: Matt Carpenter moving from second base to third base, Allen Craig going from first base to right field, and Matt Adams assuming the regular first-base duties. The Cardinals also signed Jhonny Peralta to take over at shortstop, traded for center fielder Peter Bourjos, and handed second base to Kolten Wong.
You might also recall that the saber-set, including your ever-humble columnist, endorsed the strategy both generally and specifically. While it seemed that the likely upgrades, especially at shortstop and third base, would be balanced by regressions elsewhere, and you could hardly expect the Cardinals to outscore everybody else in the league again – that’s hard to do once, let alone twice – it also seemed they were well-positioned for another fine season, runs-wise.
So what’s actually happened?
Peralta’s been a huge improvement at shortstop, and Carpenter’s been a big improvement at third base. Bourjos has disappointed, but incumbent Jon Jay has stepped into the breach and been fine. After a slow start, Wong’s been pretty good. Adams has been fine as the Cardinals’ regular first baseman.
Which leaves just three spots: catcher, left field, and right field.
Even before he got hurt, Yadier Molina wasn’t having his typical season. But it’s obviously a huge downgrade from Molina to Tony Cruz, who got most of the fill-in work before A.J. Pierzynski signed up.
In right field, Allen Craig was so awful for four months, the Cardinals finally gave up and shipped him to the Red Sox. This wasn’t supposed to be a problem, because of course Oscar Taveras was ready to win a Rookie of the Year award.
Taveras has been even worse than Craig. Last season, with Carlos Beltran patrolling right field, St. Louis right fielders finished third in the league with an 848 OPS. This season, with mostly Craig and Taveras, they’re 14th in the league at 589. Which accounts for a big chunk of the decline all by itself.
And in left field, Matt Holliday’s been good. But he used to be better than good; this season is his worst since he became a star in 2006.
Have we explained everything? No, not quite.
As you’ll also recall, last season the Cardinals hit exceptionally well with runners in clutch situations. According to FanGraphs’ “Clutch” metric, the Cards were far better than anyone else in the National League.
Was it Mike Matheny? Pete Kozma's magical incantations? Theories abounded!
One of those theories was that the Cardinals were lucky, and would regress.
So that’s another problem. But hardly the biggest. The biggest is that the Cardinals simply haven’t hit this year like they hit last year. Last year they had the second-best OPS in the league, and this year they’re eighth best. Still, with the eighth-best OPS they shouldn’t rank 14th in scoring.
Which is the biggest reason to like the Cardinals’ chances down the stretch. They really are better than this, and should look even better when Molina comes back (as he will) and Taveras starts hitting (as he should).