PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 19: Roy Halladay ...

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Well, the Cardinals league-leading offense trumped the Phillies league-leading pitching staff… and they still lost game 1 of the NLDS. After surrendering a 3-run blast to Lance Berkman in the first inning, Roy Halladay morphed into a better version of himself and finished eight innings while easily disposing of his final 21 batters.

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The Good: The Cardinals jumped Roy Halladay for an early lead on Berkman’s 3-run homer in the first inning. Berkman’s blast was good for .239 WPA (win probability added) and left the Cardinals with a 78% chance of winning the game before they’d even made their second out. He lead the team with an overall .225 WPA.

Rafael Furcal alleviated fears about his game being compromised by a hamstring injury when he singled and stole a base to lead off the game. Even with Punto’s solid play (when healthy) this season, his career wOBA (.296) suggests that even a decline phase Furcal is probably the better option (.323 wOBA in 200+ plate appearances with Cardinals).

There’s no shame in scoring three runs against Roy Halladay. And when he exited the game, the Cardinals immediately resumed hitting by posting a crooked number on the board in the ninth.

The Bad: TLR replaced David Freese with Daniel Descalso in the bottom of the 7th inning when they were only trailing by 3 runs. Why? I understand it was a double-switch hoping that Scrabble could pitch more than one inning, but the Cardinals were still within striking distance of a win and Freese’s bat (.348 wOBA) is clearly superior to Descalso (.296). If TLR was intent on making a double-switch, it would have made more sense to pull Skip Schumaker (who had made the last out of the previous inning) in favor of Nick Punto.

And while we’re addressing this issue, why has it become commonplace to replace Freese with Descalso at third base anyways? Does the eye test grade Descalso to be demonstrably better than Freese with his glove at the hot corner? The metrics don’t make this argument. UZR/150 has Descalso at -6.6 while Freese is +3.9 at 3B. Total Zone also considers Descalso to be inferior to Freese with the glove. So why do we keep seeing this happen in games?

The Ugly: When the bottom of the sixth inning started, the Cardinals still had a 76.8% chance of winning the game and Lohse seemed to be cruising pretty easily. Lohse’s disastrous sixth inning resulted in a 69.1% upswing in Win Probability for the Phillies. This game lacked in suspense. Once upon a time, the Cardinals had a three-run lead with good Kyle Lohse on the mound and then they suddenly trailed by three. The Cardinals squandered an opportunity to win game one and are now left relying on TLR’s desperation gamble to pitch Carpenter on short rest in game two.

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The other day I was perusing through the stat lines of the triple-A players in Memphis and noticed that quite a few of them were getting on base frequently via the walk.

One thing that has helped the Cardinals charge their way to a league best wOBA (.344) is their propensity for drawing walks and limiting strikeouts. Check out how they are fairing in these two categories:

The Cardinals rank second in the league in walks (tied with the Pirates at 9.6%) and fourth in limiting strikeouts (tied with Athletics at 17.9%). In comparison, their 2010 rankings were eleventh in BB% (tied with the Dodgers, Brewers, and Tigers at 8.7%) and fifth in K% (18.5%).

Their increased ability to coax walks can partly be explained by the acquisition of Lance Berkman (17.4%) and the career best rates of Matt Holliday (12.2%) and Colby Rasmus (13.9%).

Now check out Memphis:

The Memphis Redbirds’ BB% (11.1) is good for third in the Pacific Coast League, though they strike out a decent amount (only five teams had a worse K rate than 18.3%). Recently promoted Matt Carpenter lead the team with a 17.6 BB%, but others displayed impressive walk rates as well: Andrew Brown (15.5%), Adron Chambers (13.3%), James Rapoport (13.2%), and Mark Hamilton (19.6%).

I don’t have much else to add, but I do hope the trend continues throughout the season… and maybe even beyond.

 

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At FanGraphs, Steve Slowinski called attention to the fact that many players are now reaching significant thresholds in playing time. Thanks to research from Pizza Cutter (all links can be found here), we know that players’ skill sets tend to stabilize after a certain number of plate appearances or batters faced. Steve explained what is meant by this well:

When I say “stabilize”, I don’t mean that these rates won’t change at all over the remaining course of the season. Instead, all it means is that once a player approaches these sample sizes, you can consider that there’s something more than just random variation going on: there’s some underlying change in a player’s approach/skill level/process/etc. in play as well. Matt Garza isn’t guaranteed to finish the year with a 12 K/9 rate because his strikeout rate has “stabilized”, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if his final strikeout rate is higher than what it’s been in the past.

So this isn’t to say that players will continue performing at current levels, but we can infer an upwards/downwards trend in approach or skill, even at these relatively small sample sizes.

If you followed the link to the FanGraphs article, you know where I’m headed. Most batters have now accumulated enough plate appearances to tell us something about their swing rate (50 PA) and contact rate (100 PA), while most pitchers have now faced enough hitters to lend insight into their strikeout rate (150 BF) and groundball rate (150 BF). While Steve’s article takes a look at all players across MLB, I thought it’d be useful to narrow the scope to our team.

Below is a graph for the Cards’ position players who have amassed enough plate appearances to be included. You can see the MLB average at the top of the bar graph. Numbers for 2011 are represented by the darker tones while career numbers are found in the bars shaded more lightly. Since Daniel Descalso only had 38 PA before 2011, I only included numbers from this season.

Overall, most guys sit pretty close to their career norms… but let’s take a closer look at a few:

Pre-DL David Freese’s .356 AVG looks pretty suspicious when you compare his contact percentage (71.7%) against the average major-leaguer (80.8%). While he’s making less contact, he’s actually swinging at a higher percentage of pitches than he has in the past. You’d be correct if you guessed that his BABIP (.460) was out of control. Obviously, this cannot be sustained. But Freese is making hard contact when he does put the ball in play as more than 30% have resulted in line drives. That’s not a predictive number but it is a descriptive one.

While I look forward to Post-DL David Freese returning to the team in a couple of months (fingers crossed), I remain perplexed by his precipitous drop off in power. In 750+ PA combined between AA and AAA, his isolated slugging percentage never dipped below .200. Nevertheless, it sits at .115 ISO in 398 PA with the big club. In fact, his career “success” to date includes a .396 BABIP.

StatCorner calculates players’ wOBA adjusting for their park and batted ball profile (they use acronym wOBAr). Freese loses 15-pts from his 2010 wOBA and 27-pts from his 2011 wOBA. I’m not saying that his potential contributions are overstated, but his numbers to date don’t exactly reflect his minor league performance (where he displayed decent power), and it’s scary to depend on a supposed power-threat to continue getting on base when he’s mostly relying on hitting singles and striking out 24.9% of the time. If the coaching staff considers this problematic for Colby Rasmus (25.8% career K rate), then why isn’t the same true of David Freese?

While Matt Holliday has decreased his swing percentage by 5.3%, Lance Berkman has increased his offerings by 4.7%. It’s hard to get too worried about either of these players. Holliday has already been worth 2.5 fWAR and there isn’t anything crazy about his batted ball profile (.481 wOBAr – StatCorner’s adjustment for park and batted balls).

Berkman’s case is a little more curious. While he has certainly benefit from a HR/FB rate ~20% higher than league average (only 10% higher than his personal norm), his wOBA (.511) is somehow lower than it should be based on StatCorner’s adjustments (.520 wOBAr)! Playing in Busch Stadium has robbed him of a little offensive value. Despite being a negative in the field – but not as horrendous as expected – Berkman has already been worth 2.1 fWAR. In other words, he’s pretty much justified the $8 million contract he signed this winter. The health of his knees will remain a concern until the final out of 2011, but kudos to TLR for continuing to schedule regular days off despite Berkman’s convincing offensive rennaisance.

What’s next on the horizon? For hitters, strikeout rate, line drive rate, and pitches per plate appearance “stabilize” at 150 TPA; walk rate, groundball rate, GB/FB rate “stabilize” at 200 TPA. Expect me to visit those as the season progresses.

I’ll try to make some observations about our starting pitchers in the next few days since a few of their rates have also “stabilized”: GB%, LD, and strikeout rate.

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PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 12:  Lance Berkman #12 of ...

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The Cardinals now rank second in the league in team wOBA (.356). This is not a joke. Since I wrote that piece about their slow start offensively merely one week ago, they started scoring runs at a torrid pace. Their BABIP has jumped 61-pts (.324)! They have hit fewer ground balls (48.8%), more line drives (20.2%); their fly ball rate hasn’t changed much (31.0%), but they’ve cleared the fence at a more realistic rate (12.9%). While they’ve started walking a little less (7.9 BB%), they have the third lowest strikeout rate in the league (16.7 K%). Altogether, the Cardinals have transformed from an unlucky team to a surprisingly fortunate one in the span of seven days. Fans, let’s keep our cool. Much like we shouldn’t have panicked when the offense was seemingly MIA after one week, we shouldn’t be quick to anoint them league leaders either. Perspective, friends; you can either have it now or the long season will eventually force it upon you.

With that said, it has been a lot of fun watching Lance Berkman hit 6 home runs in the span of 5 games.

Let’s take a look at the past few games…

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Hello offense!

Game 10

The Good: Kyle McClellan led the team with another strong outing (6.0 IP, 7 H, 4 BB, 4 SO, 1 R; .264 WPA). Despite not having his best stuff – as evidenced by worse control and fewer strikeouts – McClellan pitched two-thirds of the game and minimized damage. So far, he’s defied the odds of maintaining his unsustainable strand rate from last year (89.6% in 2010; 90.4% in 2011). Look for that to change.

Lance Berkman’s home runs didn’t offer much in the way of win probability (.037 WPA), but I think we were all a little relieved to see him poke a couple over the opposite field wall, and without the Crawford Boxes (damn you, Minute Maid Park) nonetheless!

The Bad: Albert Pujols did not join the offensive breakout. He was one of three starters who posted negative win probability… not to mention he grounded into another double play. See Steve’s post about Albert Pujols and small sample sizes from the other day; and Steve Slowinski posted another article at FanGraphs today on the matter (haven’t read that one yet). My analysis? Pujols will eventually be Pujols. There’s no reason to believe otherwise yet. Believe it or not, there really are some fans worried about this… I overheard a 70-ish year-old couple talking about it at dinner last night to prove it.

Game 11

The Good: David Freese had a solid game (2-4, 1 BB, 1 HR, and 2 RBIs; .202 WPA). His home run wasn’t cheap either as it cleared the elevated wall in CF. That was the second day in a row that Berkman hit back-to-back jacks; his wOBA creeped above the .390 mark.

The Bad: The pitching staff as a whole had a miserable performance, combining for -.751 WPA despite the offense’s best attempts to keep them in the game. And their pride wasn’t the only thing hurt since Augenstein and (probably) Tallet are expected to hit the DL. I’m happy for Salas’ promotion given his competence last year; he didn’t do anything wrong in Jupiter this spring either. I’m also excited to see Eduardo Sanchez get an opportunity; he’s struck people out at a pretty decent rate (2010: 9+ K/9 in AA and 10+ K/9 in AAA).

The Ugly: Chris Carpenter was alone responsible for -.495 WPA. I was going to take a look at his pitch f/x stuff compared to his first start to see if there was anything noteworthy, but my internet screwed up, and now I don’t have time. Let’s just chalk that forgettable performance up to a random blip and move on.

Hey, we’re still in Arizona! Maybe the offense will stick around for another night.

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Another loss, another eh performance by the offense.

 

The Good:

Berkman showed the solid on base skill that the Cards need from him over the long haul drawing two walks to add to his single.

Kyle Lohse got more swings and misses (7 according to Brooks Baseball) than I had anticipated.

 

The Bad:

Berkman made his first error of the year, to continue a trend of less than stellar defense out of the club.  We all knew the defense was going to be rough in some places, but hopefully things will improve some.

Theriot continues to struggle at the plate, as does the team in general.  Is it too early to panic?  Clearly not, but I’m not overly optimistic about Theriot turning it around.

The Ugly:

The 6 and 7 spots in the order (Freese and Molina) combined to go 0-8 and a combined -0.390 WPA.

 

Commentary:

The team seems to be pounding the ball into the ground so far this season, and this game was no exception, 19 of the 24 balls in play were ground balls, including 15 of 17 against Charlie Morton.  Coming into the day the Cards had hit over 51% of their balls in play on the ground, “good” for 5th in baseball.  Nothing to be alarmed about yet, but something worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.  I’m sure it’s something we’ll look at with pitch f/x if the trend continues.

Yesterday Bernie had a blog and a bit on his radio show (which I must say I enjoy listening to) about what he thinks the Cardinals should be concerned about based on the spring among other things.  He lists Ryan Theriot, Lance Berkman, Jaime Garcia, The Bullpen, and Overall Depth.  Read the blog post for all of his thoughts.  I thought it might be interesting to do the same thing in this very space.  Just looking to do some quick hits here, no in depth analysis.

My concerns, in no particular order:

  • The middle infield:  No surprise here.  I think ~3 WAR between the starters is a definite possibility.  Unfortunately 3 WAR (which means below average for the pair) might be close to the ceiling.  Bad defense, average-ish offense = below average.
  • SP depth:  I’m not concerned with Kyle McClellan in a starting spot.  Andy and I both have penned plenty of pieces on that already.  I even think Lohse might actually be serviceable.  That said, I’m not excited about the prospects of the starting five taking all of their turns in the rotation.  All have an injury history, so we’ll likely see Lance Lynn and others at some time this season.
  • Berkman’s health and defense:  Not much to say here.  This is a fairly obvious bullet.
  • Ryan Franklin:  I generally like the bullpen.  I like that the younger guys should get some chances (I’m looking at you Boggs).  That said I’m still worried about Franklin and his contact tendencies.  I think he’ll be ok, but not great by any stretch.

Values are rv100

And then swing rate

At least they line up pretty well.

I already kicked this dead horse once, but I finally got around to downloading the latest CAIRO projections, which come complete with platoon splits. I wish I would’ve known about that before I dinked around for a half hour or so getting splits for my lineup post. Anyway, the prognosis is rather negative for Cardinal hitters against southpaws.

Behold the ugly.

Player Vs L
Albert Pujols 0.453
Matt Holliday 0.396
Lance Berkman 0.348
Yadier Molina 0.332
David Freese 0.331
Allen Craig 0.325
Ryan Theriot 0.313
Colby Rasmus 0.307
Nick Punto 0.289
Gerald Laird 0.289
Daniel Descalso 0.287
Skip Schumaker 0.283
Bryan Anderson 0.277

Eno Sarris at Fangraphs already hit on how horrible the bottom of the Cardinals lineup is, but it just get so much worse against left-handed pitchers. For I’m afraid that after Albert and Holliday, things begin to unravel in a hurry. Berkman who is no guarantee to hit southpaws if the current trends continue, but I guess that more prone to believe this projection than just make a judgment based on last year’s splits. Molina and Freese are the only two players left that project to be league average.

Finally I will say that I’ll definitely take the over on Colby Rasmus here, but the larger point remains that after the Big 2, the Cardinals lineup against lefties ranges from league average to … well… poopy.

I’ve been thinking about Lance Berkman lately. I guess I’m not alone since Steve also posted about him yesterday. What follows are a few links from various sites like FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Fungoes. Also, a great interactive graphic from Beyond the Box Score ponders whether Minute Maid Park might have inflated Berkman’s power the last few years. It’s all after the jump… and I’ll provide a few musings along the way.
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