President Barack Obama warms up with St. Louis...

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Maybe during the government’s shutdown, President Obama can start pitching for opposing teams. The Cardinals may require this type of handicap if they’re going to put any runs on the board this season. What’s that you say? Oh yeah… he’s a southpaw. Nevermind.

All kidding aside, this team seems even less capable of scoring runs than last year. That observation is probably due to the short-term memory nature of sports, but this team was supposed to feature a roster infused with higher offensive potential and better quality of character. Maybe they’re having a blast in the clubhouse, and perhaps they respect the hell out of each other, but fans are unamused.

And you know what? It’s understandable that the fan base is growing restless. After the 2010 club was characterized as underachieving by its own GM, the 2011 version has limped out of the gate with a 2-5 record that already leaves them sitting three games back of the Reds. Yes, it’s too early to panic, but what is going on? The only redeeming factor of this team is that it has been playing real life games in front of a baseball-starved fan base, even if its offense has been of the station-to-station variety. Well, that and they’ve been pitching fairly well.

However, if baseball watching has been more boring than you remembered, it’s probably because the Cardinals have only had 9 extra base hits (2 HR, 1 3B, and 6 2B) in 268 plate appearances. Forget the NL Central, that’s the worst total in all of MLB. To make things worse, they’ve hit into 11 double plays, 5 of which were the fault of Albert Pujols. Again – worst in the league. Even when things have looked promising, runners have abruptly been plucked from the base paths leaving opportunities wasted and rallies killed. We all know how Tony LaRussa loves his crooked numbers, but he’s only enjoyed three frames in which the Cardinals have scored more than one run, and in each of those innings, it was the lowest possible crooked number – two.

Yes, this has been a remarkably terrible opening week for the Cardinals… and history isn’t on their side (as outlined by Pip at Fungoes) when it comes to other teams turning it around after similarly disappointing starts.

But are there any reasons for optimism?

Team Wins Losses Pyth O/U* BB% K% BB/K
Reds 5 2 2.0 9.6% 19.3% 0.57
Pirates 5 3 0.5 8.9 26.2 0.38
Cubs 4 3 0.0 8.6 17.2 0.56
Brewers 3 5 -0.5 8.0 23.2 0.38
Cardinals 2 5 -1.0 9.7 18.1 0.60
Astros 1 5 -2.0 5.4 25.1 0.24

*Does not include games from 4/8/11.

In case you’re wondering, Pyth O/U stands for Pythagorean Over/Under, available at Baseball Prospectus. In short, this stat tells us whether a team is over performing or under performing based on a team’s run differential. The division leading Reds benefit from a record two games better than it “should” be, while the Cardinals “should” have one more tally in their win column.

Things aren’t all bad. The Cardinals boast the highest divisional base-on-ball rate, and compared to other MLB teams, only three have been better at drawing walks. They’ve also limited their strikeouts (2nd best in NLC; 8th best in MLB). So not only have they been one of the best teams at taking free passes, they’ve also consistently put the ball in play.

Other than adding one percent to their walk rate (obviously, a welcome change – we’ll see if it lasts), these numbers aren’t much different than 2010. So what’s happening on these balls in play?

Reds 39 19.5 41.5 12.0 .354
Pirates 49.8 16.6 33.7 10.1 .302
Cubs 39.7 15.6 44.7 7.9 .302
Brewers 47.7 20.3 32.0 14.3 .286
Cardinals 53.1 16.0 30.9 3.3 .263
Astros 47.2 20.5 32.4 7.0 .289

The Cardinals just won’t keep hitting so many ground balls. It’s been six years since a team has hit 50% grounders (Twins in 2005; also had 49.9% in 2007). I guess the others (line drives and fly balls) are sustainable, but both would be unexpectedly low. We can be sure, however, that more of the Cardinals fly balls will leave the yard (league average is usually 10.6% HR/FB), and more of their balls in play will fall for hits (league average is usually ~.300 BABIP) . Assuming that the type of balls in play remains constant for the rest of the year (which they won’t), the Cardinals offense should improve thanks to the principle of regression alone. And if they loft  some more balls into the air (especially Pujols: 37.0% FB & 11.1% LD), there’s the potential for even more gains.

The bonus silver lining in all of this is that the Reds appear to be just as lucky as the Cardinals have been unfortunate. While their second highest BABIP in MLB momentarily plots them on the opposite end of the luck continuum, they’ll drift back towards the median at some point… and that’ll be a welcome change of narrative for St. Louis fans.

Sticking with the theme of offense, other positive developments:

  • Albert Pujols has never before given us a reason to believe he will produce like anyone other than Albert Pujols.
  • Supposedly, Matt Holliday’s appendectomy will not necessitate a trip to the DL.
  • Colby Rasmus has more walks (7) than strikeouts (4); he’s been playing against lefties.
  • Allen Craig has been given playing time.
  • Lance Berkman still has knees; David Freese still has ankles.
  • Theriot has walked 15.6% of the time. While his .240 BABIP is low, I’m assuming that’s partially due to a higher percentage of fly balls (40%) being generated by a guy with very little pop, no matter what April/May of 2009 tell you.

I’m reasonably comfortable asserting that things will improve for the Cardinals offensively. I’m less comfortable suggesting that said improvements will be drastic enough to offset the team’s sluggish beginning and overcome NL Central foes. But, hey, string a few wins together, and the landscape becomes much less ominous. Such is the beauty of early April amid a season that offers 155 more games.

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