Saturday, May 22, 2010

Looking For My Worst Cardinals Team - Part 4

Today I'm going to look at the earliest occurring of the possibilities, the 1986 squad.


Record: 79-82 (.491), outscored 611-601, -10 run differential
Pythagorean Record: 79-82 (.491)

Offensive Notes: Scored 601 runs (12th out of 12), 3 players (2 starters, 1 reserve) with OPS+ > 100.

1986's Cardinals' lineup was pretty hopeless. In addition to being last in runs, they were also last in hits, doubles, home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (by over 40 points in that last category). They were second in triples, fifth in walks, first in stolen bases (262), and struck out the second fewest times in the league, for what that's worth.

There are a couple of culprits. One, Jack Clark had a torn ligament in his thumb, limiting him to 279 PAs, and only a .784 OPS (116 OPS+). In 1985, he produced an .895 (149 OPS+), and in 1987 it would be 1.055 (176). Without him, the Cardinals had a lightweight lineup, and pitchers could afford to be more careful, since there was no longer a dangerous slugger to drive in any runners they might let on base.

The other problem was several Cardinals had excellent years in 1985, and they came back to Earth. Part of that is likely due to many of the hitters being extremely dependent on batting average, as they didn't hit for much power or walk much. If the hits weren't falling, they weren't productive. Willie McGee (.676, 86, and missing time with leg injuries) and Vince Coleman (.581, 62) being a couple of prime examples. Terry Pendleton didn't hit, but he hadn't hit in 1985 either, so that wasn't a change. Tom Herr's numbers suffered from a 50 point drop in BA, and Mike LaValliere, though an improvement over Mike Heath (who he shared catching duties with until Heath was traded to Detroit in August), was no comparison to Darrell Porter who had half the catching duties in 1985. Ozzie Smith (.709, 98) had a 28 point drop in his slugging, but partially compensated with a 21 point rise in OBP (to a team-leading .376). Andy van Slyke (.795, 118) hit slightly better than he had the year before.

Only two of their reserves were of much use offensively: Jose Oquendo, who produced a .359 OBP in 158 PAs, and Mike Laga, who slugged .500 in 52 PAs. Unfortunately, Oquendo had no power (.341 SLG), and Laga didn't get on base (.308 OBP). None of the others could do better than Curt Ford's .682 OPS (88 OPS+), and most were well below it.

Pitching Notes: Allowed 611 runs (3rd out of 12), 9 pitchers (4 starters, 5 relievers) with ERA+ > 100.

Fortunately the pitching corps was able to partially stem the tide, impressive considering the problems it faced. Danny Cox missed time after he broke his leg jumping off a seawall, but still finished with a 2.90 ERA (127 ERA+) and 8 complete games. John Tudor was shut down in September with a tired shoulder, but in 217 innings he did throw, posted a 2.92 (127 ERA+). Bob Forsch led the team with 230 innings, and a 3.25 ERA (114). The innings total was the most for Forsch since 1982. Greg Mathews was called up partway through the season, and in 22 starts was basically league average (101 ERA+). None of them were overpowering, all striking out less than one batter every two innings, but none of them allowed more than 8.6 hits/9 innings, 2.7 BB/9, or more than 0.9 HRs/9. Tim Conroy was the strikeout pitcher of the rotation (6.2 K/9), but also the worst of the bunch by far (5.23 ERA, 71 ERA+, over 4 walks, 9 hits, and 1 HR/9).

The bullpen lost the primary closer of the previous year, Jeff Lahti, after only 2 innings, but Todd Worrell stepped in and did fairly well, saving 36 games (though he was tagged with the loss 10 times). Even as the supposed fireball closer, he struck out only 6.3 batters per 9 innings. The strikeout guy in the bullpen was actually Ken Dayley (7.7 K/9). It was lower than the previous year though, and combined with a rise in his WHIP, from 1.27 to 1.37, his ERA climbed to 3.26 (114). Rickey Horton had an excellent year doing whatever was required, starting 9 games (throwing 1 complete game), finishing 12 games (collecting 3 saves), and throwing over 100 innings (Worrell did this as well, tossing over 103 innings).

It's interesting their pitching staff was so effective at not allowing runs, considering they weren't overpowering. They struck out over 100 fewer batters than the team with the next fewest Ks. However, they walked the fewest batters, which probably helped, even though they allowed the fifth most home runs, suggesting a lot of those were solo shots. That's supported by the fact they allowed the 5th fewest hits. Opponents didn't make successful contact often, but when they did, they tended to hit it out of the park.

Defensive Notes: One thing that surprises me looking at the numbers is the Cardinals don't seem to be extraordinarily good defenders. I figured with so few strikeouts, that would be the key to their success at run prevention. Maybe it was, as every starter was at least 1 run above average, but I expected more high totals like Ozzie and Pendleton's. Ozzie was 16 runs above average at SS, Pendleton 18 at third. Andy van Slyke (in 600 innings) and Tito Landrum (in 400) were both +10 in RF. Some of the backups were below average (such as Oquendo at SS and second base, van Slyke in CF), but not by very much. I guess they add up, because when I total across all positions, they defense comes out +94, which would be worth 9 wins. Looks more impressive that way.

Other Notes: The team had a winning record from June through September, 62-51. It was just at the beginning and ends of the season they struggled (17-27 through the end of May, 0-4 in October). They even managed to outscore their opponents in August and September, in August by increasing their scoring (it's the only month they managed more than 110 runs), in September by limiting their opponents (96 runs allowed in 27 games). They were 4 games under .500 in both 1-run games (28-32), and blowouts (15-19).

They were a better hitting and pitching team at home, though they weren't that good of a hitting team at home (.678 OPS). It's interesting their best hitter OPS came in May, and their pitching OPS that month was average for them (worse than April and June, better than all the other months), yet they had their worst winning percentage (9-17). What's stranger, they did that while being outscored by just one run the entire month.

Final Thoughts: I don't have any particular memories of this team. It's honestly stretching it to include them as part of my time as a fan, as I was pretty young back then. Not that it matters, this team was far too good at defensive and pitching to be the worst. Of the 8 teams I'm considering, they have the best record, and their Pythagorean Record suggests that wasn't a fluke (compared to say, the 1994 team which was 4 games better than they ought to have been).

I do have a fondness for the concept of this team. The focus on pitching, defense, and most of all speed. I know the math says a base stealer needs to be successful at least 70% (and it may be 75%) of the time for it to be worthwhile, and so most teams are better off not running, but I love that aggressive style of play. Try and steal bases, try and stretch that double into a triple, put pressure on the other team to throw them out. Of course, when only one player on the team reaches double digits in home runs (van Slyke, 13) what other choice do they have? When the hits aren't falling (and with a team batting average of .236, they weren't), it's going to be rough. Still, there wasn't another team in the league quite like it, and I think that's pretty cool.

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Saturday, May 08, 2010

Looking For My Worst Cardinals Team - Part 3

Sorry it's been over a month. I keep getting pulled away from home on my time off. Anyway, today I'm looking at the 1997 team, which marks the arrival of Mark McGwire in St. Louis.


Record: 73-89 (.451); outscored 708-689, -16 run differential
Pythagorean Record: 79-83 (.488)

Offensive Notes: Scored 689 runs (11th out of 14); 6 players (2 starters, 4 reserves) with OPS+ > 100.

As the run total might suggest, the Cardinals were not an impressive offensive team. 12th in hits and batting average, 10th in slugging and OBP, 8th in doubles, walks, and HRs. They did manage to place 4th in triples, and 3rd in stolen bases, but their highest rank came from striking out more than any other team. Hooray, he said flatly.

In terms of lineup construction, the Cardinals of '97 were similar to the 2009 squad. For 4 months, one dangerous hitter (Ray Lankford/Albert Pujols), a couple of somewhat above average hitters (DeLino DeShields and Willie McGee/Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick), and a host of below average hitters. Both teams even added a really good hitter in July (McGwire/Matt Holliday).

Of course, Lankford isn't Pujols' equal as a hitter, but he did throw up a .996 OPS (159 OPS+). He could play Holliday to McGwire's Albert, though. McGwire posted a 1.095 OPS (182 OPS+) in 224 plate appearance, ranking second on the team in HRs with 24 (to Lankford's 31). McGwire is listed as a reserve though, since Dmitri Young actually played the majority of the innings at first for StL that year. The other starter was DeShields, who posted an .804 OPS (111 OPS+), with 26 doubles, 14 triples, 11 HRs, and 55 SBs, rebounding from a disastrous 1996 with the Dodgers (OPS+ of 60 that year). Unfortunately, most of the other starters were below average, or in the case of Mike DeFelice (.628, 65 OPS+), lousy. Of the other 5 starters, Dmitri Young and Ron Gant each posted .698 OPSes, John Mabry (taking over in RF for the mostly injured Brian Jordan) had a .723, and Gary Gaetti and Royce Clayton sat in between. While none of the five had an OPS+ below 83, Mabry's was the best at 91. The common thread was poor batting averages, and an inability to draw walks, leading to low OBP (Clayton, Gaetti and Gant were all at .310 OBPs or lower), and relatively low SLGs (Gaetti being tops there with .404), at least in part because their batting averages were so low. Gant, for example, had an isolated power of .159, which isn't bad, but when his average is only .229, it means his slugging is only .388.

Among the reserves, Micah Franklin's 129 OPS+ was 37 PAs, Phil Plantier's 107 consisted of 129 PAs he made after being traded to St. Louis as part of a swap of broken-down left-handed pitchers (San Diego received Danny Jackson, StL Fernando Valenzuela). Willie McGee was the only above-average bench player to receive significant time, posting a .767 (101 OPS+) in 300 PAs as the 4th outfielder. Though below average, Tom Lampkin's .715 (88) was a significant improvement at the catching position over DiFelice.

Pitching Notes: Allowed 708 runs (5th out of 14), 10 pitchers (4, starters, 6 relievers) with ERA+ > 100.

The Cardinals pitching was their saving grace. They allowed the second-fewest HRs, and the 4th-fewest BBs, which offsets being 8th in Ks. They might have finished even better, but injuries struck the rotation throughout the season. Donovan Osborne made only 14 starts, and struggled, posting a 4.93 ERA (85 ERA+). His WHIP (1.332) suggests it probably shouldn't have been that high, but he did allow 1.1 HRs/9 innings, which may explain it. Manny Aybar made 12 starts, posting a 4.24 (99 ERA+) in 68 innings. However, his WHIP (1.397) was higher than Osborne's, and his K/BB ratio (2.22. vs 1.41) worse, suggesting he was lucky.

The front four of the rotation were the key. Alan Benes posted a 2.89 (144) in 162 innings before he needed surgery in late July. He was never an effective starter again. His older brother Andy made 26 starts, covering 177 innings, with a 3.10 ERA (135) He lead the starters in both WHIP (1.186) and K/BB (2.87/1). He missed time with knee and back ailments. Todd Stottlemyre posted a 3.88 (108) in 181 innings, but was shut down in September with a tired arm. Only Matt Morris, originally called up to replace an injured Osborne, lasted the season, throwing 217 innings, with a 3.19 ERA (131 ERA+).

The relief core was lead by Dennis Eckersley, though he posted only a 109 ERA+, and lost 5 games. He was prone to the longball, allowing 9 in only 53 innings. The best reliever was likely T.J. Mathews, who had a 195 ERA+ in 46 innings before being traded to Oakland as part of the McGwire deal. His WHIP is 1.283, not great, but better than most of the other commonly used relievers, as was his 2.56/1 K/BB ratio. Case in point, key lefty Tony Fossas. While he had a 107 ERA+, his WHIP was over 1.7, he allowed 1.2 HRs/9 IP, and he walked a batter every other inning. So the ERA doesn't tell the whole story (though the 7 losses help fill in the gaps).

Defensive Notes: The mitigating factor for all those sub-average hitters is they were all at least a little better than average with the glove. Admittedly, DiFelice was only +1 run, the same as Lampkin, but it's something. Gaetti (+14.6) and Clayton (+15) in particular distinguished themselves. Gant, Mabry, and Dmitri Young also did well (all at least +6), though McGwire posted a -2.4 after joining the team. Willie McGee was a strange case, perhaps owing to sample sizes. In RF, where he logged 298 innings, he was average. In CF (122 innings), he was +2.6, but in LF (92), he was -1.7. Overall, the team was spectacular at 2 positions, solidly better than average at 3 others until a) Mabry was injured and replaced by McGee (though Mabry himself was a downgrade from Jordan, who was +11.5 in 210 innings), and b) Young was replaced by McGwire. To be fair, McGwire's offensive numbers (once he got going) probably more than made up for his shortcomings with the glove, while Young's fielding stats probably can't compensate for his poor hitting. As a whole, the 1997 Cardinals were 58 runs better than average defensively.

Other Points: The team had one winning month (June), and one other month where they outscored their opponents (May, went 13-14). While McGwire may have helped the offense, the team's performance didn't improve. They went from 100 runs in July, to 109 in August, to 132 in September. The problem was, they allowed, 113-132-150 over the same span and their record went from 12-15, 12-17, 10-16. This likely relates to the injuries of the Benes brothers and Stottlemyre, and possibly the weakening of the bullpen with the removal of Mathews. The team was also terrible in 1-run games, with a 20-33 record.

Interestingly, even with McGwire in place of Young, the Cards were a worse hitting team in the 2nd half of the season (.708 vs. .731 OPS). Their pitchers were quite good at home (opponents posted a .671 OPS), but not nearly as good on the road (.748). They were also better in the first half (.687) of the season than the second (.733), probably again owing to injuries in the rotation. The staff's best month was March/April (.661), which unfortunately was also the offense's worst month.

Final Thoughts: This team's too good at run prevention to be the worst. Period. That out of the way, I'm having a hard time recollecting precise thoughts of this team. It's blurred together with the 1998 and 1999 teams as ones that didn't win much, and had a constant shuffle of pitchers in the rotation, though '97 had nothing on the other two seasons when it came to that. The Cardinals making the playoffs in '96 had gotten my attention after the strike, and Ozzie was retired, so I couldn't be furious at LaRussa for not using him more, as I had been in '96.

I know I was frustrated at a game when Alan Benes took a no-hitter into the 9th against Milwaukee and wound up losing due to offensive ineptitude. My clearest memory is from early July, when the Cardinals played the Twins, and Willie McGee hit a game-winning homer in the 10th. That was the first and only time all seasons the Cardinals were at .500 (they started the year with a 6-game losing streak). Naturally, they followed it up by getting swept by the Pirates, and went right back in the tank. Still, I remember watching the game, then getting up the next morning to see the highlights on Sportscenter. I enjoyed it so much, I would watch, then ride my bike for an hour, get back just in time to see it again, then ride for an hour, watch it again, and so on. All morning.

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