Sunday, August 18, 2013

40 Games To Go

The baseball season has reached the three-quarter mark. The Cardinals are at 70-52, 2 games behind the Pirates, 1.5 games ahead of Cincy. It's troubling to note they've treaded water since the start of June. I wouldn't have expected them to continue at the 20-7 pace they held through May, but they're 35-34 since then. They've been swept by Atlanta, lost 4 of 5 to Pittsburgh, 3 of 4 to the Dodgers. There aren't many good teams in the NL this year, and the Cardinals are struggling against all of them except the Reds.

There's been quite a lot of roster movement in the last 41 games. They finally cut ties with Wigginton, traded Boggs to the Rockies for the right to spend more cash on international free agents, and shipped Rzepczynski to Cleveland for a minor league shortstop.

Beyond that, Molina was out for two weeks, prompting the team to keep Rob Johnson up as Cruz' backup. Increased playing time helped Cruz' numbers somewhat (his OPS is up to .560), and Johnson has a .603 OPS thus far. Now that Molina's back, Cruz is out with a fractured forearm, which means Johnson remains as backup. Brock Peterson was called up to a be the righthanded bat off the bench in place of Wigginton, but accomplished little in scattered opportunities. Adron Chambers was called up when Shane Robninson went on the DL, and didn't fare much better. The team has been giving more playing time to Descalso at shortstop, as Kozma's offense has simply grown too terrible to tolerate, what with his OPS down to .555. Not that the increased playing time is doing Descalso's numbers any favors. His OPS is .706, and I can't imagine his defense is doing the team any favors, either. They also just called up Kolten Wong, which gives them a true second baseman, and lets Matt Carpenter move back to his natural position at third, while relegating Freese to the bench.

It's unlikely this improves the offense much. Even though Freese is having a poor year, with a .724 OPS (good for a 102 OPS+), with a scant 6 HRs, and slugging percentage below .400, that's still likely near the upper end of what Wong can do offensively, at least at this point. I imagine the idea is it doesn't hurt the offense much (and the Cards are still 1st in the NL in runs scored), and should upgrade the defense, which helps the pitching staff, and thus the run prevention side of things. As someone who hasn't enjoyed the Cardinals dismissive attitude towards defense these last three seasons (see swapping Brendan Ryan for Theriot, keeping Schumaker at 2nd, Berkman in RF), I'm fine with the move.

As it is, with Molina back, the Cards are up to 5 players starters with an OPS in the .800s, seeing as Matt Holliday has rebounded in the last month and a half. He's still behind Carpenter, Beltran, and Yadi, but he's surpassed Allen Craig with an .834 OPS, and he's up to 15 HRs, second on the team to Beltran's 20. I'm a little concerned Beltran's power seems to have vanished. He hit one homer so far this month, and none in July. On the plus side, Jay got his OPS back over .700. He might almost be a better hitter than Shane Robinson again, though I'd give Robinson the nod based on that 40 point edge in on-base percentage. Matt Adams numbers have slipped, though his OPS is still basically even with Craig's, and he's tied for 4th on the team in HRs, with Yadi and Matt Carpenter. This despite half as many PAs and Molina, and not even 40% of Carpenter's. Then again, power was always going to be Adams' ticket to the big leagues, so at least's he providing some of it.

The pitching staff is down to 5th in runs allowed and 5th in strikeouts, so they can use the help. I'd attribute the decline to several things. Garcia being out (and replaced by Joe Kelly, who has a somewhat lower strikeout rate). The return of Jake Westbrook, who has pitched like garbage while continuing to strikeout no one. And just a general decline for other pitchers. Miller's K rate is down, so is Wainwright's (and his K/BB ratio is down to 6.75, which is still really good, but a far cry from the 9.5 it was at the halfway mark.

Mujica's numbers have fallen back to Earth a bit, but he's still pitching well, as is Rosenthal. He is up to 10 walks in only 46.7 innings, but 7 of those are intentional. I wish Matheny would stop telling him to do that. I hate the idea of the intentional walk in principle, the whole idea that even though even the best hitters make outs over half the time, you won't trust your pitcher to get the job done. I hate it even more when you have a pitcher who doesn't walk people, and you make him do it. It's like clipping a hawk's wings, it robs the world of something beautiful.

OK, that's overstating it, but I would love to see what walk rate Maness could manage if Matheny cut that shit out. At any rate, he's continued to be an effective reliever, though he's averaging under an inning an appearance. Seems like a waste. Choate's also proving fairly effective, so the Cardinals at least have a solid half a bullpen. Matheny has wisely had him face two and a half times as many lefties as righties, though Choate is somehow doing well against righthanders this year. Small sample size and all (33 PAs), but righties have an OPS of only .563 against him. Lefties are at .536. I'd prefer he stick to facing lefties, based on the larger track record of his career, but it's nice I don't have to entirely dread it if he faces a righthanded batter. There's also Kevin Siegrist pitching generally well out of the 'pen, though 12 unintentional walks in 23 innings worries me.

Frankly, I think the pitching staff's biggest problem is the Westbrook millstone. His peripherals aren't showing any signs of coming around, and the Cards don't seem to have a lot of options. Kelly's already filling in for Garcia. They seem quite content to leave Rosenthal and Maness in the bullpen. Carpenter's return is unlikely, and I'm not sure you could count on him to pitch much better than Westbrook at this stage. They seem to be trying to limit Wacha and Martinez' innings, which makes either one an unlikely option. As an aside, I haven't understood what they're doing with Martinez. They put him in the 'pen, hardly use him, send him down to stretch him out, then when they call him up they throw him in the bullpen again. It's curious. Aside over. John Gast is hurt.

Which leaves Tyler Lyons, who didn't exactly distinguish himself in his 7 starts earlier this year. I don't think he'd be worse than Westbrook is at this point, but I'm looking for more of a tangible upgrade than a lateral move. Especially since I expect them to curb Shelby Miller's innings at some point, and I have my own questions about Lynn. He's yet to be a major league starter for an entire season, and it's not as though he's lighting the world on fire now as it is.

So bolstering the defense probably wouldn't hurt, if Westbrook and his 3.4 K per 9 innings are going to keep taking the mound every 5th day. Having Molina back should be a plus, and but Baseball-Reference's numbers on the rest of the infield are divided. Total Zone Runs likes Craig (+5), and dislikes Carpenter (-6) at 2nd. BIS Defensive Runs feel the opposite (-2 and +3, respectively). Both sets of numbers hate Descalso at 2nd and Freese at 3rd (though BIS is more sour in both cases), and both sets like Carpenter at 3rd. Kozma's getting a good response from both at SS, and both really hate Descalso though (not surprising). Total Zone likes both Holliday and Craig in left, but BIS hates them both. Conversely, BIS loves Shane Robinson (in CF and LF), but Total Zone dislikes him at both positions. Both stats hate Jay's defense, and Beltran's. BIS likes both Craig and Robinson in RF, but Total Zone only like Robinson (yet hated him at the other 2 spots). I don't know what to make of it, but the minuses are usually much bigger than the positives, so the Cardinals' defense could do with some upgrading.