Five Questions: St. Louis Cardinals, Playoff Edition

The Cardinals’ season has finally begun. Not literally, of course – they actually kicked things off back on April 5th with a 7-3 beatdown of the Astros. But it wasn’t too long after that the team put to rest all arguments about the outcome of the NL Central. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Cards’ likelihood of making the playoffs soared past 90% in mid-June, where it’s stayed ever since.

And so for many St. Louisans, the regular season has seemed more like the preseason, with most of the drama focused on how this or that development might affect the team down the line, when the games really matter. For example, when Scott Rolen was lost for the year with a shoulder injury, the only concern was how it might impact the Cards in October. When Ray King served up one of his many back-breaking bingles, people shrugged it off and hoped he got things straightened out come the postseason. Friends started e-mailing me in July (I’m not kidding), wondering about the makeup of the Cards’ postseason roster. Such are the luxuries of a team of privilege.

But the Cardinals are a team of privilege no longer. Their prolonged buildup to the postseason (think of it as the baseball version of tantric sex) is finally over, and the Cards are once again an ordinary team, one of eight vying for the same crown. Can they pull it off? Perhaps these five questions will shed light on an answer…

1. Are the Cardinals flat?

They finished September 15-13, their twelfth consecutive winning month. But no question they’ve been off lately. Ominous signs are everywhere: Chris Carpenter is in the crapper (a godawful 9.14 ERA over the last two weeks), guys like Abraham Nunez and So Taguchi have reverted to form (check out Nunez’s .197/.243/.212 line since September 8th), and even the great Pujols has been decidedly unPujolsian lately (just six extra-base hits over the final three weeks of the season). In short, the Cards are playing their worst ball of the year at the very moment they’re asked to play their best.

But is that such a bad thing? My esteemed colleague, Dave Studemund, recently pointed out the tenuous link between September performance and postseason wins. I did the junior-high version of this same study back on my old website, and discovered pretty much the same thing.

There are lots of canards floating around about what it takes to win in postseason: you need a great bullpen, you need to play small ball, you need an ace pitcher, you need playoff experience, you need to be a dominant team (over the last fifteen years, only one team with the best record in baseball – the ’98 Yanks – has won it all). And we can add to this list the idea that you have to come into the postseason “on all cylinders.” If anything, it seems as if it’s better to be well-rested than well-oiled.

So yes, pay attention to Chris Carpenter’s arm, and Abe Nunez’s sluggish bat, but not at the expense of the big picture.

2. Are the Padres a legit match for the Cardinals in the first round?

The Cards have several reasons to fear the Friars of San Diego, despite their so-so 82-80 record. They have a patient lineup, an excellent bullpen, a healthy roster, a great pitcher in Jake Peavy, and a #2 – Pedro Astacio – who seems to have his act together for the first time in years.

What’s more, the playoff schedule should favor the Padres. With a day off after Games 1 and 2, San Diego can pitch Peavy on both Tuesday and Sunday on normal rest. This is a boon to the team, as Larry Borosky pointed out last week:

I look at each playoff series as a set of problems. Solve the problems and you advance; fail and you’re out. The schedule eliminates one of the Padres’ major problems — how to mask the weak back end of their rotation.

Add in the fact that virtually any team can take three of five games from any other team, and it’s not difficult to see the Padres stealing a series from the Cards.

But I wouldn’t bet on it. I mean, it’s hard to mask the fact that the Cardinals finished a full 18 wins ahead of the Padres. By my count there have been 150 postseason series since the start of divisional play in 1969. Of those, this season’s Cards/Pads matchup looms as the 8th most lopsided. (I’m using a method developed by Tom Tippett and Tom Ruane, which forecasts series winning percentages based on season win differentials). Here are the top ten mismatches in recent postseason history:

Year  Favorite   Underdog  Chances
1998  Yankees    Indians    .832
1995  Indians    Mariners   .820
1998  Yankees    Rangers    .802
2001  Mariners   Indians    .796
2001  Mariners   Yankees    .776
1984  Tigers     Royals     .728
1998  Yankees    Padres     .726
2005  Cardinals  Padres     .703
1997  Braves     Astros     .694
1998  Braves     Cubs       .693

Two things strike me about this list – one is that most of the matchups were from 1995 onward, when the wild card and the three-division format let weaker teams into the playoff fold (under the old NL West, for example, this year’s Padres would have finished 8 games behind the Braves). The other striking thing is that nine of the ten favorites above won their series, the only exception the ’01 Yanks knocking off the Mariners. Now, obviously ten teams is a small sample size, and there are plenty of examples of underdogs winning short series (just ask the ’73 Mets or the ’87 Twins). So it can be done. Just not very often.

3. Will the Cardinals’ pitchers show up?

A friend of mine e-mailed me the other day and asked, “Do you know who that guy is wearing Carpenter’s uniform? Looks just like him.” For most of the year, Chris Carpenter was the model of consistency, logging 22 straight quality starts – the most in the majors since another Cardinal, Bob Gibson, turned the feat back in 1968.

But since then he’s been simply putrid: 36 hits and 23 runs in 21.2 innings, his worst run in over four years. What happened? Perhaps my friend was onto something when he suspected CC had been taken over by a pod person.

But Carpenter isn’t the only St. Louis pitcher who morphs into an imposter now and again. Each of the Cardinal starters is serviceable, and as a group they finished second in the NL in ERA. But each is also prone to bouts of wretchedness, particularly the stints by these three culprits:

7/23 to 10/2: Matt Morris, 14 starts, 3-8 with a 5.42 ERA
5/14 to 6/22: Mark Mulder, 8 starts, 3-4 with a 7.05 ERA
6/15 to 8/23: Jason Marquis, 13 starts 1-10 with a 6.17 ERA

Why the dry spells? My guess is that, as a non-strikeout staff (third worst K/9 in the league), the Cards’ starters are more prone to variability in their game. When they don’t have absolutely pinpoint command, the whole house of cards (pun intended) comes tumbling down.

The Padres draw walks as much as any team in the league outside of Philadelphia. If the Cardinal pitchers are going to succeed in the playoffs, they need to put balls in play and let their defense – with the third-best Defensive Efficiency Ratio in the league – go to work behind them.

4. What about injuries?

The Cardinals have made eight postseason appearances over the last 21 years, and each time they’ve suffered a significant injury to one of their starters:

1985: Vince Coleman
1987: Jack Clark, Terry Pendleton
1996: Ray Lankford
2000: Mike Matheny
2001: Mark McGwire
2002: Scott Rolen
2004: Chris Carpenter
2005: Scott Rolen

Is it any coincidence that the last time they enjoyed an injury-free October – 1982 – they won it all?

Probably.

There’s a powerful notion in baseball that says that one great player can carry a team. The corollary says that the loss of one great player can sink a team. But this has never really been true. Recent Cardinals history tells you as much: in 2000, Mark McGwire missed most of the season with a foot injury, and since then the Cards have won more games than any National League team. Same deal in 1985 – St. Louis lost its best reliever (Bruce Sutter), and promptly returned to the World Series after a couple of mediocre seasons.

Bill Simmons might chalk these up to the Ewing Theory, but I think it has more to do with that fact that, in baseball, the impact of one player is vastly overrated. And over the course of a five- or seven-game series, the loss of one player is mitigated even more than usual. A healthy Scott Rolen would probably give the Cards an extra quarter- to half-run a game, which is unlikely to tip the scales in a short series.

However…

Where Rolen’s loss really hurts the team is that it gives them almost no wiggle room for another significant loss. Hotshot reliever Al Reyes is also out for the postseason with a bum elbow. Jim Edmonds is suffering from a strained shoulder. Larry Walker has a balky neck. And Carpenter might be battling a health problem of his own: fatigue. He’s thrown 26 innings more than he ever has, and as Dan of Get Up, Baby! notes, his fastball was topping out only in the mid-80s during his last start. Yup – the mid-80s.

So it’s entirely possible that Carpenter could follow the path of another Cards’ pitcher – John Tudor in 1985. Tudes, you might recall, was nearly unhittable for several months, then ran out of gas after about 300 innings and came up limp in his last postseason start. It remains to be seen whether Carpenter’s recent struggles were indicative of a trend, or if he were merely leaving gas in his tank for the playoffs.

5. Is this the last shot for the Jocketty/La Russa regime to win a title?

Tony La Russa is one of those guys – like Marv Levy, Wilt Chamberlain, and Peyton Manning – who is more renowned for his postseason failures than his postseason triumphs. Winner of 2,214 games in the bigs, La Russa has proven himself an expert at guiding teams over the long haul. But his playoff appearances have, far more often than not, left something to be desired.

That’s actually true of each of the teams left in the NL playoffs. Over the last ten years, the four remaining franchises – the Cards, Braves, Astros, and Pads – have been in the postseason 21 times. None of those 21 teams went all the way. Think of this year’s NL playoffs, then, like an all-decade loser’s bracket.

Is this the last shot for the Cards? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something Bill James wrote many years ago: “From the age of 28 on, all groups of players are declining.” Well, the Cards don’t have much talent on the good side of 28: there’s Pujols, of course, as well as young Yady Molina and a minor-league pitcher named Anthony Reyes who has the same alma mater, the same oak-solid build, and nearly the same buzz as Mark Prior. But that’s it, really – a far cry from the Atlanta Braves and their bottomless aquifer of fresh talent. In fact, it says something about the Cards that their biggest emerging talent this year was a wispy, baby-faced outfielder named So Taguchi… who just so happens to be 36 years old.

So yes, the Cardinals are aging fast, but we shouldn’t overplay the doomsday card. After all, St. Louis still has the best young player in the game (recall that Albert Pujols is younger than John Buck, Nick Swisher, Jonny Gomes, and Bobby Crosby). Their pitching staff is still fairly young, with Matt Morris – their worst starter – the only one without a contract or a team option for next year. Besides, the Cards play in a great baseball market; they have a lucrative new media contract, as well as a new stadium to replenish their coffers. In short, while a team like the Brewers seems to have much better long-term prospects in the NL Central, they still have a ways to go, –17 games in the standings, just to catch the Cardinals.

So it’s doubtful that this is the end of the line for the Cardinals, despite their aging talent base. Then again, this is very likely the weakest crop of NL contenders in recent memory, and the AL squads are, if I may say so, full of holes of their own. In other words, the Cards will probably never get a chance this good anytime soon. Time to see if they step up or give in to another round of October heartbreak.

References & Resources
Thanks to Dave Pinto’s Day by Day Database for much of the info for this article.

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