Five Questions: St. Louis Cardinalsby Brian Gunn
April 05, 2005
Traditionalists typically love the St. Louis Cardinals. They love their scrappy, head’s-up play and their sturdy, heartland values. And they love how the ballclub always seems to be full of guys who play the game “the way it’s meant to be played” – Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, Larry Walker, and, if you want to go back even further,
(Here’s a fun little thought experiment: remember that moment in Game 3 of the 2004 World Series, when Jeff Suppan failed to go home on a ground ball to the right side and instead got thrown out at third base? Imagine if that happened to the Oakland A’s. Wouldn’t every Joe Morgan and Richard Griffin out there use Suppan’s blunder to point up the folly of Moneyball? But baseball folks hardly mentioned Suppan’s gaffe this winter – why? Because it wasn’t part of the narrative. And according to the narrative, the Cardinals are a “good” organization that doesn’t make mistakes.)
Sabermetricians, on the other hand, have been more wary of the Cardinals during Walt Jocketty's tenure. They look at the team’s aging patterns, their willingness to ravage their farm system, and their ongoing love affair with flyweight middle infielders, and more often than not they come to one conclusion: this franchise is screwed.
Until last year, that is. That’s when the Cards torched the National League for 105 wins and cinched the division sometime around the Fourth of July. The prevailing wisdom among baseball wonks began to shift in relation to the Cards, just as it has for the Schuerholz Braves – i.e., that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And even if the Cards still have a manager who resembles Neil Diamond c. 1983, they suddenly seem like a team that is, if not saber-friendly, then at least saber-accommodating.
This year both old schoolers and new schoolers have penciled in the Cardinals for another NL Central title. Can they pull it off? That’s a mighty big question, so for now let’s break it down into a few smaller questions – five, to be exact:
1. How much should the Cardinals expect from Mark Mulder?Mark Mulder certainly looks like an ace pitcher. He’s 6’6”, has the fourth best winning percentage among active hurlers and an astonishing 65-4 lifetime record when his team gives him four or more runs. Even Anna Benson says the guy knows how to fill out a pair of baseball pants.
But will he pitch like an ace pitcher? Or, to put it another way: did the Cardinals land the Mark Mulder who anchored one of the best staffs in baseball for the last four years, or did they land the pod person who replaced him in the A’s rotation at the end of the 2004 season? In his last seven starts, Mulder went 0-4 with a lardy 8.31 ERA. No one knows if he was tired, injured, mechanically unsound, or what. The point is he was off.
Will he back on in time to help the 2005 Cards? If you’re an optimist, your argument would go something like this:
Yes, Mulder looked shaky at the end of last year, but every pitcher goes through rough patches. Look at Randy Johnson. The guy had a 5.83 ERA in eight starts at the end of 2003. He’s had a 2.56 ERA in 39 starts since. Or how about Curt Schilling – a 6.04 ERA in nine starts from the end of ’02 to the beginning of ’03. In 54 starts since his ERA is 3.01. Name any big-time pitcher and you’ll find a guy who goes through periods where they’re unfocused, fatigued, mechanically hinky, or just unlucky. It’s the nature of the business.
Besides, if performance analysis teaches us anything, it’s that we should distrust stray blips in a player’s overall record. What would you rather bank on – the 6.26 ERA Mulder put up over his last 100 innings, or the 3.29 ERA he put up in the 748 innings before that? Obviously you’d go with the weight of his established track record. Think of it this way: if someone told you they were excited about Neifi Perez because of the .371/.400/.548 line he put up at the end of the season, wouldn’t you sit him down and give him a little tutorial in the Belief of the Law of Small Numbers? So shouldn’t we extend the same farsighted view toward the career of Mark Mulder?
And make no mistake: the career of Mark Mulder has been, overall, pretty damn good. He has 79 RSAA over the last four years, which is better than Roger Clemens. He’s also a workhorse, logging an average of 212 innings over that same span (with an organization not known for abusing pitchers). For a guy entering his age 27 season, he seems to be in fine shape.
Mulder certainly figures to be better than the guy he’s replacing in the Cards’ rotation, Woody Williams. And if there really was something wrong with Mulder’s delivery, don’t you think the Cardinals (remember, they’re one of those “good” organizations) would have checked it out before taking a gamble on him? Believe me, when you invest $13.25 million in a guy’s arm, you do a background check to make sure it’s okay. And Mark Mulder’s arm looks pretty okay.
The pessimist might respond like this:
Yeah, yeah, all pitchers go through rough patches. But rarely are they as bad as Mulder’s was over such a long period of time. The guy was fairly awful for three whole months, much more than a random dry spell. Some guys bounce back from this (Jamie Moyer in the latter part of 2000 is the desired comp), but rarely do elite pitchers have an ERA over 6.00 for half a season, as Mulder did last year.
Besides, it’s not like Mulder has ever had lights-out stuff. Over his career he’s struck out only 6 guys per nine innings, and he’s trending downward:
Put him in front of range-challenged middle infielders like David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek and his defense-reliant approach looks even worse.
The appropriate comparison with Mulder is not Woody Williams, who he replaces in the rotation. It’s Danny Haren and Kiko Calero, who would have pitched for the Cardinals had they not been shipped off to Oakland in the Mulder deal. Their raw stuff is better than Mulder’s and combined they may well out-pitch him starting this year:
Haren + Calero 33.6
That’s before factoring in superstud Daric Barton, whom Jocketty tossed into the package deal, plus the money saved, which would have allowed the Cards to shore up other weaknesses.
And this business about the Cards being a “good” organization that surely did a thorough background check on Mulder’s arm? Just remember, we heard the exact same reassurances about Matt Morris the last couple years. Time and again the front office guaranteed us that there was nothing structurally wrong with Morris, despite a noticeable dropoff in his velocity and his numbers. After two years of this monkey business, we finally found out in the offseason that, in fact, Morris had been pitching with a bum shoulder all along. Do the Cardinals have two years to wake up to Mulder’s diminishing command? The answer is no.
So what do we make of these conflicting viewpoints? It’s true that, despite the headlines, Mark Mulder has never been a truly domineering pitcher. Most of his value can be found in his sturdiness and his control. My gut tells me that he’ll continue in this vein – a solid but unspectacular innings-eater who takes advantage of his supporting cast and wins 15-20 games.
2. How healthy are the Cardinals superstars?Last year the Cardinals were true medical marvels. They had a major-league low number of “DL days” and got 154 starts from their top five starting pitchers. But they still enter the season with an old team (only five players will be on the good side of 30 by season’s end) bedeviled by injury concerns.
Here’s a game. Try to find a Cardinals big man without a question mark next to their health. Actually, try to find a part of the body that doesn’t have a Cardinal worried about it. We’ll work from the ground up, Operation-style:
Achilles heel: Grudzielanek
That’s a lot of body parts to worry about. But undoubtedly the Cards worry most of all about injuries to their Big Three: Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds, who accounted for fully 36% of the team’s total Win Shares last season.
Each of the three comes with health burdens. Pujols suffers from plantar fasciitis in both feet (the same thing that did in Mark McGwire). He had two ultrasound treatments this winter and still doesn’t feel 100%. But keep in mind: Albert has endured injuries before (his elbow in 2003, his foot and hamstring in 2004), and both seasons he was the best player in baseball not named Barry Bonds. What’s more, the Phat One had another monster spring (6 jacks, didn’t strike out once) and hasn’t seemed one bit slower, bad foot or no.
Jim Edmonds has a rep as an injury magnet, but he’s really been rather healthy since moving to St. Louis. He’s now played over 135 games for five years in a row (only four other centerfielders in baseball can say that). And after curbing some of the Ronnie Lott tendencies he had as a younger man, he missed only 9 games last season. The biggest concern for Edmonds is his age. He turns 35 in June, and as Dan McLaughlin points out, his list of comparables (guys like Freddy Lynn and David Justice) declined rapidly after hitting the big 3-5.
And then there’s Scott Rolen. He continues to shrug off concerns about his health, but the fact is he hasn’t looked the same since suffering a damaged knee in the second half of 2004. Here are his stat lines since missing time last September:
AVG. OBP. SLG. End of Regular Season .167 .318 .333 Postseason .161 .277 .357 Spring Training .232 n/a .357
Granted, these are taken from very small sample sizes, against varying levels of competition. But it would surprise no one if Rolen were unable to reach his lofty totals from last season.
3. How much will it hurt the Cards to go from Renteria to Eckstein at short?Renteria had an off-year in 2004 – he wasn’t even one of the top 5 shortstops in the league – and yet the Cardinals still won 105 games. So losing him is no big deal, right?
Not exactly. First of all, Renteria’s established offensive levels are considerably better than Eckstein’s. Here are their numbers over the last three years (with each year weighted twice as heavily as the one before):
AB H 2B HR BB AVG OBP SLG Renteria 579 176 40 11 49 .304 .356 .434 Eckstein 535 146 23 3 41 .272 .340 .341That’s 15-20 fewer runs per year just for starters. What’s more, Renteria’s skill set is much more attractive. Again, looking at the last three years, Renteria’s got a better walk rate (7.8% to 7.0%), more durability (152 games to 136 games), and his isolated power is much higher (.129 to .069).
And then there’s defense. Renteria is an overrated but serviceable gloveman, whereas Eckstein is… well, that’s where things get tricky. A few weeks ago a byzantine argument broke out on Dave Pinto’s Baseball Musings (here and here ) about how many runs Eckstein’s defense would cost the Cardinals. The consensus was that Eckstein would give away somewhere between 18 to 30 runs from his inferior range alone. (You can see this in visual terms, again from Baseball Musings. As I suspected for years, Renteria seems to do well going to his left, but isn’t so hot to his right. Eckstein, on the other hand, isn’t very good left or right. He’s a classic sure-handed shortstop who lacks either the first step toward second or the arm to make plays deep in the hole.)
Eckstein’s range is immensely important for a team like the Cardinals. Their pitching staff is short on strikeouts and allows the most grounders of any team in the NL. In fact, three of their starting pitchers (Marquis, Mulder, and Carpenter) are up there among the highest ground-to-fly ratios in baseball. As a result, sound defense up the middle is critical to this team. If Eckstein is costing the Cards all those runs with his glove, plus an additional 15 to 20 runs with his bat, then his presence alone could account for a good three, four wins fewer than in years past.
4. Who is the Cardinals' fifth starter?Why, it’s Matt Morris – he of the new shoulder and the new Dan Fouts beard. Although Morris will start the season on the DL, the Cards’ schedule doesn’t necessitate a fifth starter until April 20th, at which point Morris will presumably be ready to go.
Why does this matter? Because despite the fact that the Cards have five starters who won 15 games last year (the first team since the 1932 Chicago Cubs to do that), they have surprisingly little depth at pitcher. And if Morris isn’t ready to go come the end of April, the Cards are in serious trouble. None of their bullpen arms can be pressed into spot duty, and none of their minor leaguers look ready to take the mound at Busch. The most likely candidate is probably Anthony Reyes, a live arm who will begin the season in Triple-A.
Even if Morris is ready for his first start, the rest of the staff is fairly unreliable. First of all there’s Chris Carpenter (recovering from nerve damage in his right biceps), then Mulder (see Question #1), then Jason Marquis (who last season exceeded his previous professional high for innings by sixty). In the past the Cards have patched up holes in their rotation with some junkballer or other (Jason Simontacchi, anyone?), but don’t count on a rosy scenario should one of their starters go down this year. And I assure you: one of them will.
5. Were the Cardinals lucky last year?The easy answer to that question is yes. Rarely do teams win 105 games without at least a little bit of luck. But how lucky were they?
There are several ways to get at this question of luck. For example, were the Cards unduly efficient with their runs scored and runs allowed? Not really. They were five wins over their Pythagorean total, but still -- 100 projected wins is a hefty number, and several games ahead of every team in the National League. Did they have a particularly easy schedule? Again, no. The NL Central was one of the most competitive divisions in baseball last year. What about their constituent run elements – the number of homers and hits and hits allowed and stuff like that? Did the Cardinals win more games than you’d expect given this data? Again, no. According to the 2005 edition of the Bill James Handbook , last year’s Cards were good for 103 “efficient wins,” only two below their actual wins and better than every team in the NL by a longshot. Not much luck there.
What about the players? Did an unusual number of Cardinals experience career years last season? Ah-ha: now we’re getting somewhere. The team was chock-full of veterans who probably had their best year ever while wearing the Birds on the Bat: Rolen, Edmonds, Womack, Marquis, Isringhausen, Carpenter, Mabry, Ray King. And there are a handful of others – Steve Kline, Julian Tavarez, Cal Eldred – who had close to their best years in 2004.
If everything that rises must converge, what does this say about the Cardinals going forward? Well, here’s how their players are likely to perform in 2005. It’s based on a magic formula I developed that’s one part PECOTA projection, one part Established Win Shares Level, one part Sabernomics Simple Projection System, one part Gladwellian rapid cognition, and one part bullhonkey:
Likely to Improve a Lot: Larry Walker (as a full-time RF)
Likely to Improve a Little: Morris, Mulder, and Yady Molina (taking over for Matheny)
Likely to Do About the Same: Pujols, Suppan, Reggie Sanders, Roger Cedeno, Hector Luna, and Mark Grudzielanek (replacing Womack)
Likely to Decline a Little: Rolen, Edmonds, Carpenter, Mabry, Eldred, Isringhausen, King, So Taguchi, Al Reyes (replacing Calero), and Einar Diaz (replacing Molina)
Likely to Decline a Lot: Marquis, Tavarez, Eckstein (replacing Renteria), and Randy Flores (replacing Steve Kline).
As you can see, the Cards can expect upgrades in a few places – having Larry Walker for a full season should help – but downgrades around most parts of the diamond.
The silver lining is that the Cardinals have some wiggle room. That is, they can suffer a fairly sizable loss of wins and still walk away with the division. Neither the Astros nor the Cubs improved themselves this winter, and the Cardinals still have the strongest core talent in the league. So if they can make it into the game of postseason roulette, and if this year Jeff Suppan heads home rather than back to third, who knows what might happen…
For two years, Brian Gunn ran Redbird Nation, "A St. Louis Cardinals obsession site." If you didn't like this article, e-mail him and let him know.