Why the Cardinals will beat the Dodgersby Larry Borowsky
October 07, 2009
The Cardinals staggered into the playoffs, losing eight of their final 10 regular-season games. The offense isn’t clicking, closer Ryan Franklin has regressed sharply to the mean, and Albert Pujols hasn’t hit a homer in almost a month. (His last one came on September 9.) About two weeks ago, it looked as if St. Louis would surge past the struggling Dodgers, post the league’s best record, and claim home-field advantage through the NLCS. Instead the Cardinals enter the tournament with the worst record among the four NL entrants—and a bunch of nervous fans wondering if their team peaked too soon.
Of the possible opponents, the Dodgers present the Cardinals’ easiest matchup. I’m not saying that merely because the Cards have a 24-9 record against LA over the past five years. Rather, I think the St. Louis pitching staff is tailor-made to keep the Dodgers off the scoreboard.
It all begins with their three top starters, who were good against everyone this year. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are aces in the old-fashioned mold—they can dominate hitters—while Pineiro combined the best of Chien-Ming Wang and Carlos Silva. Despite a strikeout rate of just 4.4 per nine innings, Pineiro ranked among the NL’s top 10 in xFIP, tRA, and SNLVAR. His success was no fluke; he truly had a great year.
The Dodgers led the league in batting average (.270) and OBP (.346), while ranking second in BABIP (.312), fourth in walks (607), and third in steals (116). Meanwhile, they ranked 11th in the league in homers (145) and isolated power. What we’re looking at is a long-sequence offense, one that relies heavily on clusters of hits and walks. It was effective over 162 games—LA scored 780 runs this year, fourth in the NL—but it probably won’t be against the Cardinals’ staff, especially their frontline pitchers.
That’s because the Cards are particularly good at preventing long strings of hits and walks. As a staff, they issued the fewest bases on balls in the NL (460) and the third-fewest baserunners overall. Their top three starters were particularly good at keeping runners off base, allowing an aggregate 1.8 walks per nine innings while holding batters to a combined .247 avg / .289 OBP.
The theory held during the regular season: In five starts against the Dodgers, Carp, Wainwright and Pineiro smothered the LA offense, allowing just six runs and 39 baserunners in 38 innings. (Yes, Manny Ramirez was in the lineup for all five games.) They’ll make four of the five starts in the NLDS.
But wait, there’s more. Like all Dave Duncan-coached staffs, the 2009 Cardinals thrived by inducing groundballs (first in the NL) and turning double plays (second). The Dodger hitters play right into those strengths: They finished fourth in both groundball percentage and GIDP. Those tendencies will make it that much more difficult for LA to sustain long scoring sequences against the Cardinals.
So if things hold to form, LA won’t score many runs against the Cardinals—and the Cards better hope it plays out that way, because they’re finding it difficult to score against pretty much everyone. The midseason additions of Mark DeRosa and Matt Holliday closed holes in the lineup on paper, but in practice the Cardinal offense continued to sputter. In 24 of their final 43 games (going back to August 17), St. Louis scored three runs or fewer:
0 runs: 3 games
1 run : 4 games
2 runs: 6 games
3 runs: 11 games
4 runs: 2 games
5+ runs: 17 games
With a normal pitching staff, this run distribution would yield an expected record of about 18-25. Thanks to their rotation, the Cardinals went 24-19—a six-game bump. Of those 24 wins, nearly half (10) came with three runs or fewer. The rotation might have to make two or three runs stand up a few more times in October if the team’s going to go anywhere.
Why hasn’t the reconfigured lineup clicked? Don’t blame Holliday: he hit .353/.419/.604 in 63 games with the Cardinals, and .293/.379/.507 in the closing 43-game stretch. Pujols remained productive (albeit homerless) in the final weeks, and Skip Schumaker, Yadi Molina, and Brendan Ryan all pulled their weight. But the Cardinals’ 1A producers—the tier directly beneath Pujols and Holliday—went into the tank over the final quarter of the season:
PA AVG OBP SLG BB K Ryan Ludwick 153 .259 .327 .388 11 35 Mark DeRosa 142 .220 .291 .339 11 28 Colby Rasmus 140 .231 .286 .354 10 29 Rick Ankiel 95 .221 .284 .360 8 35
At least one of those guys better snap out of it this week, or the Cardinals’ postseason will be extremely tense—and, perhaps, extremely short. The other guy who better snap out of it is the St. Louis closer, Ryan Franklin. Over at my former blog, Viva El Birdos, “Franklin” is a noun that means “beer”—as in, “Oh brother, he’s coming in to protect another lead; everybody pour yourself another Franklin.” He was spectacular for five months, converting 35 of his first 37 save opportunities while posting an ERA of 1.05, but few people were fooled. Franklin simply yields too much contact to maintain that level of performance. Sure enough, after September 1 he blew half his save chances and got tagged for a .405 opponent average. Most disturbing of all, Franklin walked 16 guys in his last 17 innings, dating back to August 12. Without pinpoint control, he’s a pretty ordinary pitcher.
Did I mention that he has never pitched a single postseason inning before?
If the closer remains off his game, then the 3-2 wins of August might become 4-3 defeats in October—and we Cardinal fans will spend the winter crying in our Franklins. But if just one of the slumping St. Louis hitters busts out and the lineup can reliably post at least four runs a game, the Cardinals will be a handful. I’ll take them in five games over the Dodgers.
Larry Borowsky is the author of Viva El Birdos, a St. Louis Cardinals blog, and welcomes questions and comments via email.