Tuesday, June 11, 2013

St. Louis Surging

The Cardinals can do no wrong
On paper, the St. Louis Cardinals were not baseball's best team coming into the season. Heck, most people didn't even pick them to win their own division, which got decidedly more competitive with the Houston Astros playing in the American League West this year.

It's surprising, then, that the Redbirds are the MLB's winning-est team (41-22) entering play today. They've held sole possession of first place in the NL Central since the last day in April, exceeding expectations thanks to depth, timely hitting, stellar starting pitching and strong defense.

What the Cardinals lack in power (they've outhomered only four teams so far) they make up for by raking with runners in scoring position. The Cards have batted a collective .339/.410/.457 in such situations. If sustained over the course of the season, that performance would set MLB records for highest batting average and OBP.

But even taking expected regression into account, St. Louis still sports a very dangerous lineup. The Cards fielded one of the league's best offensive units last year (without Albert Pujols, no less), so it should come as no surprise that they rank at or near the top of the league in most offensive categories again this season. St. Louis leads the National League in scoring, runs per game, batting average, and on-base percentage.

The lineup doesn't have the star power of a Miguel Cabrera or Robinson Cano. Instead, it's a balanced group of veterans and professional hitters. The biggest and most pleasant surprise has been Matt Carpenter's blossoming into an All-Star. Yadier Molina has evolved into the NL's answer to Joe Mauer while outplaying last year's MVP Buster Posey (Molina's .354 batting average and 19 doubles top the NL). 36 year-old Carlos Beltran brings the power with 14 home runs and 42 RBI. Allen Craig's compensating for his power outage by leading the team in RBI. Third baseman David Freese finally emerging emerged from the depths of his painfully slow start with a 19-game hitting streak. Middle infielder Daniel Descalso and slugging first baseman Matt Adams have been excellent coming off the bench but haven't played much because the team has enjoyed unusual health. Freese is the only starter to spend time on the Disabled List.

What's more impressive is that St. Louis has been an offensive juggernaut even though its best hitter (Matt Holliday) hasn't been himself. Pete Kozma--Rafael Furcal's replacement at shortstop--hasn't done much offensively. Jon Jay's struggles caused manager Mike Matheny to drop him out of the leadoff spot in favor of on-base machine Matt Carpenter.

As potent as the offense has been, the starting rotation has been every bit as incredible. Cardinals' starters have compiled a 2.73 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 3.57 K/BB ratio despite missing Chris Carpenter (out since late February), Jaime Garcia (done for the season) and Jake Westbrook (out since May 9th but expected to return by the end of the week).

It all starts with staff ace Adam Wainwright, now fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2011 season. He's pitching even better than he did in the two seasons before his operation, when he finished in the top three of Cy Young voting both years. Lance Lynn has improved in his second season as a full-time starting pitcher and probably deserves to make the All-Star team again. NL ERA leader Shelby Miller is well on his way to winning Rookie of the Year unless Yasiel Puig keeps hitting like Barry Bonds. Rookie call-up Tyler Lyons has pitched very well since Garcia was lost for the season.

The Cardinals' lone weakness so far has been unreliable middle relief. The bullpen's been mediocre, allowing too many baserunners (1.40 WHIP) and runs (4.33 ERA). That said, Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica might be the best 8th and 9th inning combo around. The 23 year-old Rosenthal recovered from a shaky April and hasn't allowed an earned run since April 24th. Mujica is proving himself to be one of baseball's premier closers since replacing Mitchell Boggs (who replaced the injured Jason Motte) midway through April. He's a perfect 18-for-18 in save opportunities and his 0.61 WHIP leads all relievers.

In addition to receiving plenty of run support, Cardinals pitchers have also benefited from steady defense behind them. St. Louis is not a quick team by any means (only the Cincinnati Reds have stolen fewer bases) but its fielders don't make many mistakes on the balls they do reach. The surehanded Cardinals have made fewer errors than every team not named the Baltimore Orioles (who had a trio of Gold Glove defenders at premium positions last year). Molina--the anchor--is fast cementing his status as one of the best defensive catchers of all time; when he retires we'll probably be talking about him the same way we talk about Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez.

On the whole, it seems that the Cards have been playing over their heads a bit in the early going. They're definitely good enough to make the playoffs, but there's enough room for regression (Miller, Carpenter, Molina, the RISP numbers, health) that I feel confident saying they won't maintain their 105-win pace all year. I don't think they'l have baseball's best record when the dust settles, either (I'm feeling Atlanta or Cincy), but they should be able to keep it up for a few more weeks at least. Expect them to continue their winning ways with 12 of their next 15 games against the Mets, Marlins, Cubs, and Astros.

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