The Cardinals took the field in the fifth inning cruising along with a 4-1 lead and an 85.4% win expectancy. After the Dodgers touched Joe Kelly for a run in the third, the Cardinal righty continued the groove he found in the fourth inning, making short work of the Dodgers’ 9-1-2 batters. Kelly finished the inning by retiring his seventh in a row, the last five of which were groundouts. Moreover, Kelly conserved some energy, using only 10 pitches in the frame, which allowed him to get through 26 batters on the day and seven full innings, only the second time in his career he has pitched that deep in a game. He would finish with a commendable 2.85 FIP/3.39 xFIP.
In the bottom half, Zack Greinke continued his every-other-inning struggles. After the Cardinals roughed him up for all four runs in the first and put two runners on via walks in the third, Greinke again seemed off-kilter. He dispatched of Kolten Wong easily enough. The Dodger All-Star got a favorable strike-one call on Wong, then dropped a beautiful curveball on the outside corner for strike two. But Wong worked the count 2-2, before getting jammed and foul popping to third base. The chinks in Greinke’s armor began to resurface, though. Peter Bourjos, pinch hitting for Matt Holliday, whom Mike Matheny removed for precautionary reasons due to Holliday’s collision in the first inning, wouldn’t chase any of Greinke’s pitches off the plate and finally chopped a base hit.
Greinke and catcher AJ Ellis clearly were following the book on Bourjos, who basically can’t hit anything other than middle-in:
To Bourjos’s credit, he made Greinke come to him and reached on an infield hit:
If not for Juan Uribe stabbing the ball along third-base line, Bourjos would’ve been on second. But it was no matter to Bourjos, who took matters into his own feet and stole on the second pitch. Throughout his career, Greinke has been better than average at holding runners on (54% SB rate; MLB average during his career is 72%). But this year, runners have pilfered with impunity four of five times.
Despite Greinke then being all over the strike zone with Matt Adams, who tried to pull an outside slider and grounded out weakly, and Jhonny Peralta, who walked, the Cardinals couldn’t pad their lead. Oscar Taveras, who had walked on four pitches in his previous plate appearance, chased Greinke’s second pitch — a ball out of the zone — and grounded a comebacker to Greinke. It was the beginning of the end for the Dodger starter, though, laboring through 26 pitches in the inning. After a scoreless inning, the Cardinals exited with an 87.9% win expectancy.
Of the Cardinals’ multiple conundrums on offense, chief among them is Allen Craig’s sudden inability to hit. With the season more than halfway finished, Craig’s OBP is still below .300 and his SLG is below 400. The Cardinals haven’t had a corner outfielder who qualified for the batting title with those kind of numbers since 1941.
As frustrating to watch Craig perform has been, just as frustrating is trying to figure out why it’s happening. Craig set career highs in on-base percentage last year (.373) and plate appearances (563) and, his late-season left-foot sprain notwithstanding, looked poised to continue his trajectory of success in 2014. But he hasn’t been officially disabled this season, and he has been playing so regularly that he is on pace to set a new high in plate appearances. He has no clear peripheral stats that would indicate extreme bad luck: His batting average on balls in play is down, but that’s in large part because he’s hitting fewer line drives (19.6% LD%) and more ground balls (56.4%), rates for which are divergent from his career norms (22.9% and 46.5%, respectively). His strikeout rate is his highest in four years (though not way out of career rate), but then again he’s also making contact at the highest rate of his career. What’s going on?
Bill Dozier suggested on Twitter that Craig appears to have a slow bat. Bill must have better eyesight than we do, because our naked eye is ill equipped to make such anecdotal observations. Happily, however, we have some resources that can quantify Bill’s scout-like intuition, namely ESPN’s home-run tracker, which among other things displays bat speed for players’ home runs. Although it’s a much smaller sample than we’d like (Craig has seven home runs this year, accounting for only about 8% of his total hits), it’s something, and we can compare his bat speeds with his speeds in prior years. And to protect against league and park biases, we’ll also look at some of his teammates’ speeds.
Indeed, Craig has had a precipitous decline this year in his bat speed, down nearly two miles per hour from his 2012-2013 average. That might not sound like much, but it may be enough to explain why Craig’s slugging percentage is 100 points below his career norm. It also fits with the seemingly strange combination of his increased contact rate and lower on-base percentage. And, as Roger Tobin has found, even modest changes in bat speed can have major effects on production.
If slower bat speed is the problem, whence does it come? Jeff Sullivan recently suggested an increase in inside fastballs. That itself may be the result of teams trying to exploit lingering issues from Craig’s foot injury. That’s a plausible explanation. But if injury were the case, surely by this point the Cardinals would’ve sat Craig for 15 days (or more) rather than endure this level of ineptness for so long. That leaves another, more uncomfortable option in the possibility of a change in training habits, namely performance-enhancing drugs. Surely, anyone taking an objective look at Craig’s situation would have to consider the possibility. (The weekend series with the Brewers and Ryan Braun serves as a reminder that PEDs are far from eradicated in the game.)
Perhaps if the problem is related to Craig’s foot, the coming All-Star break will provide some healing time. If not, however, or if the problem is elsewhere, the Cardinals may have more than simply Yadier Molina’s bat to replace for the rest of the season.
With his game-winning, walk-off home run last night, Matt Adams reminded Cardinal fans that he is almost single-handedly carrying the offense this season. In his postgame interview, he explained the secret to his success: He’s laying off pitches down in the zone.
It’s true that he’s at his worst on pitches down on his knee:
The funny thing is that last night Adams actually laid off only two of three pitches out of the zone low, one in the sixth inning and one of two in the fourth (the one he didn’t lay off was a curveball in the dirt for strike three):
We suppose that it’s all relative.
As Jenifer Langosch later quoted the first baseman, “I wanted to make sure I got better strike zone discipline. I just wanted to see the ball better. That’s one of the things I worked on down in Triple-A when I was rehabbing, and it’s still working right now. We’re just going to continue to ride it out.” One would therefore expect to see his O-Swing% (percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) to have gone down a bit since his return on June 13:
Is Adams just having some fun with us? Not only is his O-Swing rate not lower, it’s actually higher. The sample size is small, but that shouldn’t matter here, because we’re comparing it against Adams’s claim.
Our only explanation is that Adams is being slightly more selective with pitches inside the zone, particularly pitches low and inside but still strikes. That discipline wouldn’t show up in his out-of-zone numbers but would in his Z-Swing%. That would square with his game Monday, when he laid off low-and-inside first-pitch strikes in the first and fourth innings.
It also may be a case that Adams gained some confidence in his rehab stint, and possibly did hone his eye for the zone, but has merely locked in a bit more than usual, which would explain his increased out-of-zone contact rate. Whatever the reason, we’re glad of the outcome.
After shutting out the Giants 2-0 on Wednesday, the good news is that the Cardinals have now held their opponents scoreless an amazing and league-leading 16 times this season. But after failing to tally on Tuesday (as well as on Sunday), the bad news is that the Cardinals themselves have been shut out a discouraging 10 times. Has the team suddenly become the 1906 White Sox?
With a team wOBA of .303 that ranks 10th in the 15-team National League, perhaps the Cardinals have. After spending the last three seasons among the elite offensive teams in the league, the Cardinals — with a little more than half of 2014 in the books — are officially inept.
The lineup isn’t without its performers: Matt Adams stands out with his team-leading .363 wOBA, chiefly on the strength of his .515 slugging percentage. And Matt Carpenter is again posting one of the highest on-base percentages in the league at .381. But with the exceptions of Adams and Jhonny Peralta, the team has a decided lack of power, with erstwhile boppers Matt Holliday (.523 career SLG) and Allen Craig (.466 career SLG) turning in slugging percentages well below .400. Craig is the biggest disappointment, struggling to stay afloat above a .300 OBP, the Mendoza Line of on-base rates.
But beyond the statistical evidence of their lethargy with the lumber, the Cardinals lack any real sense of animation or spiritedness at-bat. In the recent post-Pujols years, lacking any real offensive persona, they’ve rented veteran faces to provide an identity for the lineup, including Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran. Neither was a rah-rah type, but they served as the personality for a rather faceless lineup. Let’s face it: Holliday, Craig and even Yadier Molina are bland characters who in the past have been able to prosper without pressure in relative anonymity behind leading-man-type stars.
Being in San Francisco this week pondering the Cardinals’ lack of luster and seeing the statue of Orlando Cepeda outside of AT&T Park, we were reminded of the thrill of another player who split his greatness between the two clubs: Will Clark. Clark, as many fans will recall, came to the Cardinals in the latter part of the 2000 campaign to provide a spark to the offense; Clark wound up providing a VP Fair fireworks show of offense, racking up a .426 OBP, .655 SLG and an uncanny career-best .310 ISO in the final 51 games of his career while waking up a dormant club with his legendary (and literal) game face and determination.
Of course, grit alone won’t produce runs, which is why the Cardinals need more than a Bo Hart or Rex Hudler. Clark’s “Nuschler” persona was gratifying rather than grating because he put up the home runs and on-base percentage to back it up. That much the Cardinals can expect people like Holliday and Craig to do the rest of the season, assuming neither is hiding an injury. As for the rah-rah, it’s too much to expect the current cast to offer.
Tony La Russa’s 1983 White Sox team was known for “winning ugly.” Unless John Mozeliak can find this year’s Will Clark, it may be that the Cardinals’ best hope this year is to “win blandly.” Of course, it’s better than losing blandly.