Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

TWIB notes: Trades, McGwire’s effectiveness, Puma’s surprise start

[One of our happiest memories of baseball and childhood was the long-running (from 1977-1998) This Week in Baseball, hosted by the late Mel Allen. We looked forward to the Saturday double feature of the show, followed by a baseball game of the week. It is in the spirit of the show's TWIB Notes, that we bring this Saturday post.]

In trading for Wandy Rodriguez, the Pirates are apparently going for it. “It” is of course the low bar of the wild card, but it’s actually a smart idea. Why kill yourself trying to build a division winner when you can make it to the postseason tournament at a cut rate? We have advocated the Cardinals bidding for W-Rod’s services in the past, so it’s a bit of a shame that they, in a rather dubious state of pitching themselves, didn’t top the Pirates’ offer.

While the Pirates improved, the Brewers appear to be giving up the ghost in dealing Zack Greinke away to Albert Pujols‘s team. As a result, the Cardinals have one less competitor for a tournament berth, so they have effectively added by Milwaukee’s subtracting.¬† Oh, and we presume that we’re not the only one who sees a bit of irony in the implication that Albert Pujols wasn’t sufficient to bring a contender to LA.

As for the Cardinals, they appear to be of the mind that their team needs veer more to the “tweak” than “overhaul,” having acquired only spot reliever (whether he is used as a LOOGy remains to be seen) Brian Fuentes, whom Tony La Russa once fancied acquiring (unwisely in our view at the time). ¬†Fair enough. And in view of the Pirates’ strategy to do just enough to enter the postseason, the Cardinals apparent decision not to pursue Greinke (the opposite of which we advocated in a ESPN Triple Play post) appears wise: Adding Greinke, though the team certainly faces a pitching question mark, would’ve been overkill. But adding a pitcher who figures to face around only 2% of the staff’s opposing batters seems a a tad underkill. With the club’s starters ranking second in baseball in FIP and third in xFIP, it’s tempting to say that they don’t have a particular need in the rotation. But we have a lingering feeling that the staff is like several slices of swiss cheese: If they stack up just right (or wrong, in this case), a hole is exposed. A starter like Rodriguez was preferable to Fuentes in our view.

McGwire effective?

Bernie Miklasz uses his column today to propose that Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire is in no small way responsible for the team’s offensive success the last two years. Although the estimable Miklasz does allow that “it’s possible that we overrate the impact of batting coaches,” the basic thrust of the column is that the numbers tell the story. While we applaud the effort at objectivity, this may be a case of thinking that correlation proves causation. He uses the team’s improvements since McGwire took over in 2010 in OBP and SLG, along with other related stats, as evidence. But if a manager’s impact on a team is fairly negligible, how much less is the hitting coach’s impact? After all, the players play the game, as the saying goes. And in this case, it’s fairly clear that the change in player personnel, not coaching, accounts for much, if not all of the team’s uptick in offense.

Taking the top eight batters in plate appearances each year, which accounts for the bulk of the team’s plate appearances (between roughly 60 and 70%), we notice the changes in the lineup for the better:

2007 OBP 2008 OBP 2009 OBP
Albert Pujols .429 Albert Pujols .462 Albert Pujols .443
David Eckstein .356 Ryan Ludwick .375 Yadier Molina .366
Chris Duncan* .354 Troy Glaus .372 Skip Schumaker* .364
So Taguchi .350 Skip Schumaker* .359 Brendan Ryan .340
Yadier Molina .340 Aaron Miles# .355 Ryan Ludwick .329
Scott Rolen .331 Yadier Molina .349 Joe Thurston* .316
Aaron Miles# .328 Rick Ankiel* .337 Colby Rasmus* .307
Jim Edmonds* .325 Cesar Izturis# .319 Rick Ankiel* .285
2010 OBP 2011 OBP 2012 OBP
Albert Pujols .414 Lance Berkman# .412 Matt Holliday .407
Matt Holliday .390 Matt Holliday .388 David Freese .382
Colby Rasmus* .361 Albert Pujols .366 Jon Jay* .372
Jon Jay* .359 Yadier Molina .349 Carlos Beltran# .364
Yadier Molina .329 Jon Jay* .344 Allen Craig .362
Skip Schumaker* .328 Skip Schumaker* .333 Yadier Molina .353
Felipe Lopez# .310 Colby Rasmus* .332 Rafael Furcal# .341
Brendan Ryan .279 Ryan Theriot .321 Daniel Descalso* .326

The Cardinals — and McGwire — have hugely benefited from the additions of four players whom they didn’t have before 2010: Matt Holliday (.397 OBP as a Cardinal), Lance Berkman (.411), David Freese (.365 since 2010) and Jon Jay (.355), and to a lesser extent, Allen Craig (.349) and Carlos Beltran (.364). In the case of Holliday, Berkman and Beltran, they’re simply performing as they always have, and it’s a stretch to think that McGwire has made them the hitters that they are. In the case of the team’s home-grown players, it’s impossible to know whether McGwire has had any effect at all. What we do know is that he no longer has the likes of Rick Ankiel (.315 OBP from 2007-2009), Cesar Izturis (.319) and Joe Thurston (.316) to bring down the team’s average. We do, however, have the benefit of comparing the before-and-after peformance of two players whose Cardinal tenure spans both McGwire’s and previous coaches’ time, Skip Schumaker and Yadier Molina. Though plenty of variables exist (like injury and age), their records, if anything, argue against a positive McGwire influence. For Schumaker: .361 OBP (2007-2009), .340 OBP (2010-2012). And for Yadier Molina: .353 OBP before, .343 after.

Berkman’s surprise start against lefty

Occasionally, however, managers do impact the game by one of their most powerful tools: how they deploy their players. Lance Berkman’s lack of puissance against left-handed pitching the last few years is well-known, so it was a bit surprising that Mike Matheny started Puma against the southpaw Travis Wood Friday afternoon in Chicago. But Matheny evidently checks the numbers in greater detail and saw that Berkman’s performance against Wood was an aberration: a .667 OBP and 1.125 SLG in nine PAs coming into the game. And it’s not like it was back in Berkman’s prime, when he was more successful against lefties — we’re talking from 2010-2011. Yes, a small sample, but it was enough for Matheny. The result? Puma had five total bases off Wood (including a home run).

How ’bout that?!

No episode of TWIB was ever complete without honor paid to an outstanding play of the week. So check out Jon Jay’s brilliant catch from Friday’s game. As Mel Allen used to say, how ’bout that?!

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