What Happened to Cards’ Offense?

The St. Louis Cardinals stormed their way to the NL Central title (and then the World Series) last season, and the popular thinking was that it was largely on the strength of their talented young pitching, with Shelby MillerMichael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal joining the consistently excellent veteran leader Adam Wainwright. To a certain extent, that was true, because only four teams allowed fewer runs than the Cardinals did, and despite injuries to Wacha, Joe Kelly and Jaime Garcia, the pitching has again been good in 2014. In fact, no starting rotation in baseball has allowed fewer runs.

Yet something isn’t quite the same. After winning the most games in the National League last year, the Cardinals have been stuck in second place in the NL Central behind the Milwaukee Brewers all season and sit on the precipice of the second wild-card spot. It’s not that being eight games over .500 is a problem, of course, but this year’s Cardinals team is not in the driver’s seat as it was last year.

And why aren’t they? Well, last year’s team scored the most runs in the National League, and the third-most in baseball. The 2014 version has outscored only the whiff-happy Atlanta Braves and the historically awful San Diego Padres, and they’ve hit fewer home runs than any team in the league. What caused this scoring outage, and more importantly, can it be fixed?

Taking a step back

First things first: No one should have expected the Cardinals to repeat last year’s run-scoring performance. They were simply a very good offensive team; their 113 wRC+ from nonpitchers was the third-best in baseball. But the scoring was largely the result of near-unprecedented success with runners in scoring position.

Last year’s Cardinals hit .330 with runners in scoring position, easily the best mark since the stat first started getting reliably charted 40 years ago, and well above the .282 average the second-place Detroit Tigers had.

For all the talk about “The Cardinal Way,” the truth is that hitting when runners are on base is simply not a skill. In 2012, the Cards tied for eighth, hitting .264 with runners in scoring position. In 2014, they’re tied for 16th, at .247. In between, they set a record. Their performance in 2013 wasn’t magic; it was luck. It’s not as if Matt HollidayAllen CraigJon Jay and Yadier Molina — all of whom have been major parts of the team in each of those three seasons — suddenly learned how to be clutch hitters, and then promptly forgot. For the most part, good hitters hit no matter the situation and poor hitters don’t, so in the same way you wouldn’t take one-seventh of a season and say that a player “is really good on Thursdays,” you also shouldn’t be inclined to think that hitting with runners in scoring position represents a particular skill.

The Cardinals likely weren’t going to repeat that record-setting performance in the most important situations, so their output was likely to diminish in 2014 anyway. Of course, few expected that nearly all the team’s big bats would fall off in nearly all situations, particularly power-wise, but that’s what has happened.

Six active Cardinals had at least 100 plate appearances in 2013 and have done so again in 2014. One, Matt Adams, has shaken off a slow start and broken out this season. Outfielder Jon Jay is close to matching his 2013 production. But the other four — the meat of the team’s offensive core — have all declined considerably in terms of production, as the chart below reveals:

Player Year SLG wRC+
Matt Carpenter 2013 .481 147
2014 .389 123
Allen Craig 2013 .457 135
2014 .358 85
Matt Holliday 2013 .490 148
2014 .377 118
Yadier Molina 2013 .477 134
2014 .409 111

New shortstop Jhonny Peralta has brought a huge improvement over last year’s shortstop pair ofPete Kozma and Daniel Descalso. Much of that gain, though, has been given back. After Carlos Beltran signed with the New York Yankees in the offseason, the Cardinals acquired Peter Bourjosto fill the void. Bourjos isn’t near the same hitter as Beltran, and has just 12 extra-base hits in 187 plate appearances this season.

Unfortunately for the Cards, it may not be realistic to expect the quartet above to bounce back. Holliday is 34, and his slugging percentage has declined each of the past four seasons. This is less “slump” than simply the manifestation of a status quo that’s trending downward. Before his injury, Molina was right around his career average for power output; his big-time slugging numbers of the past two years were likely an aberration, rather than this year’s paltry totals. With Molina (thumb) now on the shelf, things aren’t going to get any better from the catcher position. Molina’s replacement, Tony Cruz, has slugged just .323 over four seasons as a big league backup.

Carpenter, who has been much better since a mediocre April, might pose the best chance for in-season redemption.

But it’s Craig who has been the biggest problem here. He has been one of the worst regular players in baseball for much of the season. Following a brief rebound in May, he has been a complete mess (.225 AVG/.257 OBP/.295 SLG) since the start of June. Though the team claims he’s not injured, there’s clearly something wrong. He has all but stopped pulling the ball. That’s not the only reason he’s struggling, but it’s the primary one.

Small glimmers of hope?

Obviously, a few good games don’t carry more weight than three months of play. But the good news is that July is looking better. After similar slugging percentage marks in in April, May and June (.368, .367, .361, respectively), the Cards came into Thursday’s game at .423 in July, partially because rookie second baseman Kolten Wong has hit three homers in just 15 plate appearances.

Wong isn’t a power hitter — he has just 27 homers in 1,344 minor league at-bats — so he certainly can’t be counted upon to be a new source of power. Plus, considering his subpar performance this year, his mini-breakout was needed just to quell the calls for the Cardinals to acquire a veteran replacement, either directly at second or at third base, with Carpenter moving back over.

Holliday isn’t likely to start hitting for any more power. Neither is Molina, when and if he returns. There is a silver lining in Craig’s disastrous season, though, since his struggles may provide an opportunity for highly touted prospect Oscar Taveras to get a shot earlier than expected. If the Cards deem Taveras unready and Bourjos a lost cause, they might also consider taking a flier onMarlon Byrd, who has followed up a successful 2013 campaign with 18 homers and a .481 slugging percentage for the floundering Philadelphia Phillies.

Even with back-to-back walk-off homers on Monday and Tuesday, the Cardinals are on pace to hit just 96 long balls this year. Since the turn of the century, only five teams have hit fewer than 100 homers in a full season, and all five lost 90 or more games. With the Cardinals’ productive pitching and their offensive potential, they aren’t likely to finish the season with such a poor showing. However, their offense will have to turn it around in a big way to make the playoffs. For all the talk of possibly adding starter David Price, adding an extra bat would provide an even bigger boost.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.
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1 year 11 months ago

Matheny manages horribly every second Monday of the month and most Thursdays, Oh and All Star Tuesdays…