What is Wrong with the Cardinals offense?

An analytical approach to the questions about the St. Louis Cardinals offense.

First, let's look at the overall production numbers for the St. Louis Cardinals offense as a whole.  The Cardinals are currently pacing the league average for runs scored per game at 4.59 runs per game.  Not great, but certainly not terrible either.  The Cardinals are 4th in OPS+ though, at 103 compared to the NL average of 95 in OPS+.  So, while the Cardinals offense is scoring in the middle of the pack so far, the lack of hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP) has them producing runs at a rate less than their OPS+ would imply.  The timing of hits is almost completely statistically random to the best of my limited knowledge, so it should correct over the course of the season. 

Now, for a look at individual contributions so far.  Most of the starting players are in the neighborhood of 100 at bats, so while the sample size is still small, it is beginning to get to the point where it might start having some slight statistical significance.

The obvious player to start with when talking about the Cardinals offense is Albert Pujols.  So far in 2010, Albert is slightly below his typical performance, but not drastically.  He is currently 27 basis points down in OPS compared to his career numbers, so it is hardly a significant drop off.  Albert has only grounded into three double plays, which extends out to near his career low if he can continue avoiding the GIDP's.  Albert, like most current hitters on the team, could use a little more timely hitting, but that is just statistical flux and he'll start producing with RISP like he always has.

Matt Holliday has been much maligned on forums lately, but he is not having a terrible offensive 2010 so far, other than some struggles with RISP.  Holliday is a little down across the board, but he has started slow in prior seasons as well.  His wOBA is currently .354 compared to his .398 career average wOBA.  ZiPS still project him to more or less match that career wOBA over the full season though.  His BABIP is only .321 so far compared to .341 in 2009 and .350 in his career. His line drive rate is currently 17.1% which sits 2.5% below his career average but 0.7% higher than his 2009 rate.  Holliday is striking out at a rate that matches his career mark within 0.1%, so there's nothing in his peripheral data that worries me.  It's all about the sample sizes and Holliday should be fine over the full season.  Everything will even out in the end.

Staying in the outfield, Colby Rasmus started the season on fire but has cooled slightly since the last homestand.  There is a whole lot of crazy stuff going in with Colby's peripheral stats right now, but he has had a great season so far with a 188 OPS+ and a .445 wOBA in 2010.  Colby is walking at an astonishing 18.8% rate that will certainly come back to earth over the rest of the season.  He has a good batting eye, but his on base percentage will likely end up in the area of .400, not the .442 he currently has.  Rasmus also has an elevated BABIP at .409 currently with a line drive rate of just 16%, down 3.6% from 2009.  Colby is doing a lot of things well, but he is also striking out at a 35.5% rate in 2010.  As he strikes out less, his BABIP will come back to earth, but Rasmus can hit and should end 2010 with strong overall numbers still.

Rounding out the starting outfielders is Ryan Ludwick.  Always a streaky hitter with the Cardinals, Ludwick was cold, then hot, and now back to being pretty cold.  Overall, Luddy is putting together a nice but not spectacular 2010 so far.  He has a wOBA of .351 and most of his peripherals are close to his career averages.  The primary thing to watch with Ludwick will be his power output.  Ludwick's Silver Slugger award in 2008 came with a .591 slugging percentage, but his .446 slugging percentage in 2010 is similar to 2009 and only about 40 basis points below his career average (which includes that .591 slugging percentage from 2008).  Ludwick is probably about the .800-.850 OPS right fielder that we've seen basically in 2010 so far.  If he can be hot a little more than he's cold, Ludwick could push his OPS into the higher end of the .800-.900 range, but it is unlikely that he replicates that .966 OPS from 2008 ever again.  That's not to say he's not valuable though, because solid defensive right fielders with an .850 OPS don't grow on trees.

Returning to the infield now, let's look at Yadier Molina.  Yadi might be performing the closest to expectations and his "actual" ability.  The only statistic that is deviating from projections for Molina is an uncharacteristically high 12.5% strikeout rate so far this season.  That will likely fall back to his normally low rate in the single digits, but everything else has been very "Molina" so far in 2010.  Yadier is an All-Star catcher because his defense and combined with a wOBA of .332 makes for a heck of a catcher for the Cardinals!

The rookie sensation David Freese has been getting a lot of attention.  Obviously, he is highly unlikely to hit .360 all season, but there's a lot to like about Freese's long-term potential for the team.  Freese has had a high BABIP throughout the minors and so far in the majors, so while .438 is unsustainable, he could very well have a BABIP of .350 or better over the full season and ZiPS (updated) projects that to be the case as well.  Freese is striking out at a 23.3% rate, which is probably not far from his "normal" rate in that regard.  Freese has only walked at a 6.2% rate and will need to increase that somewhat to maintain a .400+ on base percentage once his average starts to dip over the remainder of the schedule.  Freese's batting average is being supported by an unsustainable 22.4% line drive rate, but that's not to say that he is not a legitimate offensive piece of this team.  Hopefully Freese can stay hot until some of the other bats start to reach their mid-season form.

Now for the middle infield.  I already wrote about Skip Schumaker's offensive peripherals here this week, so you can just read that for the details. The short version is that Schumaker is hitting a ton of line drives right at defenders and that his approach is fine.  He is walking and striking out at very sustainable rates based on his career numbers and once his .238 BABIP starts to normalize he will be fine offensively.  This piece isn't about defense, so that's all I'll say about Skip for now!

Last and sort of least (offensively speaking) is Brendan Ryan.  The Cardinals shortstop plays such a good defensive game that he can hit .200 and still be worth starting for the team with a full of ground ball pitchers.  The biggest issue with Ryan's offensive game right now is that he is striking out at an astonishing 27.2% rate, well above his career 15.1% strikeout rate.  Ryan has never even approached 20% in his entire professional career.  So the strikeout issue is almost certain to improve drastically over the next five months.  Like Schumaker, Ryan is hitting line drives at a strong rate, but his BABIP is a deflated .271.  When the season is over, Ryan will likely still be the .700-.750 OPS player that he has been projected to be.  Things will correct over the full season and he will be good enough offensively to more than warrant his starting role with the team.

In review, the St. Louis Cardinals biggest problem is an almost certainly statistically random struggle to hit with runners in scoring position.  Very few players are truly struggling and there is peripheral data to suggest better offense to come for those that are struggling.  This team has elite pitching and once the offense begins to click and reach its potential, this team will really start winning games at a high rate; and that is scary!

Sources: I relied heavily on both fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com for all of the statistics that I used here.  Special thanks to both sites for providing such great information for free!


Editor's note: Andrew Miller, aka ambill10, is a leading member of our vibrant Cardinals message board community. Check out all the discussions today.


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