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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: Puma Power-Less…

Let’s just say this right up front:  It’s early. And this is all subject to an extremely small – microscopic even – sample size. And I think we’re all ultimately happy with the Cardinals’ 11 – 6 start to the season.

That said…the initially explosive offense of the St. Louis Cardinals has been frustratingly inefficient as of late. The Redbirds seem to be struggling to drive in runs, keep the lineup going, or find any sort of rhythm close to what they found early in the month of April. We’ve seen the lower run totals lately…numbers like 3, 0, and 2…but the question is…why? What’s changed in the St. Louis lineup?

Many fans want to point fingers at the number three hitter Matt Holliday – but the Cardinals’ left fielder is hardly to blame. Through 17 games, Holliday’s numbers are largely unchanged…in fact, his last few games have shown signs of an impending breakout. No…Holliday may not be shouldering his share of the run production yet, but he’s not to blame for the sudden drop in offense. For him, nothing’s changed. But for the Cardinals, one change certainly stands out.

The absence of Lance Berkman.

In seven games with Berkman, the team averaged approximately 5.71 runs per game. In 10 games without him…4.60 runs per game. But even that total is impressive. After all, the Cardinals’ 84 runs scored is the fourth best in baseball behind the Rangers, Yankees, and…wait for it…the Atlanta Braves. If the reduced rate of 4.60 runs a game was applied to all 17 games (78.20 runs), the Redbirds’ offense would drop only one spot to fifth behind the Blue Jays. That means it’s not just about games played without Berkman.

But what about games played since Berkman was disabled?

In the last five games since Puma was placed on the DL, the Cardinals are averaging 2.80 runs per game. Just to play around with stats and perspective – because I can! – if we applied that rate to all 17 games (47.60 runs), the Cardinals would be 29th in runs scored…ahead of only the lowly Pirates in all of baseball.

Of course, that’s an easy number to pull out and throw around over just five games. Does it really mean Puma’s absence is to blame? Let’s take a look at the two hitters most dramatically affected by Berkman’s injury – Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran – to further unpack exactly what’s changed since Puma dropped out.

Prior to Berkman’s DL stint, Carpenter’s ABs were largely limited to pinch-hit appearances with an occasional start. But between April 11th and April 15th, lil’ Carp started four games. He put up a slash line of .500/.500/1.000 with one home run, two triples, a double, and seven RBIs in 16 ABs. A dramatic performance, indeed. But between April 19th and April 23rd – in the five games started since Berkman hit the DL – Carpenter’s numbers all but evaporated. His slash line – .118/.286/.118. In 21 plate appearances (17 ABs), he’s amassed four walks but only two hits with no doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs…or runs scored. For whatever reason, he’s become a void in the lineup.

But it can’t all be Carpenter, right? The Cardinals have a potent offense – on paper – with or without their All-Star slugging first baseman. What about that free agent signing we picked up this year?

Beltran is perhaps the other hitter most directly affected by the Berkman absence. With Lance in the four spot, the switch-hitting Beltran can sit comfortably in the two hole, only shifting to clean-up occasionally when Puma needs a day off. In the 11 games with Berkman on the roster between April 4th and April 18th, Carlos hit a stunning .341 with a .460 OBP and a .707 SLG%. He hit five home runs, drove in seven RBIs, totaled a shocking eight walks, and scored 12 runs…all in 41 at-bats. Through that stretch of games, the right fielder only recorded two hitless games.

But in the five games without Berkman – April 19th through April 23rd – the new clean-up man has struggled. His slash line of .150/.190/.150 is an eye-opening change from his previously gaudy numbers. In 20 ABs, he’s recorded only three hits – all of them singles. He has zero homers, zero doubles, zero triples, one walk, and only two RBIs. After posting only two hitless games in his first 11 games, Beltran has fallen into an 0 for 12 funk in his last three consecutive hitless games.

Of course, all this is just fun with numbers, really. After all, Berkman’s power numbers weren’t exactly knocking down any walls – not yet, anyway. In seven games with the Cardinals, he only drove in two RBIs and hit zero home runs. Of course, his batting average was a steady .348…and his OBP – boosted by six walks – was an unstoppable .500. Perhaps his true value to the Cardinals’ offense wasn’t in hitting balls over the wall…maybe it was in getting on base and keeping that STL lineup moving.

Ah well…when it’s all said and done, the only thing that truly matters is the home team’s win-loss record, right? Let’s see…with Lance Berkman on the roster, the Cardinals were 9 – 3. Not too shabby. But what about without Berkman the last five games? Hmmm…2 – 3.

Is it time to worry, yet? Nah. But with Berkman out for at least another 10 days and Craig gone for who knows how long, the Cardinals better figure out how to replace his production and presence in the middle of the order…preferably before the Brewers come to town this weekend.

Alright…enough with that…let’s get into the rest of it:

I’m not worried about Jason Motte at all. My initial concern about Motte before the season started was directly tied to his history of reduced velocity early in the season. The velocity is there. No concern. Look…this guy was not going to go an entire year without blowing a save. The walk to Soto shouldn’t have happened…but the LaHair walk was really out of Jason’s hands. That guy had a great approach to a pitcher he couldn’t catch up to – foul off pitches until he finally missed with ball four. In that scenario, that’s just going to happen. The problem is, after that hitter works a 12-pitch at-bat, he gets to trot to first and relax. Motte has to get back on the mound and keep pitching. Even then, he didn’t look horrible against Joe Mather. Mather did exactly what he should have done – which was, ironically enough, exactly what the Cardinals couldn’t get him to do during his time here – shorten his swing, calm his approach, and try not to do too much with the pitch. He faced a 98 mph fastball, shortened his swing, put the bat on the ball, and let Motte’s velocity do the rest as he took the ball up the middle. There was nothing special about that hit. A split second off on Mather’s swing and it’s out number three to short or second base. Nah…I’m not concerned about Motte. He’ll bounce back from this fine. Sure, it was his first blown save as “The Closer”…but this is a pitcher who blew a save in that epic 2011 World Series and then came back to close out the Cardinals’ 11th World Championship. He’ll be fine. And if I’m Matheny, I can’t wait to run him back out there for another shot. And knowing Motte…he can’t wait either.

Holliday is starting to heat up. In that last game against the Pirates, Holliday shot a hit through the right side of the infield for an RBI. Then, in yesterday’s game, he went two for three with a double, a run scored, and a walk. I said before that it was going to be fun to watch him break out against the Reds – and he didn’t have a bad series with three hits, a home run, and three RBIs – but maybe I was just about a week early. He seems to be feeling much better at the plate. Here we go.

Adam Wainwright should be much better today against the Cubs, but anything can happen in Wrigley…and this Cubs team is a pesky lineup. I’m still hoping Waino’s velocity returns sooner rather than later…but he’s starting to pull it together. In that start against the Reds, Adam looked good for three or four innings – even striking out Votto before giving up the first home run to Phillips – but a couple of errant cutters up in the zone cost him. I look for him to take another step forward tonight and give the Cards’ a decent chance to finally score for their struggling co-ace.

It sure is good to hear about Jon Jay’s shoulder. It’s not so much his offense that I miss in that lineup – even though he’s looked exciting to start the season – as much as it is his defense in center field and his presence on the team. Jay appears to be quiet and soft-spoken, but his ability to track down balls in spacey outfields introduces a bit of excitement to the game that I believe this team feeds on. When Jay runs for hours to catch a would-be double to the wall for out number three, this team takes notice. It pumps ‘em up and gets the adrenaline flowing. It’ll be nice to have “My Jon Jay!” – as my daughter calls him – back in the game when we get back to St. Louis.

What an excellent performance by Jaime Garcia last night. The young, wacky lefty certainly deserved better than he got. After being branded with a case of the “roadies,” Garcia overcame a sloppy first inning run to put together an impressive 7 2/3 innings of stellar ball. Let’s hope he can keep it together for the rest of the season. With that brand new contract in his pocket, it sure would be nice to see him take another step forward in his development.

I’ll say it again…isn’t Furcal supposed to be good at SS? I’m not stumping for a change…I’m just surprised that a veteran shortstop like Rafi isn’t better at the exchange and routine grounders. He has the ability to overcome poorly gloved balls with his strong arm, and he certainly flashes highlight reel skills at times, but watching him fumble to start the double-play and field routine grounders from time to time is just flat-out excruciating. It’s a good thing he’s hitting.

Wrap-Up!

Alright…that’ll do it, and that’s plenty for a Tuesday in April. Let’s hope Waino shuts down the Cubbies tonight and leaves us all with warm fuzzies as we drift off to sleep.

GO CARDS!!!

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