In five games and 24 at-bats (ABs), David Freese is hitting .417/.417/.667 with two home runs (HRs) and eight RBIs. Suddenly, the Golden Boy of 2011 has become St. Louis’ Slugger Supreme in 2012. Did anyone really see this coming? I sure didn’t. And, yes, it’s still early – only five games into the season – but the early indicators are very good.
After dealing with a literal mob of media opportunities – call it the Flash Freese Mob (eat your heart out, Orange County Register) – I couldn’t help but wonder if nerves would get to the young third baseman. I should have known better. For a midwestern kid who won both the World Series and NLCS MVPs just a few months before, nerves don’t seem to be an issue.
Already, David Freese – at a ripe ‘ol baseball age of 29’ish – has become his own home town’s hero extraordinaire, filmed a sitcom episode (even if it didn’t air), appeared on The Tonight Show, and become baseball’s most talked about figure since Mark McGwire (the ’98 version…not the media nightmare of the 2000’s). He seems to treat nerves and expectations as merely an afterthought – which is why I call him, “The Iceman”.
Coming into the season, all of us wondered what more could be expected from a man who had yet to log 100 games in an MLB season. Dubbed an injury risk, he seemed cursed with fragile ankles and iffy skeletal structure. He seemed a lightening rod for fractures and broken bones. But thus far, the returns are encouraging. He’s hitting for power, he’s hitting in key RBI situations, and he’s playing a cool, calm third base.
Oh…and I don’t know if anyone is noticing…but he’s playing a full nine innings. Through five games of starting at third base for the Cardinals, new manager Mike Matheny has yet to pull Freese for a late-inning, defensive replacement. It would seem – at least after a week of baseball – that Mr. Delicate Ankles has moved beyond “kid glove” treatment and is showing an ability to shoulder a full workload at the hot corner. Let’s hope it continues.
And one more interesting note before we move on…notice the similarity between his batting average (.417) and his on-base percentage (.417)?
Despite his outstanding offensive numbers, Freese has yet to walk. Not even once. Oh, players have been walked in front him – notably, All-Star first baseman Lance Berkman – but David has yet to see the four fingers from the opposing dugout when his fifth slot in the order comes up. Nor does he appear to be looking for it. In 24 plate appearances, Freese is tied for the team lead in strikeouts with six (both Beltran and Holliday also have six). Combine that with zero walks, eight RBIs, and other gaudy “small sample size” numbers, and it’s clear David is approaching the plate with one thing, and only one thing, in mind. Hit.
Consider for a moment that 15 of Freese’s 24 ABs has come with runners on base – 10 of those 15 with runners in scoring position (RISP) – and I think you’ll agree, looking to hit is exactly what we want David Freese doing when he steps in that little white box.
Alright…let’s leave Freese alone for a bit and get into the rest of it:
This is where the absence of Allen Craig on the roster can really be appreciated. No offense to Matt Carpenter, but he hasn’t shown the exciting power and/or RBI ability that Craig flashed in two partial seasons in St. Louis. And that’s important because…Lance Berkman is dealing with his first injury of the season. Carpenter was initially scheduled to start yesterday’s game against the Reds, but Berkman showed up and pronounced himself ready to play. Reading the Post-Dispatch this morning, it seems Puma is still dealing with discomfort in his finger when he swings, but he’s still the better option at 1B. At least, he’s the better option over Matt Carpenter. But what if Allen Craig were ready to go? I have to believe Craig on the roster would mean Berkman would be given a few days to heal and regain his power stroke without discomfort in his hand. Without Allen “The Cat” Craig – ’cause you never know when he’s going to pounce (heh) – to spell The Puma (wildlife theater today), the Cardinals are left with no appealing alternative in the clean-up spot. On the bright side, maybe it will lead to more managers choosing to pitch to Berkman rather than throw up the IBB with men on base.
Rafael Furcal is Hot, Hot, Hot! Already sporting a slash line of .435/.480/.565 through just five games, Rafi is gettin’ it done in the lead off spot. He’s walking (2 – tied for third), he’s hitting (10 – tied for first), and he’s swipin’ bases (2 – alone in first). So far, he’s the prototypical lead off man the Cardinals have been searching for since the departure of David Eckstein. But with a relatively low number of runs scored (3), it would seem a bit of lineup tweaking may be in order. Hmmm…let’s see…oh yeah!
Lance Berkman should be hitting in the two hole behind Furcal. Captain OBP is once again putting up stellar on-base numbers. His .526 OBP is easily the team lead among the starters – higher than Furcal’s .480 and well ahead of Beltran’s .375 (the current #2 hitter) – and his walk totals are already impressive. Amassing six walks in only four games (two of them intentional), Berkman easily leads all comers. He has twice the walks Descalso has in the second place slot, and four more than Beltran, Furcal, Holliday, and Molina individually (the third through sixth place rankings). That’s not to say Beltran isn’t doing a good job in the two hole on his own – he’s hitting .314 with a couple walks and a couple of HRs – but considering Berkman’s finger injury right now (that I have to believe will sap his power) and his uncanny batter’s eye, it would seem a natural fit to plug him into the two spot in the order and stick Beltran between Holliday and Freese in the clean-up spot. At least until Berkman’s finger heals, anyway. That extra OBP ability could come in mighty handy ahead of Holliday, Beltran, and Freese – and could help take advantage of Rafi’s work to score him more often by keeping the lineup moving.
Matheny must resist the urge to make any further changes to the Cardinals’ hitting order for a while. Freese’s success in the fifth spot is discussed above…but let’s talk the six spot. Yadi is putting up an impressive – and comforting, considering his contract extension – slash line of .375/.444/.938 with four RBIs and two HRs in the six hole. Leave him there. Historically, TLR became fond of toying with Yadi’s batting position, hitting him seventh, fifth, clean-up, and even in the two hole on occasion. I can understand the temptation. Molina has shown a tendency to come up with big hits in key situations. He’s an RBI guy hitting in the bottom half of the order. Why not move him up? The answer is buried in his stat sheet. Molina has, in short, easily demonstrated his most comfortable and statistically effective slot is the six hole. From that “complementary” position in the order, he can clean up the scraps left over by the big boys – Beltran, Holliday, Berkman, and Freese – while still coming up in key RBI situations that could change the game. But moving him up or down in the order has almost always reduced his effectiveness. Leave him there, Mike. Leave him there.
Holliday is getting “squeezed.” So far, Matt is tied for the team lead in strikeouts with six. For a bit of overblown historical perspective (remember, it’s only 5 games), Holliday hasn’t hit 100 strikeouts in a season since 2009 – the year he was traded mid-season and switched leagues and teams. Currently, he is on pace for approximately 130 strikeouts – a number he hasn’t reached since his sophomore season in 2007. If his 2012 season continued at this pace for the entire season, it would be his second highest strikeout total ever…easily. Okay, okay…my point is, that’s not going to happen. But it does illustrate my point a bit. Matt Holliday is striking out an unusually high number of times in a given week. We’ve seen his disgust with the strike zone, and replays and FSN-MW graphics have shown his irritation to be mostly justified, but the question is why? I’ve seen Holliday get rung up looking on a pitch that is a ball to 80% of the hitters in the Cardinals’ lineup and the opposing lineup for the rest of the game. And I’ve even seen the same pitch strike him out twice in that same game! I don’t understand it. Are umpires cracking down on Holliday as the #3 hitter now that Pujols is gone? It wouldn’t make sense, but maybe. Is it simply a matter of the aces the Cardinals have faced on the mound and seeing them get the benefit of the doubt with umpires? Perhaps…but why not with other hitters in the same game? Why is the same pitch a ball to other batters over and over again? Maybe there’s just something about Holliday’s stance that makes his strike zone look bigger than it actually is…I don’t know. But I do know he’s getting “squeezed” – or whatever the hitter’s equivalent to “sqeezed” is (“stretched”? nah) – so let’s keep that in mind when fans start bashing his seemingly ineffective ABs at the plate to start the season. He’ll be fine.
So it seems Albert Pujols is NOT selling his home in Wildwood. I think I’m relieved. Look…I’ve been hard on Albert for leaving – and I still blame him and feel it was absolutely the wrong decision for everyone involved – but as I move through my Pujols Grief Process, I think I want the situation in ten years to look like this: Albert never wins another World Series, he never has a season to equal his greatest seasons in St. Louis…but…he continues to have a Hall of Fame career and eventually breaks the All-Time Home Run record. I want him going into the Hall of Fame wearing a Cardinal red hat, and I want his number retired on the wall and a presence by Pujols during ceremonies at Busch. I know, I know…those last two are going to get me crucified…and I understand it…but at the end of the day, I want Albert’s time in St. Louis remembered fondly and respected, not thrown away because of the hurt involved in his departure. I’m deeply hurt by his decision to leave – and I still think his own pride led to the decision to move on – but I want an Albert Pujols presence in St. Louis when his career is over.
So much more to talk about…for example, I think Boggs and Salas could end up leap-frogging each other in terms of effectiveness out of the ‘pen all year, and I think tonight is a big test for a pitcher (Lohse) who battled the long ball in Spring Training and got away with a couple in Miami (won’t get away with those in GABP)…but I don’t want to make you read forever on a Tuesday afternoon. There’s work to be done!
Have a good one, and root for your Cardinals to pound the Reds tonight and tomorrow before heading home to revel in the championship pageantry in Busch.