The Cardinals begin the second half of the season this evening, owners of an uninspired 44-44 record. I don't know if showing clips of The Wire is still a thing people do in 2019, but if a Cardinals fan decided to ignore the first half of the season citing mental health reasons (not a terrible idea, by the way), and they needed to be brought up to speed, the Stringer Bell 40-degree day scene would properly do the job.
It's not a good team, everyone, and the reasons why are pretty simple: Bad starting pitching and a lineup that somehow can't hit for power, even though the ball is juiced to hell. (Side note: Do people like this? Is this good for the sport? We're past the halfway point and tampered-with equipment has been the talk of baseball all season. Seems bad.)
First, let's talk about the hitting. Before the year, I thought a lineup of Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna, et al, would be able to steal some wins by merely out-slugging the other team, effectively covering up a lot of pitching deficiencies. I saw a lot of 7-5 wins on the schedule. And before we get to what has actually happened - not that it's some big secret - what would you have thought if you were the person from above who bypassed the first half of the season but then learned on this date that this lineup had one of the better walk-to-strikeout ratios in the league? (Because they do.) I would have taken it as a telltale sign of a great offense. That maybe it's time to sign Jeff Albert to one of those early extensions the Cardinals seem to love.
Of course, it's not a great offense, even if they are above average at drawing walks and limiting strikeouts. And that's because the Cardinals rank in the bottom third in the National League in runs scored, ISO, OPS, and wRC+. Basically pick any stat that's associated with putting runners on base and then driving them home and the Cardinals are bad at it. Do some venue shopping. Head over to Baseball Prospectus' new and finally usable Leaderboards and you'll see that the only Cardinal in the top-60 in MLB by DRC+ is the guy who is currently on the IL with an injured middle finger.
We've seen mediocre offenses bailed out by good pitching before. The 2015 Cardinals come to mind. This is not the 2015 Cardinals. The 2019 Cardinals starters have the second-lowest strikeout rate in the NL and the second-highest walk rate. As a staff, they rank in the bottom third in SIERA, and they don't have a single starter in the top-25 in baseball by DRA-.
The bright side, if you're really stretching to find something, is that starters don't quite mean what they used to. Cardinals starters are on pace to throw 869 innings this season, which would be their lowest ever in a non-strike year. That's mostly due to the fact that the starters have labored to get through five innings, but it's also because that's the direction baseball is heading. Bullpens are more important, and are being relied upon to throw more innings than ever before. And even with Jordan Hicks out for the foreseeable future, this bullpen is good.
Similar to no longer being a complete mess on the basepaths though, a good bullpen is not enough when the offense and starting pitching are floundering. This is a .500 team by record, run differential, BaseRuns, you name it. I'd like to think they'll be much better than a .500 team 74 games from now but I'm not seeing it and neither are the projections.
Vince Coleman and stealing first base
The Atlantic League - an independent baseball league - announced a series of experimental rule changes, one being that a batter can effectively steal first base. Oh, boy. To put it another way, any time a catcher fails to cleanly handle a pitch, that is, catch it on the fly, the batter may attempt to take first base. This could occur at any time during the at-bat. The runner then immediately becomes a force out at first. Fair enough, I guess.
First, there's no reason to expect this rule to infiltrate MLB any time soon, if ever. I'm heavily leaning toward never so we probably don't need to litigate this issue as if it's pertinent. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't dream about what this rule could have done for a player like Vince Coleman's career. Coleman was arguably the greatest base thief the game ever saw. Had Coleman never played another game after his six seasons with the Cardinals, his 549 stolen bases would still rank 19th all-time. (As such, Coleman last played in 1997 and finished with 752 stolen bases for his career, which ranks sixth.)
Coleman's ability to get on base exceeded that of today's Billy Hamilton but it still wasn't his best skill. That he managed to steal 107 bases in 1986 with only a .301 on-base percentage feels like some sort of modern marvel. But let's say he could have scampered to first any time a pitch wasn't received cleanly by the catcher. Obviously any wild pitch and Coleman is on first base (and likely soon on second). Pitchers would be more reluctant to throw him junk knowing the pitch could possibly get away so they'd be forced to stay closer to the zone, thereby giving Coleman more pitches to hit.
Coleman was smart and knew when to run. He had an 81 percent success rate on stolen base attempts for his career. Therefore, I don't see him recklessly trying to claim first on a pitch that bounces but is still easy for the catcher to handle to throw Coleman out at first. So let's assume he only runs when he's confident that it's there, and that he would have around a 90 percent success rate on stolen first base attempts.
During Coleman's playing days, National League pitchers threw a wild pitch about 0.8 percent of the time. Throw in passed balls (about 0.2 percent) and approximately one percent of every pitch is getting away from the catcher and likely heading to the backstop. That's approximately 60 extra free trips to first base for Coleman over the course of his career. Throw in pitches that aren't wild pitches or passed balls, but in which Coleman is still able to take first - remember, he was really fast! - and who knows. Now, of course, we don't know what would have happened otherwise on the plays in which Coleman was able to steal first, maybe he would have eventually reached base anyway. And, as noted, with this rule in place, pitchers would probably be less inclined to throw pitches that would result in a wild pitch but, again, that just means more hittable pitches for the batter.
Regardless, I'm taking enormous liberties with this exercise because who really cares anyway, and I'm going to say this rule would have resulted in Coleman reaching base an additional 75 times for his career. That would have raised his career on-base percentage from .324 to .332, which looks better for a guy who typically batted leadoff. Maybe this rule raises his slugging given that he'd be seeing more hittable pitches. Maybe Coleman would have been able to exploit this rule in ways we can't even imagine. Or maybe the overall benefits to Coleman would have been minuscule because stealing first base seems pretty hard! I can't in good conscious believe that though. The knock on players like Coleman or Billy Hamilton has always been "well, you can't steal first," and it's hard to imagine the ability to all of a sudden steal first not being a big net gain.
Does this rule send Vince Coleman to the Hall of Fame? Probably not, but holy hell would it have been fun to watch.
Jon Lester, the other big miss
Jon Lester had a nice message on Twitter yesterday for softball player Ashlyn Clark who is currently battling cancer, a disease which counts Lester as a survivor.
Lester has a reputation of that of a red ass, and it's well earned, but he's also the type of personality that can be good to have around. We know because we remember Chris Carpenter. And Lester never goes too far. If Lester has ever purposely tried to injure someone by throwing at them, I don't remember it. What I do remember is that the Cardinals briefly showed interest in Lester after the 2014 season before he signed with the Cubs in December for six years, $155 million with a team option for the seventh year. Ever since, Lester has done a very good job of being Jon Lester by eating a lot of innings - he's thrown the fifth most innings in the NL since signing the contract - and putting up quality run prevention numbers.
Accumulating 19.6 WARP over the course of the contract, he's been a great return on the Cubs' investment. We often talk about Max Scherzer being the big miss, and he was, but we shouldn't overlook Lester. Especially when we consider what he has meant to our biggest rival, and what he could have meant to the Cardinals since 2015. Contracts for guys on the wrong side of 30 which are for more than five years usually don't turn out well, but Lester is proving to be the new Matt Holliday. Good for him.
This is usually where I recommend some other baseball writing that I enjoyed but it's late, I'm tired, and I'm going to bed. Quickly though, I do highly recommend this piece by Mike Bauer of St. Louis Bullpen on the Cardinals' culture problem. Check it out if you haven't already.
Enjoy your weekend, everyone, and go Cardinals. Keep those heads above water.