What Has Happened To The Cardinals’ Offense?
The startling lack of offense generated by the Cardinals in the season’s first week has caused widespread panic within the fan base and the media. Manager Tony LaRussa (rightly) asserted that it’s only the first week, and such concerns are an overreaction.
But is that really true?
LaRussa often fails to appreciate the intelligence and long-term memory of the average St. Louis Cardinal fan. He would like to be able to lie directly to the fans and have them believe it, but that rarely happens. Remember how LaRussa told everyone that there were no problems with Colby Rasmus? The fans refused to believe such obvious deception, and the truth eventually came to light. LaRussa said that last year’s clubhouse had no problems whatsoever, and then fans watched the front office desperately try to improve the “clubhouse atmosphere” all winter long. St. Louis fans know when they’re being lied to by LaRussa.
So LaRussa’s tirade on Wednesday about the lack of offense didn’t fool Cardinal fans, who know that this team’s offense looks very much like the punchless, start-and-stop efforts of the last several years. No amount of badgering and yelling by LaRussa can disguise this unnerving trend that recent Cardinal teams have exhibited.
Since the team’s peak in 2004/2005, there has been a steady drop in run production. During the MV3-powered championship teams of 2004/2005, the team scored 855 runs and 805 runs respectively. Since then, the numbers have fallen off the table: 781 (2006), 725(2007), 779(2008), 730(2009), 736(2010) runs per year. What are some of the reasons for the decline?
LACK OF CONSISTENT HOME RUN HITTERS
It’s rare to have a Cardinal team that has three or four solid home run threats like the 2004/2005 teams had, but the teams that have followed have, with the exception of Pujols, not featured typical or consistent power hitters. Matt Holliday is the first genuine power hitter the team has employed since 2005, and even he only generates between 20 and 30 home runs a year. Colby Rasmus has some 20-30 home run power, but the team has tried to move him away from his power stroke.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the team had another method of run generation like the Whiteyball teams had in the eighties. Unfortunately, the teams built since 2005 have been painfully slow (111 stolen bases in 2004 compared to 79 in 2010) and less prone to hit for extra bases.
LACK OF DISCIPLINE
Last year, hitting coach Mark McGwire complained about the extensive use of video as a tool to refine the team’s hitting approach. This left the team vulnerable to unknown pitchers and rookie pitchers for whom the hitters had no prior information. This lack of basic plate discipline caused the team to hack wildly at the first pitch too often, as well as swing at obvious balls.
LACK OF BASIC EXECUTION
Along with discipline comes the team’s recent problems with execution of basic run-scoring plays. In the last two years, the team has been almost pathologically incapable of bunting a runner over, and LaRussa hasn’t executed a squeeze play since his days as a lawyer. Hit and run plays almost always result in failure (except for a perfect hit and run by Allen Craig last week). These are basic baseball strategies honed over decades that the team routinely fails to execute properly.
LACK OF AGGRESSION
For too many years, the Cardinals have felt like a team waiting around for big hits, rather than making things happen within the game. Part of that hesitation stems from their lack of speed, but part of that also comes from LaRussa, who prefers a lineup of power over one that manufactures runs.
LACK OF TRULY TALENTED HITTERS
Recent clubs have preferred gritty, hard-nosed players who slap at the ball and get their uniforms dirty. St. Louis has traditionally been a city that cherishes this type of player – in small doses. David Eckstein was beloved in St. Louis for his aggressive, overachieving style of play, but that was primarily because he was surrounded by a team that had a lot of true, star-quality talent. Imagine a team composed primarily of Eckstein-type players – it’s much less appealing, isn’t it?
But that is exactly how one could characterize recent Cardinal teams. Players like Aaron Miles, Randy Winn, Skip Schumaker, Cesar Izturis, Adam Kennedy, and many other punchless, marginal performers have dominated recent lineups. Rather than build a team by filling each position with solid-hitting/fielding players, the front office seems content to plug these stop-gap players into starting roles and important positions in the lineup, assuring every trip down the order will have several sure outs.
Looking through our 2011 lineup, I see only three everyday players that qualify as legitimate run producers: Pujols, Holliday, and Rasmus. Two other players (Berkman and Freese) have “potential,” which is basically a nice way of saying that a miracle might occur and they become offensive factors. The rest are cannon fodder.
And that is not how you build an offense, folks, unless your goal in building it is to be offensive.