What’s Really Wrong With The 2012 Cardinals?
Most reasonable and realistic Cardinal fans have watched the team’s performance over the last three months in open-mouthed shock. On paper, the Cardinals began the 2012 season as the best and most balanced team in the National League. Watching them flounder throughout the summer has been a frustrating experience.
What are the factors causing this collapse, one that threatens to finally derail what was once an inevitable postseason appearance?
Every team has injuries throughout a long and trying season. Most of the 2011 Cardinals spent the first half on the disabled list, but they worked through them all for a World Championship. This year, the division-leading Reds lost a major piece of their lineup when Joey Votto went down, yet during his absence the Reds actually improved. Injuries by themselves can’t always explain away losses.
In many cases, it depends on who receives the injury. Last season, the Cardinals lost Adam Wainwright for the season, Albert Pujols for a few weeks, David Freese for almost two months, and most of the bench players at some point or another. However, most of the “temperament players” – guys who generally determine the personality of a ballclub – remained intact. Yadier Molina, Chris Carpenter, Lance Berkman, Jon Jay, and Matt Holliday all had healthy, consistent seasons. The club even added additional “temperament players” near the end of the schedule, acquiring Rafael Furcal, Arthur Rhodes, and Octavio Dotel to add skill and personality to the team. And that was a key to their success – by the end of the season, the 2011 team was lively.
The injuries to the 2012 Cardinals have been largely to the team’s heart, its personality. Losing Carpenter for most of the season really hurt; he is the bulldog, the fighter, among a group of choir boys. Then, after a promising April, the team lost clubhouse clown Lance Berkman for what has proven to be the entire season; in fact, the team’s slide perfectly coincides with Berkman falling to injury. Inspirational players like Carlos Beltran and Furcal have been heroically attempting to play through injuries and slumps, but they’re clearly too distracted and dispirited to be of any help.
While injuries might account for some of the flat, emotionless play from this team, they don’t explain everything.
Cards manager Mike Matheny is receiving a lot of flack these days from outraged fans for the club’s underachievement. He’s an easy target, of course, given that this is his first year managing anything other than his own checkbook.
I certainly believe Matheny’s bizarre use of the bullpen in the first half caused a few losses (although how many? five?). I also think that his over-reliance on bunting (although he doesn’t bunt early so much anymore) continues to shackle this offense.
But I also can’t help but wonder if Matheny’s roster management caused some of the problems this season. For instance, I wondered aloud a month ago about Matheny’s overuse of Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal. Beltran has the second-most at-bats on the team (after Holliday) while playing on wobbly knees in right field. In right field Beltran often seems so tired/hurt that he looks like he’s fielding hits underwater. Meanwhile, Furcal has been out for all of September and he has the third-most at-bats. Where was the rest that might have kept these guys fresh for the stretch drive?
In this regard, part of Matheny’s problem is that he’s too close to these guys. I’m sure it crossed Matheny’s mind to sit Beltran or Furcal more often, but they talked their way into the lineup. An effective manager knows how to massage his roster for the long haul, making surgical moves throughout the season so that your most important assets are rested and ready for the real tests.
For that to happen, an effective manager knows how to say NO to players who resist him. When Scott Rolen was pissed about Tony La Russa benching him in the 2006 playoffs, what happened? ROLEN SAT. La Russa didn’t care if Rolen approached him with a Presidential decree ordering TLR to play him. While La Russa certainly had his favorites, in the end he was their manager first and their friend second. Matheny hasn’t shown himself tough enough to say NO to his friends.
As it has been repeated ad nauseum, the Cardinals ARE hitting. One recent lineup featured seven players hitting at least .300, which is, on paper, a tremendous luxury. The Cardinals currently have six regulars all hitting around the .300 mark. They lead the league in most offensive categories.
But they don’t seem to put their hits together in bunches. Or, rather, they don’t do it when it counts. In a blink, this team can rack up ten runs in a blowout, followed by several one-run losses that all required one big hit to win. The Cardinals’ record in tight/close games is now 17-23, and they’re 4-10 in extra innings. Any team truly dangerous enough to win the World Series needs to be able to produce in the close and tight games.
OVER-RELIANCE ON HOMERS
A look at this lineup in April showed an offense that certainly had home-run power, but would murder people with doubles into the gap and opposite-field hits. That hasn’t materialized, though. Instead, we see a tight group of batters all swinging for the fences. Sure, home runs are fast-food offense and fun to watch, but they don’t generate electric offense like consistent bunches of singles and doubles do.
None of these guys are demonstrating a compact, level swing that leads to (a) contact, and (b) line drives. Holliday has always had a violent swing, but, as the pressure has increased for production, he is uppercutting way too much. Freese and Craig have also altered their approach in recent weeks. The worst of all was watching teeny-tiny Furcal in the midst of his slump, swinging as if he was trying to hit the sun. As Berkman showed in the World Series last year, all it takes is a smooth line drive to help win a game.
We’ve seen it innumerable times in the second half of the season: the Cardinals have two or three runners on and a chance to win the game. Up comes a Cardinal batter, who swings at the first pitch (regardless of its quality or position) to end the threat with a pop-out or ground-out. Molina has done this two times this week. Hasn’t anybody ever heard of working a count or taking a bad pitch?
Even worse, I think the Cardinals have successfully executed one bunt this season. Some of that falls at Matheny’s feet – he doesn’t always call for a bunt in the correct count – but I’ve seen more bunt pop-outs than at the local bakery (a little bundt cake humor … very little).
I understand aggressiveness at the plate. I support that. But flailing wildly at a first-pitch outside with runners in scoring position makes no sense. These guys are no longer going up there with a plan.
It’s difficult to complain much about the pitching, given that we received an incredible number of starts for two months. We simply wouldn’t be anywhere close to contention without our starting rotation.
Our bullpen, though better, holds a tremendous amount of blame. Marc Rzepczynski is the primary problem this season, followed by our inability to find another lefty to complement him. Fernando Salas has been wildly uneven, particularly in the first half. With the addition of Edward Mujica, the final three innings are in pretty good hands if we can get there with a lead (see above).
The other variable is Jaime Garcia. Has anyone noticed how the starting rotation suddenly began to struggle when Garcia returned? Like his mind, Garcia’s return seemed to destabilize a rotation that was cruising along.
Some have suggested that the more recent slide of the defense is attributable to Furcal and Molina being hurt. Instead, I simply think the defense has eroded because everybody’s playing tight.
Unlike hitting and pitching, defense has less to do with mechanics and technique as it does reflex and awareness. A distracted ballplayer loses just enough focus to make defensive misplays. And the 2012 Cardinals are clearly distracted. Their ongoing slumps have increased the pressure to perform. They often look listless. The poor defense is probably resulting from that more than any other player or factor.
Does this team really appear ready to enter the playoffs? Does anybody look like they really even want to?
Having filled themselves on the spoils of a much-celebrated World Series, the Cardinals have spent much of the 2012 season looking like hung-over celebrants returning to work the next morning. Sure, a repeat Championship would’ve been nice, but these guys don’t seem to want it. They seem suddenly tired, suddenly old.
In this race for an extra wild card, an extra lifeline, this team appears to be a drowning man finally accepting his fate. Their mouths and noses are just above the surface of the swirling waters now, and the final splash threatens to submerge them finally.