Last year, the St. Louis Cardinals rode the wave of a historically great clutch offense, excellent starting pitching and a young, hard-throwing bullpen all the way to the World Series. Thus far in 2014, offense isn't coming as easily for the defending NL champions.
If it seemed like the 2013 Cardinals delivered big hit after big hit, your mind wasn't playing tricks on you when watching the NL's best team post a 97-win regular season, score 783 runs and feature a league-leading run differential of plus-187. From April through October, the Cardinals were a juggernaut.
One year later, they couldn't be further from that distinction. Heading into play on May 12, St. Louis sat five games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central. More alarming than an early-season deficit in the standings is that with only 140 runs scored through 38 games, the Cardinals are on pace to score just 596 runs this season.
When looking at the team, roster and offseason decisions made, an instructive exercise commences: How did the Cardinals' lineup lose nearly 200 runs?
To be fair, it's still early. Major league teams still haven't played a quarter of the season. With Memorial Day still two weeks away, making long-term distinctions—positive or negative—about teams, players and rosters is a fool's errand. Although the sample size isn't minuscule in the middle of May, changes can happen.
Beyond the fluky nature of early-season numbers, two distinct yet intertwined issues are causing problems for the 2014 Cardinals: results and process.
At the risk of being esoteric, the difference between how runs are scored and why they are scored in St. Louis is worth exploring. Right now, the easy and quick answer to what ails the Cardinals centers on an astounding dip in production with runners in scoring position.
But they had that special woo-woo! “@miklasz: Cardinals 0 for 5 RISP so far tonight.”— keithlaw (@keithlaw) April 5, 2014
In 2013, the Cardinals were amazing when runners reached second or third base. Despite finishing 27th in baseball in home runs—ahead of only non-playoff teams like San Francisco, Kansas City and Miami—the Cardinals found a way to score the third-most runs in all of baseball.
Thanks to a .330/.402/.463 slash line—led by Allen Craig's eye-opening .454/.500/.638 mark—with runners in scoring position, the Cardinals manufactured runs better than any team in the sport. This season, "clutch" has departed Busch Stadium and the Cardinals' offense. Through 38 games, St. Louis has hit .233/.305/.340 with runners in scoring position.
To put those numbers in perspective, an entire lineup that performed like nine Evan Longorias last season is now performing like nine Nick Puntos. That puzzling transformation opens up a debate as to how real "clutch" hitting is and what can bring a team back to a consistent level.
Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday didn't have an answer for the woes when recently speaking to the media.
“There is not a magic formula that gets it done,” Holliday said. “It’s the same hitters with the same approach. It just hasn't worked out. It’s not for lack of effort or ability. Right now it’s not happening.”
In a sense, Holliday is correct. There is no magic formula to hitting well when runners are on base. Plus, the effort of this team isn't in question. However, one thing has certainly changed from last summer: the ability to get on base.
This is where the process of scoring runs comes into play. Yes, the Cardinals are struggling to hit with runners on base. Yet the team isn't reaching base nearly as often this season, limiting its chances to knock in runs.
Are you worried about the Cardinals' offense?
After leading the NL in on-base percentage in 2013, the Cardinals have slipped to seventh thus far this season, per ESPN.com. Furthermore, that dip isn't just by a few points or the product of improved offenses around the league. Instead, the team OBP has dipped 17 points. While that may not seem like much, it's limiting the chances for game-changing hits with runners on base.
The following chart shows the OBP figures of St. Louis' lineup last season and thus far this year. With Carlos Beltran now in New York and Craig in a funk, manager Mike Matheny's lineup isn't on base nearly as much as it was one year ago:
|2013 Lineup||Season OBP||2014 Lineup||Season OBP|
|Matt Carpenter||.392||Matt Carpenter||.376|
|Carlos Beltran||.339||Jhonny Peralta||.329|
|Matt Holliday||.389||Matt Holliday||.366|
|Allen Craig||.373||Matt Adams||.327|
|Yadier Molina||.359||Yadier Molina||.331|
|David Freese||.340||Allen Craig||.276|
|Jon Jay||.351||Peter Bourjos||.293|
|Pete Kozma||.275||Mark Ellis||.266|
Moving forward, don't get hung on up nightly RISP totals. While that statistic can often tell the story of a tough one-run loss, it doesn't give a full picture of how a team is performing offensively. If the Cardinals reach base at a high clip, runs will follow. Perhaps that's what Craig was referring to when looking for an answer to the problem.
“We’re confident that we’ll get better,” Craig told reporters. “That’s how it is right now. We have a lot of games left like I’ve said quite a few times. Every year is a new year. You have to find another way to do it. We’ll be there in the end.”