I've been putting this off for a while. Nobody wants to write off their own team, especially not one as storied as the Cardinals.
However, after a 7-3 loss to the Cubs, it's time to face the facts.
The Cardinals is eight games behind the Reds, and are closer to third place than first. With their recent slide, it is more likely they end up the former rather than the latter.
So what went wrong, and where?
The stats don't directly tell the story of the 2010 season. After all, you'd expect the team that ranks third in batting average, fifth in on-base percentage, and eight in slugging, as well as third in ERA to make some noise, right?
On the surface, the Cardinals had all of the makings of the team that was expected to win a second straight National League Central crown. But underneath, they were a team fraught with clubhouse issues, a top-heavy lineup, and inopportune pitching.
In fact, this entire season may just be a case of bad timing and poor attitude.
For example, the Cardinals' have a cumulative batting average of .262, as I said, third in the league. However, splits show that the Cardinals bat .299/.371/.484 in wins, but just .224/.284/.326 in losses. They also bat .275/.344/.432 when leading, but only .250/.316/.385 when behind.
Clearly, something has to account for these drastic splits. Perhaps it's a lack of heart.
After Jon Jay's costly error during a six-run Atlanta sixth, the Cardinals were visibly complacent. Only shortstop Brendan Ryan, who pounded his glove in frustration, seemed intent on winning the game. Others milled about as if they weren't on the verge of falling six games out of both the Wild Card and Divisional races.
The Cardinals' hitters have also seemed to have taken off days against weaker pitching.
So far the list of pitchers who have dominated St. Louis includes Bud Norris (twice), Kyle Kendrick, Jeff Karstens, Jason Vargas, Bruce Chen, Randy Wells (twice), Dave Bush, Nelson Figueroa, Chris Capuano, and, most recently, Jeff Samardzija.
These pitchers have a combined 262-311 record for their careers.
Some of this can be attributed to Tony LaRussa, who likes to fiddle with the lineup and rest starters in games the Cardinals don't "need" to win, such as the third game of a series they have already won. Players also have a tendency to take the day off.
LaRussa has also hurt the team with his insistence to start Felipe Lopez at third, where his glove and bat create huge holes in the Cardinal defense and offense. In fact, in his last 67 games, Lopez is batting .222/.296/.314, with only 14 extra base hits. As a result, the Cardinals are five games under .500 over that span. Of those 67 games, all but nine have been starts.
His defense has also been atrocious. Even at third, his .926 fielding percentage is far below average, and his 2.40 Range Factor and -0.4 UZR are all signs of a player who is in over his head. After 140+ games at second last season, LaRussa though it would be wise to shove him in to a position he hasn't played at length since 2000—when he was a rookie.
Better defensive and offensive options like Tyler Greene have waited in the wings.
It's not as though there's some pressure to pay Lopez, who is making only $1 million this year. The decision to make Felipe Lopez a third baseman was entirely LaRussa's.
The final, and most egregious straw in the growing ire of the St. Louis faithful, however, has been LaRussa's attitude towards his players. So far, he has caused stirs that caused one player to (allegedly) request a trade, and another to be sent out of town.
The players, of course, are Colby Rasmus and Ryan Ludwick.
Rasmus has made headlines recently after an unnamed source told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he had requested a trade, a rumor that Rasmus denies.
According to the source, Rasmus approached general manager John Mozeliak with his request during the team’s July series against the Cubs at Wrigley. After Rasmus arrived late due to travel complications, La Russa berated Rasmus in a closed-door meeting, even making a ludicrous claim to send the star 24-year old center fielder back to Triple-A.
The situation with Ludwick was similar. Ludwick was exiled to San Diego after he and LaRussa disagreed over how much he should be in the lineup. Ludwick justifiably saw himself as an everyday player, in the mold of Pujols, Holliday, or Yadier Molina. LaRussa, a big proponent of matchups, disagreed.
"The only thing he wanted to know was, ‘How long before I can get back to where I was?'" La Russa recalled. "The answer, before he got traded, was, ‘As soon as you're on time you're back there.'
Whether or not LaRussa still has the ability to manage, it appears he's losing the respect of his players with his constant fiddling of the lineup.
In fact, the Ludwick trade not only lost LaRussa credibility in the clubhouse, as Ludwick was a fan favorite and considered friendly by other players, but also disintegrated their lineup.
Since the trade, the Cardinals have averaged 5.7 PA/LOB, up from 5.37 before the trade. The loss of Ludwick, who is currently second in the league with a .385 batting average w/RISP, has obviously been felt.
Or perhaps the Cardinals' offensive struggles can be attributed to bad luck.
After all, when trailing, the Cardinals have a BAbip of just .286, well below the norm. However, that could bring us back around to the lack of effort theory. A lacksadaisical team is less likely to swing with authority, and as a result will not hit the ball as hard. My guess is that it's a combination of the two.
On the pitching side of things, the Cardinals' starters have been superb. Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and Jaime Garcia have all dominated, and Brad Penny was also stellar before going down with an injury. Jake Westbrook, who was acquired in the Ludwick trade, has also been a pleasant surprise, beating his career highs in almost every pitching metric.
The one place the numbers do fit the results is the bullpen, which has struggled for much of the season. Outside of Kyle McClellan, Jason Motte, and rookie Fernando Salas, Cardinals fans hold their collective breath when a Tony makes the call to the 'pen.
The most cynical among Cardinal Nation will blame LaRussa's handling of the 'pen, but he has done a satisfactory job with what he was given. The Cardinals bullpen was not considered a strength coming into this season, and outside of Salas, have not shown any surprises.
So, what does it all boil down to?
Poor timing. The Cardinals have obviously hit well overall, but the Ludwick trade fueled an already growing problem: the inability to score runs when behind, and to hit with runners on. In fact, the Cardinals have scored, but their timing has been horribly off.
According the Pythagorean expectation, which uses runs scored and allowed to calculate a team's "true" winning percentage, the Cardinals have a .557 expected winning percentage, but Cincinnati should be .533, which would put the two teams at 81 and 78 wins, respectively.
So, while some may be calling for LaRussa's head, if the Cardinals look carefully, they will see that poor timing has killed the 2010 season. Although I was once a skeptic, I think LaRussa will be in a Cardinals uniform as long as Albert Pujols wants him there.