2007 Sabermetric Year in Review: St. Louis Cardinals

The fifth team in our reverse-alphabetical-order spin through MLB came into 2007 as the defending World Series champions, yet didn’t make the playoffs.  They have arguably the game’s best hitter (an very loud argument with supporters of A-Rod, but a pretty good argument nonetheless), but didn’t break .500 this year.  Then again, in 2006, they barely broke .500 (83-78), and gave a beautiful demonstration as to why a short series is not an adequate sample to determine the better team (also known as “anything can happen in a short series”).
Record: 78-84, 3rd in the NL Central.  In September, when everyone seemed to be avoiding the top of the NL Central, the Cardinals showed that no one wanted it less than they did.
Pythagorean Projection (Patriot formula): 70.67 wins (725 runs scored, 829 runs allowed).  Read that one closely.  The Cards were more akin to a 70/71 win team this year by run distribution.
Team Statistical Pages:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus
FanGraphs
MVN Blog:
That’s A Winner  (Is that a St. Louis thing?)
Other Cardinals Resources:
Latest News
Contract Status
Trade Rumors
Overview: I suppose after completely ruining the fairy-tale storyline that was the 2006 Detroit Tigers, the Cardinals’ uppance was due to come.  Then again, I suppose that the Cards returned most of the same cast of characters from 2006 (a year older) – although Chris Carpenter went down for the count after Opening Day – and their 2007 record was pretty much like their 2006 record, a difference of 5.5 games.  I have a dear friend who was born and raised in STL, and I asked her to sum up the season from the perspective of a Cardinal fan.  She stuck out her tongue and gave me a thumbs down.  When I asked her to elaborate, she just repeated the same thing.  Looking at the numbers, she was right.
What went right: Chris Duncan, at least against right-handed pitching.  Duncan’s OPS against righties was .944.  Against lefties, .632.  Other than David Eckstein, who may or may not be back in red next year, Duncan was the most effective  offensive weapon that the Cardinals had behind Albert Pujols.  This, by the way, was the closest thing to a “what went right” I could find for the Cardinals offense.
Adam Wainwright did a serviceable job as the staff “ace.”  When Wainwright was relieving in 2006, he had a higher K rate and a lower walk rate, and I’m guessing that has something to do with the fact that he didn’t have to pace himself when he was relieving.  And really that’s the only difference between him in 2006 and 2007.  He’s a good-but-not-great starting pitcher, or at least he was in 2007.  On the bright side, he is 25, which suggests there’s some room for growth.  And if he’s good-but-not-great now, maybe there’s room for very-good-but-not-outstanding.  For what it’s worth, Wainwright did hit .290 in 74 AB.  Not bad, and gave him more batting runs above average than Yadier Molina (expected) and um, Jim Edmonds.
What went wrong:  Let’s see.  When the entire season for the undisputed ace of your staff can be summed up in one box score, things apparently took a turn somewhere.  This was a year in St. Louis where Aaron Miles (2) pitched in more games than Chris Carpenter (1), Rick Ankiel (11) hit more home runs than Scott Rolen (8), and Adam Wainwright (.290/.323/.387) outhit Adam Kennedy (.219/.282/.290).
I don’t know that there was a bigger disappointment in baseball in 2007 than Scott Rolen (read: he was on my fantasy team).  Rolen hurt his shoulder in 2005, but in 2006, he put up a sporty .887 OPS, and surely many in Cardinal-land were probably happy with what looked like a return to health for Rolen.  Then, he hurt the shoulder again.  The resulting .265/.331/.398 line  with 8 HR speaks for itself.  How did that shoulder hurt Rolen?  Teams figured out that they could throw fastballs past him.  Take a look at Rolen’s batting stats broken down by pitch-type.  He hit off-speed pitches at a .300+ clip.  He hit .200 on fastballs.  Wouldn’t you know it, 52% of the pitches that Rolen saw were fastballs, 6% more than the league average.  It’s clear that his legs are still in good shape.  He’s always been a good fielder at third base, and this year, RZR had him 2nd in the majors behind Pedro Feliz.  His eyes seemed to be OK too.  I don’t have the ability to calculate his batting eye stats yet (2007 Retrosheet event file isn’t available yet), but his strike percentage was 62% vs. 61% last year.  He’s not striking out any more often.  In fact, for the past three years, his K rate has been in the 13-14% range, where it had been 17-18 previously, but his walk rate is down as well. 
The real story is in Rolen’s batted ball profile.  His line drive didn’t really change from 2006 to 2007, but he did have a shift of 5% from flyballs to groundballs.  The telling stat though was that of the flyballs that Rolen did hit, only half as many of them (percentage-wise) left the yard.  He also showed a small uptick in his infield popup rate.  Rolen’s also seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance.  In 2006, he saw 3.91 pitches per PA.  In 2007, 3.74.  Rolen’s getting a little anxious and putting the ball in play quicker.  Seems like Rolen’s shoulder is affecting his brain as well.  Will he recover in 2008?  Rolen is one of those players for whom statistical projections for his 2008 are pretty useless.  You’d be better off having a copy of his medical records than his previous stats to get a real idea of what he’ll do.
Then there’s free agent disappointment Adam Kennedy.  True, he signed for a mere $10M over three years, but Cardinals’ brass surely thought that they were getting a player who would put up his career .275/.329/.390 type of line.  That’s not much of a line, but it’s a fair sight prettier than the .219/.282/.290 (ewwww) that he actually put up.  Kennedy ended up as the second least useful 2B in baseball (by VORP), behind(?) Josh Barfield.  Odd, because he actually struckout less this year than 2006, but he also saw his line drive percentage drop by 10 percentage points, and they mostly became fly balls.  As such, his BABIP dropped to .239… ouch.
Yeah, that about sums it up: On September 7th, the Cardinals were a game out of first place (69-69), tied in the loss column with both the Cubs and Brewers (71-69 each).
Is Rick Ankiel for real?: This is a really strange question to ask.  Ankiel has already been a super-phenom pitcher at the Major League  level, until he caught a case of the yips in the 2000 playoffs.  Since he was only 20 at the time (so was I!), he still had time to re-invent himself as an outfielder and to come to the Majors at 27.  So, is he a real Major League outfielder?  (If I were Bill Simmons, I probably would have found a way to relate this to the career path of Raven-Simone.)
Let’s see, he strikes out almost a quarter of the time, which would put him in the upper (lower?) echelon of hitters in baseball.  His HR/FB ratio was an astounding 20.0%.  I don’t have anything to compare it to as to whether he did that in the minors as well, but that would put him in Lance Berkman/Matt Holliday country, which is in the top 10 in that stat as well.  Let’s for a moment assume that those numbers really reflect his true ability and weren’t the product of a little luck or the fact that many of the pitchers he faced hadn’t seen him before.
Power hitters tend to strike out a lot (and Ankiel is no exception), which is annoying, but comes with the territory.  But there a couple of numbers which worry me.  Ankiel only hit line drives 14.9% of the time, which puts him in the lowest regions of the league. and he only saw 3.43 pitches per PA.  Ankiel, at least in what he did during his brief stay in MLB last year, seems like he has one skill: raw power.  Sure, there are plenty of guys in baseball who fit that mold, and Ankiel seems to be one of them. 
Whither Pujols?: Let’s, for a moment, leave aside that Albert Pujols had another brilliant defensive season and is the best fielding first baseman in the league by five lengths.  What the heck happened to him this year offensively?  After all, he didn’t put up his usual “Top 3 in OPS in the league.”  I mean, he was eighth!  And he only hit 32 HR!  Cardinals fans: repeat after me.  There is nothing wrong with Albert Pujols.  He experienced a small drop in the percentage of flyballs that left the yard and hit a few more ground balls, but those tended to go for singles and doubles anyway.  I live on the North Side of Chicago, and those of you in St. Louis know that means that I can’t legally say anything nice about a member of the Cardinals.  But, with that said, Albert Pujols is an amazing hitter, and I’d say the best player in league.  The stat that I think is most revealing about Pujols is that the guy walked 99 times this past year and struck out 58.  That’s downright DiMaggioian.  So, you have in Pujols the league’s best defender at his position and one of the top 10 offensive talents in the league, and you’re only paying him $15M per.  The sky is not falling.
That gritty, plucky little player, David Eckstein: So it looks like David Eckstein wants a Julio Lugo contract.  Something like 4 years and $36 million… and hopefully not doing what Lugo did this year.  Eckstein was the fifth worst fielding shortstop in baseball, according to Dewan’s plus/minus and to RZR.  But… he does consistently post around his .286/.351/.362 career average, which is nice for a shortstop (or possibly a converted second baseman).  The Cardinals do have 25-year-old Brendan Ryan ready to go, who hit a combined .278/.355/.364 line (compare to Eckstein) between AAA and 200 PA with the Cardinals.  Ryan hasn’t done it at the Major League level yet, at least over a full season.  Right now, he seems like the better option in that he is cheaper and at least indicators point to him being a David Eckstein wannabe (with a little more speed).  I understand that Cardinals fans have an emotional attachment to Eckstein and that he’s a proven commodity.  How much for security and sentimentality?  $9 million a year seems a steep price.
Outlook: Ah, the most dreaded word in baseball.  “If.”  If Rolen is healthy.  If Carpenter makes a miracle comeback.  If…  The Cardinals had a good run in the first part of this decade, but the puzzle is starting to fall apart and it’s going to take a little time to put things back together.  The Cardinals missed out on hiring Chris Anotnetti (assistant GM in Cleveland) as their GM, reportedly because he would have had to share too much power with Tony LaRussa.  So, it looks like it’s Tony LaRussa’s team, as it has been for the last decade or so.

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5 Responses to 2007 Sabermetric Year in Review: St. Louis Cardinals

  1. erik says:

    “and that’s a winner!” is what the late great Jack Buck would say when the Cardinals won a game.

  2. dan says:

    Other than David Eckstein… Duncan was the most effective offensive weapon that the Cardinals had behind Albert Pujols.
    Is this a typo? Duncan was better in every way imaginable (and no, I don’t “imagine” defense, so be quiet)

  3. Pizza Cutter says:

    Dan, no typo. According to VORP, which takes into account the politics of position adjustment, Eckstein outdid Duncan. To compare their raw numbers, Duncan was the better player, but Eckstein did it and played a “premium” defensive position… badly.

  4. dan says:

    I didn’t look at VORP, mainly because I’m too lazy to look at both Fangraphs AND BP to compare two players. I’ll take your word for it on that one. However (i’m really nitpicking now), you did say “offensive weapon,” which shouldn’t really take into account defense or position…..Bottom of the 9th with men on second and third, you’re not gonna pitch around eckstein to pitch to duncan because eckstein plays shortstop.

  5. RollingWave says:

    What to do though, they don’t have any serious pieces to trade and their farm essentially consist of one player (though i wuoldn’t mind too much if that one player was Colby Rasmus )
    They need to find some scrap heap pitching and try to ahem.. recycled it into useful trade piece or something i suppose.

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