I think I did this wrong...
It's finals week up here, which, for those of us in the humanities, means a deluge of papers that we should have started a long time ago but are only now getting around to. So, for that reason, expect the next couple Series Previews to be a bit shorter than usual. On second thought, this is probably a welcome development for many of you. Also, please forgive any seemingly random digressions into the societal origins of the American Revolution or the development of Herman Melville's narration from Moby Dick to Pierre while I'm supposed to be discussing Daniel Descalso's OPS+ or something. Chances are I've just temporarily forgotten what I was writing. Thanks for understanding.
The 2011 Cardinals are the sort of team that we'll all bring up as a counterexample for years to come whenever some youngin' says "Oh, these guys are finished" when their team is seven games back in mid-July. The story is common knowledge by now: 10 games back on August 24, 23-9 the rest of the way, Game 163, Carpenter over Halladay in the NLDS, Rally Squirrels, David Freese, Game 6. Even for those of us without a rooting interest, it was an event. A baseball fairy tale, of sorts.
But if 2011 was a fairy tale, 2012 was supposed to be the straight-to-DVD sequel where they couldn't get any of the stars to sign on. The two most iconic figures associated with those Cardinals, Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa, left in the offseason. Cardinals fans did all sorts of WAR-related voodoo to suggest that the return of Adam Wainwright and the addition of Carlos Beltran would actually make the team better, but on a basic, gut level, it seemed like replacing the best player in baseball with Matt Carpenter should have some sort of negative impact, shouldn't it?
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
So far, the Cardinals are six games over .500 and in possession of the best run differential in baseball, which kind of ruins my straw man argument. While Pujols struggles in Anaheim, the Cardinals have absolutely mashed in 2012, to the tune of a collective line of .282/.353/.444. That wRC+ is the best in baseball as well. The Cardinals do have a team BABIP of .351, which suggests that they're probably going to slow down at some point. Still, the offense should remain solid, and with a pitching staff that has been above-average even with Wainwright struggling to return to form so far.
Seven of the Cardinals' eight starters currently have an OPS+ over 100. Except for when Skip Schumaker starts over Descalso, then eight of the Cardinals eight starters have an OPS+ over 100. Rafael Furcal is hitting .333. So that's nice. David Freese is slugging .541. Fill-in Matt Carpenter is out-hitting Albert Pujols. End times or small sample size? You decide!
is a perfect example of the counter-radical nature of the American Revolution, a Columbia-educated aristocrat who feared mob rule and sought to keep democratic power out of the hands of the masses is a baseball player. See, I told you it would happen eventually. Anyway, Jay currently has a line of .405/.457/.514, which is as awesome as it is hilariously BABIP dependent.
One of the few nice things about Pujols leaving is that it will force people to finally acknowledge how fantastic Matt Holliday is. He's been in the league since 2004, and he's never once produced an OPS below .800. Hell, he hasn't had an OPS below .900 since 2006. He very quietly out-hit Pujols last year, and now that he's gone, Holliday should finally get the national attention he deserves.
Insightful Commentary: It's May, and Joe Saunders and Lance Lynn are pitching in a game that has semi-legitimate early Cy Young implications. Baseball! Last year, Lance Lynn was a rookie who worked primarily out of the bullpen, starting only two games. But he looked good enough in limited time to earn a starting role, and all he's done so far is strike out four times as many batters as he's walked while putting up an FIP of 2.96. Lynn has a fastball that sits at 92-93 and a plus curveball, so he has the stuff to keep this success up.
Insightful Commentary: So, a couple starts ago I predicted in this space that Kennedy would snap his steak of avoiding losses, and take a couple of hard-luck losses like everyone else. Well, in his last start against Washington, a thoroughly disinterested offense and some well-timed hits caused Kennedy to get Harpered into exactly that: a frustrating 2-1 loss.
Westbrook has always been a very Dave Duncan pitcher, in that he pitches to contact and gets a ton of ground balls while keeping home runs to a minimum. In 2012, he's only improved on that, walking fewer and keeping the ball in the ballpark even better than usual. It's obviously still early, but Westbrook's off to a nice start.
Insightful Commentary: Miley had exactly one rough inning last time out, where he gave up four runs in the third against the Mets. However, he managed to suck it up and go three more innings with only one more hit, which, to me at least, said more about him than anything in his first two starts. Pitchers have innings like that, where things spiral out of control. The ones that are worth their salt bounce back after it happened, and Wade Miley bounced back.
Kyle Lohse has pitched 1800 innings since 2001, and he has a career ERA of 4.57. In theory, that Kyle Lohse should show up sometime soon, but he's been nowhere to be found since 2011. He isn't going to finish this year with an ERA of 2.11, but for a guy who's only one season removed from an ERA of 6.55, this is still pretty impressive.
Final Verdict: I hope I've made it clear in this preview that the Cardinals are playing really well right now. Sure, a lot of that success is based on performances that are probably unsustainable over the course of the season, but they don't need to sustain it for more than three games to win the series. The Diamondbacks should get a lift from returning home, but they haven't shown anything in the last couple of series that suggests they're ready to beat one of the better teams in baseball. Cardinals two games to one.
Head over to Viva El Birdos to get the Cardinals' perspective. And don't forget to join VEB if you're interested in participating in the joint gamethread that they're running for tomorrow's game. It should be a lot of fun!
(Stats from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.)