Series Preview #19: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Dilip Vishwanat

Through April and May, the Cardinals have been the team you wish your team could be.

Any discussion of the St. Louis Cardinals should really begin with their record. Even with a loss on Sunday, they're 37-19, which means that they're the best team in baseball at the moment by two full games.

In terms of what tone I should take when discussing this information, I feel caught somewhere between the two poles of "Wow, this team is really good!" and "Pshaw, it'll never last." So, I guess I'll address both.

After two months, the Cardinals are on pace to win 108 games. No NL team has won 108 games since the 1986 Mets, and this Cardinals team doesn't really feel like the team to break the streak. They're hitting .347 as a team with runners in scoring position, which almost can't help but drop.

Their rotation, which you may have heard has the best ERA in baseball, was anchored by a 35-year-old Jake Westbrook, and Shelby Miller, who happens to be a 22-year-old with all of 11 career major-league starts. Neither guy seems like a terribly good candidate to pitch like vintage Pedro going forward, particularly since Westbrook is injured, and when they stop doing that, this team is going to lose some more games.

But you already know this. The question shouldn't be "Are the Cardinals this good?" because the answer to that is pretty obvious. The much more interesting question is, "Even if the Cardinals aren't this good, are they still a very good baseball team?" And I would answer robustly in the affirmative.

The Cardinals are tied for the best wRC+ in the NL, despite the fact that Matt Holliday is having what would be the worst offensive season of his career if it holds. Starting Third Baseman David Freese and starting Center Fielder Jon Jay have combined for 0 fWAR so far.

These three players figure to bounce back even if the rotation falters a bit. And if they don't, they can always call up Oscar Tavaras, the consensus number-2 prospect in all of baseball. Their rotation might get worse in the short-term, but long-term they're still young and very talented. So, while the Cardinals might not be 108-wins good, they might still be the team to beat in the National League.

What the Stats Say (Courtesy of Fangraphs):


Arizona
(32-24)
St. Louis
(37-19)
Edge
Hitting (wRC+): 96 103
St. Louis
Pitching (ERA-/FIP-):
89/89 81/82
St. Louis
Fielding (UZR):
15.9 -9.6

Arizona

The Cardinals overall pitching numbers are tops in the NL despite a very shaky bullpen (ERA- of 114) speaks to just how dominant their rotation has been so far.

Not only is their rotation's ERA of 2.49 the best in baseball by a large margin, but they also have the lowest HR% and the highest K/BB in the National League. It's all but impossible for numbers like this to be completely sustainable, but they haven't been getting incredibly lucky, either.

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Gerardo Parra, RF
2. Didi Gregorius, SS
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
4. Cody Ross, LF
5. Martin Prado, 3B
6. A.J. Pollock, CF
7. Miguel Montero, C
8. Cliff Pennington, 2B

St. Louis Cardinals

1. Matt Carpenter, 2B
2. Carlos Beltran, RF
3. Matt Holliday, LF
4. Allen Craig, 1B
5. Yadier Molina, C
6. David Freese, 3B
7. Jon Jay, CF
8. Pete Kozma, SS

It's not a surprise that the Cardinals as a whole have hit well, they've done that since 2011. The surprising part is who's done the hitting, while Holliday, Freese and Jay have scuffled, and starting Shortstop Rafael Furcal has missed the season.

The Cardinals breed interchangeable infielders in a hut behind a Steak 'n Shake in Chesterfield, MO. Each new one hits well for about 250 At-Bats before getting plugged in full-time job the next year after his predecessor disappears into the Steak 'n Shake, never to be heard from again. If any other team did this it would be an absolute disaster, but of course the Cardinals owe much of their offensive success to this hush-hush arrangement.

This is the only way to properly explain Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig. Can you think of any other current players with career OPSes over .800 that get less attention than these two have? Probably not, because they wouldn't be terribly obscure if you could think of them off the top of your head. This was a horrible exercise.

The Cardinals thought the Infielder Hut had made a mistake when it churned out Pete Kozma. "What are we going to do with a guy with a career .652 OPS in the minors" they asked. But Infielder Hut don't mess, y'all. On any other team, Pete Kozma would turn out to be Jake Elmore; here he's a postseason hero who starts at shortstop for a contender and hits just enough to get by.

Never forget that the Giants gave up their best pitching prospect to get 179 non-playoff PAs of Carlos Beltran, only to turn around sign with the Cardinals for a relative pittance, and become one of their best hitters just to spite the Giants. Whatever else he does in this series, he deserves our thanks for this.

Pitching Matchups:

Monday: Trevor Cahill (3-5, 2.88) vs. Lance Lynn (7-1, 2.91)

Insightful Commentary: I suspect Cahill is never going to feel like an ace. He loses his command for innings at a time, he struggles to start games at times, and he runs into the metaphorical wall with more force than Chris Young runs into literal walls. But that's all right, because he has a 3.54 ERA since coming to Arizona, which is slightly lower than what Dan Haren put up during his time as a D-Back.

Lance Lynn started off as a pretty good reliever and spot starter, until injuries forced him into the rotation in 2012. He tweaked his mechanics and made himself into a pretty dang good starter. He swooned down the stretch last year, but overall he still struck out over a batter per nine innings, and is doing the same thing so far in 2013, thanks in large part to a surprisingly lively fastball.

Tuesday: Randall Delgado (0-0, N/A) vs. Michael Wacha (0-0, 1.29)

Insightful Commentary: Delgado hasn't been formally announced yet, but unless they call up Skaggs for this start, there's no other reason for him to be here. He's been slightly less of a mess in Reno lately, which is damning with faint praise, because he was a huge mess in Reno to begin the season.

Wacha hasn't gotten as much attention nationally as he probably deserves, thanks to the long shadow cast by fellow phenom Shelby Miller, but he's still very well-regarded. Marc Hulet of Fangraphs has him a spot above Miller (and two spots above Archie Bradley, as it happens) on his big board. His fastball tops out at about 97 MPH, and it was very much on display in his first and only big league start, when he went seven innings and allowed just one run against the Royals.

Wednesday: Wade Miley (3-5, 5.01) vs. TBA

Insightful Commentary: Miley's May ERA was 7.34, and that's counting a six-inning, two-run start against the Marlins, which has an asterisk next to it because the Marlins are awful. Stuff like this makes me glad I'm not a manager, because I really have no idea what the plan should be here. He's made himself the odds-on favorite to get sent to Reno when Hudson gets back, but there's certainly a contingent that thinks he should get sent down before that, and I don't really have a good counterargument at this point.

Like the Diamondbacks, the Cardinals' rotation got shuffled by a rain delay. This will probably be Jake Westbrook, unless it isn't and I've made a terrible mistake. I've made a terrible mistake. Westbrook has been injured since the beginning of May and is currently making rehab starts in the Cards' minor league system. So...Adam Wainwright, probably?

Thursday: Ian Kennedy (3-3, 4.74) vs. Shelby Miller (6-3, 1.82)

Insightful Commentary: I spent most of last year claiming that Kennedy's struggles had to do with bad BABIP luck. This year, I can't even do that, since he's giving up a BABIP of just .269 despite a higher LD% than he's had since coming to Arizona. Uh oh...

In 11 starts so far this year, Miller hasn't given up more than three runs. Pat Corbin isn't impressed, but everyone else is. He's striking out more than a batter per inning, and his Walk Rate hasn't been a problem at all. The only minor hurdle he's faced is pitching deep into games, as he's failed to get out of the sixth inning in five of his eleven starts despite good results.

Three Pressing Questions:

How's former Diamondback fan-favorite Randy Choate doing these days? Pretty well, now that you mention it. As in, 18 appearances with a 0.96 ERA good.

Have the Cardinals traded Oscar Tavaras for Jurickson Profar like the Internet so clearly wants them to? Sadly, not yet. But we crossed over several major rosterbation thresholds with this proposal. First of all, the Internet devised a top-prospect-for-top-prospect trade (the rosterbatory white whale) that wasn't totally awful. Then it caught on, and actually prompted one of the GMs involved to "think about it." A tip of the cap to you, Internet.

Are St. Louis fans actually the "Best Fans in Baseball?" Of course not, because I saw a sign on the way out of Chase Field that said me and 23,000 of my closest friends were the best fans in baseball, and a random sign in Chase wouldn't lie like that.

This guy, however, is very clearly the best fan in baseball.

Cardinals Blog: Viva El Birdos

(All stats via Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference unless otherwise indicated.)

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