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Series Preview #30: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. St. Louis Cardinals

No time like a rivalry matchup against the Reds for Colby Rasmus to practice flying.
No time like a rivalry matchup against the Reds for Colby Rasmus to practice flying.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Ultimate Zone Rating has the Cardinals at almost 18 runs below average on defense in 2011.  Their pitching has been "meh," as their team ERA on the season is 3.92, good for 14th out of 30 teams.  Relief pitching has been a particular sore spot, as their bullpen has been awful at times this season.  Even their baserunning has been uninspiring. 

Yet, the Cardinals are in first place in the NL Central going into the series, and they're winning because they hit the baseball.  And yes, I realize that that statement sounds like the sort of thing that a baseball broadcaster would say when he stayed out drinking too late the night before and doesn't have a clue about the team he's describing ("This team is just full of players who just hit the baseball, Jim").  But really, I can prove it with stats and everything. So far in 2011, the Cardinals lead the National league in:

  • Hits
  • Runs
  • Home Runs
  • On-Base Percentage
  • Scrappy white utility players (which just makes bullet points 1 through 4 that much more impressive)

In an era of run prevention and good pitching, the Cardinals have exploited a new market inefficiency: guys who can hit the baseball.  They've put together a team of these players, despite doubts from teams like the Giants and Mariners, who believe that fielding a team with good hitters can lead to nothing but trouble. Some people are skeptical of this newfangled strategy of finding players who specialize in hitting the baseball and not making outs, but it has seemingly paid dividends so far.

What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):

                           Arizona (47-41)                                St. Louis (47-41)                                      Edge

Hitting (wRC+):    98                                                      110                                                    St. Louis

Pitching (FIP):     3.96                                                   3.76                                                   St. Louis

Fielding (UZR):   20.2                                                   -17.7                                                   Arizona

That wRC+ is good enough for third-best in baseball, behind only the Yankees and the Red Sox.  Unlike most teams, which feature a bullpen that has better numbers than their rotation, the Cardinals' starters have much better numbers than their relievers.  The Cardinals' rotation has an FIP of 3.60, compared to the bullpen's FIP of 4.09, good for second to last in the National League.  This has led to some upheaval in the Cardinals' bullpen, including the release of former closer Ryan Franklin.  If there's a chink in the Cardinals' armor, it's been their relievers.

Starting Lineups

Arizona Diamondbacks

Ryan Roberts, 3B
Kelly Johnson, 2B
Justin Upton, RF
Stephen Drew, SS
Chris Young, CF
Miguel Montero, C
Juan Miranda
, 1B
Gerardo Parra, LF

St. Louis Cardinals

Ryan Theriot, SS
Colby Rasmus, CF
Albert Pujols, 1B
Matt Holliday, LF
Lance Berkman, RF
Yadier Molina, C
Skip Schumaker, 2B
David Freese, 3B

The Cardinals are getting Albert Pujols back from a broken wrist, which might help the offense a little, insofar as the best position player of this generation is better at baseball than John Jay.  With Pujols back in the lineup, the Cardinals once again boost the best 3-4-5 of any lineup in the National League.  Terrifyingly, Prince Albert is having the worst season of the three, with an OPS+ of "just" 141. 

Matt Holliday remains the "Matt Cain of position players," in that he's a very, very good player who will be forever overshadowed by another, slightly better teammate.  However, his career high OPS+ of 177 and his inclusion in the Home Run Derby might suggest that he's beginning to get recognition of his own.  And all Lance Berkman has done is turn back the clock eight years by producing the best non-Jose Bautista OPS in baseball at the age of 35.

Actually, all but two starters on the Cardinals have an OPS+ above 100.  One of those, Ryan Theriot, has an OPS+ of 99, which feels very different than 100, even though it's a difference of a couple of walks over the course of a season.  The other is Skip Schumaker, who is around to honor the St. Louis tradition of having scrappy white middle infielders who Play The Game The Right Way* (TM).

*"Playing the game the right way" here means, "hitting a lot of singles while providing no power and very few walks.

Pitching Matchups:

Thursday: Joe Saunders (5-7, 4.04) vs. Kyle McClellan (6-5, 4.27)

Insightful Commentary: I'll admit I've been slow to come around on Joe Saunders as a starting pitcher, in part because of his terrible start to the season, and in part because of his nerve-wracking peripherals.  But we're halfway through the season, and Saunders' BABIP is in line with his career averages, and his HR/FB rate is above his career averages.  While his LOB% might regress a bit, he should be fine in terms of his overall numbers.  If you had told me at the beginning of the season that Joe Saunders would have an ERA right around 4 one start before the All-Star Break, I would have been elated.  Well done, Joe.

When we last saw Kyle McClellan, he was making his second career start, where he proceeded to hold the D-Backs to one run in six innings.  The converted reliever was a very pleasant surprise as an emergency replacement for Adam Wainwright in his first nine or so starts, where he had an ERA of 3.11.  Since then, he's given up 5 or more runs in four of his last five starts.  As a converted reliever, he's over his career high in innings pitched already, so there's reason to doubt his effectiveness in the rotation going forward.

Friday: Ian Kennedy (8-3, 3.38) vs. Kyle Lohse (8-5, 2.97)

Insightful Commentary: Kennedy had a rough game his last time out, to say the least.  Facing a weak lineup in a ballpark that was made for a flyball pitcher like Kennedy, he gave up seven runs to the A's in 5.2 innings.  He allowed more line drives (8) than he has in all but one other game this season, and he threw strikes at a much lower rate than usual.  Conclusion: Ian's a polite guy, and he didn't want to make Bruce Bochy feel bad about leaving him off the All-Star team, so he had a bad outing to make the snub look less blatant.  Personally, I think it's very thoughtful of him.

Kyle Lohse has a 2.97 ERA.  If you're like me, and spent the first half of the season paying attention to things other than Kyle Lohse, this is probably a bit of a surprise.  And moreover, it's just one of those things that doesn't pass the smell test.  Lohse is 32, and he's essentially been a middling starter for his entire career with the Twins, Reds and Cardinals.  He's had one season in his career where he had an FIP below 4, yet here he is halfway through the season with an ERA below 3.  He strikes out fewer than 5 batters per 9 innings, and he has a BABIP of .242.  Something tells me this shiny ERA isn't going to last.

Saturday: Daniel Hudson (9-5, 3.75) vs. Chris Carpenter (4-7, 3.74)

Insightful Commentary: Hudson also had a bad outing his last time out, giving up six runs in only four innings of work.  Clearly, Hudson felt so inspired by Kennedy's attempt to alleviate Bochy's guilt that he took things a step farther by letting the opposing pitcher hit a grand slam.  What's that?  Yes, this is my story and I'm sticking to it.  I'm sorry, I can't hear your objections due to all the cotton I've stuffed in my ears.

There have been a handful of "What's Wrong with Chris Carpenter" type articles floating around this season.  Indeed, for much of the season he hasn't looked like the ace he's been the last few years.  But he's allowed only two runs in his past three starts to get his ERA back below 4, so those articles have begun to dry up.  And to be honest, there was never much of a problem, as his strikeouts are on par with his recent averages, and his BB/9 has dropped below 2 on the season.

Sunday: Zach Duke (2-3, 5.40) vs. Jaime Garcia (8-3, 3.23)

Insightful Commentary: Duke might have just saved his bacon by pitching surprisingly well against the Brewers last time.  He threw strikes and produced the most ground balls of any start in his brief D-Backs career.  And luckily for him, those ground balls actually found fielders this time around.  Duke isn't the most popular figure around these parts, but he isn't going away this season (short of a complete implosion), so we may as well start cheering for the guy.

Everyone expected Jaime Garcia to regress after a surprisingly good rookie campaign, but not only has he not, he's taken another step forward to become an ace.  His strikeouts have risen, his walks have dropped and, as a result, his FIP has dropped from 3.41 to 2.89.  His ERA might not show it, but Garcia has gotten better this year, and it's likely to continue.

Final Verdict: This has the potential to be a let-down series.  It's the last series before the All-Star Break, the Diamondbacks have been on the road for about 67 of the past 70 games, and they just came off a big series against a team that plays very well at home in the Brewers.  The Cardinals are a good baseball team, but the D-Backs look to have a slight pitching advantage.  I'll say the Cardinals and D-Backs split the series, but I don't feel confident in it at all.

Nevertheless, GO D-BACKS!

For the Cardinals take on the series, head over to Viva El Birdos.  The most recent fanpost over there is titled "The Case for Daniel Hudson to be in the All Star Game," so they must be good people.

All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise mentioned, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs.

Current Series

4 game series vs Cardinals @ Busch Stadium

Arizona Diamondbacks
@ St. Louis Cardinals

Thursday, Jul 7, 2011, 8:15 PM EDT
Busch Stadium

Joe Saunders vs Kyle McClellan

Partly cloudy. Winds blowing out to center field at 5-10 m.p.h. Game time temperature around 80.

Complete Coverage >

Fri 07/08 8:15 PM EDT
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