Final Notes from Spring Training 2017

A couple final thoughts as Spring Training 2017 comes to a close.

Matt Adams

Matt Adams has been a tease his entire Cardinal career.  A big guy, capable of generating substantial power, Matt has shown all this talent and ability only in short bursts.  After an uninspiring April, Adams was one of baseball’s best hitters in May.  He hit .364 that month (24 for 66) and slugged .652.  This was part of an even longer stretch that began with 2 hits – including a home run – against Stephen Strasburg on April 29 and ran through a pinch-single against Cincinnati on June 9.  He was 37 for 95 (.389) with 7 home runs, 28 runs-batted-in (this was only 31 games of which he’d started just 25) and a .684 slugging percentage.

And then, abruptly, it all went away and never came back.  Over the last 164 at bats of his season, Adams hit .177 (29 of 164) – albeit with 8 more home runs.  This is not the first time that Adams had done this.

Matt Adams 2017 has come to camp 30 pounds lighter, significantly more athletic, and hitting with the relaxed confidence that characterized his May spree.  Understandably, many Cardinal fans are hesitant to buy into it – and I confess that I have reservations, too.  A lot of them are hoping that Matt’s strong spring catches the eye of some other team leading to a trade of Adams elsewhere – and that may well happen.

But before that happens, pause and consider.  The Cards are opening the season with Jhonny Peralta at third base.  Jhonny will turn 35 at the end of May.  Like Adams, Peralta looks more athletic and seems stronger than last year.  But Peralta is still turning 35.  He may have a strong season left in him, but he is not the future.  The Birds do have a couple of promising third-basemen working their way through the minors – but neither are quite major-league ready yet.

Because Peralta is playing third, Matt Carpenter is pushed to first base.  It may become necessary – either this year or next – to move Carpenter back to third (depending on what Peralta has left in the tank).

What all this means is that Matt Adams may be a more important part of the team’s future than otherwise thought.  I don’t preach endless patience with Adams, but I think there have been enough flashes of potential in the past to warrant another long look.  Between now and the time that Patrick Wisdom and Paul DeJong arrive, the Cards will need to know what they have (or don’t have) in Adams.

Trevor Rosenthal

Trevor Rosenthal burst on the scene in 2014 and took over as the Cardinal closer.  Featuring his 100-mph signature fastball, Trevor proceeded to save 93 games over the next two seasons with a 2.65 ERA and 170 strikeouts in 139 innings.  In addition, Trevor has 7 postseason saves and a 0.69 ERA in post-season play over 4 different seasons.

Rosenthal staggered to a disappointing 4.46 ERA in an injury marred 2016 and lost his closer’s responsibility.  It has now been announced that Trevor will begin this season on the disabled list – courtesy of the lat strain that interrupted his spring.

So things seem to be low-ebbing for the talented Mr. Rosenthal.  Again, though, pause and consider.  Trevor won’t turn 27 until the end of May.  Assuming his injury is no more serious than it seems, there are a lot of fastballs still left in that arm.  The talent that made him an elite closer is still there.

Seung-hwan Oh, on the other hand, turns 35 in July.  I don’t question Oh’s designation as closer.  He more than earned that with a great season last year.  But, again, he is not the future.

Rosenthal – once he’s healthy – is.  It would behoove the Cardinal organization to keep Trevor very invested in the season.  If not the closer, they should at least carve him out a prominent bullpen role.  Trevor is arbitration eligible next year and free-agent eligible the year after that.  If the Cards allow Trevor to become disaffected and filter his way out of the organization, they will come to regret it.

Michael Wacha

There are a lot of good things that came out of the Cardinal spring training.  I believe that the best thing that could happen for the organization is the return of Michael Wacha.

It’s been so long since Wacha was really good that it’s almost impossible to remember the kid who – 16 starts into his 2015 season – stood at 10-3 with a 2.66 ERA.  Through his first 101.1 innings, he had allowed just 7 home runs and was holding batters to a .228 average.  When healthy, Wacha is a special pitcher.

Factor the Wacha of old into a long-term rotation that could include Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes and Sandy Alcantrara, and the very-near future could be very bright.

Now, spring training is not September, and, as the song says, it’s a long long time from May to December.  Michael has a long way to go and many innings for his strengthened shoulder to bear – so this is all far from a done deal.  But this becomes one of the most important storylines of the season.

Spring Training in Review

So, Spring training ends with 20 wins and a lot of enthusiasm.  It’s a little hard not to get carried away.  Again, pause and remember.  Spring Training is just Spring Training.  The tortuous 162-game marathon lies before us.

That being said, the hot spring was – in an important sense – just what the doctor ordered.  After a disappointing season, an uncertain off-season, and the early loss of wunderkind Alex Reyes for the season, this is a team that kind of needed to feel good about itself.  Especially as the teams spring strengths (starting pitching and defense) were areas of weakness last year.

I don’t usually put a lot of stock in hot Aprils.  Too often I have seen teams bolt out of the gate only to fade in the heat of August.  But this is one year that a fast start could go a long way toward healing the angst of 2016 – which began with three straight losses and never really got on track after that.

A good April – especially if it includes a couple of wins against the Cubs in the season opening season.  The psyche of the team and the fans took a significant hit last year when they were never a factor in the division race and ended up out of the playoffs.  A good start will go a long way toward washing the bad taste of one of the worst years in recent US history out of our collective mouths.

What’s Next?

With the regular season now on deck, we will be dark in this space for a couple of weeks.  That sounds a little counter-intuitive, I know, but since the concept here is the numbers and the stories they tell we have to let a few games pass to get enough numbers collected to mean anything.

So, while I will be watching intently these next few weeks, it’ll be about mid-April before we sit back and start sifting through the early numbers.

We will see you back here then.

The Enigma that is Randal Grichuk

On Friday June 17, the Cards opened a series at home against the Texas Rangers, losing 1-0 to Cole HamelsRandal Grichuk, batting eighth and playing centerfield, went 0 for 3 (a strikeout, a flyout and a popout).  That game concluded a 17-game stretch for Grichuk in which he had gone 7 for 59 (.119) with just 3 runs batted in.  It lowered his season average to .206 (42 for 204) with just 8 home runs and 27 runs batted in.

The next morning, Randal was a minor leaguer, having been optioned to Memphis.  After beginning the season as the team’s cleanup hitter (on the heels of a very promising 2015 season in which he had hit .276/.329/.548 with 17 home runs), Grichuk’s season had dissolved.  A short time previous, Kolten Wong had been returned to the minors to re-discover his game.  Now they were trading places.

What Went Wrong?

Randal Grichuk is an aggressive hitter.  He is an unlikely candidate to ever lead the league in walks or on base percentage.  As a result, he finds himself hitting behind in the count more than any other semi-regular in the Cardinal lineup.  Randal found himself hitting ahead in the count in a team-fewest 24.7% of his plate appearances last year.  The team average was 33.1%, and Matt Carpenter led the team hitting ahead in the count in 40.3% of his plate appearances.  Hitting ahead is a significant advantage.  In the 118 plate appearances that Grichuk managed to get ahead in the count in, he produced 13 singles, 8 doubles, 8 home runs, 19 runs batted in and 28 walks, while striking out just 14 times and grounding into just one double play.  His batting line in those plate appearances was a convincing .322/.483/.678.

He also swung at the first pitch thrown to him 42.5% of the time, swung at 53.8% of all pitches thrown him, and missed the ball entirely on 28.5% of his swings – all aggressive numbers.

Consequently, he also ended up hitting with two strikes on him a team-high 56.5% of the time.  And once he got that second strike on him, he would end up striking out in 52.2% of those plate appearances – the second highest percentage on the team behind Brandon Moss.  As a two-strike hitter, Randal hit just .150 (38 for 253) with 5 home runs and 19 runs batted in.

But the answer here isn’t as simple as saying that Grichuk needs to morph into Carpenter.  Grichuk hit the first pitch thrown to him 70 times last year, hitting .486 in those at bats and slugging .986 with 8 home runs.  The idea isn’t to try to breed the aggressiveness out of him.  Clearly, though, through mid-June pitchers were routinely taking advantage of his aggressiveness.

Grichuk Returns

Randal spent 23 games in two stints in Memphis (he was also demoted at the end of July).  He didn’t dominate AAA as might have been hoped, but he re-gained his footing.  He was 22 for 81 (.272) as a minor leaguer with good power.  Half of his hits went for extra-bases (4 doubles, a triple, and 6 home runs).  With his .568 slugging percentage, his minor league numbers closely resembled his promising 2015 season.  He could have walked a little more (he walked twice), but all things considered, he looked very much like the hitter St Louis had expected all year long.

He returned to “the show” on July 5 for the second game of a four-game set against Pittsburgh.  He came off the bench that night to contribute a ninth-inning single against Pirate closer Mark Melacon.  That hit initiated an eight-game hitting streak for Randal that saw him hit .400 (12 for 30) and slug .800 (his hits included 3 doubles and 3 home runs).  He drove in 6 runs in those 7 starts.

He also returned from his second exile hot, hitting .385 (10 for 26) with a 1.000 slugging percentage (5 doubles, a triple, and 3 home runs) in his first seven games back (he drove in 9 runs in those games).  He went on to finish August hitting .284 (19 for 67) with 15 of those hits going for extra-bases (7 doubles, a triple, and 7 home runs – a .731 slugging percentage for the month).  He drove in 15 runs in his 18 August games.

His September levelled off somewhat (.270/.308/.486), but his overall numbers after his first demotion finished very similar to his 2015 season and to his brief minor league stint.  Over his last 253 plate appearances, Randal slashed .269/.300/.554.

But here’s the thing.  From a statistical standpoint, Grichuk came back from the minors even more aggressive than before.

How Much More Aggressive Can He Get?

At the point Grichuk was sent down the first time, he was hitting ahead in the count in just 28.9% of his plate appearances.  After his return, that percentage dropped to just 20.9% (during which he slashed .349/.472/.814).  From the All-Star Break to the end of the season, Grichuk managed to hit ahead in the count just 19.9% of the time – but he hit .333/.478/.806 when he did.

Before his first demotion, Randal hit with two strikes on him 52% of the time – a number that rose to 60.5% of the time after his return.  He returned swinging at 56.1% of the pitches thrown to him (after offering at “only” 51.2% before) and missing on an impressive 29.5% of his swings.  After his return from the minors, Randal only put the ball in play with 27.9% of his swings.

He swung at the first pitch thrown him 107 times in his last 253 plate appearances of the season, only putting that first pitch in play 31 times – but he hit .613 and slugged 1.290 when he did.

More aggressiveness may not be a long-term answer for Randal, but it more or less was in the second half last year.

Grichuk After Memphis

Randal’s post-Memphis batting line (.269/.300/.554) – encouraging as it was – didn’t really reflect how much better Grichuk was when he returned.

When he was sent down the first time, he was hitting just .164 against lefthanders.  He went 18 for 54 against them (.333) with 7 doubles and 5 home runs (a .741 slugging percentage against them) after his return.

Grichuk improved from a .255 hitter with runners in scoring position to .404 (21 for 52) with a .769 slugging percentage (7 doubles, 4 home runs) after his return.

Twenty-five of his last 70 games were played against winning teams.  He had hit just .188 against these teams before his demotion.  On his return he hit them at a .282/.317/.577 clip.  He hit just .106 in 13 one-run games before going down.  He played in 21 more after his return and hit .313 (20 for 64).  Six of those hits were home runs, and he slugged .641 in those games.

These numbers strongly suggest that there is a star player in there somewhere.  With Randal Grichuk, there is no question of talent.  The obstacles standing between Randal and the elite player he can be are questions of consistency and just enough discipline to keep him from being behind in the count almost constantly.  The Cardinals have a great many talented outfielders on the way.  If Grichuk is going to mature into that player, this would be a good year for him to do so.

Mike Leake Ready for a Do-Over

The biggest catch of the 2015-2016 offseason, right-handed starting pitcher Mike Leake couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start.  While the entire team struggled out of the box, Leake’s first six starts of the season set a bad tone for the season to come.

In the 34.1 innings that those six starts lasted, Leake wasn’t really battered.  He gave up 37 hits in those innings (just a .272 batting average against) and walked only 9 (2.36 walks per 9 innings), but that was enough to account for 26 runs (23 of them earned).  His record at this point of the season sat at 0-3 with a surprisingly unsightly 6.03 ERA.  In each of those games, Leake had one multiple-run inning that tarnished his outing.

In his first start against Pittsburgh he didn’t get out of the fifth inning.  Through the first four innings, Mike had allowed just 1 run on 3 hits.  Beginning that inning trailing 1-0, Mike imploded allowing 4 of the 5 batters to reach base (2 singles, a double and a triple).  Suddenly he trailed 4-0 in a game the Pirates would go on to win 5-1.

He made it through six innings against Milwaukee in his second start.  In all of those innings except the fifth, he allowed just 2 runs on 5 hits.  But he was dinged in the fifth inning for 2 runs on three hits – one of those an infield hit – that paved the way for a 6-4 Brewer win.

And so it went.  In his third start it was the seventh inning.  Through the first six, the Cubs had scored 1 run on just 3 hits.  But 3 line drive singles, a throwing error, and a sacrifice fly plated three runs in that inning and Chicago went on to a 5-0 win.  He gave 2 runs in the fifth inning his next time out on his way to a no decision against San Diego; a four-run fourth doomed him to a 5-4 loss to Washington.  In his first start in May he pitched just 5 innings against Philadelphia allowing 4 runs on only 4 hits.  Three of those runs came home on a big fly from Ryan Howard in the fourth.

What Mike really, really needed at this point was a team that was suffering more than he was.  That prayer was answered on May 10 when the Cards began a road trip in Anaheim to take on the tail-spinning Angels.  Leake dominated them to the tune of 1 run on 6 hits over 8 innings on his way to his first Cardinal win (8-1).

That game began a string of 13 starts when the Cards got from Mike Leake exactly what they thought they were getting.  This streak began with that win and stretched through a 10-2 win against San Diego in his first start after the All-Star break on July 18.  Ten of those starts qualified as quality starts and in the 82.2 innings he pitched, he gave more than one run in only seven of them.  He was 7-4 in those games with a 3.16 ERA.  His batting average against was only slightly less than in the previous games – those 13 opponents hit .265 against him.

In his rough April, batters that faced Mike with no one on base hit .265/.315/.456 against him.  But once a runner reached base, that line increased to .306/.362/.449.  In his nearly immaculate May (he was 4-1 with a 2.31 ERA that month), batters hit .237/.282/.423 against him with the bases empty and .170/.184/.255 once a runner reached base.

In his first six games, batters were 9 for 27 (.333) with runners in scoring position.  Over the next 13 games, batters with runners in scoring position were only 18 for 77 (.234).

Three of those first six starts followed a Cardinal loss.  Mike was hammered in those games (0-2, 7.16 ERA).  Nine of his next 13 starts also followed a loss.  Leake’s record in those games was only 4-4, but 7 of those games were quality starts and his ERA was a very competitive 2.88.

During the ragged 6 game start, batters hitting with two outs in the inning hit .292/.358/.521 against Leake.  Over those next 13 starts, once he got the second out of an inning he held batters to a line of .260/.274/.356.  Leake began the season getting groundballs from only 48.7% of the batters who put the ball in play against him.  That percentage warmed to an encouraging 55.4% over the next 13 starts.

In the first 6 games, Leake faced 22 batters in double-play situations.  Only 2 of them obliged.  From that point until mid-July, Leake induced 6 double-play grounders from the 46 double-play opportunities presented him.

In those first six games, Mike threw first-pitch strikes to 59.6% of the batters he faced, saw opposing batters miss on only 11.3% of their swings, while fouling the pitch off with 43.2% of those swings.  In the 13 starts that followed, those percentages were 62.4% first-pitch strikes, 17.1% swings and misses, and 35.9% fouls.  Only 9 of his first 22 strikeouts went down swinging (40.9%), while 39 of his next 65 did (60%).  So as the season progressed Mike was able to get ahead of batters and – most importantly – found a way to get strike three past them rather than having them foul the pitch off.

Significantly, during his struggling start, Leake saw only 13 runs of offensive support (3.41 per 9 innings pitched).  He was supported with 51 runs (5.55 per 9 innings) in those next 13 starts.

All of this mastery came to a clunking end on July 23 at home against the Dodgers.  He lasted 6 innings that night, serving up 7 runs – six earned – on 12 hits.  Four of those hits (including a bunt single from opposing pitcher Kenta Maeda) didn’t make it out of the infield, and three others were grounders that found a hole.  As happened so often during the season, Leake wasn’t so much battered as he was bled to death.  While all the pitchers were victimized by the Cardinals unreliable defense, none of them was probably hurt as much as Leake.

But – as with so many other Cardinals in 2016 – once his streak was broken, Mike Leake never found it again.  This possibly as much as any other development during this disappointing season cost the Cards any significant chance at postseason play.  Player after player – Carpenter, Wainwright, Garcia (both Greg and Jaime), Piscotty, Moss – was unable to rediscover their juice once their streak was ended.

Beginning with that loss to the Dodgers, Leake faded to a 2-5 finish and a 6.03 ERA over his last 11 starts, allowing opposing batters to hit .327 against him.  In 11 of his last 59.2 innings, he allowed more than 2 runs. Twenty-four of the last 67 batters to hit against him with runners in scoring position got hits (.358 average).  Five of those starts came against winning teams.  He was 0-3 in those games with a 6.26 ERA.  (For the season, Leake was 1-8, 4.84 when pitching against teams that finished with at least a .500 record).

Ninety-nine of the last 268 batters he faced saw first-pitch balls.  They went on to hit .432/.480/.716 against Mike.  This average kept rising as the second half wore on: .362 (17 for 47) in July; .389 (14 for 36) in August; and .455 (15 of 33) in September.

Of the last 80 hits he allowed, 10 were infield hits (12.5%) while he got double-plays in only 5 of his last 60 such opportunities (8.3%) although he induced 18 other groundballs in those situations that either crept through the infield and turned into hits or were handled by the infielders who couldn’t turn them into double plays.

Mike Leake is an established veteran whose career suggests that he is a much better pitcher than the Cards saw last year.  There are even advanced statistics (that we won’t delve into here) that suggest that 2016 was actually one of Leake’s best years but he was undone by a defense that couldn’t make routine plays behind him.  Regardless, I expect to see a much better season from Mike in 2017.

But, like too many others on last year’s team, once his groove was broken, he was never able to find it again.  I’m not really sure what causes that or how you fix it, but this will be one of more compelling developments to keep an eye on as the season rolls on.

Matt Carpenter’s Pain is a Pain for All St Louis

With one out in the third inning of the July 6 game against Pittsburgh, Matt Carpenter came to the plate.  He had struck out earlier against Pirate lefty Jeff Locke, but worked the count to 3-1 this time.  He checked his swing on the 3-1 pitch and grabbed at his side.

At that point, all of Cardinal Nation understood what would happen next.  Carpenter would miss the next 25 games nursing an injury to the same muscle group that has him limited so far in Spring Training.

That’s just the way it went last year.  Every time a Cardinal reached for a body part, you knew that would be the last you would see of him for at least a month.

Here, though, was one of the major differences between 2016 and previous Cardinal teams that suffered critical injuries but soldiered on.  As before, the bench did a credible job of holding the fort till Carpenter returned.  But this year Carpenter – and many other injured stars – could never recapture the streak they were in when they went down.  Among the most prominent to have their seasons thus disrupted were Brandon Moss, Matt Adams and especially Carpenter.

At the point of his injury, Carpenter was dominating the majors.  Over the 28 games that began with four hits during a 6-0 conquest of Milwaukee on May 30 and ended with 3 hits in a 4-2 loss to Pittsburgh on July 4, Matt Carpenter achieved 43 hits in 105 at bats that included 13 doubles, 3 triples, 5 home runs, 20 runs-batted-in and 26 walks.  How often over a 131 plate appearance stretch will you see a batting line of .410/.527/.733.

This streak included 26 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.  Carpenter responded with 4 singles, 4 doubles, 1 home run, 7 walks and 13 runs batted in – a .474/.615/.842 batting line.  In 42 plate appearances with any runner on base, Matty produced 6 singles, 6 doubles, 2 triples, 1 home run, 11 walks and 16 runs batted in – a line of .484/.619/.903.  He especially battered right-handers during those games.  His line against them was .427/.547/.773 in 95 plate appearances against them.

Eighteen of those 28 games came against teams that finished the season with at least a .500 record.  Carpenter, in 81 plate appearances in those games, contributed 13 singles, 6 doubles, a triple, 4 home runs, 17 walks and 8 runs batted in.  His line in games against San Francisco, Houston, Texas, the Cubs, Seattle and Kansas City was an impressive .375/.506/.688 (although St Louis lost 11 of the 18 games).

Fourteen of those games also followed Cardinal defeats.  In those 66 plate appearances, Carpenter led the assault with 12 singles, 7 doubles, 1 triple, 3 home runs, 18 walks and 6 runs batted in – a .479/.621/.854 line.

In 32 of those plate appearances (24.4%), Carpenter hit the first strike thrown him.  He had 15 hits (a .469 batting average) which included 3 doubles and 3 home runs (an .844 slugging percentage).  Carpenter swung at the first pitch thrown him only 14 times during that run, finishing with 3 singles, 3 doubles and 2 home runs – a .571 batting average augmented with a 1.214 slugging percentage.

From the seventh-inning on in those 28 games, Carpenter went 16 for 31 with 6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 home runs, 8 walks and 9 runs batted in – an almost impossible late-game batting line of .516/.615/1.032.

In 20 double-play opportunities, Carpenter grounded into 0.

And then – a week before the All-Star Game – he checked his swing and it all went away.

From the point of his return (on August 5) till the end of the season, Carpenter limped down the stretch, hitting just .229 over his last 188 at bats, with 7 home runs and 15 runs batted in – just .212 (28 for 132) against right-handers.  He managed just 4 hits (3 singles and 1 home run) in 35 at bats with runners in scoring position (a .114 average with a .200 slugging percentage).  In his last 19 games against winning teams, Carpenter contributed a disappointing .169 average (13 for 77) with only two of the hits for extra bases – one double and one home run (which accounted for his only RBI in those 19 games).  He hit .233 (21 for 90) after a loss.  His average when hitting the first strike fell to just .196 (10 of 51); and to just .111 (4 singles) in the 31 at bats when he swung at the first pitch.

Exactly what happened is a mystery that will never be revealed.  Was it physical?  Did the back never heal to the point where Carp could let loose and play?  Was is psychological?  Did the injury leave lingering fear and doubt in his mind?  Was it mental?  Did Matt succumb somewhat to the pressure to be another power-hitting presence in the lineup?  There is some statistical evidence to support the latter, but the real answer is probably some combination of all three.

Nonetheless – from a statistical standpoint – he swung more frequently at the first pitch thrown him (17.7% as opposed to 10.7% during the hot streak), swung at more pitches overall (40.8% to 35.2%), missed with a higher percentage of those swings (21.3% to 13.2%), put the ball into play less frequently (39.5% of his swings after putting the ball in play on 45.2% of his swings); took fewer balls (39.2% of the pitches thrown to him were balls as opposed to 42.3% during the streak); and overall saw fewer pitches per plate appearance (4.13 vs 4.27).

A more subtle indicator is the percentage of his strikeouts that came on called strike threes.  During his hot streak, Carpenter struck out 16 times – 6 of them called (37.5%).  Of his last 47 strikeouts, only 9 (19.1%) were called.  When he’s comfortable at the plate, Matt will take a lot of borderline pitches – even with two strikes on him.

Carpenter also hit 11 road home runs in the season’s first half.  He hit only one (and drove in just 2 runs) in 107 at bats and 27 road games after his return.

All of these are characteristics of a hitter becoming more aggressive.  It’s not a style that suits Carpenter.

How worried should we be?  Matt Carpenter is a .284 lifetime hitter over six seasons and 3,016 plate appearances.  Assuming there is no lingering damage (and I’m not entirely sure we can say that at this point) there’s no reason not to think that he will right the ship.  Just add it to the list of frustrating facts about 2016.

Two other lingering Matt Carpenter questions – where will he play? And where will he hit in the lineup?

First base looks like it will be Carpenter’s home for 2017.  First base was one of three positions that Matt made at least 35 starts at last year – second base and third base being the others.  St Louis was 20-15 in Matt’s starts at first, 16-21 when he started at second, and 27-25 when he started at third.  The team ERA was 4.03 in games that Matt started at third, 4.05 in games he started at second and 4.26 when he started at first.

The Cards enter 2017 pretty set up the middle of the infield (Aledmys Diaz at short and Kolten Wong – cross your fingers – at second), but the intrigue centers around the combinations of corner infielders.  Jhonny Peralta probably begins the season at third.  He’s looked much better in spring training.  He’s also in his mid-thirties, and questions about his durability are starting to rise.  He can probably play first if needed.  Jedd Gyorko led the team in home runs last year, but would probably be over-exposed if he played every day.  He can also play first, although he hasn’t looked comfortable there.  Matt Adams may have a higher ceiling than any of them, and is probably the team’s best defensive first baseman.  But he can’t play anywhere but first, has durability questions of his own, and has only hit up to his potential in flashes.

And then there is Carpenter, who can play just about anywhere but isn’t defensively gifted anywhere.  But he is the most established hitter of the group.  This is a situation that will continue to evolve as the season progresses.  Carpenter shouldn’t give away his third baseman’s glove (or his second baseman’s glove either, for that matter).

As to where he will hit, the current mind-set has him batting third in the order, as Dexter Fowler (aka “You Go We Go”) has assumed Carpenter’s lead-off spot.  Matt Carpenter hit leadoff 114 times last year, with the team finishing 57-57 in those games.  He batted second once (a loss) and batted third 10 times last year (with the Cardinals winning 7 of those games).  I have long been an advocate of Carpenter batting lower in the order.  Third will do for a start.

What kind of season Matt Carpenter has will largely answer the puzzle that is the 2017 Cardinals.  A dose of good health would be a good place to start.

Poised for Greatness – Carlos Martinez

Almost forgotten among the myriad might-have-beens from the 2016 season was that annoying respiratory infection that ravaged the club in late April and early May.  Among the prominent victims of the flu was Carlos Martinez.  Looking back on it now, it becomes a very intriguing what-if.

Before there was Alex Reyes, there was Carlos Martinez.  He was the young phenom with the triple-digit running fastball who was going to anchor the rotation for the next decade.  He made 69 minor league starts over parts of 5 different seasons, going 22-15 with a 2.61 ERA and 347 strikeouts in 338 innings.

Making his major league debut at 21, Martinez did promising work out of the bullpen for a couple of seasons before graduating to the rotation in 2015.

As part of that memorable pitching staff, Martinez lived up to every bit of the hype and anticipation – a difficult thing to do.  Right up to the point where an arm injury ended his season on September 25, after 29 starts.  He was 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA at the time.

In 2016, Martinez began to break through.  While the rest of the team mostly stumbled through April, Carlos took the league by storm.  He ran the table in the season’s first month: 4 starts, 4 quality starts; 4-0 record; a 1.93 ERA founded on a .162 batting average against.  He allowed only 16 hits in 28 April innings, and 11 of those were singles.  He finished April with a .253 opponents’ slugging percentage.

But then the illness set in.  Having lost more than ten pounds, Carlos took the mound May 1 against Washington and Max Scherzer.

He started the game as he had all his April starts.  He set down the first 8 batters he faced – four on strikeouts.  Through 5 innings, he had made 63 pitches allowing no runs and just one hit while striking out 6.  But Martinez weakened after that.  He was bled for a run on two hits in the sixth and gave three more in the seventh on back-to-back, first-pitch home runs from Clint Robinson and Danny Espinosa – as many home runs in those two pitches as he had given up in all of April.

That was Sunday afternoon.  The next Friday (May 6), making his scheduled start against Pittsburgh even though he was down at least 15 pounds at the time, Carlos survived just 3.1 innings and 52 pitches before the illness got the better of him.

Carlos’ next start was pushed back a couple of days to Saturday May 14 in Los Angeles where he would pitch against Scott Kazmir and the Dodgers.  Again, Martinez was very good early, taking a 1-1 tie into the bottom of the fifth.  But then a walk to Carl Crawford and a bunt by Kazmir that rolled for a hit, put Carlos in a jam.  Another walk to Chase Utley loaded the bases with no one out and brought rookie shortstop Corey Seager to the plate for one of the most compelling at bats of the season.

Martinez began with a 99-mph fastball over the inside half for strike one, but the next 99-mph fastball sailed high.  With the count 1-1 and the bases loaded in a tie game, Martinez blazed two more fastballs at 99 and 101 miles per hour right over the outside corner of the strike zone.  But Seager fouled both of them.  He then took a ball to even the count before Martinez caught too much of the plate with a 91-mph fastball that Seager bounced into right for the hit that put the Dodgers ahead.  A fly ball and a groundout added two more runs, and Martinez was on his way to his third consecutive defeat.

This is another one of those moments that served as a kind of microcosm of the season.  For six pitches that Saturday evening, Corey Seager was mentally tougher than Carlos.  He did just enough – fouling off perhaps the two best fastballs Martinez threw all night – until he got a pitch he could handle and didn’t try to do too much with it.  It was a textbook at bat.  It did help, I think, that Martinez threw him all fastballs.

Some of these were issues that plagued Carlos for the whole season.  He made 14 starts against winning teams last year, and, although he held them to just a .223 batting average over 87.2 innings, his record was still just 5-5 against them with a 3.29 ERA.  Through the first four innings last year, Martinez fashioned a 2.63 ERA, holding batters to a .200/.295/.289 batting line.  From the fifth inning on, his ERA rose to 3.75 with a .285/.334/.401 batting line.  In the sixth and seventh innings, Martinez faded to 4.54 and .309/.365/.454.

An area of growth that I hope to see in Carlos Martinez 2017 is an improved ability to stay mentally tough both later in games and against the tougher opponents.

Mostly recovered now, Carols continued to search for his early season form.  He lasted just five innings against Arizona on May 20 absorbing another loss as he served up 4 runs on 7 hits and 3 walks.  He lost again to the Cubs on May 25, lasting just 5 more innings while allowing 6 runs on 6 hits and 3 more walks.

Carlos Martinez is a fiery, emotional pitcher.  This can be a double-edged sword, as his high highs can sometimes be offset by low lows.  I think that’s what happened to him through this grueling stretch of May.  He carried the frustration of the previous start – a little bit, anyway – into his next start.

All things considered, it was about as bad as you could possibly imagine Carols being over a five-game stretch.  He finished that stretch with no quality starts, an 0-5 record, and a 6.84 ERA with a .292 batting average against.  The skid included a .478 batting average against (11 for 23) with runners in scoring position.

On the next to last day in May of 2016, dominant Carlos returned to the mound.  Finding a good rhythm and re-discovering his confidence, Carlos Martinez landed on the Milwaukee Brewers that day, pitching 8 shutout innings during which he struck out 8 and allowed just five singles and one walk.

This would basically be the Carlos Martinez we would see for the rest of the year.  Over his last 22 starts, he would throw 16 quality starts and fashion a 12-4 record with a 2.59 ERA.  From May 30 to the end of the season, the batting line against Martinez was .236/.310/.333.  Remove the first 5 games in May from his season, and Martinez’ record would read 20 quality starts in 26 outings, a 16-4 record, a 2.48 ERA with a .225/.298/.320 batting line against over the course of 170.1 innings.  Moreover, the last 131 batters to face Carlos with runners in scoring position finished with a meek .202 batting average.  These are ace-like numbers.

He threw 1,458 of his last 2,225 pitches for strikes (65.5%).  After batters swung at his first pitch only 24.8% of the time during his 5-game losing streak, they swung at 31.1% of them thereafter.  Of the 22 batters he struck out during the losing streak, only 5 (22.7%) took called third strikes.  Of his last 132 strikeouts, 48 (36.4%) were called third strikes.  What these two numbers suggest is a confident pitcher who challenged batters early in the count, but was able to put them away with breaking pitches late in the count.

There was something of an evolution in Carlos as the season progressed.  Sometime after that Dodger came, he became less the pitcher who would bring only fastballs when faced with tight situations, and more the pitcher who trusted all his pitches in any situation.

Carlos Martinez wants to be a great pitcher.  He doesn’t want to be remembered as a pretty good guy on a bunch of fairly decent teams.  Carlos wants to carve himself a place in baseball history.  He has the stuff and the competitive nature to make that happen.  That next step, though, is the mental step – that mixture of poise and preparation that separates the great players from the good.

But, while Cardinal Nation is watching for him to take that next step in 2017, we will first have to hold our breaths during the World Baseball thing that they play every four years.  As you know, Carlos is the ace of the Dominican Republic staff and threw four innings in their first game – firing two pitches over 100 miles-per-hour in the game.  I’m no big fan of the World Baseball thing – especially when it involves Cardinal pitchers.  The temptation is too great for them to do too much too soon.  I think every year these are held, some team’s season is compromised when some pitcher over-extends in this competition.  Passionate player that he is, Martinez is a candidate for a calamity of this type.

If he doesn’t damage himself over the next several weeks, the development of Carlos Martinez into one of baseball’s elite pitchers will be one of the compelling stories to follow during the 2017 season.

What Can Yadier Molina Do For an Encore?

By the time the 2015 season had ended, it was hard to call it a disappointing one for the franchise’s finest catcher.  Battling a partially rehabilitated thumb, Yadier Molina nonetheless finished the season hitting .270 (his lowest average since he hit .262 in 2010), his walks were up to 32, and he hit 2 triples in the same season for the first time in his career.  Even so, he wasn’t the same.  His 34 runs scored were his fewest since he scored 34 back in 2010.  His 4 home runs were the fewest since he hit 2 in just 51 games in his rookie season, and he set a career high for strikeouts with 59.

Now 33-years-old as he approached the 2016 season, the feeling around the Cardinal camp was that Yadi’s workload would need to be pared back in the hopes that he would not wear down as the season progressed – and let’s remember that he did fade noticeably in 2015.  After hitting .284/.323/.358 in the first half, Yadi contributed just a .249/.290/.339 line after the All-Star break.  This included a dismal .152/.231/.174 line in 46 September at bats.

And, after a strong April, Yadi began fading again.  On the heels of an April where he hit .341/.426/.451, Molina tumbled badly through the months of May and June.  In 180 at bats in 51 games over those two months, Yadi managed 40 hits (a .222 average), of which only 9 went for extra-bases (8 doubles and 1 home run).  He drove in 16 runs over those two months combined and slugged just .283.  Asked at that moment, most Cardinal fans would have probably conceded that we were witnessing the twilight of Yadier Molina’s storied career.

If anyone had predicted at that point that Yadier Molina would end the season setting career highs in games played (147), plate appearances (581), at bats (534), and hits (164) while batting .307 for the season while scoring more runs (56) and hitting more doubles (38) and home runs (8) in any season since 2013, one would have dismissed it as crazy talk.  And yet, the more he played the better he got (in spite of what I thought at the time).

After reaching the All-Star break with a very soft .259 average (75 for 290 with only 2 home runs), Yadi would hit .365 from that point on (89 for 244) with 6 home runs and 30 RBIs while playing (and starting) 65 of the Cardinals last 74 games.  He started 27 of the 30 September games and hit an impossible .388 with 3 home runs and 17 runs batted in in that month alone (remember he had 16 combined for May and June).  He finished off his best season in years by starting 15 of the last 16 games and hitting .463 (25 for 54).

I understand the plan for 2017 is to let him play as much as possible.

Yadi’s 2016 season included a number of impressive situational highlights.  A listing of a few of them follows:

Yadi’s miracle September included going 7 for 16 (.438) with runners in scoring position.  He finished the second half of the season at .333 (13 for 39) in that situation – pushing him to a .308 season average (32 for 104) with runners in scoring position.

He also finished the year as the team’s best two-strike hitter – hitting an impressive .275 (64 for 233) in those at bats.  This included going 31 for 103 (a remarkable .301) after the All-Star break when hitting in two-strike counts.

From the seventh-inning on, Molina hit .365 (61 for 167) with 22 runs batted in.

Perhaps the most impossible number left behind in Yadi’s miracle season was his unbelievable effectiveness when hitting with two outs.  In 167 two-out plate appearances, Yadi hit .352, driving in 19 runs.  He hit .411 with two-out throughout the season’s second half (23 for 56), and topped off the season going 13 for 22 (a .591 clip) in September when batting with two out.

Most of the Cardinals will approach 2017 trying to rebound from mostly disappointing 2016 seasons.  Yadier Molina is one of the few Cardinals who will be tasked with living up to the excellence of his 2016 season.

My feelings – here at the threshold of the 2017 season – is that Yadi learned a lot about himself during that 2015 season.  Yes, there was the thumb issue.  But I also think 2015 caught him by surprise.  When he was younger, the rigors of catching 136 or so games wasn’t a limiting issue.  But the landscape changes for a catcher as he passes through his early thirties.

I don’t believe that the strong finish to 2016 was at all accidental.  I believe Yadier Molina had been planning that kind of finish since the disappointing end of the 2015 season.  Whether or not he can repeat last season will be one of the compelling stories of 2017.

Adam Wainwright Looks for Better in 2017

We’re back.

Looking back on the 2016 season has forced me to relive some of the more galling moments of that season.

Most of those moments are associated with losses (Kolten Wong standing at third with nobody out and never scoring the tying run, for example).

Curiously enough – or maybe not, considering how strange the 2016 season was – one of the moments that most haunts me set up one of the signature wins of that campaign.  I’ve written about it several times before.  This is, I promise you, the last time I will bring up July 27.

Adam Wainwright, back in the rotation after missing almost all of 2015, was unsteady from the very beginning.  Eight starts into his season, Adam is 3-3, but only four of the eight starts are quality starts – and all of those met the bare minimum to be called quality starts (6 innings, 3 earned runs) – well, in his seventh start he actually made it to 6.1 innings, but you get the point.  His ERA sat at 6.80 – the highest on the team – and he had been hit at a .330 rate – allowing 59 hits in 45 innings.  During those 45 innings, Adam only pitched with a lead in 10.1 of them – mostly because he couldn’t hold the leads he was given.

This would be a season-long problem for Wainwright.  For the season, batters hit .344/.379/.595 when Adam was trying to hold a lead.  Thirteen of the 22 home runs he served up came among the 78 hits he allowed in the 53.1 innings last season when he pitched with a lead.  His ERA in those innings was 6.92.

In his first 8 games, it was a stunning 11.32.  He faced 53 batters while holding a lead in those games.  Those batters hit .408/.442/.735 against him.  This eighth start came on May 12 in Los Angeles.  Adam lasted five innings in that game, giving 7 runs on 11 hits, but got credit for the 12-10 victory that swept their series against the Angels.

His season began to turn the next time he went to the mound.  On May 18 he threw 6.2 scoreless innings in a 2-0 victory over Colorado.  That began a string of 10 quality starts over his next 12 appearances.  Over his next 80.1 innings, Adam went 6-2 with a 2.58 ERA that was backed by a .232/.283/.317 batting line against.

This streak should have run to 11 quality starts in 13 games with Adam’s July 27 appearance against the Mets in New York.  After 6 crisply pitched innings, Wainwright had thrown 86 pitches – 54 for strikes.  He had scattered 8 hits (2 of them infield hits) and held a 3-1 lead.  He got into immediate trouble in the seventh, allowing singles to the first two batters.  With his pitch count now at 96, Matheny probably could have gone to his bullpen.  But he didn’t.

Pitching on fumes, Wainwright struck out both Curtis Granderson and Asdrubal Cabrera.  He now had two outs, but at the cost of 12 more pitches.  With the count now at 108 pitches, and no relief in sight, Adam dueled Met slugger Yoenis Cespedes for nine grueling pitches.  Adam wild pitched one run home on the fifth pitch of that at bat.  On the ninth pitch, Adam’s 117th and final pitch of the night, Cespedes drove in that other runner (and himself, too) with a big fly over the left-center field wall.

The 4-3 Met lead wouldn’t last.  RBI doubles by Yadier Molina and Kolten Wong brought the Cardinals one of their highlight-reel wins of the season.  But Wainwright was never the same thereafter.  Wainwright would make 12 more starts in 2016, but only 4 would be quality starts.  Over the course of his last 66.2 innings, Adam was tagged for 46 runs (41 of them earned) and 82 hits.  He limped home with a 4-4 record and a 5.54 ERA over those games, while opposing hitters profited against him to the tune of a .308/.370/.534 batting line.

Adam Wainwright will turn 36 at the end of August of this year.  There are a lot of things that could account for Adam’s disappointing finish that have nothing to do with age.  He had missed most of the previous season with a serious ankle injury.  Perhaps fatigue set in as his legs weren’t prepared for the long season ahead.  Perhaps, favoring his injured ankle, Adam subconsciously altered his delivery, subtly affecting his command.  Adam – a contact pitcher – certainly suffered from the Cardinals’ frequently shaky defense.  Perhaps with a stronger defense around him?

And, of course, sometimes when you are 35 years old, age begins to catch up to you.

Whatever the reason, Adam hits Spring Training with more to prove than at any time in his career.  When you are an older player and coming off a bad year, fair or not, there are going to be whispers.  Adam’s challenge this season – and probably for the rest of his career – will be to silence those whispers.