Survival of the Fittest: September Baseball
Every baseball team goes through a pressure cooker during a season and finds themselves resorting back to their original strengths. The evolution of a 162 game season shares its own blend of rewards and risks for any given team. When I think of a team in September, I think of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Over 30 teams play competitive baseball for the first 5 months before September arrives and an outline takes shape. By no means is a stone pencil used to craft a playoff schedule, but as September rolls around the weak are shoved to the side and the strongest carry on. Sometimes, the best team with shiniest resume on paper falls off to the side while other slightly weaker teams overachieve and blend together for great baseball. Every September carries a different trait for each team and for the St. Louis Cardinals the past few seasons it’s all about survival. Staying alive long enough to win the opportunity to play meaningful October baseball. 5 months of climbing and you jump off the ladder into a coliseum where other teams fight for their spot. Darwin’s idea was the strongest will survive and that applies directly to baseball because the season is long, the fights are many and the endurance is key. What happens to the Cardinals this month? Do we fall to the side while a weaker injury deprived team like the Reds runs past? Do the jump start Pirates, full of waiver wire moves and added power, throw us to the ground? Or do we rise up, smack them down and remind the teams of their place in The NL Central. The Cards are gunning for a division title, something they haven’t won in 4 years. They have been wild card bunnies for their two miraculous runs in 2011 and 2012. They have done things the hardest way possible and made their fans sweat. What route do they take in 2013? The wild card format is trickier because getting a spot there doesn’t ensure a series. You have to hope and pray all the baseball gods are aligned in your favor and support you in ONE GAME. Remember the Atlanta game a year ago? The Kozma Infield Fly drop, the Medlen start, the Braves near comeback which was cut short by a Motte heater settled in the stomach like a great bowl of chili. I would prefer to not go through that again. The Cardinals are good enough to win the division and I am going to present and answer 6 questions. I’ve debated how I could write this playoff bound run launching pad blog for 2 days now and decided to throw popular questions to the walls and have my opinion swat them away. Let’s go.
What is wrong with the big and strong Adam Wainwright?
For the first time in years, I threw my head into sabermetrics and looked for reasons that could describe the second half of Adam Wainwright’s season. He is a big and strong(Waino’s words and he is right) pitcher who three weeks ago was putting together a Cy Young caliber season but suddenly hit a rut. His pitches seemed to be more hittable. His curve or spun out of the zone. His cutter didn’t do much cutting at all. His sinker was smash appropriate. His changeup wasn’t effective. Take away his heroic start against Atlanta where he threw 128 pitches and a complete game and much of August and part of July is troubling for the ace of our staff. People react so indifferently to an attack on Waino. It’s like we should shake off his consistently trivial outings and carry on like nothing is happening to the most important pitcher on our staff. It’s worth an investigation if you truly care and want to see if this is second half exhaustion, a tipping pitches case or general failure to get outs. Let’s take a look.
First, the more general look at his basic stats. His last 10 starts give a lot of answers. When Waino was attacked by the Reds at Busch last week, I thought back to the last time he was hit so hard and so early at home and it came on July 14th against the Cubs where he gave up 4 first inning runs before recovering and pitching 6 innings. Including that start, since the All Star Break, Wainwright is 3-4 with a 4.91 ERA. He has walked 15 batters in his last 10 starts. He walked a total of 14 in his first 19 starts. He has allowed 4 earned runs or more in 4 of those starts. He hasn’t pitched horrible in every outing. He pitched good enough to win in Atlanta and at home against the Dodgers. He was rocked by Pittsburgh in that horrible series a month ago. He avenged the losses to CHI and ATL in back to back starts at Wrigley on 8/18 and at home on 8/23. Then came the Reds starts. In his last two outings spanning 8 innings, Waino was been hammered for 15 runs, 17 hits, 4 BB and only 5 K. In every start since the break but the 7/14 outing against the Cubs, Waino had struck out 5 or more batters. This past week, he isn’t getting strikeouts and when he does they come after the majority of the runs have scored and the opposing lineup is more relaxed. Waino is giving up more home runs in the second half. After allowing only 4 HR in the first three months of the season, Waino has allowed 9 in the past 2 months. His ERA for the month of August alone was 4.78, helped by the 9 earned runs to the Reds last Wednesday. It’s easy to say Waino hasn’t been the same pitcher he was in the first half and his ability to get back to that form or not may determine if this team can stand tall at the end of the season. Okay, here’s a deeper breakdown of Waino’s pitches.
Via the elaborate and detailed site Brooks Baseball, Waino is getting torched by lefthanded batters since July 14th as well. His Whiff percentage is way down and his line drive rate is up. His curve is still effective against righthanded hitters but the lefties are starting time it bash it. The swing and miss rate on his curve is down in the past 2 months. Looking at the batting average against his individual pitches, the curve is still his best pitch with a .219 average. The cutter has been raked for 5 home runs in his last 10 starts and his sinker is allowing a .350 average. His four seam fastball isn’t getting torn up but has allowed 5 walks. His changeup produces hits when its put in play. Once hitters put the ball in play, the average jumps up for the curveball. Waino has 32 K’s from his curve but once its put into play or hung, it usually produces a hit with a .375 average.
Conclusion-Whether it’s the pitch counts or general fatigue, decent lefthanded hitters are timing Waino’s secondary pitches, jumping on his first pitch fast ball or waiting for a hanging curve and doing damage. Overall, he is getting figured out more often than not. Does this go away with more video or prep? No. Waino will have to get out on that mound and be more effective. He is a professional and a rotation ace. He is a Cy Young caliber pitcher who is still 15-9 with a 3.14 ERA(jumped from 2.68 in past two starts) with an outstanding K/BB of 182-29 and a WHIP of 1.09. However, are the 5 complete games coming back to haunt out pitcher? Lot of pitches for an arm to throw and we all know Waino’s intensity is off the charts in any start. Yesterday, you could see a Carpenter like menace on the mound and on the base paths. He is furious and should be. Does he need to skip a start? Yes and no. He starts against the Pirates on Saturday at home. This is a game which will hold some answers. The past two starts can be chalked up as the Reds having Carp’s number. The sandbox of Great American Ballpark fools many hitters. At home, in the confines of Busch against a newly empowered Pirates lineup, the tests will come hard and fast for Waino. Next week, he faces the Seattle Mariners at home, a severely weak hitting team that will show if Waino’s struggles are fully grown or only come against superior hitting. If Brendan Ryan takes our ace deep, it’s time to panic. Until then, hold up and relax. Waino is getting beaten up as our most of the Cardinals starters in the past month. Stay the course and keep an eye on him but don’t deem him dead armed just yet. The Friday start against Atlanta can’t be forgotten, even if it came against a team without two of its best hitters. Waino needs a game to settle the score for himself and at home on Saturday could be it. Next question…(promise with less words)
Is Matt Holliday finally turning it on?
Yes sir. This isn’t unusual. Holliday is a strong finisher and always rakes in the last two months of the season. Slowly but surely, his stats are climbing. In his last 10 games, Holliday’s white hot bat has slightly cooled but still saw his BA climb from .284 to .287. He has 18 HR and 74 RBI and his on base percentage is a robust .368. He also hits very well against the Reds and Pirates, which is great because there are six games left against them this month. Holliday isn’t having a great season but with 25 games left in the season(yes that’s all folks) he has a chance to at least hit .300, hit 25 HR, and drive in 90-95 runners. We may call it a down year in the end but as long as he gets hits when we need it and has a great postseason, Holliday’s regular season stats can be taken with a grain of salt. Unlike most high paid players, Holliday’s actually hustles too. Small bonus point. One thing I have noticed lately is Holliday’s double plays have went down in the past 2 weeks.
How much longer can Matheny stay with Lance Lynn?
Not much longer with newly arrived Memphis hands like Tyler Lyons and Carlos Martinez arriving today. Lynn has been torched himself for a 4.57 second half earned run average and he had a terrible August. In his 10 starts, dating back to July 13th, Lynn is 2-6 with a 5.46 ERA and given up 69 hits in just over 59 innings. He has walked 25 batters to 45 strikeouts over that time period. His ERA has jumped to 4.29. He hasn’t been given much run support the past 3 starts which may be revealing his Achilles heel. A pitcher who has gotten an average of 6.1 runs per start all season shouldn’t have a 4.29 ERA. Lynn’s worse trait is his two cent heat. He comes undone easily in innings and recently, his bad starts are defined by one horrible inning. In a nutshell, Lynn is amazing in April and May but the wheels start to get loose in June and they come off in August. Two years in a row. Lynn has 13 wins but a lot of those victories are supported by a big offense. Remember the game in Miami where a horrible Marlins team tore him up for 6 runs but he got the win because we scored 13 runs. Lynn can put together a great start, like he did on August 4th against Cincinnati where he pitched 8 innings, struck out 11, walked 2 and only allowed 2 runs on 4 hits. He strikes out a lot of hitters with that four seam fastball but he gets burned when he doesn’t trust his secondary pitches. His pitching motion and mechanics can uncork themselves in an inning if things go wrong. He is talented but mentally short circuited like fellow Cardinal Jaime Garcia. This can’t be taught or fixed by anyone other than Lynn. Chris Carpenter can put Lynn through angry pitcher boot camp and still do little to help. In my eyes, Lynn is trade bait because he has a shiny record covered up by a huge win total but when examined further reveals cracks in his facade. If you want a first half chief, go for Lance. As a 32 start pitcher, he is only a decent 3rd or 4th starter. If he erupts in Cincinnati this week(remember the great outing a month ago), Mike Matheny has to think about plugging in Lyons or Martinez. Sure, we didn’t envision winning the division without Carpenter, Garcia, Lynn and Westbrook not in the rotation but in 2002 we used 14 starters and went to the NLCS. Go with the fresh arm and the better choice. Speaking of moves made for the right reasons, how about Joe Kelly?
Will Joe Kelly be broken?
Looking at his sabermetrics(which I don’t have to present), a man can be perplexed by his greatness. In 10 starts since July 6th, Kelly is 7-0 with a 2.16 ERA. He has walked 25 batters in those 10 starts with only 34 strikeouts. He rarely produces more than 6 innings per start. He has allowed 53 hits in 58 innings in those 10 starts. However, Kelly’s genius lies in his ability to pitch out of jams. When runners get on base and things get murky, Kelly buckles down. Like Allen Craig with runners in scoring position, Kelly gets deadly the noisiest moments and saves his best pitches for the toughest spots. You can’t teach that. Without Kelly, the Cards would obviously be short 7 wins but more importantly, a lot of losing streaks would have continued. Kelly stopped another one on Sunday at Pittsburgh. He threw 6 innings and shut down the Pirates after they decimated Shelby Miller and Lynn on Friday and Saturday. Facing the same lineup, and getting a few good bounces, Kelly shut down the Bucs and salvaged a win and helped the Cards survive. That is what Kelly does. He is that cold can of Budweiser Select that gives you the perfect feeling after a long day. Sure, it’s not as tasty as a honey wheat or thick stout but it quenches your needs and delivers the goods as expected. Joe Kelly is the second half MVP and the only way that is possible is if his manager finally decides to throw him the keys to a spot in the rotation. I don’t see Kelly breaking down because he knows how to pitch and get key outs. He won’t make it look pretty but I expect Kelly to continue to pitch well because of his strong mental makeup.
Who am I most excited about out of the September callups?
I want to see what Carlos Martinez can do but feel like he has been short circuited in a way with his up and down status all year long. Martinez has a great talent but hasn’t been given the opportunity to get comfortable. Lyons, Brock Petersen and Keith Butler will all provide a boost and Kolten Wong is an exciting guy once he gets more at bats but the guy I want to see play is Ryan Jackson at shortstop. I didn’t think I’d be saying that name in the same sentence as “most excited” but with the need for a boost from the SS position at the moment, Jackson is the guy. I assumed Oscar Taveras would consume all the excitement but he recovering from ankle surgery. Say what you want about Jackson’s quick 2012 appearance but he deserves the opportunity to turn the #8 spot in the Cards order into an interesting at bat. His defense is solid and his bat can only be better than the bench deprived Pete Kozma. RJ deserves a full audition to see if he can spark this lineup that sputters with Kozma in the lineup. Pete is as automatic of an out as the pitcher in the past month so its important to find a better player to pair up with Daniel Descalso. Do you DFA Kozma? I don’t think so and have definite proof that Matheny wouldn’t pull that trigger but a change is needed. You can’t go into a September push with that weak of a hitter in your lineup. Especially if you have a RF in Beltran with a weak back and Yadi with a weak knee. I would like to see Greg Garcia get rewarded for his strong Memphis season and he can also play shortstop. I want a solution at SS soon.
Who is the unsung hero the 2013 season?
Seth Maness, Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Edward Mujica and Kelly don’t count. Why? They aren’t “unsung” heroes. Writers, bloggers, fans, and the media have done quite a bit of singing about them. For example, read my above section on Kelly and the 9,000 other blogs on the other 4 redbirds. They are great but the man I am looking right now is Shane Robinson. A utility outfielder who was never more than a pinch runner or 5th outfielder on previous Cardinal teams but this year has taken his game up a notch. His defense in the outfield is very good. He goes back on balls well and has good range. He has a decent arm that doesn’t make stupid throws to home plate that involve 6 bounces(hello Jon Jay). Robinson has been stronger at the plate as well, hitting .282. He only has 103 at bats but that just goes to show you how effective is when called upon. It’s not easy sitting on the bench and suddenly being called upon to contribute. Robinson hit .252 last year with 166 at bats. His average is up this year and his on base percentage is .398. He has 22 walks to only 13 strikeouts. He knows how to work a count. He is the unlikely strong candidate to get that spot start in CF or RF and produce with it. Descalso is a unsung hero candidate to a certain degree but plenty of people appreciate his production and versatility. Robinson doesn’t get enough credit for his utility work especially because it’s more sparse than DD.
That’s all I got. I could spend time telling you David Freese needs to get less starts at 3B because he isn’t getting big hits anymore while hitting .235 in his last 10 starts and his defense is unraveling. I could tell you Kevin Siegrist is as untouchable as Trevor Rosenthal in trade talks. I could tell you losing Michael Blazek in the Axford trade isn’t surprising because the cost to do business in 2013 is very high, especially for a Cards team with a stack of MLB ready prospects. I could tell you to hang tough and keep your head up as the Cards rock our internal structure and raise our blood pressure but you know that. I could tell you baseball is hard to watch because it’s slow, articulate and stressful but that is what makes it great. I will say this. The strongest teams with the will to finish what they started in April are the ones worth being scared of in October. The Cards are strong. The question is…are they strong enough? 25 games to go. 6 more against the Reds and Pirates. Two words. Go Cards!
Thanks for digesting this latest dose of Buffa and come back next time.