Small Sample? Enough Already With That. The 2017 Cardinals Are Looking Like the 2016 Team

I’m burned out on the overused term “small sample.” A million writers and bloggers out there feel obligated to throw “small sample” into everything they write, as if we think the readers are dumb and can’t understand that 500 plate appearances are a helluva lot more meaningful than 50 plate appearances when we evaluate a hitter’s performance.

Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny

Look, I’m guilty of doing this too. Of course, when a baseball team has played only eight games, all of their numbers are “small samples.”

I’m tired of writing those two words. And tired of reading those two words when others write them.

My “small sample” rant isn’t random. I say this because I don’t think we need to use the term when discussing the Cardinals these days. They’re off to a 2-6 start in the new season. They have lost six of their last seven, getting stomped and outscored 40-14 in their six defeats. They are playing bad baseball. They’ve been lousy in virtually every area.

STL hitters are batting .218 with a .626 OPS that ranks 25th among the 30 teams. Their weighted runs created plus, or wRC+, is a pitiful 69 — or 31 percent below league average. The Cards are tied for 23rd with an average of 3.5 runs per game. Their team ERA of 5.40 is tied for the worst in the majors.

Despite the organization’s  “Make the Defense Great Again!” offseason initiative, the early ’17 Cardinals are just as messy and stuck in a haze of airhead fundamentals. Only eight games in, the Cards already have been assessed with five unearned runs; only one team has given up more. The Cardinals rank 26th in defensive efficiency … the same as last season.

The one first-week positive, the rotation, is flashing yellow lights. Cardinals’ starters had a 1.71 ERA in the first turn through; in the last three games starters have been ripped for 14 runs in 14 innings. And as a whole, the bullpen is an early-season disaster with an MLB-worst 8.14 ERA.

Wait! This means nothing. These are (here we go again)  SMALL SAMPLE SIZES!

Damn right they’re small sample sizes.

But in this instance I don’t care about that. I don’t care because this is nothing new.

As I said on Tuesday’s radio show, the baseball being played by the 2017 Cardinals in the first two weeks looks a lot like the baseball they played in 2016 … well, minus the home-run power, and robust run-scoring production.

At some point we have to stop with the “small sample” qualifier and look at a wider view…

The Cardinals weren’t a good team last year.

They don’t appear to be a good team this year.

That isn’t a “small sample.”

Unless something changes dramatically, and soon, that’s the reality.

If 2017 is similar to 2016, then this is a continuation of the same old, same old.

And that’s a problem.

Yes, I think the 2017 Cardinals will get better.

But how much better?

Since the start of the 2016 season, the Cardinals’ 88-82 record, a .518 winning percentage, ranks 13th in MLB and 6th in the National League. Close the gap on the Cubs? Please. Stop it. The Cubs are 21.5 games better than the Cardinals over the last two seasons. Since the autumn of 2015, the Cubs have won 15 postseason games to the Cardinals’ one.

We can continue to cling to The Cardinal Way, and how manager Mike Matheny and his team  tied with Washington for the most regular-season wins in the majors since 2015. We can sit here and repeat all of that, and sound like the folks who can’t break from the olden days, reminiscing about 1967, or 1982. The 2012-2015 Cardinals are history. They are irrelevant in assessing the performance of this franchise since the beginning of ’16.

And we can taunt the Cubs and their fans and their 2016 World Series banner by pointing to the 11 World Series championship markers on display at Busch Stadium.

We can brag about history and take comfort in the glorious past.

Swell. But right now … in the present … and acknowledging that last season’ flaws still seem to be there…

The Cardinals have fallen into mediocrity, and can’t get up.

You hope they’ll play better ball than this  — and I think they will — but I don’t think we can bank on it.

Having the 13th-best record in baseball since the start of 2016 is nothing to brag about. It doesn’t mean the Cardinals are bums, or that the team is among the worst in the industry, or that the organization is fading into darkness, or that we should lock the doors and stock up on non-perishable items in preparation for a long, miserable sequence of losing seasons. It isn’t that severe. But there’s no reason to gloss over this either.

We must ponder these pertinent questions:

1. Does this team have enough good players to maintain the organization’s high standards for success?

2. Has GM John Mozeliak been aggressive enough in attempts to upgrade the roster?

3. The Cardinals have an attractive supply of pitching prospects, but how many will reach the majors and become elite, or at least above-average, MLB pitchers? Pitchers break, you know. See: Alex Reyes.

4. While I respect and applaud the Cardinals’ investment in the international amateur market, how many signings will eventually pay off? Can we count on this?

5. Do the Cardinals have elite position-player talent in the pipeline? They have talent, yes. But again, I’m talking about franchise-core talent that you build around … the kind of position-player talent that can drive this team to sustained success in the future.

6. Do the Cardinals have a franchise-cornerstone hitter that can carry the team, generate fear in opponents, and motivate managers to order his pitchers to work around the danger? The Cardinals have some good hitters, sure. But let’s be honest here: do they scare anyone?

7. If the answer to the above question is “No,” … then where will this intimidating, menacing, lineup-lifting hitter come from? Some laughed when a few of us renegade media types encouraged the Cardinals to sign Edwin Encarnacion. Defensively, he wasn’t an ideal fit. (On the other hand, despite the incessant lip service, defense isn’t a priority for this manager.) I would also point out that Encarnacion is off to a slow start in Cleveland. And we cannot assume he wanted to play here. But Encarnacion is a bonafide slugger and producer. For the second year in a row, the Cardinals are relatively poor impact from their cleanup spot. At some point, they have to make a big, bold move for a big, bold hitter.

8. Now in his sixth season, and hardly a novice, is Matheny getting better or worse in his game management, tactical knowledge, and leadership?

9. Does a franchise valued at $1.8 billion dollars by Forbes (7th in MLB) and operating income of $40.5 million invest enough in payroll? According to Forbes, the Cardinals’ $150.4 million payroll ranks 13th in the majors … last season the Cards were 11th in payroll size. And remember, that $1 billion TV deal with Fox Sports kicks in next year.

10. If the 2017 Cardinals stagger to another also-ran finish, and get humiliated again by the Cubs, will attendance begin to fall? Media cheerleading can only go so far. It was interesting to take note of the reduced crowd sizes at Busch Stadium late last season, with the team locked into a close NL wild-card race.

Small sample, medium sample, large sample, any size of sample.

Whatever.

Ugly baseball is ugly baseball no matter how you prefer to slice it up.

Thanks for reading …

Bernie 

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