The Cardinals lineup has been an enigma all season long; inconsistent at best. This deep into the season it’s pretty clear these problems stem from both the talent that’s been assembled AND the way their manager uses them.
First, let’s get right to the basics. The Cardinals rank 11th of 15 National League teams in runs scored after their series loss in Milwaukee. That’s the bottom 3rd of the NL in runs scored. I don’t know about you but when you’re in the bottom 3rd in anything it can’t be good.
They’re also just 11th home runs and 10th in OPS.
Certainly a lot of this has to do with players the team was counting on not living up to expectations. The biggest culprits: Aledmys Diaz (.879 –>.688), Randal Grichuk (.769 –>.723) and Stephen Piscotty (.800 –>.707). The number on the left is each player’s OPS from 2016, the number on the right is this year’s OPS. So you can see, those are pretty significant declines.
The thing is, where those guys have faltered a couple of other guys – Paul DeJong and Tommy Pham – have far outproduced anything that could have been expected. Heck, not only have they produced more than you would have expected from them, they’ve produced more than you would have expected from the group of Diaz, Piscotty and Grichuk too.
Still, that’s not been enough for them to recover even with solid seasons from Jedd Gyorko and Kolten Wong plus decent years from Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler. Obviously “decent” hasn’t been good enough. The Cardinals were counting on Carpenter hitting like an All-Star and solidifying the middle of the order, which clearly didn’t happen.
So you have this mish-mosh of underperformers, overperformers and guys who have been okay but not great. Clearly they don’t have the big boppers most contenders have, which is why I’ve spent so much time on-air and in this space talking about potential targets for the middle of the order, but you only have what you have. That means HOW you use players can be as important as who you use.
The Cardinals lineup construction just hasn’t made much sense this season and that is on the manager.
Take a look at the OPS the Cardinals have produced from each spot in the order and where that ranks in the NL:
1) .789 (4th)
2) .764 (10th)
3) .698 (15th)
4) .752 (10th)
5) .705 (14th)
6) .730 (10th)
7) .786 (4th)
8) .836 (1st)
It should take long for you to realize what is wrong with that picture. The Cardinals most productive lineup spot has been the 8-hole and the guys who have hit there the most are Wong, Grichuk, DeJong and Greg Garcia. The leadoff spot is fine as the second most productive spot, we can get with that, but the 3rd most productive spot has been the 7-hole and that’s been primarily occupied by Wong, Grichuk and DeJong with Wong and DeJong doing the most damage.
The 2-6 spots are an absolute mess largely because the manager was too slow to adjust when guys struggled. Diaz had 103 AB in the 2-hole this year even though he didn’t produce. Diaz also has the most AB’s of anyone in the 6-hole. Piscotty had 117 AB in the 3-hole despite his season-long struggles. Molina is having a solid season but his production does not match that of the league-average production for the 5-hole.
By the way, here is what the NL averages are for each spot in the order and in parentheses that lineup spot’s rank compared to the other spots:
1) .749 (6)
2) .800 (3)
3) .842 (1)
4) .810 (2)
5) .787 (4)
6) .760 (5)
7) .734 (7)
8) .722 (8)
So you can see, on average in the National League the vast majority of all production comes from the 2-3-4-5-6 spots. That’s a problem when the league gets most of its production from the middle while the Cardinals get most of theirs from the 8-9-1 spots.
Lineup conversations can be tedious but when it’s so patently obvious that the Cardinals lineup strategy looks more like a combination of wishful thinking and deference to veteran players than actual strategy, you have to have the conversation. What would the Cardinals best lineup look like?
How about we put together a lineup based on how the league looks?
1) Fowler (6th best OPS on team)
2) Carpenter (3rd best OPS on team)
3) Pham (best OPS on team)
4) DeJong (2nd best OPS on team)
5) Gyorko (4th best OPS on team)
6) Wong (5th best OPS on team)
7) Molina (7th best OPS on team)
8) Grichuk/Piscotty (8th best OPS on team)
Now, those who are saber-heads can easily come up with different combinations based on the numbers and those would be fine with me too. All I’m doing here is looking at what the National League does in 2017, not what it should do in theory. If the Cardinals simply followed the patterns of other teams this is the kind of lineup they’d be running out there every single day.
To me that’s a far more sensible lineup than we’ve seen all season long. You have your two veteran OBP monsters at the top, your most productive all around hitter following them, your most powerful hitter batting cleanup, another power bat 5th, a strong OPS bat with some speed as sort of a second leadoff man in the 6-hole and then your two least productive players bringing up the rear.
Can I guarantee that lineup would produce?
Of course not.
Can I rationally argue that it makes a hell of a lot more sense than what we’ve seen all season?
Lineups should be mostly about stacking OBP/OPS together. The Cardinals have two of their best OPS spots stuck in the 7-8 holes, which makes no sense. I know that each spot has been made up of multiple players over the course of the season but the issue, in my mind, is that we’ve seen this team stick with something that IS NOT WORKING for far too long.
For example, why is Gyorko still batting cleanup? He’s batting .198 with 5 extra base hits since July 1st. I realize he had three strong months to start but he hasn’t hit like that for a long time and it’s not like he’s got a track record of being a successful cleanup hitter in the big leagues. Why are they so slow to adjust?
Keep in mind that this is just a continuation of what we saw last year with Brandon Moss. He hit .084 for the month of September and didn’t see a significant reduction in his playing time.
When you don’t have a lineup full of known commodities – guys like Harper, Murphy, Stanton. Rizzo, Bryant, Turner, Seager, etc. – you can’t just fall in love with “how it looks,” you have to be more willing and able to adapt and adjust so that your most productive hitters are stacked toward the top of the order.
When it comes to Matheny’s lineups the thing that probably bothers me the most is he’s entirely about the “look” or the “feel” of it rather than what the facts are telling him.
Let’s go with production rather than feel, please.