Even with the back-to-back 5-0 wins in Toronto over the weekend, the 2014 Cardinals are still trying to find their way. Their pitching still projects to be fine; they still are tied for the fourth-best ERA in the National League, and that has allowed them to achieve 32 wins, a total surpassed in the league by only San Francisco and Milwaukee to this point.
The Cardinals haven’t scored a ton of runs, with their 243 placing them 10th in the NL. They’ve scored more than three runs just 37 times in 64 games. That means they’re scoring three or fewer 42 percent of the time. In the games the Redbirds score more than three, they’re 28-10. In games in which they score three or fewer? Try 5-21. So, the trick is going to be scoring more than three runs a game more consistently.
Sunday’s game was what the Cardinals, or any other team, would love to have. They manufactured their first two runs with a sacrifice fly and an RBI double after a stolen base, and then got a two-run homer and a solo homer. This offense hasn’t manufactured many runs this season and, as we know, it hasn’t hit many home runs. There are some keys for the final 98 games that will get this team scoring more than three runs more consistently and get it to the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.
The Cardinals need more home runs from their home-run hitters. Jhonny Peralta has been a pleasant surprise as the guy who leads the team with 10, but the middle-of-the-order guys have yet to step up. The Cardinals traded David Freese and let Carlos Beltran walk because they thought they’d get more slugging out of Matt Adams and Allen Craig.
Last year, Adams hit 17 homers and drove in 51 runs. Before he got hurt a couple of weeks ago, Adams had hit just three homers and driven in 17. When he gets back, Adams is going to have to be more effective.
Two years ago, Craig hit 22 homers in 514 at-bats. Last year he fell off to just 13 homers, but hit an outrageous .454 with runners in scoring position. This year, he’s hitting a more realistic .281 with RISP. And that power we saw two years ago – a homer every 21.3 at bats – has almost been cut in half. This year, Craig has a homer every 40.2 ABs, and it’s taking more than two more at-bats to get every RBI. In his first three full seasons, Craig drove in a run every 5.0, 5.1 and then 5.2 at bats, respectively. This year, he’s fallen off to an RBI every 7.3. He needs to be better.
Finally, Matt Holliday needs to be Matt Holliday. For his career, he’s hit a homer every 22.2 at bats. He’s been remarkably consistent, within 1.4 at bats of his career average in each of his four full seasons with the Cardinals, with a homer every 23.6 last season, his worst NL total since his second season. This year, he has a homer every 77 at-bats. His RBIs have also come at a metronome-like rate, one every 5.7 at bats, and staying consistent in his last four years. This season, Holliday has an RBI every 8.0 at-bats.
To win in 2014, teams have to hit home runs, and they have to get production from their sluggers. Every winning team has three impact hitters in the middle of its lineup. The Cards came into this season counting on Adams, Craig and Holliday to provide big-time impact.
This team is capable of running more and manufacturing more. It’s second-to-last in stolen bases, but also second-to-last in times caught. The Cards’ steal percentage is 81 percent, second-best in the league. There’s no doubt Mike Matheny should encourage more aggressiveness. They can make a run with a sac fly here and a stolen base there, but ultimately, to score more than three runs a game, they’re going to have to hit homers.
It might not seem fair to place the expectations of the Cardinal offense completely on those three, but that was the plan. That’s the reality of the situation. If Holliday, Craig and Adams don’t turn in last year’s ratios in this year’s final 98 games of the season, this offense probably won’t do enough to win the Central. If they do, with the Cardinals’ starting pitching (second in NL ERA at 3.18), they’re good enough to win the World Series.