Tuesday, May 8, 2012

High Flying Cardinals Still Flying Under MLB's Radar

The defending World Champion St Louis Cardinals - written off by many before the season even began - sit atop the NL Central (19-11), led by rookie pitcher Lance Lynn's perfect 6-0 (1.40 ERA) start and a powerful offensive attack that is, arguably, MLB's best; certainly its most balanced.

Somehow, Mike Matheny's Redbirds are flying under the radar, and that probably suits the soft-spoken rookie manager just fine.  Compared to Tony LaRussa, Matheny is practically invisible.  Meanwhile, the on-going struggles of the dearly-departed Albert Pujols grab the headlines, while Matheny and company grab the wins.  That seems fair enough.

Of course, there are many other stories that are far more compelling than the low-key, professional, mid-western Cardinals (one Brewers' blogger, Tim Schaefer, referred to the then-LaRussa team as, "boring and craggy", in the aftermath of Nyjer Morgan's September tirade).  Give me a boring and craggy team that wins over one filled with unprofessional lunatics that don't win; okay?  Tim's Brewers are currently in last place.

Getting back to those non-boring teams, just take a gander at what's happening on the east coast.  The Baltimore Orioles are still leading the AL East, while the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are bringing up the rear; at least for the time being.  If Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine could get permission to play the rest of the schedule away from Fenway Park, they might win the World Series.  The Orioles, after sweeping Boston at Fenway - featuring an epic 17-inning marathon - returned home a bit tuckered out and now have to deal with the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards.  Monday night's reality check:  Texas 14 - Baltimore 3.  Tuesday night's unbelievable reality check:  Rangers crush O's again, 10-3; Josh Hamilton hits four (two-run) home  runs and a double - good for an AL-record 18 total bases.  Now THAT deserves some headlines!

More eastern seaboard drama features the inexplicable admission of Phillies' pitcher, Cole "I Cannot Tell a Lie" Hamels, when he said:  "I deliberately hit Bryce Harper with that pitch."  The nineteen-year-old phenom's crime was apparently being a rookie; along with grabbing an enormous amount of media attention - and loving every minute of it.  Just for fun, after the plunking, the irrepressible Harper, once he reached third base, stole home on the befuddled Phillies hurler.  In your face, Hamels!

This saga will no doubt continue to heat up; and continue grabbing more headlines.  It doesn't hurt when Harper's team - the Washington Nationals - have been the darlings of the national sports scene all season long; led by the NL Pitcher of the Month for April - Stephen Strasburg - and the rest of that vaunted rotation.  Future contests between these two now-bitter rivals will no doubt be national headline-grabbing events.  This just in:  The highly touted Nationals lost to the underrated Pirates by a score of 5-4, on a two-run walk-off home run by catcher Rod Barajas.

Along with the surprising success of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League has been the equally surprising success of the New York Mets in the National League.  When rookie Jordany Valdespin spun a Jonathan Papelbon fastball over the right field wall on Monday night for a game-winning three-run home run - his first big league hit - he became an instant legend in Mets' lore.  Of course, the Phillies fans have now added one more opposing player to hate.  Not to mention one more Phillies player to hate - the former closer of the Red Sox who had the audacity to give up the first hit to any batter with runners in scoring position all season.  Nobody's perfect.  This just in:  The Mets won again in Philly Tuesday night, 7-4 (their MLB-leading tenth come-from-behind victory).  The natives are getting restless in Philadelphia.

Boston has had little to cheer about so far in 2012, but that changed in a hurry when they called up rookie sensation, Will Middlebrooks, to replace the ailing Kevin Youkilis on the roster.  All Will the Thrill did was hit a game-tying grand slam home run against Baltimore in Saturday's eventual loss, then launch two more bombs in Kansas City - good for another five RBIs - in Boston's 11-5 win over the Royals on Monday night.  If you expect me to make some snide remark about Will's 9 RBIs in 4 games matching what Albert Pujols has amassed in 30 games; forget it.

Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers got off to the hottest start in franchise history, prompting the universal-media consensus of opinion that they were sure to win the next World Series.  The third time's the charm, eh?  Not so fast.  While Texas has stumbled a bit recently, those resourceful Tampa Bay Rays have taken it up a notch, even with Evan Longoria on the DL.  This must be the best team in baseball; at least for another week or so.  Not so fast.  Josh Hamilton and his four home runs deserve some kudos, while Tampa Bay just lost to the Yankees.  It's a close one; this fight for being acclaimed MLB's best team may take a while to settle.  That's why they play the World Series, I do believe.

Naturally, we can't forget all that excitement taking place in the other media hotbed, Southern California (aside from the Pujols Career Decline).  Matt Kemp and the Dodgers are tearing up the NL West, and a new ownership group - featuring the one and only Magic Johnson - is firmly in place.  I'm not sure how closely Magic has been following his new team this year, but during last week's press conference, an emotional Johnson acted like he was taking over a last place - not a first place - club, when he solemnly vowed, "We'll turn things around here; it may take time, but we'll get it done!"  Maybe he meant they'd try to figure out a way to slow Kemp and the boys down to keep the competitive balance intact in the Wild West?  Otherwise, I'm not sure what else "may take time"?  Nor did I hear anyone bother to inquire what Magic was referring to when he gave his little pep talk.

Other than all that newsworthy stuff going on around the world of MLB, the boring, craggy, Cardinals lead the NL with 39 home runs - five of which were launched Monday night against the D-Backs at Chase Field; (two more were launched on Tuesday night - both by Carlos Beltran, giving him 10 for the season, to go along with 26 RBI) they've now scored a NL-leading 167 runs in 30 games.  That's over five and a half runs per game, which raises the obvious question:  "Why haven't they won more games?"  Maybe they'll pick up the slack as the season moves along.

As one might suspect, the Cardinals also lead the NL in the "big three" offensive  saber-metric categories:


Oh yeah, they can also pitch a little bit.  Their 3.11 ERA is second best in MLB; batters are only hitting .234 against them (third best in MLB); and their WHIP of 1.11 is second best.

Now you know.  The St Louis Cardinals are a pretty good team; a balanced team.  The defending World Series champions may have lost a few cogs from last year, but the replacement pieces are working out quite well (the most notable "replacement" - Carlos Beltran - is on a pace to finish the season with 54 home runs and 140 RBIs); arguably better than the originals.

Meanwhile, those high-flying Redbirds are still managing to fly under the radar, and I don't know how they're getting away with it; especially with a MLB-best +70 run differential in the 30 games they've played; an incredible pace; probably an unsustainable pace.  At this current rate of domination, the Cardinals would end the season scoring 378 more runs than the opposition (902 to 524).  To demonstrate how ridiculous that is, last season the Redbirds only outscored their opposition by a total of 72 runs for the entire year, but it was good enough to reach the postseason.

In franchise history, the largest run differential of a World Series winner occurred in 1944:  +282.  The narrowest run differential for a World Championship edition was 2006's +19; which is no surprise, since they only won three more regular season games than they lost, before limping into the postseason; yet they managed to win eleven more games to grab their tenth title; didn't they?

To say 2007 was a  "down year" is quite an understatement.  The returning World Champions were outscored by an embarrassing 104 runs that season; the only season in the current millennium they scored fewer runs than they allowed.  On the other end of the spectrum, the 2004 Cardinals have been the most dominant team of the millennium, outscoring the opposition by a whopping 196 runs.  Of course, all that good stuff gets tossed out the window when the postseason begins; actually, it was the Redbirds who got tossed around in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox; a miserable four-game sweep.

Of course, the current 2012 season is still young - just 18.5% complete.  Still, the way it has begun is quite remarkable; it seems likely to result in a postseason berth for the Redbirds, barring some unforeseen misfortune.  Certainly, if the team maintains its statistical dominance, franchise history will likely be made; quite possibly, leading to a repeat performance of 2011's magic.  That would be something.

Come October, it's unlikely the St Louis Cardinals will be flying under anybody's radar.

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