The Start of a Season

Baseball is back, the Cardinals are back, and a week into the season I barely have anything to complain about.  I’ve put off writing this entry because it’s the first entry and I wanted it to be good.  Complaining is good.  It’s not terribly productive but it makes for far more interesting writing than praise.  For example, take the following sentence:

If not for the current scandal in the Catholic Church, this last week of baseball would have been the worst atrocity committed by a group of Cardinals in recent memory.

Wouldn’t that have been a nice lead-in?  It sets a tone.  Biting.  Acerbic.  Borderline offensive.  That’s what I want.  I could have even drawn a comparison between Tony La Russa’s refusal to bench David Freese and the decision of Pope Benedict (née Ratzinger) to relocate rather than dismiss pedophiles.  That’s just the sort of outrageous and stupid sports commentary that generates controversy and traffic.

But what am I supposed to say about the Cardinals 5-2 start?  If I’m too optimistic, I’m a homer.  I’m the fan who sits next to you at the sports bar and waxes poetically about the slick fielding of Brendan Ryan, comparing it to Ozzie Smith in his heyday.  I’m the guy who calls into KFNS 590 and has to be cut off when his description of Matt Holliday’s swing starts to verge on the homoerotic.  If I’m too pessimistic, I piss off the Astros fans who actually have a reason to be pessimistic.

And seriously the Astros fans have a ton of reasons to be pessimistic.  Goddamn.  I’m sure I’m going to have plenty of complaining on here as the year goes on, as the team slumps, but the Astros will remain as a reality check.  Whenever I’m feeling like my life isn’t going how I like, I remind myself that I’m not an orphan in Darfur.  Whenever the baseball season isn’t going how I like, I will remind myself that I am not an Astros fan.

With all that in mind, I will do the only thing I can think of.  I will be cautiously optimistic about the Cardinals.  Of course, cautious optimism is the most boring of all the outlooks.  For example, you don’t see protestors on CNN and FOX News with signs reading “There are some good things in this healthcare plan, maybe we should wait and see how they play out”.  That’s not good TV and probably would require a comically large sign anyway.

After today, I’ll try and do rundowns of each game.  What I saw, what I liked, what I didn’t like, and how I think it will affect the season as it goes on.  Right now there’s not that much point in that, but I’ll start off with this: two players I think will be critical to the Cardinals success this year.  (I’m disqualifying Pujols, Holliday, Wainwright, and Carpenter because…well…DUHHHHHH)

Colby Rasmus, CF: Seven games is a small sample size, but something is different about Colby Rasmus.  Last season, Rasmus was a free swinger.  He wasn’t quite Jeff Francoeur, but he was pretty bad.  He swung at 50.1% of total pitches, which was good for 20th in the league.  That isn’t a bad thing, per se.  Pablo Sandoval was 3rd, Adam Jones was 6th.  However, Rasmus had a couple things going against him that neither of these guys did.  First off, he was one of the worst players in the majors at making contact out of he strike zone, only making contact 51.3 percent of the time.  Unlike Pablo Sandoval, who follows in the footsteps of Vladimir Guerrero as a batter who can drive a pitch in the dirt or up near his head, Rasmus was awful with pitches out of the zone.

Rasmus also had a mediocre BAbip, meaning that he hit a lot of balls right at fielders. That’s not necessarily his fault.  He’s a fast guy who hits line drives.  A .282 BAbip is way lower than expected from someone with his skillset.  Unfortunately for Colby and his Rookie of the Year aspirations, he hit a long patch of bad luck.  All of this was compounded by a hiatal hernia which sapped him of his strength midway through the season.  No power, no luck, and no patience was a bad mix and the former first round pick disappointed.

Everyone expected that he’d put on weight with the hernia in the past.  Those of us who understand BAbip expected that he’d have better luck with batted balls.  His patience, however, is a nice surprise.  He already has 9 walks after only taking 36 free passes all of last season.  Before last nights game, he had one of the lowest swing percentages in all of baseball, swinging at only 30% of all pitches he’s seen.

Rasmus was once a top 10 prospect.  He’s had some ups and downs in AAA and MLB in the last couple seasons, but if he can put it together it will be a huge boost to the Cardinals.  Even with the setbacks last year, he was one of the better defensive CF in baseball, putting up a 8.9 UZR.  That put him behind only Franklin Gutierrez, BJ Upton, and Mike Cameron (and Rasmus had considerably less playing time than any of them).

Ryan Franklin, RHP: Colby Rasmus is the “optimism”.  Ryan Franklin is the “caution”.  Yes, I realize that the closer is not terribly important.  A closer only pitches around 70 innings, doesn’t always face the toughest part of the lineup, and is generally the most overrated position in baseball (other than DH).  However, Ryan Franklin is awful.  And I don’t mean “awful” in the sort of way that you talk about someone who is going through a rough patch.  The only rough patch that Ryan Franklin is going through is his hideous facial hair.  This is Ryan Franklin being Ryan Franklin.

A funny thing happened last year after Ryan Franklin was named the closer for the St. Louis Cardinals.  The stars aligned.  Specifically, a fluky homerun rate aligned with a preposterous BAbip that only started correcting at the end of the season.  Suddenly a journeyman pitcher who was, at best, a serviceable middle reliever turned into a perceived RELIEF ACE.  His ERA and WHIP plummeted while his K/BB ration only improved a tiny bit.  Anyone could have seen his late season problems coming.  It wasn’t because he was overworked.  It was because he was Ryan Franklin.  And Ryan Franklin isn’t that good.

It’s not his fault.  When you watch Animal Planet and you see a lion eating a gazelle, do you blame the gazelle?  No.  The gazelle did nothing wrong.  It was just a gazelle.  Ryan Franklin is just Ryan Franklin.  He could have a place on this team as a long reliever but he’s not someone you  want in high leverage situations.  He walks too many people and he allows way too many fly balls.  And while the closer isn’t always put in to face the best hitters, he’s usually put in during close games.  You don’t want to put in someone who walks too many people.

Of course, what are the Cardinals supposed to do?  Their relief options are limited.  McClellan has been shaky.  Motte does this: and opposing batters have caught on.  Hawksworth is probably the best option, but you don’t always want your best pitcher in as your closer anyway.  Closer by committee?  It would be nice, but La Russa practically invented the modern closer.

I think we’re just going to have to hope that Franklin starts getting lucky again, and stays lucky.  A team can survive with a mediocre closer.  It just can’t survive a terrible closer.

That’s it for my first post.  Look forward to updates after games and whenever else I feel like it.

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