Just One Jaime Garcia Short of a Disaster

Without Jaime Garcia, I’m not sure how I’d be feeling about the Cardinals right now. As it is, I’m pessimistic. But that pessimism is tempered by the victory today. It’s always thrilling to see a CG shutout, especially one as dominant as Garcia’s performance against the Padres. He struck out nine, walked only two, and allowed four hits over 102 pitches. The game lasted just a tick over two hours.

It was a masterful, breezy performance that featured only two scary moments. The first was the sixth inning, where Garcia’s control faltered after giving up a hit to the opposing pitcher and he needed a heads-up play from should-be 2B Daniel Descalso to get out of a jam. The second scary moment was going into the ninth inning, when I thought La Russa might pull Garcia for Ryan Franklin.

I feel good about Garcia, since he was a question mark coming out of spring training. But just about everyone else has been disappointing in the first three games of the season.

Game one was marred by a few tough breaks, but many of the Cards problems were highlighted out of the gate. It was hard to ignore the sub-par defense from Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot up the middle. I’ve harped on that enough, though. The hitting was spotty and just like last year they just couldn’t string enough baserunners together to get runs across the plate. Miguel Batista is probably the worst pitcher on the staff and he’s apparently the late-inning set-up guy.

And then there’s Ryan Franklin, who ultimately blew the save when he gave up a game-tying home run to Cameron Maybin in the ninth inning.

I think it’s important to focus on Franklin. Franklin is not a good pitcher. He’s never been a good pitcher. He’s had some incredible luck with the Cardinals over the last couple of years and put up some impressive front page statistics that have put him in the role of “closer”. He’s had a good ERA and save conversion rate, and that would be fantastic if it actually meant anything.

The truth about Franklin is that his best pitch is a fastball that hovers around 91 mph and has just enough movement to keep it out of batting practice. He only strikes out six batters per nine innings, and walks 2-3. He’s given up a lot of HR in every year except 2009 which, unsurprisingly, was the year he had a fluke 1.92 ERA. Historically, over 40% of batted balls in play against Franklin are fly balls, so he doesn’t get double plays or even keep the ball in the infield.

At some point, the Cardinals are going to have to move Franklin out of the closer role. I don’t particularly believe in the necessity of a dominant closing pitcher. It’s probably better to leverage individual situations and use the pitcher better suited for the moment. However, I don’t see Tony La Russa–who practically invented the modern closer–moving towards that sort of idea. So whoever has the vaunted “closer” label will see a lot of one run and two run leads. Franklin, who doesn’t have great control and gives up a lot of fly balls, is not who we want out in those situations. He was never who we wanted out there. We just got away with it for a long time. We can’t expect to continue to get away with it.

In game two of the series, Cardinals pitchers managed to give up 11 runs to a lineup that featured Orlando Hudson in the third spot. Westbrook and Motte looked awful, though they didn’t have much help from Ryan Theriot, who looked even worse than expected. I was pining for Brendan Ryan even after he was thrown out on a bone-headed play in Seattle later that day.

Sunday should have been a disaster, too. The Cardinals bats were dead, flailing hopelessly against the ace pitching of Padres’ fifth starter, Dustin Moseley. He looked like Bud Norris out there, inducing weak hit after weak hit. This is the sort of pitcher the Cardinals, even without Holliday, should light up. He’s a perpetually fringe 29 year old righthander with an 89 mph fastball. He has more earned runs in his career than strikeouts. Today, he held the Cardinals to a single tally (not earned) over seven innings. We got four hits off of him, all singles, and if not for Jaime Garcia’s absolute dominance he would have led his team to a sweep.

That’s bad. Real bad. The Cardinals need to improve if they’re going to do anything but break our hearts this season. They have to hit the pitchers everyone else hits. They have to have someone better in the ninth for close games–Jaime Garcia won’t finish it every time. And damn it, they have to be able to field baseballs that are hit between third and first.

A True Challenge Awaits

A quick quote from Dustin Pedroia, aka “The Good David Eckstein”, courtesy of mlb.com

“Everyone thought Baltimore was three easy wins and we got [beat] three times.”

I always like it when I see those little brackets in a statement by a baseball player.  It means they said something essentially unpublishable, at least on parts of the internet where old people might see it, but the quote was so important that it had to remain in the article.  I also like to imagine what really words were really there.  It was probably something like:

“Everyone thought Baltimore was three easy wins and we got our asses kicked three times.”

But I prefer to think it was actually a long winded, Aristocrats-style description of the recent Red Sox futility that would make even Ichiro at the all-star game blush.  A length metaphor involving handcuffs, a tub of vegetable oil, a deck chair, a zebra, and Jonathan Papelbon’s entire immediate family.  If they’re just going to edit the quote anyway, why not get a little bit more specific?

That’s not why I started with that quote.  I started with that quote because I think it represents a bad attitude.  One of the amazing things about baseball is that anyone can win a series.  Not everyone can win the World Series, because the Cubs, but in a three game set, even a terrible team can beat a good one.  There are no easy wins, and throwing that out there is just being a sore loser.

This is all an incredibly long-winded caveat to what I really want to say, which is that the Cardinals’ first big test starts tonight in Philadelphia.  That is not to say that this season so far has been full of “easy wins” or that the teams they faced weren’t a challenge.  But this series is one that threatens to reveal the soft, meaty underbelly of the Cardinals success so far.

The Phillies are probably the best team in the NL.  They’ve got a big lineup in a little ballpark, and that’s not going to bode well for a starting rotation that has been exceptionally lucky.  Right now the team ERA is 2.56.  I don’t want to say they’ve been doing it with smoke and mirrors, but there’s certainly been some sleight of hand involved.

Jaime Garcia, tonight’s starter, has a .221 BAbip on the year.  That’s not quite “J.A. Happ with runners in scoring position” lucky (.173 for his career dear god) but its not sustainable.  Penny, who goes on Wednesday, hasn’t given up a single HR yet.  That probably won’t be true on Thursday.

Speaking of Thursday, the match-up looks to be Kyle Lohse versus Roy Halladay.  That’s the kind of game only true fans watch.

When the pitching craters–or at least comes back down to Earth–the offense has to be there to pick it up.  Outside of David Freese hitting above his pay grade lately and Pujols being Pujols,  it just hasn’t been there.  That’s gotta change, and I’m looking to Joe Blanton or Kyle Kendrick or Citizens Bank Park to help us change that.

On the subject of Pujols?  Yeah, he’s striking out a lot.  But can we at least lay off the worrying and fretting until he’s his OPS (1.080) falls below his career OPS (10.55)?

Oh no!  He’s only hitting slightly better than his historically-significant-as-the-best-for-a-right-handed-hitter OPS!  He’s missing more pitches he must be broken!  Sound the alarm!