Tagged: St. Louis

2011: Summer of Albert

Many people have already grown tired of the constant Albert Pujols contract coverage, including Albert Pujols and his Cardinal teammates.  That’s too bad, because for the next eight months the media will continue to push this topic into our faces, and for once I don’t think it’s hype without substance. 

What could possibly be bigger than the greatest current player potentially leaving the only team he’s played for–a storied franchise with some of the best fans in baseball–in the midst of one of the greatest careers ever seen?  It’s just like LeBron last summer, if he had played for a team that mattered, and if he had actually helped that team win something in the playoffs.

So every highlight and story about the Cardinals this summer will come with a standard package of contract talk and speculation.  Get used to it, because the media has two annoying habits of being lazy about pursuing new angles and of wanting to talk about things that are really, really important.  This story deserves the breathless attention it’s received, because it could dramatically alter the landscape of baseball over the next decade.

In baseball, a single player has less of an impact on the outcome of an individual game and a season in whole than in any of the major sports.  However, it’s difficult to overstate what an impact he has mentally on his opponents and his teammates.  If he were to leave St. Louis via free agency the organization would be left reeling without its identity, while any team that might add him would instantly have the swagger of invulnerability about it.

Insert him into any lineup and immediately that team will become dangerous and will tax opposing pitching simply through the sheer mental stress he places on pitchers.  The effect isn’t just on the hitters immediately before and after him, but two and three spots on either side and that impact is nearly as stressful on opposing pitching as his own at-bats.

If I must quantify it, I’ll use the sabrmetric standby Wins Above Replacement (WAR).  Albert Pujols has led the National League six straight seasons, averaging nearly 8.5 over that span.  Last year his 7.2 was his lowest total over that span and the Cardinals finished second to Cincinnati with 86 wins.  Take away Albert and you’ve got a below .500 team lost in the shuffle of the mediocre NL Central, and that’s with a dominant pitching staff headed by Adam Wainwright’s near Cy Young season.

Naysayers might point out that over that same span the Cardinals only won the division once which was also the only season they topped 90 wins.  However, if you went back and replayed those seasons with anyone else in baseball taking Pujols’ place how would they fare?  Arguing his impact on a team is ridiculous because of the nature of the game.  Single stars just don’t transform a season like they do in other sports, but the fact is, as baseball players go Albert is as impactful as they get and his decision will impact MLB more than anything in the previous or the coming decade.

So while you may already have all the scenarios memorized get ready for a summer of speculation because the story’s not going anywhere until Albert does.

Wainwright the Most Important Cardinal

As a Cubs fan, it pains me to write about the excellence of a St. Louis
pitcher, but Adam Wainwright is a huge key to the Cardinals success of
this season and has been a great number two behind Chris Carpenter. 
He’s leading the team in wins, innings, and strikeouts, while posting a
solid 2.79 ERA.  More importantly, he’s been a consistent go-to guy,
particularly during the extended absence of Carpenter, both last year
and earlier this season.

The Cardinals will always be Albert
Pujols’ team, and now that Matt Holliday is there, Big Al has the
sidekick he’s been looking for for several years.  Pujols’ dominance
hasn’t been enough to overtake the Cubs the last two years, though, and
the reason the Cardinals have been leading the pack much of the year
has been the consistent pitching which starts with Wainwright.

Wainwright
has shown that consistency in the last two seasons with a 14-win
campaign in his first as a starter, 2007, and then a breakthrough year in
2008 going 11-3 with a 3.20 ERA, in only 20 starts.  With at least five
more starts in August and all of September, he has a real shot at 18 wins or more, and along
with Jason Marquis, could be a surprise entry in the Cy Young race.

It’s
not that no one could foresee this level of success for Wainwright, but
with Carpenter’s return this year and King Albert’s reign, he kind of gets lost
in the fold in St. Louis.  The tremendous fans of the ‘Lou’ definitely
know who he is, and if their team can hang on to play into October, it will feature a tremendous second gun that is invaluable in
the shortened format of the Division Series.

The Cubs have
made a strong second half push and narrowed the gap, even jumpnig into
first for a few days, but St. Louis has shown far greater consistency
offensively and defensively for a full four months, and with July
acquisitions that strengthened their lineup they’ll be very difficult to
outlast.  That additional firepower will only make it tougher for teams
looking to outscore or outpitch such a well-rounded, fundamentally
sound team.

With Wainwright showing no signs of slowing, this
team could be a sleeper in the National League race against the more
ballyhooed teams in Philly and L.A.  If they can manage to get into the
eight-team fray, there’s plenty to like on this team, which has the
pieces to win the pitchers’ duels and the fireworks shows.  Typically, October baseball is more about pitching, defense, and situational hitting than it is about blowouts.  This team is built to succeed either way, and Wainwright’s arm will be especially welcome when the temperature starts to drop and the bats cool off.

Petco Graveyard Can’t Hold Adrian Gonzalez

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            It’s no
secret that Adrian Gonzalez is blossoming into one of the brightest stars in
the game, though his 4th place position in the NL All-Star first
base balloting suggests that a few more should turn a watchful eye to San
Diego.  I’m not
going into the issue of whether he deserves to start in the All-Star Game,
though clearly he’s one of the National League’s most dominant players at any
position right now.  With Albert Pujols
on the host team and Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, and even Joey Votto playing at
first base, there’s essentially no bad vote at the position, and that’s without
mentioning the struggling Derrek Lee, a two-time All-Star and three-time Gold
Glove winner. 

 

I don’t see a more stacked position anywhere in baseball
than first base in the National League, and most of them still have their best
seasons ahead of them.  I want to talk
more about the games that do matter, and even though many may argue Padres
games don’t mean all that much due to the team’s dismal prospects, that simply highlights
how incredible it is that Gonzalez has been able to achieve such success this
year.  Not that it’s a total surprise to
those who’ve been paying attention.  For
three years running Gonzalez has improved both his RBI (82, 100, 119) and HR
(24, 30, 36) totals and this year he’s on pace to top his career bests again.  He’s become a dynamic talent and he just
turned 27 last month, so he may have another decade in the league ahead of him.

           

            The most
remarkable thing about his numbers is not that he can smash so many home runs
while playing half his games at the graveyard that is Petco
Park, though I do submit that that
is impressive.  The more noteworthy thing
to me is that he’s able to maintain such a torrid offensive pace with
essentially zero supporting characters around him.  San Diego is currently hitting a Major League
worst .236 as a team and the hitters that typically surround Gonzalez in the
lineup include Scott Hairston, David Eckstein, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Brian
Giles.  While they’re all serviceable and
effective Major League players, they’re not exactly a latter day Murderer’s
Row.  The team has a total of 59 HR, with
22 of them by Gonzalez himself.  That’s
38% of the team’s home runs by one guy, far and away the best in the league.

 

Hairston is currently hitting .327
(though with too few at bats to qualify among league leaders), but Eckstein is
at .258, Kouzmanoff .224, and Giles is languishing behind Mr. Mendoza at
.194.  Clearly opposing pitchers have
more than enough reason to avoid Gonzalez and his .279/.422/.632 (AVG/OBP/SLG)
and they’ve employed a Bondsian strategy, walking Gonzalez a Major League
leading 49 times, five more than the oft-intentionally passed Albert Pujols
with whom Gonzalez’s numbers are beginning to be compared.

 

It would be premature to say that
Gonzalez has equaled Albert as the best hitter in the National League, and
given Pujols’ tremendous talent Gonzalez may never reach those heights, but
their numbers make for good comparisons this season.  Both are clearly the focal points of their
respective lineups.  Pujols is often
given credit for succeeding without tremendous support, but even with a rash of
injuries to his teammates Pujols has been able to rely on the likes of Ryan
Ludwick and Rick Ankiel who offer more protection than Gonzalez’s motley crew.  The Cardinals are hitting .253 as a team, 21st
best in the Majors.  Pujols also plays in
a slightly more hitter-friendly park and on a more competitive team overall.  This season, though, Gonzalez has more than
held his own in a number of categories.

 

 

AB

AVG

SLG

OPS

BB

HR

XBH

RBI

RUNS

Gonzalez

201

.279

.632

1.054

49

22

27

43

42

Pujols

200

.320

.655

1.095

44

18

31

51

44

 

While Albert still holds an edge in
nearly every category, just the fact that we can respectably compare Gonzalez’s
numbers to Pujols shows how great he’s been. 
We’ll see if he continues to capitalize on the small number of good
pitches he sees each week or if pitchers take an even more submissive approach
and decide to try their luck with his subpar supporting cast.

 

Adrian Gonzalez has been among the
very few things to cheer about in San Diego
this season and it would be good for him and the league if he gets a shot to
showcase his skills at the All-Star Game and perhaps even go toe-to-toe with
Pujols in the Home Run Derby.  He’s a
lock as the best player on a bad team that must send a representative, but he’s
no undeserving roster filler.  Adrian
Gonzalez has quietly excelled for three seasons in San
Diego, but with a phenomenal year like he’s putting together,
he won’t be able to avoid the spotlight any longer.  As San Diego
looks to rebuild their team and get back to the playoffs they’ve certainly got
a solid cornerstone for their foundation and one that should be around for many
years to come.