Entering the 2014 season, the St. Louis Cardinals were considered heavy favorites to win the NL Central. While it was a tight race in the Central last season, the Pirates, who were 2nd in the division, were expected to regress substantially from their first season above .500 in 20 years. The Reds, who ranked 3rd in the division, were likewise expected to regress after they lost Shin-Soo Choo through Free Agency and did little to improve their roster during the offseason. The Cardinals, however, seemingly improved their roster with the additions of Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos. However, 42 games into the season, the Cardinals are struggling to score runs and lingering around .500. The Cardinals currently sit 5 games behind the division-leading Brewers, who have been one of the season’s biggest surprises. With the Cardinals averaging just 3.78 runs per game, a full run lower than the 2013 Cardinals, is it time to start worrying about the Cardinals?
To say that the Cardinals lack power would be an understatement, as they currently rank 29th in home runs, 28th in slugging percentage and 25th in runs scored. This is not too surprising, as even in 2013, they ranked 27th in homers, yet 3rd in runs scored. Incredible situational hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP) drove the Cardinals entire offense in 2013. They set a Major League record with a .330 batting average with RISP. While few people expected such timely hitting to carry over to this season, few predicted they would fall all the way to .240 with RISP. Their lack of timely hitting has had a profound impact on their offense as a whole, especially since their power has failed to manifest itself. While no experts thought the Cardinals could duplicate their numbers with RISP, they argued that the Cardinals would improve substantially with the bases empty, which is an area where the Cardinals greatly struggled in 2013. With the bases empty in 2013, the Cardinals had a batting line of .236/.297/.356 and that line has only slightly improved in 2014 to .250/.318/.365. Clearly this slight improvement has not negated the drastic drop in production with RISP, as their overall batting line has slumped from .269/.332/.401 in 2013 to .246/.315/.359 in 2014. So is this the production the Cardinals should expect all season, or is it just an early season slump?
Looking at their offensive numbers as a team, some interesting correlations are present between the 2014 Cardinals and the 2013 Cardinals. The most concerning trend is that, in 2014, the Cardinals are striking out more often, as they have gone from 5th best in K% all the way to 12th. This is not too significant, until it is compounded by the Cardinals’ .016 drop in Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). The Cardinals were in the top 5 in the MLB in both of these statistics last year, but are just in the middle of the league in 2014. Putting the ball in play less frequently and getting on-base less often when you do can have a profound impact on an offense. That is certainly the case for the Cardinals, as their OBP has fallen .017 points, almost identical to their drop in BABIP. However, a more optimistic look at the Cardinals’ offense shows this may just be a slow start worsened by some bad luck. While the Cardinals’ BABIP is down from last year, they still lead the league in Line Drive% at 23.1%, which is nearly identical to their 23.2% from 2013. Line drives carry the highest BABIP with them, which suggests the Cardinals’ liners may just not be falling for hits as frequently as they did last year, but the BABIP should return to climb back towards the mean, if they continue to hit line drives.
Another reason to expect better offensive production from the Cardinals is that multiple players are playing below their career norms. The prime example of this is Allen Craig, who is in the midst of a terribly slow start. Craig entered the season a career .306 hitter, but has slashed just .231/.288/.365 thus far. This drastic decline has largely been driven by his .104 point drop in BABIP, which should come back towards the mean. Another player playing below his capabilities is key offseason acquisition, Jhonny Peralta, who has slashed .252/.341/.469. While his power leads the team, his average is down over .050 points from his strong 2013 and he has the lowest BABIP of his career. While his 2013 production was driven by an unsustainable BABIP, his numbers should climb closer to .300, rather than .250. Matt Adams is also not living up to his billing as a power bat, as he has just two home runs and a .319 OBP, despite a .304 batting average. The Cardinals are also receiving absolutely no production from their bench players, as Mark Ellis, Kolten Wong and Daniel Descalso are all hitting below the Mendoza line. The bench has also driven in just two runs this season. While every team experiences injuries and poor production from key players, the Cardinals have received poor production from 3 consistent contributors. Once these players begin playing up to their capabilities, the Cardinals’ offense will begin to take shape.
The Cardinals have certainly struggled to score runs through these first 42 games; however, most indicators point to them rebounding as the season progresses. The Cardinals will not be able to duplicate their MLB record .330 average with RISP, nor will they begin to hit home runs on pace with the most powerful teams in the league. However, their offense will begin getting on-base at a similar clip to last year, once their hits start falling and their BABIP comes back towards where it was last season. Allen Craig will not finish the season batting in the .220s and Matt Adams will not finish the season hitting just one home run each month. While there should be a sense of urgency for these players to return to form and for their hits to start falling, there is no reason to believe that the Cardinals cannot start hitting near their 2013 levels.