If one of the manager’s main criticisms of Colby Rasmus in 2010 is that he occasionally gets homer happy, then why continue putting him in a slugging spot in the lineup ? That doesn’t make any sense, whatsoever.
In the last few days, Colby Rasmus has been compared to JD Drew and Andy van Slyke. Unfortunately that brings on a sort of doom and gloom atmosphere to the praise that is lurking somewhere under the dark clouds surrounding the histories of those other outfielders. While I am not sold on Rasmus yet, please allow me to offer a more optimistic comparison: Lou Brock.
This opens up the most feared of all debates – if we trade Rasmus, will this be our version of the now infamous Ernie Broglio for Lou Brock trade in 1964 ? Most likely, because if the Cardinals do that in the next year or two, they will be just as guilty as the ’64 Cubs when they gave up on a young, undisciplined outfielder that struck out far too many times to be useful, or so they thought.
Let’s look at the first two years of each player, and see what we can figure out.
It is fascinating how similar Brock and Rasmus are at this point in their career. Rasmus has shown a bit more power, but Brock ran more. Some of the differences are due to era. managerial approach and batting order, but the similarities are striking.
*data through September 5, 2010.
The improving plate discipline of Rasmus is impressive, in spite of a ferocious strikeout rate. There were long stretches when Rasmus would settle down and coax a walk, which could have been a catalyst to the bottom of the order if Tony La Russa had encouraged him to run on the opposing battery.
The difference in slugging took some more digging to explain, and some are not going to like this answer. Brock had significantly more at bats than Rasmus, because he was not platooned against tough lefties. Maybe La Russa should be given more credit for putting Rasmus in favorable batting situations rather than criticized for not playing him enough. Brock played and struggled, Rasmus sat and gained an elevated slugging percentage.
If nothing else, let Brock’s improvement after his trade to St. Louis (.348/.387/.527) encourage you about what we could see from Rasmus in 2011.
Ok, maybe there are a few ifs, but I will only look at one.
When Lou Brock came to St. Louis, manager Johnny Keane immediately placed him in the second spot in the batting order. Other than playing around with the 3-4-5 on occasion, the top of the order was set with a proven high average veteran, Curt Flood, followed by the wild swinging Lou Brock. These two, combined with daring base running, terrorized pitchers and catchers in the summer of 1964. And then again in 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1969. When Red Schoendienst took over after the surprising firing/resignation of Keane following the 1964 World Series, he switched the order of the two, preferring Brock’s slugging and more aggressive baserunning ahead of Flood’s steady, but hardly ferocious bat. Two more trips to the World Series suggest that this order was a good one.
Looking at another period of Cardinals success, Whitey Herzog used a similar approach in the 1980’s. Lonnie Smith and Tommy Herr were Herzog’s preferred 1-2, sometimes leading off with Smith, other times with Herr. Occasionally Ozzie Smith would get a look at the top of the order, but it was later in the decade when Ozzie’s offense and stolen base potential would cement him in that position. When Willie McGee exploded into the major leagues, he got more than his fair time at the top of the order.
Keane, Schoendienst and Herzog were masters at manufacturing runs by putting pressure on the other team’s defense. Pitchers had to worry about one more thing, infielders had to be just a little bit quicker. And pitchers had to get the ball to the plate more quickly, which meant more fastballs and less curveballs bouncing in the dirt. The heart of those orders ate up opposing pitchers, even though none of them had anywhere near the offensive punch of Albert Pujols or Matt Holliday – never mind both sluggers.
When looking farther down the lineup, protection for the cleanup hitters were players like Mike Shannon, Tim McCarver, Dick Groat, Darrell Porter, Willie McGee, Andy van Slyke (ok, that one gets a big oopsie). None of these were sluggers, but their gap-to-gap hitting produced much needed offense, especially when the #3 and #4 hitters failed to plate base runners.
What have we learned from all of this ? Six trips to the World Series suggest that it is more important to get men on base ahead of the heart of the order. Six trips to the World Series show that you don’t need a slugger in the fifth spot to protect the cleanup hitter. Six trips to the World Series prove that a running game is far more likely to produce a winner than waiting patiently for the heart of the order to blast a three run homer.
Red, Whitey and Johnny are right, and I wish Tony La Russa would learn from their success. Put Rasmus and Jon Jay at the top of the order, give them the green light to run and then start smiling as the runs begin accumulating at a frightening pace.