Pitching will be the key to success in 2011


In an attempt to keep one of my New Years resolutions (keeping things brief), I have broken up a long and rambling article about trying to handicap the 2011 Cardinals into two pieces.  Here is the second part – certainly shorter and I hope less perambulate.

Viva el Birdos 2.0

Of all the championship teams, the 1968 Cardinals were unique in their ability to shut down the opponent, night after night.   Not just wins, it was complete and total domination.  Historians are too easily fixated on on Bob Gibson’s historic season and miss the real story here.  While the offensive struggled most of the year, the pitching simply lights out.  Not just Bob Gibson, the entire staff.  Ray Washburn, Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles pitched some of the best baseball of their careers, and in the few games that they did not go the distance, Joe Hoerner and Wayne Granger shut things down very quickly out of the pen.  If  the ’67 Cardinals were Go Go El Birdos, the ’68 team should have been called Throw Throw El Birdos.

How good were they ???

I struggle to find a superlative to adequately describe the pitching staff of 1968.   The closest comparison would be White Herzog’s ’85 Cardinals (John Tudor, Joaquin Andujar, Danny Cox, Ken Dayley, Todd Worrell), but even they fell far short of what the 1968 Cardinals accomplished as a staff.  All you need to know is:  30 shutouts, 31 games where they allowed just 1 run, and 21 games allowing 2 runs.   If you add all of those up, and please place a pillow under your jaw before you do, that’s 82 games allowing 2 runs or less.  Or let me put this another way, for half of the 1968 season, the Cardinals pitchers held the opponents to just 2 runs or less.   Not the starters, not earned runs – those are total runs allowed by all pitchers.  To put this into context, the 2010 pitching staff held opponents to 2 runs or less in just 57 games, which is actually pretty good.  Herzog’s ’85 staff did that 66 times.

Can the 2011 hurlers even come close to this ?

Of course not, but let’s not give up quite so fast.   Let’s line up the pitchers and take a closer look.

Starter (1968) W L ERA Starter (2010) W L ERA
Bob Gibson 22 9 1.12 Chris Carpenter 16 9 3.22
Nelson Briles 19 11 2.81 Adam Wainwright 20 11 2.42
Steve Carlton 13 11 2.99 Jaime Garcia 13 8 2.70
Ray Washburn 14 8 2.26 Jake Westbrook 10 11 4.22
Larry Jaster 9 13 3.51 Kyle Lohse 4 8 6.55

While nobody is expecting a Bob Gibson like performance out of Chris Carpenter in 2011, taking a couple of steps back from the details might help us find our early indicator of success in 2011, and it’s not where I was first looking.

Barring injuries, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainright can come close to matching  Gibson and Briles in 1968 – perhaps not the microscopic ERA and embarrassing WHIP’s Gibby and Nelly thew up, but certainly they can come close to the win/loss totals and differential.

If you want to use Steve Carlton as a predictor for Garcia, know that in his second season (1969), Carlton went 17-11 with a 2.17 ERA.  Ummm, yay!!!!  Can Garcia match Carlton’s 1969 season ?  Absolutely.   The real question is whether or not Tony La Russa lets Garcia go deep enough in games so that the youngster doesn’t have to rely too much on the bullpen.   In Carlton’s sophomore year, he pitched 12 complete games.  I’d be surprised if  there were 12 complete games in the last decade of Cardinals baseball, so it’s not reasonable to think that Garcia will come anywhere near that.   But if Garcia can reliably get into the seventh inning, he might have a chance to duplicate Carlton’s production.

Cardinals Nation should exhale in unison when looking at Larry Jaster’s 1968 season.   He didn’t pitch poorly, in fact quite the opposite.  Unfortunately Jaster did not get much run support from the anemic offense that the Cardinals put on the field that year.   Of course, he could not complain too much about lack of run support because Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA and lost 9 games.    If Jaster had received some better run support from his team, his numbers might have looked more like they did in 1966 (11-5) and 1967 (9-5).   What does this mean for the 2011 Cardinals ?   Even if Kyle Lohse lays an egg, which many of his detractors like to predict (endlessly), it might not be the death blow that many fear.  Heck, even some of the most cynical Lohse critics project him in the vicinity of Jaster’s 9-13 mark for ’68.

That leaves us with Jake Westbrook, and where we need to look for an early season indicator for 2011.   This is also the time to cue up Rod Serling and the theme song to The Twilight Zone as the parallels between Westbrook and Ray Washburn are absolutely spooky.  Both are veterans that had success early in their career – to be fair though, Washburn had Don Drysdale like success until injuries slowed him down.   After missing several seasons due to injury, both pitchers re-invented themselves as pitch-to-contact types, keeping the ball low in the zone instead of trying to strike every batter out.   If Westbrook can keep pace with Washburn’s 1968 season, and 15-10 is an optimistic but not unreasonable projection, the Cardinals may actually have a good chance at winning the NL Central.

Barring injury.

Now let’s look at the bullpens.

Reliever (1968) W L ERA Reliever (2010) W L ERA
Joe Hoerner (l) 8 2 1.47 Ryan Franklin 6 2 3.46
Wayne Granger 4 2 2.25 Kyle McClellan 1 4 2.27
Ron Willis 2 3 3.39 Jason Motte 4 2 2.24
Dick Hughes 2 2 3.53 Mitchell Boggs 2 3 3.61
Mel Nelson (l) 2 1 2.91 Trever Miller (l) 0 1 4.00
Hal Gilson (l) 0 2 4.57 Brian Tallet (l) 2 6 6.40
Fernando Salas 0 0 3.52

This is not quite as easy to compare as the starters because the bullpens are used much differently now than in the 60s.   But that doesn’t mean we can’t find a few things to help us prepare for 2011.

If Jake Westbrook is the litmus test for the starters, Ryan Franklin will that for the bullpen.   Simply put, the bullpen needs to be as good as they were in 2010 to win in 2011, perhaps just a little bit better.   There is no reason to believe they won’t be, other than just a bit of pessimism that a lot of Cardinals fans seem to have heading into every season, perhaps fueled by an excess of doom and gloom from some  local and nearly all of the national sports media.

If Franklin is good, then so will be the hopes for a NL Central title.   To help take a bit of worry out of that last statement, we held our collective breaths every time Joe Hoerner went to the mound in 1968, and things turned out just fine.   Part of what got us through the ’68 season was a closer-in-waiting, just in case we needed him.   In 1968, it was hard throwing Wayne Granger.   More Twilight Zone music – in 2011 it will be the hard throwing Jason Motte.   If you still have not exhaled, perhaps you would like to know that Wayne Granger won the Fireman of the Year award in 1969 and 1970, leading the league with an amazing 35 saves in 1970.   If Motte can learn to master the sinking fastball like Granger did, and the front office is smart enough to hold on to him, there is reason to be optimistic beyond 2011.

What about the other 8 guys ?

Here’s where things start falling apart.   First the bad news.

Up the middle

Much of the Cardinals pitching success was due to particularly strong middle defense.   Curt Flood was one of the best defensive center fielders to play the game, and the infield combination of Dal Maxvill and Julian Javier were as good as any in Cardinals history.  Very little rolled it’s way though the center of the infield, and if a ball was hit into the outfield, it had to be on a rope to get down between Flood and Lou Brock in left field.

I may be stating the obvious, but Ryan Theriot, Colby Rasmus and whoever Tony La Russa will throw in the lineup at second base will fall well short of Flood, Maxvill and Javier.   At least there is an offensive upside for 2011 if Colby Rasmus can keep his swing under control and be more Keith Hernandez than Dave Kingman.

Fortunately, that’s the end of the bad news.   That must mean there is lots of good news – and there is.

Left field

The corner defensive positions (1B, 3B, LF, RF) of the 1968 Cardinals were average.   But, and this is a big but, none of them were an embarrassment at their positions either.   Lou Brock could be inconsistent at times, and did not possess a good arm, but more times than not he made up with those deficiencies  with his legs.  Of course, he might run across the entire outfield and totally miss the ball, or overthrow the cut-off man by 100ft, but he was hardly a bad defender.   Comparing Lou Brock to Matt Holliday would take up an entire blog, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll point out that there have been very few offensive threats in Cardinals history that can match Holliday’s production so far in his career.   And Big Matt is just entering the prime of his hopefully long career, so whatever defensive runs might be lost to Brock will be more than made up for at the plate.   Many times over.

Slight advantage to the 2011 Cardinals.

Right field

Roger Maris had been a Gold Glove outfielder in New York, and should have been with Kansas City too.  By the time he got to St. Louis, the wear and tear on his legs took away a lot of his speed, but he still played smart baseball.   He also had a pretty strong arm and always hit the cut-off man with his throws.  There weren’t too many times when he laid out to make a brilliant catch, but he was a consistent defender in right field.   There is no reason to believe that Lance Berkman can’t play just as well as Maris, and the Big Puma’s bat is much more potent than that of Maris at this point in their careers.   When Maris needed a day off, Bobby Tolan would take over and we would have a plus defender in the field.   The same way that Skip Schumaker or Jon Jay will spell Berkman in 2011, but both Schumaker and Jay have shown much better offensive production than Tolan did for the Cardinals.

First base

Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball, Orlando Cepeda wasn’t.   Cepeda had a good year in 1967, but so did Curt Flood, Dick Hughes and Bob Gibson.   If the MVP voters had any courage, they would have given the award to Gibson even though he missed two months of the season.   But we’re getting off track here.

Cepeda had a very good year in 1967.   It was Jack Clark good.   It was more than Keith Hernandez good.   It was about 500 times better than  Tino Martinez good.   As good as it was, it was not even close to an off year from The Mang.  But we’re not talking about 1967 Cepeda, we’re comparing 2011 Albert Pujols and 1968 Orlando Cepeda.   That Orlando Cepeda (.248/.306/.378 16 home runs, 73 RBIs) wasn’t even Tino Martinez (.262/.337/.438 21 home runs, 75 RBIs) good.   Even if the Cardinals management fail to sign Albert Pujols to a contract extension and trade him at the non-waiver deadline, he will likely have produced more offense in 2011 than Cepeda did in 1968.   And there’s more to it than just at the plate, while Cepeda was a good first baseman, Albert Pujols is a two-time Gold Glove first baseman.

Let’s give that one to the 2011 Cardinals.

Third base

Mike Shannon vs David Freese at third base.   Oh, this is hard because there is a variable here well beyond our control.   In all but one aspect, Freese is a superi0r player to Shannon, but that one is a big one – durability.   You could count on Mike Shannon to go out there 150 times or more a year, and produce at a consistent level.   He was never flashy, but he didn’t seem to slump for long periods either.   What he lacked in physical ability, he made up with mental toughness and sheer desire.   If David Freese can stay healthy, the 2011 Cardinals will have a huge plus in their lineup.

Conditional advantage to the 2011 Cardinals.

Backstop

Thanks to his broadcasting career with Fox Sports, most baseball fans know the name Tim McCarver.   While his broadcasting can be amateurish and sometimes just plain goofy, his play behind the plate was nothing to laugh about.   He is a vastly underrated signal caller.   It is important to note that Bob Gibson’s scoreless inning streak in 1968 was interrupted by a passed ball in a game caught by Johnny Edwards, not Timmy Mac.  He didn’t have a particularly strong arm, but it was good enough to gun down all but the best base stealers of the day.   And he was productive at the plate as well.   Not a prolific home run hitter, he did manage to hit more than his share of baseballs into the gaps, resulting in more triples than you typically associate with a catcher.

Yadier Molina is a defensive freak of nature.   Nobody has an arm like his, and he’s not afraid to throw to any base.   He occasionally gets a bit lackadaisical behind the plate, especially when the team is not playing well, if it is a must win situation, like three games in Cincinnati last August, there is nobody that is more clutch than Yadier Molina.

Let’s call this one a tie, with some upside for Molina if he had a good year at the plate.

Conclusion

The 1967 and 1968 Cardinals were the best team that the Cardinals have fielded in my lifetime.  Whitey Herzog’s rabbits in the mid-80’s came close, but perhaps only a gashouse team from another era could have beaten Red Schoendienst’s two-time NL Pennant winners.   That said, when comparing them to the 2011 Cardinals, there is a lot to be optimistic about.   And don’t bring up the level of the competition, those Giants, Reds and Cubs teams (yes, the Cubs) were tough to beat, just has hard as the current crop of Phillies, Giants and Braves.

The 2011 offense should be fine, certainly strong enough to win the NL Central.   If, and that’s a big if, David Freese (and Yadier Molina) can remain healthy.   That’s where the Cardinal have their greatest exposure, and frankly the “Plan B” is a little bit thin.   As long as we can stay with Plan A, things will be fine.

Defense and pitching is where the division will be won, and the two are always linked.   This is also where our optimism will be put to the test, because the Dave Duncan pitch-to-contact approach will stress the defense, in particular that of the middle infield.   If extra hits are allowed, and the defensive runs allowed projections seem to suggest this will be the case, it will place extra strain on the pitching staff and a possible change in approach.   The additional stress will burn out the starters more quickly, and that may expose some depth in the bullpen.

Can the 2011 Cardinals keep pace with their 1968 ancestors ?  On paper, it would seem so.   Will they ?   That remains to be seen.   Check back with me in early July, we should have a good read on them by the All Star Game.   I don’t see a Tony La Russa team being a good at come-from-behind baseball, so if they haven’t built up a nice lead by the All Star break, we might all be paying more attention to the Rams pre-season in August.

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One Response to Pitching will be the key to success in 2011

  1. Pingback: Cardinals Links: Warming Up | I-70 Baseball

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