June 10, 2015
The Hollidays are Coming to an End in St. Louis
From 2011 through 2013, four Cardinals qualified for the batting title with an OPS+ north of 120 each year. They were the first NL team since the 1975–77 Reds to manage that for three consecutive seasons. Impressively, too, they did so without perfect (or even significant) stability among that core of their lineup. In 2011, the four guys who met these criteria were Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Yadier Molina, and Matt Holliday. In 2012, five guys did it: Allen Craig, David Freese, Carlos Beltran, Holliday, and Molina. In 2013, there were five again: Beltran, Craig, Holliday, Molina, and Matt Carpenter.
After a down year for the entire offense in 2014, in which Holliday was the only qualifying hitter with at least a 120 OPS+, the 2015 Cardinals are back in the saddle. This time, the four qualifiers meeting our criteria are: Carpenter, Holliday, Jhonny Peralta, and Kolten Wong. For much of the last two weeks, Wong, Carpenter, Holliday, and Peralta have batted first through fourth in the Cardinals' batting order.
That's probably over for a while. On Monday night, Holliday strained his quadriceps coming in on a fly ball, and while the full extent of the injury will be known only after further tests, it seems likely that he'll be sidelined for at least a few weeks. That leaves an obvious hole in the Cardinals' lineup, not only because Matt Adams was already lost for the season (with the worst possible version of the injury Holliday just sustained), but because Molina's days of delivering elite offense at catcher seem to be behind him. In fact, these four hitters are currently the only ones on the Cardinals with average or better OPS+ figures in significant playing time.
Now, that's not likely to continue. Jason Heyward and Molina might not be what they were a year or two ago, but it's unlikely they'll each finish with OPSes south of .680, where they sit now. Despite 24 strikeouts and three walks in 87 plate appearances, Randal Grichuk has been valuable, and maybe it's the strike-zone control that will regress, rather than the batted-ball luck. Jon Jay had just, at long last, convinced me that he could really hit .290 or so every year and walk enough to be decent, but he's gone into the tank this season, unable to barrel up anything. For five years and nearly 2,500 plate appearances, he sustained a BABIP of .345. This year it's .264. That could very well be bad luck, in such a small sample, but the disappearance of his power and the diminution of his walk rate suggest it's something more. Still, he's a bounceback candidate, if a tenuous one.
If Holliday really is lost for a significant period, the Cardinals can also consider calling up Stephen Piscotty. We ranked him as the 32nd-best prospect in baseball before the season, and he's now 800 plate appearances into his Triple-A career, with an OPS of .770 there. Chris Crawford assures me that the plus hit tool we assigned to Piscotty in the spring remains very much in there, so recalling the 24-year-old would likely offer a fair amount of relief. What some call #CardinalsDevilMagic, I call great drafting, remarkable patience, and a willingness to hang onto a surfeit of talent in case a sudden shortfall arises. If Piscotty can adjust to the big leagues quickly, St. Louis might not even miss Holliday.
That is not to say, though, that they can expect their offensive excellence to continue. Of the four stars who had been powering the lineup, Holliday was the only one I would have expected to carry his success forward into the summer and fall, at least at this level. Carpenter is an excellent hitter, and the most frustrating, difficult out for opponents in the entire NL, but his true-talent slugging average is far lower than the .520 he's posted to date. Indeed, he hit .333/.403/.620 through the team's first 27 games, but ever since being left behind on a road trip to recover from "extreme fatigue," he's fallen back to Earth: .261/.378/.402. He's struck out 26 times in 111 plate appearances over that span, which is normal in this day and age, but not for Matt Carpenter. I fully expect him to be better than he's been over the last four weeks, but he won't be anything close to what he was for the first four.
Peralta makes Carpenter's early-season over-performance look piddling, though. At age 33, he's putting up a .325 True Average. For perspective, Peralta has never posted a TAv north of .307, and he hit that figure in 2005. PECOTA gave him a 90th percentile preseason projection of .293, and he's outperforming it by 30 points. If the season ended today, Peralta would have (easily) career bests in batting average and OBP, and would be just four slugging points off his career-high .520, from that 2005 age-23 season. It's fun to watch—Peralta is a fun at-bat, the same way J.D. Martinez is—but it isn't sustainable. Eighty-five or 90 percent of it might be, but this in its entirety isn't.
Holliday is 35. Molina is 32, and already in decline. Carpenter turns 30 this fall. The Cardinals have turned over their lineup and remained on top before, but they have to do it again, or their run of dominance will be over. As good as the Cardinals' process has been, I'm not sure they can repeat the feat. Trading for Holliday was a neat trick. Signing him to a long free-agent deal afterward was a risk, but it paid off enormously. Most such moves won't break so well. The reason Yadier Molina is a Hall of Famer is that he's damn difficult to replicate or replace.
We might be at the end of the miniature NL Central dynasty the Cardinals built by having an elite top of the batting order. That doesn't necessarily signal the end of the team's dynasty altogether: They're doing freakish things in the area of run prevention right now, things that probably deserve a second article to analyze and explain. For now, though, it's fair to call their reign an imperiled one. As impressive as 38–20 sounds, the Cubs and Pirates have played well enough to keep St. Louis very much in range. The lead is 6 1/2 games over both, and teams overcome leads of that size (and larger) with this much time left (or even considerably less) all the time. Adam Wainwright is hurt. Lance Lynn's forearm is barking. The team's 2.69 collective ERA is ridiculous, and not only in the new, impressed sense of that word. They're not going to hold teams to so few runs for the rest of the year, so they need their offense to rediscover its footing if they want to hold off their upstart division rivals. I won't rule that out, thanks to their depth and the solid track record of their struggling hitters, but without Holliday, it sure doesn't look like a safe bet.