Thursday, July 9, 2015

Next Up: The Division-Leading St. Louis Cardinals

0.5, 2.5, 4.5, 6.5, 8.5.

At the conclusion of the four-game series between the Cardinals and Pirates beginning tonight at PNC Park, the Cardinals will be in first place and the Pirates will be in second. The size of the deficit--currently 4.5 games--will be one of the five figures listed above, depending on the number of games the Pirates win. As I noted Monday, this will be the first series since May between the only two teams in the majors to have won 50 games. So this is a pretty big series. Amazingly, there's rain in the forecast tonight! Then again, given how the Pirates played in the rain against the Padres, winning three straight, maybe that's a good thing.

How Are They Doing Lately? The Cardinals and Pirates are first and second, respectively, in the National League this season. Over the past 30 days, they're second and first, respectively. The Cardinals' record of 17-10 has been bested only by the Pirates' 19-8. St. Louis has scored 3.9 runs per game over the past 30 days, the fifth most in the league. (The Pirates have scored 3.5, the fifth fewest.) The Cards have given up 2.8 runs per game, the fewest in the league. (The Pirates have given up 2.9, the second fewest.) So to answer the question: The Cardinals have been playing very well lately, as they have all year, despite losing their best starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, for the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon on April 25; their best hitter, left fielder Matt Holiday, since June 8 with a quad strain; and their first baseman, Matt Adams, for 3-4 months with a quad strain on May 26.

What's Going Right? Well, when you're first in the league in runs allowed and fifth in runs scored, a lot of stuff's going well. Over the last 30 days, Cardinals starting pitchers have a ridiculous 2.40 ERA and are third in the league in percentage of batted balls hit on the ground and fourth in strikeout percentage. They've also been in the strike zone the fourth most often in the league, and when they're not, they've induced opposing batters to swing at 35% of pitches outside the strike zone, most in the league. The relievers have had to pitch only 70 innings over the last 30 days, second fewest in the league, given the starters' success. On offense, the Cardinals' .249 batting average over the last 30 days is only ninth in the league, but they're eighth in on base percentage (.316) and seventh in slugging percentage (.389), indicating walks (fourth highest rate in the league) and power in excess of their batting average.

What's Going Wrong? The relievers, while well-rested, have been pretty average over the last 30 days: seventh in the league in percentage of batters struck out, eighth in percentage of batters walked, and eighth in ERA (2.96). Typical of Cardinals teams, the team's hit only 22 homers over the last 30 days, tying them with the Giants for the fifth fewest in the league.

Who's Hot? The Cardinals' starting pitchers against the Pirates will be Carlos Martinez (2.20 ERA over the last 30 days), Lance Lynn (0.47), John Lackey (1.75), and rookie Tim Cooney (2.38). So yeah, the starting pitchers have been really good. The relievers, as noted, haven't been quite as dominating, but setup man Kevin Siegrist and closer Trevor Rosenthal have combined to pitch 25.2 innings, allowing 20 hits, 4 unintentional walks, 30 strikeouts, and just two runs (0.70 ERA). Right fielder Jason Heyward has rebounded from a slow start and has been the team's best hitter over the last 30 days, leading the club with a .327 batting average and .382 on base percentage. His .515 slugging percentage is second to Randall Grichuk, Holiday's replacement, who's slugged .562 and leads the club with five homers, 18 runs scored, and 14 driven in over the past 30 days. Another slow starter, catcher Yadier Molina, has batted .308 over the past 30 days.

Who's Not? The infield. Adams' replacement at first, Mark Reynolds, is batting .171 with a .255 on base percentage over the last 30 days. He's also struck out in 37% of his plate appearances. (Frame of reference: The average National League position player has struck out 19% of the time.) Second baseman Kolten Wong is batting .222 with a .297 on base percentage. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta's hit .243 with a .292 on base percentage. Third baseman Matt Carpenter has a .191 batting average and .225 slugging percentage. Those figures are well below the National League position player averages of a .256 batting average, .319 on base percentage, and .394 slugging percentage. The relievers other than Siegrist and Rosenthal have a 4.26 ERA over the last 30 days.

What's the Outlook? This shapes up to be a low-scoring series. Give the Cardinals the edge in the starting rotation and the Pirates the edge in the bullpen. If a team jumps to a 4-0 lead in the early innings, it'll be hard for the opponent to come back. But again, these are, at this point, the two best teams in the National League. It should make for some good baseball.

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