The 35-17 St. Louis Cardinals are currently on top of all of baseball with a .673 winning percentage. They are only one game ahead of their run differential. They lead the National League in runs scored per game. They allow the fewest runs per game. They currently project to end the year as the team with the most wins in baseball. They are tied for first in the National League in wRC+, and are first or tied for first in the NL in ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP-. Just in case this is your first time reading Getting Blanked: the 2013 Cardinals are pretty good.
It certainly isn’t because of their manager, though. Sure, the Cardinals made the playoffs last year and looks like the best team in baseball so far this year, but I’m not sure how much credit should go to Mike Matheny. Even if he wasn’t the successor to the Great Mind of Tony LaRussa, one would have questions about his decisions — particularly his batting order. At least on the surface, exoteric level, it seems, well, blasphemous and heretical.
However, as we know, the best baseball wisdom is the secret, esoteric possession of the elite. Hey, if “baseball insiders” can anonymously talk that way, why not irresponsible jerk bloggers? This post will get to the bottom of the matter by going through the top half of the Cardinals’ most frequently-used 2013 batting order and laying out first the surface exoteric heresy, and then the mysterious esoteric wisdom of the choices.
[Batting order information taken from Baseball-Reference as of today.]
Exoteric Heresy: On the surface level, this seems like a good idea, especially since Carpenter is the Cardinals’ primary second baseman this year. Those guys hit up top, right? But heresy lurks. Carpenter simply is not a very fast guy. He is two-for-three in his major league career (584 plate appearances, about one full season’s worth) for stealing. Sure, he gets on-bsae well, (.390 OBP so far this year), but without the speed, won’t that just lead to base-clogging?
Esoteric Wisdom: Carpenter is probably way over his head as far as on-base percentage goes. He current projected “true talent” line from combined ZiPS and Steamer projections is .274/.360/.410 (.339 wOBA). Still, a .360 on-base percentage is quite nice out of the leadoff spot. Moreover, with the power coming up right behind him, do you really need someone risking an out stealing a base? No, you just want him to get on. And be productive. Without going through all the new, not-so-esoteric-in-reality ideas about batting order (and those really only summarize what should really be established by models and simulations), if Carpenter is not one of the Cardinals’ best three hitters, he is pretty close, and given his moderate power and good on-base skills, he is a nice choice for leadoff. Better than Rafael Furcal would have been if he was around.
Exoteric Heresy: This might have made sense back in 1999, when Beltran was a speedy center fielder who stole lots of bases without tons of power, but now? Beltran’s isolated power has been .226 since 2011, shouldn’t that power be further down the order? Moreover, he’s lost a ton of speed as he has aged: yes, 13 steals last year, but only four the year before, and, most importantly, zero so far this year. Perhaps worst of all, Beltran has one sacrifice hit since 2009. How he he going to bunt the leadoff guy over?
Esoteric Wisdom: While the New Batting Order Wisdom says bat a team’s best (or of the the best) hitters second, again, that is more of a generic recommendation in lieu of actually doing the simulation. Beltran might actually be a better fit down the order for the Cardinals, as he projects to have the most power going forward, but just barely. In any case, it is nice to get one of the team’s three best hitters plenty of playing time rather than shoving him down the order. He has the power to drive in Carpenter, which makes Carpenter’s lack of steals less important, and Beltran can get on base well. Beltran is also good at avoiding the double play, a nice asset for a player batting second, although the third spot typically sees the most double-play opportunities.
Exoteric Heresy: This might not seem so bad, as Holliday has been a really good hitter in all respects — power, average, walks. But have you seen his numbers this year? A .258/.343/.440 hitter can help a team, but hot in the holy third spot!
Esoteric Wisdom: This takes a bit of a different angle on the exoteric/esoteric difference. Some may want to move Holliday out of the third slot in favor of one of St. Louis’ hotter hitters like Yadier Molina, Beltran, or Craig. But we are only a third of the way through the season, and while his power is a bit down, Holliday is essentially the same excellent hitter he has been the prior two seasons, aside from BABIP. Holliday projects to be the Cardinals’ best hitter the rest of the way at .284/.465/.480, which, along with his slightly proclivity to ground into double plays, might actually be a good “esoteric” argument for him to move down a spot, but close enough.
4. Allen Craig
Exoteric Heresy: Craig is a lot like Holliday: a big, strong, dude who is not hitting well this year. He is hitting cleanup, but has not shown that much power. With Beltran smoking the ball, why is a .311/.357/.454 guy hitting cleanup?
Esoteric Wisdom: Again, true talent is the key here. Craig actually projects to be a slightly better hitter than Beltran for the rest of the season (.294/.394/.484). While Beltran has better projected power, it does not really m matter all that much when one thinks about playing time distribution. Moreover, the fourth spot sees fewer double play chances than either the second or third spot, and Craig is even worse than Holliday in that regard.
5. Yadier Molina
Exoteric Heresy: On one hand, why isn’t the catcher hitting eigth? Just kidding. Molina’s glove has always been seen as superlative, but his bat has really come on, especially since the beginning of last year. That is the heresy: Molina has been the best hitter of the Cardinals’ starters this year, why is he only hitting fifth?
Esoteric Wisdom: As with Holliday and Craig, this is a true talent issue. It is not just the projections, one can see what is going on just by looking at his raw numbers: Molia is living on BABIP at the moment. It is not that he is a bad hitter — far from it. But he has never hit for much power, and a player with his “speed” is not going to keep up a .380 BABIP for long. And, although he has been better since the start of last year, Molina has a seriously big problem with double plays in the past — even Billy Butler was kind of embarrassed for him.
David Freese is hitting sixth, and from there the batting order generally just goes in order of projected quality of hitter, which hopefully makes sense on both the exoteric and esoteric levels. The main thing that is good about this lineup is Matheny not worrying about getting speed up at the top or worrying about “wasting” Beltran’s power in the second post. He has guys who get on base followed by power. How hard is that to understand?
As intimated in the post, I am not saying that Matheny is using the perfect batting order, and I have not done simulations to figure out what that would be. Who knows how Matheny has decided on the batting order he uses? Batting order does not matter that much (although it matters about as much as other stuff we fans like to complain about) given St. Louis’ pretty stacked lineup.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to see a manager with so basically on experience prior to last year being willing to duck some of the bigger batting order cliches. Matheny doing this, Robinson Cano and Jose Bautista hitting second… clearly, the Illuminati are at work in managers’ offices across the league.