The eighties editions of the Cardinals were often mocked with the old baseball expression “Punch And Judy hitters” because the lineups usually consisted of slap-hitting switch hitters and one or two home run threats. Opponents rarely felt intimidated by the sight of Vince Coleman tossing the bat into the strike zone, or Willie McGee swinging at balls in the dirt from his heels. Let’s not even mention the hilarity of tiny Ozzie Smith standing at home plate with his oversized bat.
But when they put the ball in play, watch out.
The secret to a lineup made up of hitters with slugging percentages lower than my mother’s is SPEED. Beating out infield choppers, stealing second base, or going from first to third on a single are vital ingredients to a punchless offense. When you have speed, a lineup of weak contact hitters can rack up runs in a hurry – ask anyone who watched Whiteyball in action.
The 2011 version of the Cardinals veers dangerously close to having a similar lineup, except without the speed to make such an attack really gather momentum.
The current lineup is built around the powerful nucleus of Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. Between these two All Stars, you have an offensive core that produces a .400 OBP and a .600 slugging percentage – awesome production by any standard. The projected protection for these two – Lance Berkman, David Freese, and Colby Rasmus – have terrific slugging percentages, but, with the exception of Berkman four years ago, their OBP is average.
Beyond that, the chances of this lineup producing runs looks dismal. Aside from the pitcher’s spot, here are the “hitters” most likely to be featured somewhere on Tony LaRussa’s ever-changing lineup card:
Skip Schumaker – He has been an awful leadoff hitter for precisely the opposite reason why Vince Coleman worked so well. When Coleman reached base, his speed generated runs (Coleman scored twenty or more runs than Schumaker in every year when they had similar at-bats, despite Schumaker having a better OBP and slugging); when Schumaker reaches base, he stands there and waits for a triple. Schumaker’s lack of speed is bewildering given his size and frame, and deadly in a game.
Ryan Theriot – His OBP and slugging resembles Schumaker’s and is similarly coupled with a curious lack of speed. Theriot’s Rbat (which measures the runs created through all means, including errors, against the league average of zero) is a disturbing -47, which shows that he doesn’t have the speed to complement his punchless hitting.
Yadier Molina – Toothless offensive output (.327/.361) combined with the worst running legs of anyone ever. Molina could ground into a double play in a batting cage. He has a surprising number of doubles, but upon closer inspection it’s obvious that many of these were ground rule doubles, which don’t often translate into runs with men on base. Even worse, Molina’s lack of speed and propensity for the double play take the team out of many run-scoring opportunities.
Nick Punto – On the days (or months?) when he is subbing for Freese (or Theriot), Nick Punto will insert his shockingly-bad .321 OBP/.322 slugging percentage into a lineup of other featherweight hitters. He has almost no speed and no way to drive in runs.
Now factor in the speed of the core offensive players on the team. Pujols runs like he’s stepping on tacks. Holliday has decent speed, but has the grace of an elk that has just been shot and tumbling down a hill. Freese has ankles made from delicate unicorn hair and could snap in the breeze of a wayward butterfly. Berkman’s knees give him the blinding speed and agility of a glacier. Of the lot, only Rasmus shows a promising combination of OBP, slugging, and the speed with which to utilize those numbers.
It worries me that this team is built around so many punchless hitters who cannot help themselves on the basepaths. If this team cannot get on base or get into scoring position, the Cardinals will (yet again) find themselves over-reliant on the long ball to score runs. Without any speed and facing questions about the stability of the core offensive players, this team might find itself in a laborious race this summer and no legs with which to win it.