With a new manager debuting for the Cardinals this season, the question of whether the team’s identity would get a makeover obviously weighed heavily on the fan base. The attention given to this topic was heightened when Mike Matheny was chosen as the new manager. A wild card due to his lack of experience at any level, many wondered what direction he will take the defending champions. So far, he has made some great moves, such as pairing prospects like Tyrell Jenkins and Shelby Miller with veterans like Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright for the spring training throwing sessions. To have such incredible mentors can only aid in the young pitchers’ transitions through the system. Recently, though, Matheny made another move that could be indicative of the Cardinals front office noticing a trend developing in major league baseball. After the jump, we’ll look at whether or not a return to the concept of Whiteyball could serve the Cardinals well
Whiteyball was a playing style developed by former manager Whitey Herzog to take advantage of the astroturf playing field in the old Busch Stadium. Whitey showed an increased focus on stealing, speed on the basepaths, and defense as opposed to fielding a team of mashers. With the exception of Jack Clark and Tom Brunansky, it was a rarity to see a 20+ home run hitter in St Louis. Obviously, this style of play faded away in the 90s with Whitey’s retirement and a league-wide surge on home run hitting.
During Tony LaRussa’s regime, his style of play was definitely not Whiteyball. It actually became rare to see players hit double digits on stolen bases, as Tony was not an advocate of the swipe. Just last year, the team leader in stolen bases was Tyler Greene. Greene topped out at a meager eleven steals and wasn’t even a full-time major leaguer.
On Wednesday, though, MLB.com posted this article, in which new manager Mike Matheny stated that there would be an increased focus on the running game. With instructors like Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, and Willie McGee (they must have lost Vince Coleman’s number), the speedy players on the team will be trusted more to steal bases during the season. This comes at just the right time as the following table shows:
As you can see, last season saw a 9.72% drop in home runs over the five year peak in 2009. There are many theories on this finding ranging from the natural decline of aging regulars, a fantastic crop of pitchers coming through the minor leagues, and, of course, the cracking down on steroid usage. Regardless of the reasoning, though, the numbers indicate that teams can’t rely on the power game as much anymore because power bats are becoming a rarer commodity. The 9.64% decrease from the five year peak of walks and 3.42% drop in batting average support the claim that pitching has been better in general. To overcome dominant pitching, it will be easier to turn to players with a good eye and patience at the plate and the ability to get on base than elite level power hitters. On-base percentage was obviously the driving force behind the Moneyball concept, but with the increased focus on high OBP players, it isn’t the overlooked commodity that it was in the early 2000s. Another concept of Moneyball, though, was the elimination of stolen bases. Stolen bases and reaching for extra bases on hits were viewed as unnecessary risks that could lead to outs. As such, base running has developed into an unappreciated commodity. The numbers show that this could be changing, however. One last look at the table shows that 2011 saw a 17% increase from the five year low. Are the Cardinals possibly tapping into an emerging market deficiency? A look at the high upside prospects in the Cardinals system suggests that it could be a direction to trend towards.
Hypothetically, let’s say Yadier Molina is extended and the Cardinals high upside prospects reach their potential. It’s obviously a reach, but it generated interesting results. With a lineup of catcher Yadier Molina, first baseman Matt Adams, second baseman Kolten Wong, shortstop Ryan Jackson, third baseman Zack Cox, and an outfield of Matt Holliday, CJ McElroy, and Oscar Taveras, there isn’t a ton of power projected. By then, Holliday could see his homer totals drop to the low 20s with Taveras and Adams adding a possible 15-30 themselves. The rest are contact hitters with good speed on the basepaths.
Is a hybrid Whiteyball style a good direction for the Cardinals to lean? This writer thinks so.