Received an email from lboros over at Viva El Birdos basically asking me if I'd care to take a stab at explaining the reasons the Astros have been able to surge above .500 going into our upcoming weekend series.
Since he'd gotten the ball rolling, I'd then asked if he could throw something my way, and I came up with a few talking points, and sent 'em along:
Does St. Louis have an Achilles heel?
Is there any way they don't win the Central?
And not that you guys haven't been able to win without Rolen, but with his All-Star bowout, does this mean you may be doing without him again?
And lastly, people always talk about Mazzone but what exactly is it that Dave Duncan has done to make Carpenter and Marquis viable frontline pitchers?
Grabbed a Southwest Cobb salad for dinner at the neighborhood diner, along with some fries and a cup of smoky-tasting chili, and returned home to find the following dispatch from Birdland:
Although the Cards lead the league in runs scored, this is a pitching-oriented team. The 2005 staff has done two things very well: they don't walk guys, and they keep the ball in the park. I can't answer your question about Carpenter and Marquis --- I know Duncan is a freak for videotape, breaking down mechanics frame by frame, and maybe he spotted something to help those guys become better pitchers. Primarily though he has gotten these guys to pitch aggressively --- throw inside, get ahead of batters, trust their stuff enough to let batters put it in play. These starters don't nibble --- well, Mulder does, and that's got us all worried. He isn't getting many swinging strikes; not throwing hitters off balance.
The defense chips in by cutting off the running game (only 19 SB's against this year) and turning lots of double plays. And the bullpen has far exceeded expectations --- great work from Brad Thompson and Al Reyes, and another excellent season from Tavarez. But The 'pen still worries a lot of us, because a) Isringhausen looks soft, and b) the left side of the 'pen is mush. You asked if the team has an Achilles' heel; the bullpen might be one.
Age and injury might be another. Edmonds, Walker and Rolen have all missed significant time; LaRussa is nursing them through the regular season so they'll be hale and hearty by October, but there are no guarantees. Rolen's shoulder is killing him --- he admitted recently he can't turn on fastballs like he needs to --- and will probably continue to plague him until after the season. He also is showing ill effects from the knee injury he sustained last September. so basically, the guy's a mess. But his glove is so good that he helps the team a lot even if his OPS stays in the .750 range.
Walker is pretty banged up too, as usual. He had an awful June but is starting to raise his game. I'm sure the front office would like to pick up a cheap fourth outfielder for insurance, preferably a right-handed hitter.
All season the Cards' actual runs total has exceeded the figure predicted by various run-scoring models (e. g. runs created, linear weights, etc.). They're second in the league in OBP and third in slugging --- obviously doing a lot of things right. But the offense still doesn't feel like it is clicking efficiently. One example: David Eckstein has an OBP of .370 out of the leadoff slot, with Walker Pujols, et al, batting behind him --- yet he is only on pace to score about 90 runs. I don't get that.
There are definite chinks in the armor, but I still think it's a 95-win team at the very worst; the depth of the starting rotation and the professional pride in the clubhouse make a full collapse seem very unlikely. Indeed, many of us think the team has yet to play its best baseball --- and that's good. Save it for October.
We of course thank Viva El Birdos, and will try to come up with the eagerly anticipated Series Preview Chart that is both relevant and informative sometimes tomorrow. . . .