Matt Holliday and the Cardinals - A Love Story
Following the 2005 season, the Cardinals began looking for the perfect 4th place hitter to bat behind Albert Pujols - to protect him, take care of him, and make sure he got lots of fat pitches to hit. After Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen could no longer fill the position (due to injuries, old age, La Russa's whims) the team started giving a plucky outfielder with a reconstructed hip the chance. Ryan Ludwick was with his third organization, a "bat", other organizations would call him, but nothing more and a guy with a bad hip can't be taken too seriously, right? But Ludwick was anything if not determined and through some hard work, he hung around long enough in 2007 to hit 14 home runs and started getting some looks in the middle of the lineup.
In 2008, Ludwick, the scrappy underdog put on an offensive show from start to finish, batting .299, clubbing 37 home runs, enjoying All-Star status and Silver Slugger recognition. That season, batting fourth behind El Hombre, Luddy's line was a hefty .295-20-59. But injuries came back to haunt Luddy in May 2009. He finished the season with a more modest .265-22-97 line as he tried too hard to justify his big raise after his monster 2008 campaign. The Cardinals' eyes still roamed for the one clean-up hitter that would make everyone's dreams come true.
On July 24, 2009 the Cardinals went "all-in" at the trade deadline to acquire Matt Holliday, the beefy Oklahoman that Tony La Russa and the rest of the organization had been dreaming of for years. He was immediately inserted into the clean-up spot and hit .353-13-55 in 63 games. Most cheered for our new heart-throb, but a small few of us felt bad for the rough-around-the-edges Ludwick, who despite the injuries in '09 still batted .278-14-55 in 62 games behind Pujols. Aside from the average, his clean-up numbers were not much different from the club's new pretty boy and this even in a "down" year for Luddy. Personally, I thought the tough-minded Ludwick deserved a little more consideration.
As it was, not since Paul McCartney paired with Michael Jackson was there such combined star-power as with Pujols and Holliday and for the most part last year, everything worked like a charm until things got serious: the playoffs. The team crashed and burned unceremoniously, with Holliday making a major gaffe in the outfield to seal the team's fate (maybe those possible commitment jitters). But Holliday and the Cards decided to get hitched anyway to the tune of a 7-year/$120 million contract - the best friend, Albert Pujols, approved. The Cards got their man and kept him. There was even a big announcement in the newspaper and everything.
Today is a new day, however. Today is 2010. Today is the "morning after" and the Cardinals just rolled over to see the studly Holliday isn't as studly as they thought. With only 23 RBI in 53 games from their hero, what could the team do? They saw the light and turned to Ol' Faithful, Ryan Ludwick, who already has 5 RBI in 4 games batting clean-up. Things seem right again, in Cardinal Nation - we just have to find ways to keep our new boy toy happy while we pay him to NOT bat clean-up anymore. Oh well.
It's time for...
The Hard Nine
1. The "Morning After" - No words are needed. Just check out Holliday's numbers so far in comparison to last year:
Year Games AB AVG HR RBI SLG OPS
2009 63 235 .353 13 55 .604 1.023
2010 64 243 .284 6 25 .423 .795
Holliday's near MVP season was 2007 at age 27. Why do baseball execs not understand that a player's peak years are typically during ages 24-28? In retrospect, it's unfortunate that Holliday did so well last year, when he was obviously energized by the trade, by the huge fanbase, and by being in playoff contention. He played way over his head and now we pay for two months in 2009 for the next seven years. Hooray.
2. Prodigal Sons Return - We certainly had flashbacks to four years ago as Aaron Miles and Jeff Suppan have recently returned to the flock. Even Tony La Russa was getting misty-eyed watching Soup deal to the (albeit) punchless Mariners. But in a start in which he was shaking off rust as much as trying to give the Cards a chance to win a game (a chance they essentially NEVER had when P.J. Walters, Blake Hawksworth or Adam Ottavino took the hill) he made some great pitches that reminded us of the guy that confounded the New York Mets in the 2006 NLCS with an 88-mph fastball, a slow curve and a tantalizing change-up. He even struck out the mighty Ichiro on a high hard one and doubled and scored for himself. Welcome back, Soup.
3. Take THAT, Sabermetrics Dorks - I love when the Cards play the Arizona Diamondbacks because I often get to hear the Dbacks color analyst, Mark Grace. For me, he was one of the quintessential late 80s ballplayers in the vein of Will Clark or Tony Gwynn - not the ideal physical specimen but had just a sweet swing that stroked hit after hit. And he is a fun TV analyst who calls things like they are, good or bad, for the home team or the visitors - he doesn't discriminate. I would love to hear Mark and Ex-Blue Kelly Chase do a sports talk show - it would be hilarious.
As I've said, I'm a stat fiend (but I'm NOT a Sabermetrics worshiper) and neither is "Gracie" as he talked about there being too many stats in today's game in a local Phoenix newspaper:
"The biggest stats for me were runs scored and RBIs. If those are both up, that means you're driving them in when they're out there and you're out there to be driven in...But instead, it's this guy sees 4.7 pitches per at bat. How about hit the first one and knock the (bleep) out of it, you know?"
Amen. Eloquently put, Mark.
4. NL Comeback Player of the Year - THN has been following Troy Glaus closely this year as the Ex-Card is having the season this year the Cardinals wished he had last year. In fact, Glaus has all but sewn up the NL Comeback Player of the Year award considering he leads the NL in RBI and has carried the Braves to their first place standing in the NL East. Glaus is on pace for 31 homers and 128 RBI which would be his highest total ever by a mile (his career high is 111 RBIs in 2002). And while he strikes out as much as ever, he still has a stout .380 on base percentage. Atlanta's sports writers have already come to terms that Troy has played himself into a big contract and probably right out of Atlanta.
5. Better Late Than Never - And speaking of resurrections, what on earth has gotten into Alex Rios of the White Sox? At age 29, it seems he is finally figuring out how to put his otherworldly talent to good use and that is an understatement. He's having an MVP-type year that has stunned pretty much everyone that laughed at the Sox for taking him (and his massive salary) off Toronto's hands. But maybe it isn't all that shocking - he wasn't even an All-Star until 2007 and that was only his third full season. The Blue Jays gave up on him in 2009 when he was batting .247, and he completely tanked after going to Chicago batting .199. Today he's hitting .313 and is on pace for 33 homers, 85 RBI and 49 steals! The difference? How about plate discipline? After striking out over 100 times in four of his six full seasons, he is on pace for just 77 Ks, which in this day and age is stellar for a guy with 30-homer power.
6. "Big Sweat" Hits the Big Wall - In my last entry, I wrote about my distaste for our lefty relievers efficiency. My distaste has turned to disgust, at least where Dennys "Big Sweat" Reyes is concerned. In May he was immaculate (unrealistically so, in fact), and in June he is paying for it. In four June appearances he has recorded just two outs, both on strikeouts. Reyes has allowed 10 baserunners (9 hits, 1 BB) and six earned runs in those four appearances and his ERA has ballooned from 1.59 to 3.63. He's given up seven consecutive hits to LEFTHANDERS. The only appearance of the four where he didn't give up a run he came in, gave up a hit, and left the game without getting an out. Tough day like that has got make you want to pop open a hard-earned Dos Equis.
7. Look Me In The Eye and Tell Me You Can't Score Two Runs - Jaime Garcia, while being a little less stellar lately, has still been hugely effective overall for the Cardinals. In his last outing, he lost 2-1 to Seattle (as Holliday, once again, failed to deliver a runner from third) and as in all 13 of his starts, he has yet to give up more than two earned runs which is explains his 1.59 ERA, still second in the NL. The Cardinals' record in his 13 starts: a pitiful 6-7. Aye caramba...
8. Blues Go Into "Halak-down" Mode - Ok, if you don't know how to pronounce "Halak" it's (ha-LOCK) - there, now my headline makes sense, right? Oh well. Really, this is the news of the week for THN. I fell out of my chair to hear my St. Louis Blues traded for 25-year-old Jaroslav Halak, the Montreal Canadiens playoff hero this past spring, and focus of my adoration in my April blogs as he helped the outgunned Habs knock off the powerful Capitals and Penguins in two seven-game series.
He was going to be a free agent soon and will need a massive raise from his $800k salary, but the Blues finally made a smart, strong, gutsy move to acquire a young budding star goaltender, a position the Blues (since the departure of Curtis Joseph) have seemingly always filled with a "wily veteran". Take your pick: Grant Fuhr, John Casey, Pat Lalime, Manny Legace, Chris Osgood, Chris Mason, Tom Barrasso. That list right there makes me want to put a bag over my head (except for Fuhr, who was exceptional when not injured). The last talented young goalie the Blues traded for (Roman Turek) blew up on them spectacularly in the playoffs so we have reserved excitement about this trade of course. The Blues did give up their #1 forward prospect in Lars Ellar, but seriously, he's Danish - he's only in the States to pick up girls, so the Blues sold high (as did Montreal).
But there is a good omen here: Halak is a Slovak - not a Czech (like Turek) - and the Blues have had some terrific luck with Slovaks over the past 15 years: Pavol Demitra (one of my all-time favorite Blues who was simply the best hockey player in the 2009 Winter Olympics), Michal Handzus (the bruising power center) and Ladislav Nagy to name a few. Hopefully, in ten years we'll be adding Halak to this list. Maybe even less.
9. Still Nailing those Calls - I was watching a Nationals game on MLB.TV and with my basic package I can't choose whether to get the home or away broadcast. On this occasion it was the Nationals' broadcast I was listening to and the play-by-play man's voice immediately brought back a flood of Cardinal memories. It was none other than Bob Carpenter, the St. Louisan who called the Cardinal games from 1993-2005. How many "See...you...LATER!" calls did he get to make in 1998? I'm going to be tuning into some Nats games more and more just for the walk down memory lane.