Since Bug Selig introduced interleague play in 1997, the Royals have faced off against the Cardinals 80 times, more than any other squad on the Senior Circuit. For the first time, the matchup is between what may be the two best teams in MLB, as they own their respective central divisions and are currently tied for the best Pythagorean record in the game -- an expected win-loss record based on the number of runs scored and allowed. Since you’re here at Royals Review, you probably have a pretty good idea why the boys in blue are the class of the American League through the first six-and-a-half weeks of the season, but how did the Cardinals get here?
A lot has changed in St. Louis since this time last season. Over the winter, John Mozeliak swapped 4 years of Shelby Miller for a season of Jason Heyward. After seeing Wainwright go down with a ruptured Achilles in just his fourth start of the season and watching Miller soar to the league ERA lead, you can imagine there may have been some degree of seller’s remorse in the Cardinals’ front office. Fortunately, for the Red Birds, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and John Lackey have each been lights out this season, allowing just 47 runs over a combined 151 innings. Unfortunately for the Royals, they will face each of these starters during the three-game set.
Lance Lynn has emerged as the undercover staff ace, rocking an elite level strikeout rate (28%) that elicited a Max Scherzer comparison from Craig Edwards earlier this month. Lackey and Wacha have also posted sub-3.00 ERAs John Lackey and Micheal Wacha may have outperformed their peripherals, but not so drastically that the best fans in baseball need wring their hands apprehension.
St. Louis also has the second-best bullpen in the league (follow the link to see who’s first), led by closer Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal continues to post elite strikeout numbers and although his walk is better than his wretched 2014 value (14 percent), it’s continues to be worse than league average (9%). He’s managed to survive his command issues so far this year, converting 13 of 14 save chances while allowing just 2 runs.
As a group, Cardinals pitchers have allowed the fewest runs (120) and HRs (24) and have lead the league in FIP. With the Royals sitting just 6 HR from a tie with the Phillies for last place, don’t count on the power coming just yet. The Royals are going to need to Royal on offense this weekend. The name of the game is small ball.
After seeing their overall pitching statistics, you might (wrongly) assume that the Cardinals owe their elite run differential solely to their pitching and defense. This season, the Cards have averaged 4.5 runs scored per game, good for 7th best in the majors. They’ve done this without an elite power bat (sound familiar?) or elite speed on the basepaths.
They can thank God’s childhood friend, Matt Holliday, for leading the charge on offense again this season, though this year he’s done it with seeing eye singles rather than the 20+ HR power he’s boasted in each of the previous 9 seasons. He’s BABIP’d his way to an empty .328 AVG, with just 12 extra base hits. Sure, he’s walked as often as he’s struck out (16%), but he’s also tied with Bryce Harper and David Ortiz for the fifth most intentional walks (5), which figure to dry up until he rediscovers his power stroke.
New acquisition Heyward has been a disappointment offensively and is posting the lowest OPS+ of any regular in the lineup, save Matt Adams, as well as his career. In other seasons, the former top prospect has been able to top the fWAR leaderboard with good but not great offense and elite defense (remind you of anyone?), but his value has slipped on both sides of the ball so far this young season. (Fun Jason Heyward fact: His middle name is Alias, which makes it seem like someone forgot to remove all the placeholders when cooking up a fake ID)
There have been bright spots in this year’s Cardinals’ offense. The other, other Matt (Carpenter) is already just 1 HR shy of his 2014 total (8). He’s sacrificed some of his keen eye at the plate for more power, and it’s paid off. He’s currently leading all third basemen in adjusted weighted runs created (160 wRC+), just edging out Moustakas (154). Johnny Peralta is the third best shortstops in that same metric -- which is a rate statistic for that weights each offensive action and controls for league and park effects -- and Kolton Wong ranks 7th among second basemen.
The challenge for the Royals this series will the same as it is most nights, get 5-6 innings from the starter and hand the ball to the boys in the bullpen with a tight score. With the Cardinals’ offense, there isn’t one big bat to avoid but rather a lineup full of solid to good ones. Sound familiar?
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Matt Jackson is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacksontaigu.