That the Cardinals lead the majors on wOBA is not that huge a surprise. They brought back an elite core of hitters in Colby Rasmus, Albert Pujols, and Matt Holliday, and then added a number of complementary pieces. The most prominent, of course, is Lance Berkman, who currently leads the NL in wOBA. But there is also David Freese, who, for April at least, was back on the field. And so the Cardinals offense, ripping through the league, currently sports a wOBA 16 points higher than the next closest NL team, and leads batter WAR by 3 wins.
What might surprise you is that they’re doing all this without a significant contribution from Pujols.
When the best hitter on the planet struggles, it tends not to fly under the radar. Pujols produced what was nearly the worst month of his career in April, a .332 wOBA in 118 PA. His June, 2006, was actually a bit worse, .306 wOBA, but he came to the plate only 45 times that month. True, that means the Cardinals had to trot out a replacement, so that month was probably worse. But this definitely ranks among them.
The biggest difference for the Cardinals has been how the team has handled the situation. During Pujols’s ineffective (and injured) June, 2006, the Cardinals went 9-16, going from 34-19 to 43-35. It didn’t stop them from winning the World Series, but it was still a significant setback at the time. This year the Cardinals went 16-11 in the first month as Pujols struggled, which put them atop the NL Central. This time, his teammates have picked him up.
While many of Pujols’s teammates have raked this season, none has done so as prolifically as Berkman. A few weeks ago Jesse Wolfersberger examined the early returns on the signing, and it was tough to come away anything other than impressed. At the time he had a .506 wOBA against righties, though that number was below .100 against lefties. Chances were he wasn’t going to hit well against lefties, as he’s been trending downward against them for a few years. Yet he’s managed to get that number up to .392. What’s even more impressive is his performance against righties. He has raised that all the way to .570, including a .405 ISO.
Berkman, then, is essentially replacing Pujols’s numbers in the Cardinals lineup — and then some. But he’s not the only one contributing to a greater degree than expected. Rasmus ranks third among center fielders with a .374 wOBA and is 13th in the majors with 1.5 WAR. Even Matt Holliday has exceeded his lofty expectations. He currently ranks second in the NL, third in the majors, with a .489 wOBA, greatly exceeding even his excellent .401 career mark. His 2.1 WAR ranks third in the majors, just 0.8 RAR behind Joey Votto, who ranks second.
If Pujols is going to turn around — and there’s no reason to believe he won’t — he’d do well to start tout de suite. That’s not just for the obvious reason that you always want Pujols hitting, but because the Cardinals just lost one of their biggest contributors. David Freese had produced 1.1 WAR, 32nd in the majors and fifth among third basemen, before he got hit with a pitch and broke his hand. His .382 wOBA will be missed, especially when Berkman and Holliday start to regress from their unsustainable paces. If anyone can help replace that production, it’s Pujols.
All is not lost for Pujols, of course. He actually started 2007 on a similar note, producing a .342 wOBA in 105 PA during April, 2007. That ended up being one of the worst seasons of his career, as he finished with a .414 wOBA. But that line alone should indicate what’s in store. His wOBA by month following that relatively slow start: .388, .434, .458, .393, .465. If he does that again this year the Cardinals will still be in good shape. It will help replace the torrid production of his teammates, who have stepped up in a big way while their biggest gun limped through the season’s first month.
Recently we’ve been running a series detailing what is wrong with various superstars. This was nearly a “what’s wrong with Pujols” article, but really, it’s nothing. He’s done this before, and it’s not as though he was going to produce a .380+ wOBA every month for the rest of his career. He’s also not going to have a .329 wOBA the rest of the season. But while he has struggled his teammates have stepped in and made up for his lost production. It could be that their performances in April save the Cardinals season.
Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.