The Best Offense in Baseball

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I make it no secret that outside of the neutral articles I’m supposed to be writing for my work at Call to the Pen, I’m a diehard Cardinals fan. So you’ll have to excuse me if this post comes across in a bit of a biased tone, but let me just say this anyway: the Cardinals have the best offense in either league, and it’s not particularly close. Now, wait a second here. I’m not just going to say that and start openly worshiping all of my favorite players; I actually have stats to back this assertion up. Read on, kind reader.

First of all, there isn’t a team in baseball that’s consistently among the game’s best in such a wide variety of offensive categories. Runs per game? They rank second with 4.98 runs per contest, trailing only the Rangers, who have the benefit of a designated hitter and a cozy home park that is much more conducive to scoring runs in. In fact, the only other two National League teams among the top ten in this category are the Rockies (Coors alert) and the Braves, who just did crack that list. How about OPS? The team is third in that category (.783), again just behind Texas and another AL team heavy on the slugging (the Yankees, of course). What about OPS+, a stat the attempts to neutralize park effects? Then they rank second behind only the Angels. They’re tied for the highest batting average, they lead baseball in on-base percentage, and they’re fourth in slugging. They’re second in wOBA and first in wRC+, if you want to dig into FanGraphs stats.

And speaking of FanGraphs, I’ll have you know that they’ve given me their full endorsement. I haven’t bothered to check with them on this, per se, but if you venture over to the 2012 team stats page and sort by WAR on offense, you’ll find the team that was once known for its slap hitting and base stealing at the top of the list, and by a wide margin at that. Why? Didn’t they just lose Albert Pujols, the current generation’s greatest hitter? Well for one thing, Albert isn’t the same hitter he used to be, recent run of dominance notwithstanding. The guy the team got to not replace him, Carlos Beltran, is actually doing just that and then some (.376 wOBA for the latter, .367 for the former) from a purely offensive standpoint. For another, the lineup is full of dangerous hitters from top to bottom even if they do lack that overpowering one-man show that they’ve had in years past with mythical sluggers like Pujols and Mark McGwire.

Look at it this way: if Pujols were still a Cardinal, that .367 wOBA I mentioned in the earlier paragraph would rank seventh on this year’s team, right behind Lance Berkman, who has missed the majority of the season with knee troubles, and just ahead of rookie Matt Carpenter, who is admittedly more of a corner-utility guy best used in a part-time role. For his own part, Pujols has been red hot of late, and the Angels as a whole are the second best offense according to FanGraphs WAR, so none of this is meant to take anything away from the legendary hitter or the team he plays for. It’s just, well, now that you see what they’re capable of without him, it’s hard to take issue with their reluctance to ink him to a record-setting deal that paid him handsomely into his age-42 season.

Granted, there’s no way to know if all of the Cardinal offensive production this year is real. After coming off an eyebrow-raising October, third baseman David Freese has stayed healthy and put up big numbers that include an .872 OPS, a .375 wOBA, and 3.4 WAR; is this kind of performance actually something the Cardinals can bank on for the next five seasons as he enters his post age-30 seasons? Another player who enjoyed something of a coming out party in last year’s post-season, Allen Craig, is also raking — his 17 homers in just 293 plate appearances give him a frightening .573 slugging percentage, indicating some serious power. Is he really one of the game’s best sluggers? That’s still very debatable at this point.

Then there are the less questionable aspects of this team’s offensive success. There’s not much to argue about Beltran’s level of production (mentioned above), and Matt Holliday has quietly gone about his business better than anyone could have asked him to following his franchise record of a deal signed prior to the 2010 season. Holliday, who had to endure a wide variety of bizarre ailments a year ago, is having perhaps his best campaign since leaving Colorado. The hulking slugger with the frighteningly violent swing is triple slashing .323/.403/.550 and leads the team with 4.9 WAR already on the season. He’s the clear-cut offensive catalyst for an explosive offense, and a worthy enough replacement in the three-spot, the spot vacated by Pujols this last off-season.

You also can’t forget about another Cardinal catalyst, the team’s backstop Yadier Molina. Molina, now 30 years of age, came into the game with the reputation of a gritty defensive-minded player who was never going to amount to much with the bat. Sure, his brother Bengie flashed some occasional home run power, but Yadier was never expected to do much with the stick. I can safely that even as a Cardinals fan, last season’s offensive breakout seemed to come out of nowhere. Coming into the 2011 season, Molina had a career OPS of .688. I had accepted him for what he was: a shutdown defender at the game’s most critical defensive position and a guy that might occasionally hit for a high enough average to get on base at a respectable clip. Somehow he’s turned into much more than that these past two seasons, and at present he’s hitting .319/.367/.510 with 16 home runs.

If you’re not a Cardinal fan, maybe none of those guys scare you all that much individually; maybe you don’t see what the fuss is about, if indeed any fuss has been made about a team just 10 games over .500 and lagging well behind two other teams inside their own relatively weak division. Taken all together, though, this lineup is deep and vexing for opposing pitchers, and it’s been fun to watch. The production has been inconsistent at times, and let’s not even get into how these guys do when you give them a glove, but the talent is obvious, and there’s no doubt if this team is to make a run at the playoffs, their ticket is going to be the offense. The defending World Champions have had their share of problems in 2012, but hitting baseballs is generally not one of them.

Can’t get enough of Spencer? Check out his work at StanGraphs and follow him on Twitter at @shendricks221.