officially coming off the disabled list on Tuesday, so far ahead of schedule we should probably all be looking for claws coming out of his hands (It's a Wolverine
joke, folks. He heals really quickly? Anyone?), and likely making his return to the actual lineup Wednesday evening, I thought it might be a good time to take a look back at the time Albert spent in traction.
Albert went down in the last game of the series against the Kansas City Royals, on June 19. He underwent an MRI later than revealed a tiny fracture in his forearm area, which is less worrisome than a wrist injury. Wrists tend to cause longish-term problems, notably a sapping of a hitter's power. Forearms? Not so much. It was almost like Albert got hurt on purpose in a very temporary way, just to give us a chance to conduct this grand experiment in team-building.
In fact, if one really wished, one just might be able to draw some conclusions about the state of the Cardinals as a whole, and where they might stand going into next season, by looking at how the team performed with their centerpiece on the sidelines.
Actually, that's probably overstating it. Maybe we could
have drawn some actual conclusions, if the team had performed appreciably better or worse without Albert, and if he had been away long enough for us to see some meaningful samples. But two weeks isn't really enough to learn much, and the team did perhaps the worst thing they could possibly have done (at least for those of us forced to create trumped-up narratives to explain random data points for a living), and pretty much just kind of played meh baseball for a couple weeks.
So, then, here are the numbers.
- From the 20th of June, Albert's first day missed, through last night's game, the Cards went 7-7 without their star slugger. What was odd about this stretch is that it didn't exactly look like a .500 team, with a win here and a loss there. The Cards lost all their games in three bunches, and won four in a row. (Playing Baltimore doesn't hurt your chances of a winning streak, of course.) Depending on when you saw them, they looked like a juggernaut built for October or a stepped-on turkey sandwich. Huh. What an odd analogy.
- The Cards scored 59 runs in those 14 games, for an average of 4.21 runs per game. On the season, they're averaging 4.43 runs per game. That isn't exactly nothing, but it certainly isn't a huge difference, either. Particularly when talking about a very small stretch of games which, by the way, featured three games against the top rotation in all of baseball.
- In Albert's absence, Lance Berkman (the de facto replacement at first base), hit .233/.346/.628, good for a .974 OPS. The batting average is low, but was powered by an horrendously unlucky .156 batting average on balls in play. He put six balls over the wall.
- Jon Jay, who then slid into the Puma's starting spot in right field, hit .267/.314/.422, for an OPS of .736. Here's where we start to see some dropoff from Albert being out. The team replaced him just fine, but the guy who replaced the guy who replaced Albert was a downgrade with the bat. Even in a decidedly un-Pujolsian year, Albert's OPS is .855.
- In fairness to Jay, however, I feel it necessary to say he did make some really excellent plays in right field the past couple weeks, plays I have no doubt would have turned into hits with Berkman out there. The home run Jay took away from Jay Bruce on Monday alone completely changed the outcome of that game. So, while the bat may not compare, Jay's plus glovework does help to mitigate some of the offensive shortcomings. Tradeoffs, and all that.
I said the Cardinals did possibly the worst thing they could have done while Albert was gone, and I meant it. If they had suddenly taken off and played inspired baseball, we might have all felt it was time to move on from the Pujols years, and a new, fresh identity for the team was emerging.
If they had tanked, well, then we all would have seen how much the Cardinals really do need him anchoring their lineup for years to come, cost be damned. But instead of doing either of those things, the Cards just kept plodding along, looking much like the same flawed-but-slightly-less-so-than-the-rest-of-the-division team they've appeared to be most of the season. Not even the shameless pandering of an internet sports hack can turn that into a really compelling story.
Then again, maybe I'm looking at this all wrong. Maybe what the Cardinals did was show us exactly what life without Albert Pujols would look like, and it just isn't as different as we thought it would be. Maybe the lesson here is no matter how good one single player is, he's never so good you can't replace him if the team is constructed properly. Or maybe this all means something else entirely, and I'm just too dense to figure out what it really is.
Either way, I think I can safely say we're all going to feel better when Pujols is back on the field and producing. Even if the team doesn't look all that much different.