An Unusual and Odd Start of the St. Louis Cardinals 2016 Season: Keep an Eye on Aledmys Diaz and Jeremy Hazelbaker!

By:  Jim Tsapelas

Mike Zamilli/Getty Images North America

At the end of league play on Wednesday, April 20, 2016, the St. Louis Cardinals owned a record of eight wins against seven losses; and found themselves tied with the Cincinnati Reds for second place in the National League Central Division.  The Reds and Cardinals were three games out of first place in the Central Division, trailing the division leading Chicago Cubs.

At the very best, this has been an odd and unusual fifteen games for the Redbirds.  The team began play in Pittsburgh.  The Pirates swept the Cardinals in a three game set.  Of concern to Cardinal Nation, the team struck out a total of thirty-seven times in the three game series, leaving fifty-seven men on base, and committing four errors.  The Cardinals were outscored by the Pirates fifteen to seven.  Earning losses were Adam Wainwright, Seth Maness in relief of the Game Two starter Michael Wacha, and Mike Leake.

On Friday of Week One, the Cards traveled to Atlanta.  In Georgia the Cardinals swept the Braves in a three game series.  Picking up his first win in Atlanta was Kevin Siegrist in relief of Jaime Garcia who left the game in the sixth inning trailing the Braves by one run.  Next up, Carlos Martinez earned his first win of 2016, going six innings, giving up just two earned runs; in which proved to be a “laugher” as the Cardinals pounded the Braves twelve to two.  Sunday Seung Hwan Oh earned his first MLB win in relief of Wainwright who exited the game after five innings in which he allowed five earned runs.  With the Cardinals leading seven to five at the end of the eighth inning, the Cardinals exploded for five runs in the top of the ninth; the Braves picked up a run in the bottom of the inning as the Cardinals completed the sweep by a score of twelve to seven.  Of concern during the three game set with Atlanta, the Cards struck out twenty-eight times and stranded fifty-eight men on base.

The Birds returned to Busch following the road trip to face the Milwaukee Brewers.  In the first game of the three game set, Michal Wacha won his first game of the season throwing six solid innings, allowing four hits, walking one, and striking out seven; as the Cardinals took Game One of the series-ten to one.  Following an off day, the Brewers returned the favor by defeating the Birds on the Bats six to four.  Game Two starter Mike Leake left the game after throwing six innings, where he allowed eight hits, four earned runs, walked one, and struck out six.  The Brewers held a three to four lead going into the eighth inning.  In the home half of the eighth, the Cardinals scored the tying run.  Cards closer Trevor Rosenthal throwing thirty-three pitches in two-thirds of an inning in the ninth, offered up a home run to Domingo Santana, also scoring Kirk Nieuwenhuis in a six to four Cardinals loss.  In the rubber game Jaime Garcia threw a one hit complete game shutout, walking one and striking out thirteen as the Birds went on to win seven to nothing.  Against the Brewers the Cardinals struck out twenty-one times and left thirty-nine men on base.

Next up was a three game series with the Cincinnati Reds.  Carlos Martinez picked up his second win of the season as the Cardinals took game one by a score of Cardinals fourteen-Reds three.  The Cardinals dropped the second game to the Reds eight to nine.  Cardinal starter Wainwright, in getting his second loss of the season, threw five and one-third innings, allowed ten hits, seven earned runs, walked one, and struck out two.  The Redbirds won the rubber game four to three.  Siegrist picked up his second win of the season in relief of Wacha who left the game after six innings in which he allowed three runs-one of which was earned.  Against the Reds the Cards limited their strikeouts to thirteen while leaving forty-nine men on base.

To close out their first-fifteen games of the season, the Chicago Cubs came to Busch for a three game set.  Chicago took the first two games by the superior pitching performance of the former Cardinal, John Lackey, who combined with Travis Wood, Pedro Strop, and Trevor Cahill, shutout the Birds by a score of five to one; in Game One.  The Cubs took Game Two by the score of two to one.  Game Three of the series featured a three hour and twenty minute rain delay, and saw Martinez earn his third consecutive win of the season; thus avoiding a sweep.  The series against the Cubs saw the Cardinals strike out thirty-two times while leaving thirty-four men on base.

Offensively, it has either been feast or famine for the Redbirds.  Defensively, there have been several bright spots, but there is concern with the Birds committing too high of a number of errors thus far in the very young 2016 season.  In total there have been fifteen errors committed by the Cardinals; thirteen by infielders and two by members of the starting pitching corps.

The odd and usually high totals of strike outs and error committed, particularly by those playing infield positions must see an improvement for the Cardinals to remain competitive in the NL Central.  At the end of league play on Thursday, April 21, 2016, a travel day for the team, the Cardinals, thanks to a Reds loss, were in sole position of second place in the division; three and one-half games behind Chicago.

It was not all gloom and doom in the first fifteen games.  With few exceptions the bullpen has been quite outstanding in keeping the Cardinals in games and maintaining, largely, the leads given to them by the starting rotation.  Southpaw, Garcia, threw the game of his career in throwing his one hit shutout against the Brewers.  Rosenthal leads the team with four saves.  Yadier Molina leads the team with a .345 average.  Brandon Moss leads the team with four home runs, while Jeremy Hazelbaker and Matt Holliday are tied for second most homers at three.

I believe the starting rotation will find their form and be one of the more elite rotations in all of MLB.  One of the oddities of the season thus far is the reality the Cardinals have experienced four days off, while playing just fifteen games.  Looking to later on in the season when teams may play fifteen to twenty games in a row during the “Dog Days of Summer”, these early scheduled off days would come in handy!

Offensively thus far this season Aledmys Diaz and the twenty-eight year old rookie Jeremy Hazelbaker have been bright spots in the Redbird line-up.  My friend and sabermetric guru, Felipe Melecio, has put pencil to paper and has shared with me the following on Diaz and Hazelbaker:

Felipe Melecio writes, “Jeremy Hazelbaker owns a triple slash-line of .394/.421/.818. But the high percentages are largely due to a high BABIP of .455 (BABIP–Batting Average on Balls in Play). However, where it gets interesting for the 28 year-old rookie is in the fact that he has posted BABIPs above .350 in the minors on numerous occasions.

Hazelbaker’s high BABIP is aided by a pretty consistent Ground Ball Rate (45.8 percent) and has one of the highest Hard Hit Rates (11th overall), along with the ability to hit the ball to the opposite field (fourth overall).

He has a very aggressive approach at the plate as he owns a Swing Rate of 53.5 percent and a Strikeout Rate of 25.6 percent. Both factors might play a role in hindering his long-term success, but for now, he appears to make enough contact to hold his own against major league pitching.

The other hot player for St. Louis is Aledmys Diaz. Diaz owns a slash line of .406/.441/.813 with a BABIP of .393. Unlike his teammate, Diaz has not shown a very consistent past when it comes to post BABIPs above .350 in the minors (doing it once at Triple-A in 2015 in only 58 plate appearances).

Another distinction that Diaz has over Hazelbaker is that the former has shown some ability to limit strikeouts. Even more remarkable, the younger Diaz has shown some potential to walk as much as he strikes out.

Diaz’s success has come by way of constantly pulling the ball (50 percent) and having one of the highest Hard Hit Rate.  Nevertheless, Diaz has shown to be a fly ball hitter early on and that is a concern as he really doesn’t have a track record in terms of power and his BABIP might suffer because of it.

Diaz is a patient hitter owning a Swing Rate of 46.0 percent. But he does a good job of picking and choosing his spots as he has generated a high contact rate of 91.2 percent.

So we have two Cardinals’ players who are finding success in very different methods, but if one must make a choice, it would appear that the smart play would be Hazelbaker just because it appears he can easily streamline his game from the minors to the majors, plus his aggressive style might bode well in today’s pitching-dominated environment.”

Cardinal Nation it shall do us well to keep our eyes on Diaz and Hazelbaker as the season unfolds!

Friday finds the Cardinals in San Diego visiting the Padres at Petco Park for a 9:40 PM (CT) game.  Adam Wainwright (0-2) meets the Padres Andrew Cashner (0-1) for the first game in a three game set.

Thanks to Felipe for the excellent analysis!

Thanks for Reading!

http://xnsports.com/2016/04/19/a-tale-of-two-cardinals/

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