As you baseball fans may or may not know, Cardinals' manager Tony LaRussa recently made a very bold move: he flipped Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday in the batting order. For the first time in about seven years, Albert Pujols is no longer batting third in the lineup and has been moved down to the #4 (cleanup) spot; the last time Pujols started a game batting somewhere other than third in the lineup was on May 23rd, 2003 when he hit fourth against the Pirates. According to MLB.com and the Cardinals organization, Pujols made 1,046 consecutive starts at the #3 spot. However, LaRussa feels that, after all these years of Pujols batting in that slot, Holliday's arrival is a hitter that can finally provide a legitimate alternative.
If you follow the Cardinals, it is no surprise that this year's offense hasn't really been "productive" going into a month and a half into the elteason. Going into 38 games in their season (before the change was made), St. Louis had only scored 160 runs, which is equivalent to 4.21 runs per game. According to Baseball-Reference.com, that is good for 12th out of the 16 teams in National League; the only teams who have done worse offensively in that category are the Padres, Giants, Pirates, and Astros. For a team that's struggling to score runs, the Cardinals are doing pretty well in the standings. In the NL Central, as of May 21st, they've just re-claimed their first place position and have the third best record in the National League. However, at 24-18, that really isn't saying much, and there is always room for improvement. Tony LaRussa realized that, going into a month and a half into the season, something needs to be done. I must say that this was a very ingenious move by him… and this is why.
Do you guys remember much about the Rockies in 2007? Surely, most baseball fans remember the rally they had when they won 14 out of their last 15 games in the regular season, edging the Padres in extra innings in a tiebreaker and earning the NL Wild Card spot in the playoffs. They would eventually go on to sweep the Phillies and the Diamondbacks to become 2007 National League Champions. One of the key players who was a part of this huge comeback was Matt Holliday. During the 15-game span during the end of the season, he batted .400, with 6 homers and 18 RBIs, while upholding an on-base percentage of .493 and a slugging percentage of .800.
With that being said, why hasn't Holliday done anywhere near as well as he did in the 2006 and 2007 seasons? Two words: Todd Helton. The All-Star first baseman gave Holliday a whole lot of protection with the simple concept of Helton batting right behind Holliday. Since 2005, Helton hasn't really been that productive of a hitter in terms of home runs and RBIs, and it is quite ironic that Clint Hurdle was doing the same thing Tony LaRussa is doing now: moving the more fearful hitter around to get the other player to perform better offensively.
Granted, Helton still hit well above .300 throughout his career until his injury in 2008, but we're talking about Todd Helton here. We're talking about a guy who averaged a .338 batting average, 33 homers, 113 RBIs, a .435 on-base percentage, a .610 slugging percentage, and 46 doubles from 1998 to 2005. He was going to be productive no matter where he was in the batting lineup. Now that LaRussa is taking Clint Hurdle's approach, I'm calling it a very nifty move. The only difference is that Matt Holliday is being protected by Albert Pujols instead of Helton.
Another one of the main reasons that LaRussa pointed out about why Holliday is being moved up to third is because he is not doing so well with runners in scoring position. Entering Monday's game, Holliday was only 8-for-47 in such situations… and you can see it by simply looking at how many runs he brought in before being moved (14). He only has 4 RBIs in the month of May; can you say, "Wow!"? Other than his lack of bringing in runs, he's having a good offensive season otherwise. Hitting behind Pujols is a stimulant for just about any hitter, because no pitcher wants to face Pujols. Holliday is going to get a lot more pitches to hit, and LaRussa hopes that this can create more chances for him to, not only drive in runs, but to get on base so that Pujols can drive him in.
LaRussa had this to say regarding his switch:
"We'll see. We've still got to make it work, but Matt's been a third-place hitter. He likes hitting third. We need to be more productive. So you identify, there's things we can work on, there's things we can improve, which we will improve. And there's other things like this that maybe there's a spark there for us. and getting Matt going would be a spark."
"I prefer Albert hitting third, but I more prefer to get Matt going along with Albert and all the other offense we’ve got.“We've got to be more productive. Things like this, maybe there’s a spark for us."
Even with a small change like this, I am confident that St. Louis (particularly Holliday and Pujols) are going to do better with their roles being switched. With their starting rotation being rock solid and their closer doing well, there is no doubt in my mind we are going to see some improvement in the heart of the lineup. I mean, just take a look at what Holliday did tonight: hitting a key double that broke the 2-2 tie and giving the Cardinals the 4-2 lead, and the eventual 4-2 win. It was the first run-scoring hit in a week and his first extra-base hit with a man in scoring position since April 7 -- the second game of the season.
On a side note, after the game, LaRussa had this to say about Holliday's extra-base hit:
"I've said it a number of times, I think Matt's biggest problem is trying too hard, trying to force things. Get him a little bit more relaxed, a little more like himself, and all of a sudden, he does something good. [After getting] a little confidence, he's got a better chance to do better."
What do you think? Are we going to see a little more productivity from Holliday? Only time will tell…