Matt Holliday drew all the offseason attention with his mammoth contract and Albert Pujols is again expected to be "the Mang" in the Cardinals lineup. Production from those two is taken as a given, but Ryan Ludwick's success - or lack thereof - will likely determine just how much fear the Cardinals lineup puts into opposing hurlers.
If you subscribe to the alternating-year theory (and hey, it's Spring Training, you can believe in anything), then Ludwick is due to mash this year. In his three seasons with the Cardinals, his stats have followed the path of the keyboard carat (^): low, then high, then low again.
Here are the basic slashlines:
2007 - .267/.479/.339
2008 - .299/.591/.375
2009 - .265/.447/329
It's no surprise then that the Cardinals offensive fortunes mirrored Ludwick's over those three seasons, following a similar carat path:
Cardinals NL OPS rank, last three seasons
So what did Ludwick do in his 2008 season that differentiated him from the 2007 and 2009 years? The answer to that question could help determine what he needs to do this season to regain that form. We'll pull out a few things...
-He walked more. Ludwick walked in about 10 percent of his plate appearances in 2008, compared to about a 7.5 percent mark in his two down seasons. The league average hovers near 9 percent, so when Ludwick was an above-average walker, his batting lines were much higher than when he took the free pass less frequently. How big of a difference is there between a 7.5 percent rate and 10 percent rate? Over a season of 500 plate appearances, that's at least 12 more walks for Ludwick.
-He struck out more. This seems paradoxical, but it's a necessary message to Cardinals fans groaning every time Ludwick whiffs - more strike outs doesn't mean Ludwick is a less productive hitter. Only one Cardinal struck out more frequently than Ludwick last season, and that player isn't back with the team this season - Rick Ankiel. While Ludwick is likely to be the team's biggest whiffer again this season, consider this tradeoff: his strikeout rate was higher in 2008, but so was Ludwick's home run rate, extra-base hit rate and RBI rate.
-He hit the ball in the air. Ludwick isn't going to beat out many grounders to the left side; his reputation is as a power hitter, which means doubles in the gap and big flys on the regular. In 2008, Ludwick's line drive percentage jumped significantly - from 19 percent to 28 percent. Not surprisingly, it dropped back down last season, to 21 percent. His ground ball-to-fly ball ratio was at its lowest in 2008 as well. It went from 60 percent in 2007 down to 37 percent, back up to 48 percent last season.
Ryan Ludwick vs NL No. 5-hitters in the 2009 season
Ludwick stands to bat fifth in the order regularly this season after spending the first half of last season fourth before the Matt Holliday trade bumped him down a spot. Tony LaRussa's lineup-tinkering is well-documented, but he figures to leave the Pujols-Holliday-Ludwick heart of the order intact, even though it must pain LaRussa that it's righty-righty-righty. That puts pressure on Ludwick to match the production of other notable National League five-hitters (Jayson Werth, James Loney, Troy Tulowitzki).
He's affectionately earned himself the nickname "Thudwick" among Cardinal fans when things are going well at the plate and "Dudwick" when they're not. In a Cardinals lineup with its two top banana's returning, Ludwick returning to form could push the heart of the order into a fearsome threesome.