St. Louis Sluggers: Surprise! Cardinals winning with the long ball

Meet the sneaky, successful St. Louis Cardinals. If the way they won the last year doesn't work, they'll just find a whole new way to win the next. This year? It's by making home run history. AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

By now, there are three things we should expect from those pesky St. Louis Cardinals every darned year:

1. They are going to win.

2. They are going to win by doing something amazing and historic.

3. We'll probably have no idea on Opening Day what that is.

So here they are in the final week of August, headed for their sixth straight trip to the postseason. And how are they doing that, you ask? By whomping more baseballs over the fence than any team in the National League, naturally.

Wait. You're saying you didn't see this coming -- that a team that hit 137 home runs last season would be on pace to thump 229 this year? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Of course you didn't.

This is the Cardinals. It's what they are. It's who they are. If the way they won last year doesn't work, they'll just find a whole new way. These guys change costumes more than the cast of "Saturday Night Live."

So what if their pitching staff and defense have already allowed more runs, in the first 125 games, than last year's Cardinals gave up all of last season, when they allowed the fewest of any team in a non-strike-shortened season in the entire divisional era? This year, they have a whole new kind of history to make.

Home run history.

Ready for a rundown on what they're up to? Here we go:

• They're not just on pace to become the fourth Cardinals team in history to hit 200 home runs in a season. They're on pace to hit more home runs than the 1998 Cardinals, who got 70 long balls from Mark McGwire alone. They're on pace to hit more home runs than any Cardinals team that Albert Pujols, Stan Musial or Rogers Hornsby played for. And they have a shot at the all-time franchise record of 235, set by the Big Mac/Jim Edmonds 95-win juggernaut of 2000.

• They're also on course, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, to become only the sixth team since 1900 to hit at least 90 more home runs than they'd hit the year before (not counting strike seasons, obviously). And they would be the first team to jump from 137 or fewer one year to 220 or more the next since Johnny Mize's 1946-47 New York Giants went from 121 to 221.

• This is the only team in baseball that has nine different players who already have reached double figures in home runs. Now if Tommy Pham (9) and Jhonny Peralta (6, in an injury-riddled season) can get to 10, which is far from out of the question, the Cardinals could become the first National League team ever to have 11 players hit 10 homers or more in one year.

• They're also on pace to have six different players hit at least 20 home runs -- although to get there, they would need Matt Holliday, currently on the disabled list with 19, to make it back in September and hit one more. Nevertheless, that's pretty insane for a team that only had one guy (Matt Carpenter) reach 20 last year. According to Elias, they would be the first team ever to go from one 20-homer man or none one year to six or more the next, in back-to-back full seasons.

• Then there is the least known great home run hitter in baseball -- otherwise known as "Cardinals pinch hitters." They've already tied the single-season major league record with 14 pinch homers. And they've done it in a mere 175 at-bats. To put that in its proper, most incredible perspective, how about this: Cardinals pinch hitters have rolled up the same home run ratio (one every 14.5 at-bats) as a man who is threatening to lead the league in homers, Kris Bryant. Right. Of course they have.

This is all pretty crazy stuff for a team that hasn't made this many home run trots over a full season in a decade. But it's what's working. This year anyway. So don't ask the manager if he's trying to fix the least of his franchise's current problems.

"What are we supposed to do -- tell them to stop hitting homers?" Mike Matheny said. "We've been accused of that in the past."

And yes, he was merely half-kidding. Not only has Matheny never managed a team that has smoked this many home runs. He's a guy who hit just 67 himself -- in a 13-year big-league career. But that doesn't mean he has lost the affection that all true Americans have always had for the long ball.

"We've liked homers since we were all in T-ball," Matheny said, at his James Earl Jones "Field of Dreams" finest. "And we're going to continue to love them even if we're out playing Wiffle Ball with our kids. It never, ever, ever gets old. I don't care how old you are. You go out and hit a ball over the fence, there's just something special about it. And we're going to keep trying to do it."

Hey, good idea. Have we mentioned it's working? No NL team has more home runs from the bottom of its order (the Nos. 6-7-8-9 spots) than the Cardinals (70). Just as important, no team in the big leagues has more home runs from the seventh inning on than the Cardinals (64) -- and they're on pace to become the first NL team since the 1970 edition of the Big Red Machine to launch more than 80 from the seventh on.

So they've become that rare National League team that gives a pitcher no midgame vacations. Heck, they've hit more home runs from the No. 7 hole than from the No. 3 hole. That's definitely not their time-honored offensive formula. But as this club's under-appreciated hitting coach, John Mabry, puts it: "They make their own identity every year."

"It's neat to see what these guys have created for themselves, and they've really embraced it," Mabry says. "And it's really fun on the bench. A game can get changed with one swing of the bat. And they're never out of it, because one can get popped at any time."

So should we have seen this coming? Should we have seen 200 home runs from a lineup that didn't have a single player who was projected to hit 25? We'd vote no. And Dan Szymborski's ZIPS projections system backs that up -- with its preseason estimate that they'd hit a mere 168. But the manager says we all should have been paying closer attention.

"I didn't know how many [more] we'd hit, but I knew it would be better than it was," Matheny said. "I'm not good at throwing out numbers and projections. But to me, it wasn't a huge prophecy that this team would hit more than last year."

Both he and GM John Mozeliak foresaw significant jumps from young players like Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Kolten Wong and Pham, who were set to get extended playing time. They were right about Grichuk, Piscotty and Pham. They were wrong on Wong, who has homered just twice in a disappointing season.

"We've liked homers since we were all in T-ball. And we're going to continue to love them even if we're out playing Wiffle Ball with our kids. It never, ever, ever gets old. I don't care how old you are. You go out and hit a ball over the fence, there's just something special about it. And we're going to keep trying to do it."
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny

Holliday and Matt Adams missed a combined 189 games last year. So naturally, the architects envisioned more from them, too. And while they've both had more injury issues this season, they've still combined for 31 homers -- 22 more than last year.

But the biggest difference between 2016 and 2015 is the 43 bombs the Cardinals have gotten already from Brandon Moss and Jedd Gyorko, who arrived in two of Mozeliak's typically under-the-radar deals -- Moss at the 2015 trading deadline, Gyorko in a low-key trade with San Diego last December.

Gyorko was supposed to be an infield-depth piece. He has turned into much more. No one in the National League has hit more home runs since the All-Star break than he has (13). And he's become the first Cardinal ever to homer while playing every position in the infield in the same season.

Moss, meanwhile, hit only four home runs in two months as a Cardinal last year. So of course, he's taken over the team lead with 23 this year. In fact, he even leads the whole sport in home run ratio (one every 12.96 at-bats) among players with 300 or more plate appearances. But as a fellow who has always had a fondness for seeing how far he could hit a baseball, the fun comes in being surrounded by a lineup full of guys who share that passion.

"The balance of power on this team," he said, "is amazing. What I see is, we don't have true 'bench guys.' We have guys who deserve to play and get to play quite often. ... So they're not up there trying to just squeak out a hit. They're comfortable, so they're trying to do something [impactful] with every at-bat."

Still, 14 pinch homers is a ridiculous number no matter who's heading for home plate. Just to give you an idea, that's two more than the Cubs have hit over the last four seasons put together.

"I think the big part of that, that gets unnoticed, is our hitting coach," said this team's most consistent offensive force, Carpenter. "John Mabry made a career of pinch-hitting. Not a lot of guys in his role did that. That was his specialty. He does a really good job of teaching that. And I think you're seeing the results."

The results have been a whole bunch of baseballs roaring off toward Ballpark Village. And we've reached the point where it's officially become a Thing -- because we're finally starting to ask if this team is now too dependent on the home run. Let's just say that's a switch.

"It's funny that people ask that," Carpenter said, with an ironic chuckle, "because our M.O. since I've been here has always been, 'You guys don't hit home runs. You always find a way to score without hitting home runs. Aren't you worried about it?' Now people are starting to question the opposite. And I just think it's crazy. Yeah, we're hitting more home runs now, but we still know how to score."

OK, so do they? On one hand, they've scored 44 percent of all their runs via the homer. And they're 18 games over .500 (55-37) when they homer, but nine games under (12-21) when they don't. On the other hand, they have the highest average in the league (.282) with runners in scoring position and the best average (.253) with runners in scoring position and two outs. So they're still a lot less homer-dependent than, say, the Mets, even if they're not hitting .330 with men in scoring position, the way the 2013 World Series team did.

"Wasn't it just a few years ago," Carpenter reminisced, fondly, "that people were like, 'Can you guys maintain your average with runners in scoring position? You don't hit enough home runs. All you do is get hits with runners in scoring position.' Now it's like, 'All you do is hit home runs.'

"It's so funny," said Carpenter. "But that's baseball."

No. What it really is, of course, is baseball in St. Louis.