Of all the unexpected setbacks that have hindered the St. Louis Cardinals this season, I count the complete disappearance of Allen Craig as the most costly. And I just can't figure it out.
Craig was a guy that seemed on the brink of competing for a batting title -- if not a Most Valuable Player Award -- based on his 2011 and 2012 seasons. Even though his power mysteriously disappeared in 2013, he hit .315 and made a name for himself by leading the league in hitting with runners in scoring position.
He was probably the best pressure situation hitter in the game last year, home runs or not.
Then suddenly this season he not only can't hit for power, he can't hit for average, either. He's been so bad that in half a season he's dragged his career batting average from .306 down to .294. It's difficult to make such a big difference in such a little span.
While he's had some nagging injuries, Craig doesn't seem to have anything in his medical file that would indicate that he's permanently damaged. He's too young to be suffering from the erosion of age at only 29.
So what gives? Did he mess up his swing beyond repair trying to play through an ankle injury last fall that took away his base? I'd like to think if that's the case that he would have sorted things out after four months of play including spring training games.
It seems to me that he's lost his approach at the plate. Craig's bread and butter has always been to hit the ball from the middle of the field to right center. The balls he's seemed to hit the hardest this season, including his most-recent home run, came to the right center alley. But, for some reason, he seems to be pull happy.
After he started off without much long ball success in 2013 he seemed to make a more concentrated effort to hit homers to justify his place in the clean-up spot in the St. Louis batting order. The result has been just the opposite, a slugging percentage that has slipped from .562 in 2012 to .457 in 2013 to .365 this year.
Maybe it would do him some good if manager Mike Matheny told Craig to forget about trying to hit for power and just work on making contact and getting on base. Move him to a spot in the batting order that carries less pressure. Sometimes it's best to break things down to the basics and try to rebuild from scratch.
I hear a lot of people talking about how Craig should be benched to make room for top prospect Oscar Taveras. While the Redbirds need to make room for Taveras to get his at-bats, Craig is too good a player with too strong a track record to throw on the scrap heap. I'd hate to see the Cardinals cut him lose and see him regain the form that hit 22 homers and drive in 92 in only 119 games in 2012.