Cardinals Reaching New Heights from Ground

Right now, the St. Louis Cardinals are in a playoff position. It’s true! Or, it might be true, depending on how you feel about the scheduled one-game playoff. Some people feel like that’s the beginning of the playoffs, where other people feel like only the winner advances to the real playoffs. So at the very least, right now, the St. Louis Cardinals are in a position to be in a position to make the playoffs. At 74-63, they’re clinging to the second Wild Card slot, just ahead of the Pirates and Dodgers.

You’d hope that the Cardinals would make the playoffs a year after winning the World Series. That’d be one heck of a letdown story otherwise. A number of different players and factors have driven the Cardinals to where they are, but first and foremost, one notes that the Cardinals lead the National League in runs scored, with 658. They lead the National League in wRC+, at 109. Offense isn’t the only reason why the Cardinals have been successful, but it’s a big reason, and having an offense like the Cardinals’ offense can make up for a lot of other roster deficiencies.

It’s an offense with some name value, featuring Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, and Yadier Molina. You’d figure the Cardinals would be able to hit their fair share of dingers, and indeed, the Cardinals have hit dingers. You’d figure the Cardinals would be able to draw their fair share of walks, and indeed, the Cardinals have drawn walks. But there’s something else that’s been happening too, and while it’s been quiet, it’s also been meaningful. Here is an example of what I’m talking about.


That is a highlight of Matt Holliday grounding an RBI single back up the middle from a couple weeks ago. It is a very uninteresting highlight, as baseball highlights are concerned, and if you were to see it you wouldn’t give it a second thought. You just saw it, and you haven’t given it a second thought. But now I’m asking you to because this is the point of the post.

When you think offense and batted balls, you think fly balls and line drives. Fly balls for homers, and line drives for singles, doubles, and triples. This year, the league-average wOBA on fly balls is .352. The league-average wOBA on line drives is .679. Meanwhile, the league-average wOBA on grounders is .214. The league-average BABIP on grounders is .235. Grounders aren’t exciting, and grounders aren’t what drives an offense forward. Grounders are how you make a lot of outs.

Okay, so now keep that in mind. The Cubs, as a team, have batted .205 on grounders. That is very bad; it is the lowest mark in baseball. The Giants, Dodgers, and Braves have been right on the average, at .235. The second-highest average on grounders belongs to the Nationals, at .255. The highest average on grounders belongs to the Cardinals, at .278.

On grounders, the Cardinals have a 23-point advantage over second place, and a 43-point advantage over the average. This is in terms of batting average. In terms of wOBA, the gaps are 23 points and 40 points. Maybe this doesn’t seem quite as remarkable to you as it does to me — after all, I’m the one who decided to write about this — but consider that the Cardinals’ groundball sample size numbers 1,784. The difference between the Cardinals and the Nationals is 41 hits on grounders. The difference between the Cardinals and the league average is 77 hits on grounders. If you’re familiar with run values, you know that means a lot of runs. If you’re not familiar with run values, that means a lot of runs.

It’s tricky to try to look through the past, because batted-ball classifications have changed and the data on FanGraphs goes back only to 2002. With that said, the Cardinals have been the most successful offense on grounders in what we’ll term the FanGraphs Era. The 2010 Reds batted .271 on grounders. The 2007 Mariners batted .264 on grounders. Something weird happens when we try to look at 2002 and 2003. The less said about those years, the better.

Interestingly, the Cardinals aren’t leading the way in infield hits. They are fourth in baseball, with 122, but there’s a big heap of teams between 100 and 130. It’s not that the Cardinals are really beating out a bunch of grounders to short and third; it’s that their grounders have been getting through to the outfield.

You might think, like I did, that there’s something weird about the way Cardinals batted balls are being classified. But the Cardinals’ pitching staff and defense have combined to allow an average of just .232 on grounders, which isn’t in any way unusual. Now, that doesn’t disprove anything, but it does suggest that grounders are being called grounders and the Cardinals’ hitters have just been oddly successful on grounders.

A few days ago I asked Matthew Carruth for home/road splits, just to see if anything would show up. Here are those splits:

Home: .287 average on grounders, for
Home: .225 average on grounders, against

Road: .277 average on grounders, for
Road: .239 average on grounders, against

The splits themselves are big — the Cardinals have a 62-point advantage at home and just a 38-point advantage on the road — but a 38-point advantage is a big advantage, and by going to the splits we’re halving the sample sizes. I don’t know what I was looking for when I asked for these numbers, but they don’t clear much of anything up. The Cardinals have hit well on grounders, at home and away from home.

So what? That’s actually a valid question. We’ve identified something the Cardinals have been able to do. Is it something the Cardinals will continue to be able to do? Neither Dave Cameron nor I have been able to come up with a better explanation for this than luck, or randomness, or whichever word you prefer. The Cardinals have hit .278 on a whole lot of grounders. A year ago, the Cardinals hit .241 on more than 2,000 grounders. You’d think the sample size would be big enough that the noise would be minimized by now, but that very well might not be true. With that said, as a quick experiment, I checked out the Cardinals hitters’ career averages on grounders and weighted by 2012 playing time. That gave me an “expected” team average around .265. That includes data from 2012, because these data matters.

If I had to guess, and I suppose I do have to guess, I’d say the Cardinals are an above-average groundball team that’s also benefited from some degree of unsustainable fortune. That’s the way it usually goes when you’re talking about a league-leader in something. This might be a very unsatisfying conclusion, but I’m afraid most things in life, and especially in baseball analysis, are unsatisfying. That’s why people say it’s about the journey and not the destination. And maybe, just maybe, there is something about this year’s Cardinals that explains the data completely. After all, this has gone on for five months. What’s another one or two months, really?



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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KB
Guest
KB
3 years 9 months ago

Maybe the Cardinals’ scorer just has a loose definition of “groundball”.

astrostl
Member
astrostl
3 years 9 months ago

I’ve never come close to seeing anyone else that bashes so many hard-hit, tough-to-field choppers than Holliday. His CAREER BA on grounders is .301, and he’s far from a fast runner. For a single comp, Pujols was recently on the same team, also hits for power, also has middling speed – and a career BA of “just” .263 on grounders. My theory is that Holliday makes lower-quality contact than most elite hitters, and makes up for it by being physically stronger. When he first came over from Oakland I thought he was lucky, until it happened game after game after game.

Jason
Guest
Jason
3 years 9 months ago

Matt Holliday’s BABIP on grounders has been among the highest in the league for years. He smashes balls on the ground down the lines for doubles and that squeak through the infield a lot more often because of the velocity with which they are hit. At this point in his career, its NOT a fluke. He does it every year.

As for other guys, having watched the team it feels like Molina and Freese get a lot of hits on grounders.

There is a difference between a softly hit ground ball and a smashed grounder. I don’t think its all luck.

Anon
Guest
Anon
3 years 9 months ago

This. I expect ball speed off the bat would explain most of the results.

libre
Member
Member
libre
3 years 9 months ago

It sounds like the hitting coach has taken a leaf from Dave Duncan in encouraging groundballs.

JimLahey
Guest
JimLahey
3 years 9 months ago

Very interesting. Never looked at this by team. Did you happen to look at BA on grounders to left/center/right sides of fields? Wonder if they are better at pulling the ball through a hole or taking it the other way… or what they’re doing

Or is it a correlation to the number of guys that they have on base? They’ve been one of the top offenses all year long and if they have a lot of guys on, shouldn’t the holes to hit balls through be bigger?

Matthew Murphy
Member
3 years 9 months ago

I was also thinking that it could have something to do with runners on base opening up holes in the infield. Maybe look at splits with bases empty v. runners on base?
I can’t find a way to look at this on the team stats page, but it doesn’t look like the Cardinals hit an abnormally high number of ground balls with runners on / in scoring position.

Chris from Bothell
Guest
Chris from Bothell
3 years 9 months ago

OBVIOUSLY this is because the Cards are playing in the weaker NL.

If they were facing Joe “Madman” Maddon’s overshifts and defensive alignments of infielders down to the quarter inch… or the wizardry of the Rangers’ Beltre or the Mariners’ Brendan Ryan… or the however-the-heck-the-Orioles-are-doing-it… or the 8-future-HOFer Yankee roster… well, all those groundballs would stop mewling their way into the outfield all lost and lonely and end up warm, snug and loved in a defender’s glove like they should.

Anon
Guest
Anon
3 years 9 months ago

Beltre and Ryan both were developed by NL teams. NL teams develop amazing defensive players, and this makes the NL worse??

chuckb
Member
chuckb
3 years 9 months ago

No. The fact that they, and many other great players, play in the AL now makes the AL the better league.

Antonio Bananas
Guest
Antonio Bananas
3 years 9 months ago

Does their average change based on the score? The Cards have a ridiculous record of like 25-8 in blowouts (decided by 5 or more runs) but a poor 1 run game. Perhaps this will also explain why the Cards are “underperforming” according to their run differential.

My theory is that when they’re pounding a craptastic team like Houston or Chicago, their D stops trying as much and don’t quite get to those grounders that would otherwise have been fielded. High amount of runs scored in clustered, a lot of GB get through when the D cares less.

Just my theory, absolutely no testing.

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