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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