Is the Cardinals’ Offense a “Fraud”?

In the wake of the Cardinals’ 19-inning loss to the Pirates on Sunday, St. Louis Post Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz called the Cardinals’ offense phony. He acknowledged that the Cardinals lead the National League in runs scored with 586 and that many Cardinals players line the National League leader boards on offensive statistics. But, Miklasz wrote, “[t]his offense is fraudulent. It can bully teams for a one-night torrent of runs, only to disappear in most close games.”

Is Miklasz right?

Overall, the Cardinals are 65-56 but are 24-11 in games decided by five runs or more.  St. Louis has scored 234 runs in the blowout games and allowed only 142, for a run differential of +92. In other words, the Cardinals have scored 40% of their runs in the 29% of their games that have been decided by five runs or more.

On the flip side, the Cardinals are 13-21 in one-run games. They’ve scored 124 runs in the nail-biters and allowed 132, for a -8 run differential. The one-run games comprise 28% of the Cardinals’ overall record. Their remaining 52 games, or 43% of their schedule, have been neither blowouts nor one-run affairs. And in those, the Cardinals are 28-24, with 228 runs scored and 206 allowed, for a +22 run differential. Overall, St. Louis has scored 106 more runs than they’ve allowed.

Do these numbers mean that the Cardinals’ offense is a fraud? If the Cardinals had either scored ten more runs or allowed ten fewer runs in their 34 one-run games, they’d have five more wins for an 18-16 record in one-run games and a 70-51 record on the season. Ten more runs either way. Does that difference make the offense a fraud?

Let’s look at their peers in comparison.

The Braves look like they have the “non-fraudulent” offense Miklasz desires for the Cardinals. Atlanta is 27-13 in blowout games with 239 runs scored against 150 runs allowed for a +89 run differential. The Braves have scored 564 runs in their 112 games, meaning they’ve scored 42% of their runs in the 36% of their games that were decided by five runs or more. Not exactly the same as the Cardinals, but pretty close. The difference between the teams? The Braves are 17-11 in one-run games, with 100 runs scored and 94 allowed. So, fewer one-run games than the Cardinals and a winning record in those games. Again, the difference between where the Braves are and where the Cardinals are is, essentially, ten runs on the season.

On the flip side, we have the Pirates. Overall, the Bucs are 67-55, with 508 runs scored and 489 allowed for a +19 run differential in 112 games. Unlike the Cardinals, who trail Pittsburgh by 1.5 games in the standings, the Bucs have a losing record in blowout games at 11-15 with a -19 run differential in those games (133 runs scored/152 runs allowed), but a winning record in one-run games at 25-20 with 160 runs scored and 155 allowed, for a +5 run differential. Does that mean the Pirates’ offense — which is clearly less capable and productive than the Cardinals’ offense — is less fraudulent?

The truth is the Cardinals’ offense is struggling right now, and those struggles are magnified given the stakes and how few games remain on the schedule. For the season, St. Louis is batting .272/.339/.429, producing a .332 wOBA and a 110 wRC+. Those numbers lead the National League in every category, save for team slugging, where the Rockies have the edge at .439 because, hey, altitude. In the last 30 days, the Cardinals’ team numbers have dropped to .263/.325/.420 with a .323 wOBA and a 103 wRC+. Still, that’s good for fifth in the NL in wOBA (behind the Reds, Brewers, Rockies and Nationals) and third in wRC+ (behind only the Brewers and Reds).

However, Micklasz is right that the Cardinals offense has not been as impressive in clutch situations. Here are their splits, by leverage situation:

Low Leverage: .272/.338/.433, .336 wOBA, 112 wRC+
Medium Leverage: .277/.340/.433, .333 wOBA, 110 wRC+
High Leverage: .256/.336/.397, .312 wOBA, 95 wRC+

The Cardinals offense has simply been less effective in situations that have a large impact on the outcome of the game. Essentially, Micklasz’s entire argument can be summed up by saying that the Carindals haven’t hit as well in the clutch, which is true, but of course not all that predictive.

The Cardinals’ offense has been less effective in close games than they have been in blowouts, and their lousy record in close games can cause frustration, but calling the Cardinals offense a fraud is a pretty significant overreaction. It might be hard to watch a team hit well in blowouts and then hit less well in clutch situations, but you’re better off with a good-but-underachieving group of hitters than you are with a bunch of mediocre hitters who have come through in tight situations all year long. Clutch hitting is mostly about having good hitters and a large sample size. The Cardinals have the former. Give them a larger sample, their clutch hitting will improve.

Will the Cardinals pull it together and go on a tear like last season? I don’t know, but neither does Bernie Micklasz. What we do know is that the Cardinals are a good offensive team, and one of the main reasons that St. Louis is still a viable playoff threat over the last six weeks of the season.




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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


52 Responses to “Is the Cardinals’ Offense a “Fraud”?”

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  1. D4P says:

    The notion that the Cardinals’ offense is “fraudulent” is of course silly, but the fact that they have the 2nd largest run differential in the MLB but only the 12th best record does beg for an explanation. Is it all just “bad luck”, or is there something more systematic going on?

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    • Jason says:

      Reverse Orioles

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    • GG says:

      Did you not read the article?

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    • Edwin says:

      #6 Org?

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    • Baltar says:

      I guess you did not actually read Wendy’s post, since it is all about answering that question.

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    • Jon L. says:

      It looks to me like the article support Bernie Miklasz’ contention, if you interpret him to mean that the Cardinals appear to have the top offense in the league, but in fact only have the best stats because they’re good at piling on runs in games that are already not close. It also likes to me like the difference between the Cardinals’ and the Braves’ performance in blowout games is quite large, with the Braves’ 42% of runs in 36% of games being as close to 1:1 as could be expected (1.17), given that the Braves have won 67.5% of those blowouts, while the Cardinals have scored a disproportionate 40% of runs in 29% of games (1.38). You would never say that a player with a wRC+ of 117 was as much of an outlier as one with a 138.

      It’s easy to conclude that most runs = best offense, and to then have all your conclusions hinge on that assumption. But maybe the Cardinals really are much better, compared to the league, at scoring runs off low-quality pitchers, recent call-ups and mop-up guys, or guys in losing causes trying to avoid walks and long counts, and are less gifted, compared to the league, at scoring runs off quality major league starters. Possibilities like these are not addressed in the article.

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  2. jj says:

    Seems like the STL media has taken it as their responsibility to ‘motive’ the team. Bernie thinks he is a stats guy but yet he doesn’t look past the outer layer of the onion here and doesn’t look at what past teams have done or how many times an average team scores 3 runs or less – I think these are important when looking at something like this. This team is talented and should win games but when they fail to win games the media thinks they should latch on to stuff like this. If they would have scored another run in the 17th and pulled tied with the Pirates for the 2nd WC, I doubt the article would have called them the ‘ malfunctioning old champion’ – so the lack on one more hit was the cause of this article.

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  3. LTG says:

    How does the Cardinals’ performance in high leverage situations compare to other teams?

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    • DD says:

      Exactly. Since high leverage situations aren’t a predictive sample, why not just put the stats with RISP?

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      • DD says:

        BTW, they are second in the NL with RISP, OPS of .800, behind only Colorado (#altitude). In late and close they are 5th, with 2 out-RISP they are 4th, and second when the margin is 1 run. They are number one when they are trailing in the game. They are tied for 3rd (with Washington, behind Cin and Col) in high leverage per baseball-reference. They do however have the most strikeouts in high leverage situations, so there’s that.

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    • wilt says:

      Yeah, I’m assuming all hitters perform worse in high leverage situations because they’re more likely to be facing a closer or other high caliber pitcher where as low leverage situations are going to be against mop-up guys and such.

      If that’s the case, then the Card’s 95 wRC+ probably isn’t anything remarkable– right?

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    • Baltar says:

      Why can’t LTG read?

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  4. jsolid says:

    Yeah, the team offense is 28th in Clutch (-3.56).
    But the bullpen has also been terrible. I’m looking at you, Rzepczynski (-0.7 WAR, -1.17 WPA), Sanchez (-0.3, -0.94) and Marte (-0.3, -0.74). All in 92 innings combined. The entire bullpen is last in WAR (-0.5) and 23rd in WPA (-1.86).
    Heart meds for everyone in St Louis, watching the least clutch team in baseball so far this year. Who knows if they will turn it around.

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  5. wilt says:

    Wouldn’t the cardinals be facing better pitching in high leverage situations? Actually wouldn’t all teams have descending wRC+s in the same respective leverage parameters?

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  6. Without issuing blame, this is just what the Giants experienced when Beltran arrived last year. It’s a mystery to me, but he’s like Joe Btfsplk, brings his black coud with him from team to team. Maybe it’s his punishment from the baseball gods for sandbagging Willie Randolph in the Met’s clubhouse in 2007-8.

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    • Stats newbie says:

      So what would happen if you put Bobby Abreu on the same team? Would a black hole form? Would the team start fomenting a revolt against the manager that will eventually expand to create a new republic within St Louis? Will the team be so bad it is good, going an unprecedented 162-0 next year?

      The mind boggles.

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    • Wobatus says:

      Huh? Beltran has had a great year.

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    • Daniel says:

      When Beltran arrived and got injured and the rest of the Giants’ mighty offence (sans Posey remember) outside of Sandoval pretty much failed to do anything? That was Carlos Beltran’s fault?

      Carlos Beltran had a 390 wOBA for the Giants last year. I didn’t realise he was also responsible for handing Mike Fontenot and Miguel Tejada a season full of PAs too.

      Why does Carlos Beltran hate winning?

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      • Cidron says:

        and, go back a bit more. Carlos Beltran more or less, by himself was the offense for Houston at the end of the season….. and, what an offensive show it was

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    • Joe Btfsplk says:

      Hey, I resent that comparison!

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    • Beltran has been a great stat accumulator, it just seems to be to no avail. Maybe he’s just not employed right and missed his chance with LaRussa, huh.

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    • Jason says:

      Who was teabagging who in the Mets clubhouse?

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  7. Phrozen says:

    Evidently, most of those runs don’t count.

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  8. Drew says:

    What about the impact of the bench in close/late situations? Most days the Cardinals bench is Schumaker/Descalso, Matt Carpenter, Tony Cruz, Shane Robinson, and Ryan Jackson. There’s really no right-handed option and very little power across the board. If Carpenter starts it pushes one of the Beltran/Craig/Freese combo to the bench, but that isn’t happening often. They really seem to miss the depth that Berkman provides.

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  9. Ruggiano's Pizza says:

    The only fraud in this article is Bernie Miklasz ….

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    • Dre says:

      +1 The guy is garbage. He’s even worse around football time when he questions every other play call like he actually knows anything about calling plays in the NFL.

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  10. JRoth says:

    In other words, the Cardinals have scored 40% of their runs in the 29% of their games that have been decided by five runs or more.[…]The Braves have scored 564 runs in their 112 games, meaning they’ve scored 42% of their runs in the 36% of their games that were decided by five runs or more. Not exactly the same as the Cardinals, but pretty close.

    Huh? So in blowouts, the Cards have “overproduced” (if you will) at a rate of over 33%, while the Braves have “overproduced” at a rate of 18%. How are those “pretty close”?

    This is just innumerate, or perhaps question-begging, or perhaps just not paying attention. Just because one number in a fraction is in the neighborhood of a number in a different fraction doesn’t make the two “pretty close”. Again, the fractions in question are (rounding in the author’s favor) 4/3 vs 7/6.

    And this isn’t nit-picking: it’s crucial to this article to wave away the idea that the Cards have scored a preponderance of their runs in a relatively small chunk of their games, at which point the author gets to lean against well-established norms dismissing the idea of “clutch.” But if the reality is that (as one possibility) the Cards’ batters feast against weak pitchers, but are otherwise merely good, not great, then clutch doesn’t come into it.

    To lay out the alternate hypothesis that Thurm* doesn’t even contemplate: every fourth game or so, the Cardinals face a bad pitcher (playing in the Astros’ and Cubs’ division, this is hardly a stretch). In those games, the Cards’ hitters have a strong tendency to tee off, and really make the most of their opportunities. In the other games, Cards’ hitters perform like any other above-average offense, occasionally battering decent pitchers, often ending up in close contests (where luck has not favored them – I see no reason to believe that their 1-run game outcome is talent-driven). The upshot is a team whose RD suggests a much, much better record than they’ve achieved to date.

    Now, every year you get Pythagorean outliers, and this may simply be the Cards’ year. But it’s also possible – based on the numbers – that this is a team whose greatest strength – punishing weak pitchers – results in a real record that far underperforms its projected record.

    * whose writing I generally like; I didn’t even look until this moment at who the author was

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      I agree with this. It seemed like for a while early on they were winning by 8 runs every game. If you cluster those in and figure they’re probably facing “mop up” pitchers, maybe this isn’t actually their true output.

      Is their standard deviation greater than most teams? Let’s say you have one team that averages 5 runs a game with a large deviation, wouldn’t that imply that they had more ridiculous games of like 8-12 runs than a team with 5 average runs a game with a smaller deviation?

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    • Kelly L. says:

      5 earned runs against Matt Cain, 8 earned runs against Clayton Kershaw…

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      • the hottest stove says:

        They’ve also roughed up gallardo, dempster, burnett, kennedy, and latos. They’ve beaten Bumgarner twice but didn’t put up big numbers. Interesting, but I think they’re actually performing better against the aces than against the unkown guys…

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  11. Old Scout says:

    Very simple, it’s not mostly focused on hitting guys. It’s a combo of a rookie mgr still learning how to win late/close/xtra inn games, overworked bullpen, & a team not playing doesn’t play well vs above .500 teams or division leaders. Generating lots of runs in blowout games vs the likes of Astros, Cubs, Dbacks, etc. isn’t the same as attempting to win or come back against Braves, Dodgers, Giants in low scoring games.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      I’m curious, how did you feel about Tony LaRussa’s late game management?

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      • Jeffrey Lage says:

        It was horrendous, he needed to go. That 20 inning game against the Mets was the worst single game managed I have ever personally witnessed

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    • Jeffrey Lage says:

      That isn’t true, did you look up their record against teams over .500?

      And it’s not like it’s weak pitching they are beating up

      12 earned runs against Burnett’s start
      11 earned runs against Latos’ start
      11 vs Gallardo
      10 vs Mahlom
      8 vs Halladay, Kershaw, Cain, Kennedy etc.

      I could go on, I skipped a few.

      They are not just beating up on bad teams, and then losing to someone like the Nationals by 1 run.

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      • Curtiss says:

        To be fair, Everyone loses to the Natinals by one run, except when Jordan Zimmerman is pitching because then the Nationals don’t score at all.

        I think most of the responsibility for this has got to fall on the bullpen. If they are struggling in 1 run games, it means that their best bullpen is not comparing to the best bullpen of the other team. To continue with the Atlanta example, when you have the type of bullpen that they do you will win more one run games because you can shut people down with greater ease when the game is close. Their are also more options to go to if a game goes to extra innings which favors the team with the better bullpen.

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  12. Raymond Robert Koenig says:

    Wait until all the Cards’ players start hitting back down to their career norms, then the offense will really be bad.

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    • Jeffrey Lage says:

      That’s not really a concern.

      Who is hitting way out of their norms?

      Molina? Molina has consistently improved as a hitter, and there is nothing about his batted ball rate that is due for a regression.

      Freese? Freese has hit like this since July of 2011, and he is finally healthy

      Craig? This is his career norm
      Holliday? This is his career norm
      Beltran? This is his career norm

      Who is hitting over their career norm?

      Furcal? Schumaker? Jay? This is everyone’s career norm.

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      • Zach says:

        I agree with most of these comments, but even as a wildly optimistic cardinals fan, i need to point out two things.

        a. there is not “nothing” about Yadier Molina’s batted ball rates that is due for regression. Molina has a HR/FB this year of 14.3%. his career average is 6.7%. while 14.3% is middle-of-the-pack for catchers in MLB, and Molina has been constantly improving, 14.3% is going to regress. 10% would be optimistic.

        b. David Freese has the second highest BABIP of the past 10 years. while the longer he keeps it up, the longer i am convinced he is a high-BABIP guy, this is a guy with ankles that could optimistically be described as glass, and who was routinely being taken out 2/3 of the way through the game last year due to his leg health – i don’t think he’s maintaining a high BABIP due to speed – so his comparables would be Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Matt Holliday, Joe Mauer… call me crazy, but i don’t think David Freese is in that class. there’s just no way David Freese is a .361 BABIP hitter- almost nobody is. regression is imminent.

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  13. Jeffrey Lage says:

    My question is why is it necessarily the Cardinals offense’s fautl?

    Their pitching/defense has allowed 5 runs 45 times
    6 runs 36 times
    7 runs 19 times
    8 runs 12 times
    9 runs 7 times
    10 runs 4 times
    14 runs twice
    15 runs once

    All this discussed was the run differentials. But it ignores when the pitching/defense pitch great and then implode.

    There is clear evidence that the Cardinals will score 11 and then 2, sure.

    But their pitching/defense has given up their fair share of runs at times. Not the rotation, but more so the bullpen.

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  14. Robert says:

    The Cardinals had a 14-8 record with a +53 run differential at the end of April FWIW

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  15. Jay says:

    The whole of the cardinals offense is Alex Rodriguez!

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  16. BlackOps says:

    I’m late to the party, but

    #BlameBeltran

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  17. Felix says:

    The STL bullpen has logged 340.1 innings thus far for a 4.13 ERA. I looked at the boxscores of each one-run loss (you know, the games that tend to increase the gap between the Pythag and actual records). The bullpen pitched 59.1 innings in those games with a 3.94 ERA. If you translated the Reds’ MLB leading 2.78 ERA into those 59.1 innings, that’s 8 fewer runs and probably 8 more wins, flipping that 13-21 record in one-run games around. So the bullpen’s suckiness does factor in.

    But the offense has definitely been inconsistent. I crunched the numbers last week and the NL best offense scored 3 runs or less in 42% of its games (comparable to Cincy and Wash, 6th and 7th in the NL, respectively). The number 2 and 3 NL offenses were around 39% and 37%, respectively. My calculations were done around game 119 so that’s a extra 4-6 games where the Cards offense scores less than 4 runs compared to the other NL offensive powerhouses (Colorado and Atlanta).

    As posted above, it’s not simply because the Cards beat up on bad pitchers. So I don’t know what to chalk it up to other than bad luck with run distribution.

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  18. themiddle54 says:

    There are so many narratives one could hang on the Cardinals and their difference between Pythag and Real W-L. Most, like Bernie’s, require a lot of spin and anecdotal, um, evidence.

    I think a big difference between St Louis and Atlanta and the other ‘good’ NL teams (WAS and CIN) is that they have an extra gear that allows them to smoke bad teams that other teams just don’t have. STL and ATL have won more blowouts than WAS and CIN have even played, or very close. Their offenses are both legit.

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  19. John says:

    I really think Carpenter’s injury in ST has resulted in an overall negative effect to the pitching staff. It has been great that Lance Lynn has pitched well this year, but he was a big part of the bullpen success late in 2011. By him moving into the rotation, you just removed a big piece of closing out the 7th-9th. The Cardinals struggled to fill the gap left by Lynn. The LH relievers have not produced like they did late in 2011 which just adds to the problems. A healthy Carp means that Lynn is in the pen and you have Boggs – Lynn – Motte closing out games which would have improved the late inning situations.

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