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.