The Importance of Sequencing

The St. Louis Cardinals just finished off a sweep of the Washington Nationals, and currently stand at the top of the NL Central with a 13-8 record. At 4.9 runs per game, they’re fourth in the NL in offensive production, which is one of the primary reasons they have outscored their opponents by 27 runs so far. (The other main reason is Adam Wainwright.)

Now, though, here’s a fun fact you might not expect; the St. Louis Cardinals currently have a wRC+ of 88, tied — with the Mariners! — for 24th in MLB. Even if we remove pitcher hitting from the group and only look at offense from position players, their wRC+ is 97, still below the Major League average. From just looking at their batting lines, it’d be fair to describe the Cardinals offensive performance to date as sub-par, and yet, they’re scoring nearly five runs per game.

This is the power of situational hitting. Behold, the Cardinals offense, by baserunner state:


Situation PA BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Rank
Bases Empty 460 0.199 0.254 0.308 0.252 59 30th
Men On 328 0.317 0.377 0.466 0.364 132 2nd
RISP 201 0.349 0.413 0.477 0.383 149 2nd

The Cardinals are the Marlins with the bases empty and the ’27 Yankees on steroids with men on base. When you count up how many hits the Cardinals have gotten, it’s not that impressive, but when you add in the sequence of when those hits took place, their offense starts to look a lot more potent. There’s actually a pretty easy way to see just how big of a difference sequential hitting has made for each team using two stats here on FanGraphs: Batting Runs and RE24.

Batting Runs is the hitting component of WAR, so it’s basically park and league adjusted wOBA multiplied by the number of plate appearances, with the result being the total run value for the player’s outcomes as a batter. It is designed to be context neutral, and not take the situation into account, so it treats a grand slam and a solo home run as equals, giving both the same credit by simply marking them as a home run. Since the hitter didn’t put those guys on base, he gets credit for what he did himself, and not the performance of his teammates.

RE24 gives you a comparable result in terms of batting runs above or below average, but does so by calculating the run expectancy changes between when a batter steps into the box and when his at-bat ends. This serves to give the hitter credit for the difference between the expected runs scored in that situation and how many runs actually score. Essentially, RE24 is Batting Runs adjusted for how well a player or team has sequenced their hits for maximum efficiency. It’s not fully context dependent, as it doesn’t include the score or inning, but it does adjust performance for the situations faced throughout the season.

By using the custom leaderboards here on the site, you can easily line up Batting Runs and RE24 side by side, and see how many extra runs a team has created (or lost) through sequencing. Here’s a leaderboard with Batting Runs added to the WPA section, so Batting and RE24 are next to each other on the same page. If you don’t want to click through, however, I’ll make it easy for you and simply reproduce the table below.

Team Bat RE24 Difference
Cardinals (11.4) 13.2 24.6
Reds 7.1 23.7 16.6
Athletics 21.3 36.8 15.5
Mets 11.7 24.9 13.2
Pirates (12.4) (1.1) 11.4
Giants (1.3) 10.0 11.3
Rangers 1.7 10.2 8.5
Tigers (1.2) 4.7 5.9
Orioles 1.8 6.4 4.6
Marlins (36.7) (35.0) 1.7
Astros 5.2 6.5 1.3
Red Sox 0.8 0.8
Brewers (6.7) (6.2) 0.5
Diamondbacks (9.7) (9.9) (0.2)
Yankees 4.1 3.5 (0.6)
Phillies (11.7) (13.1) (1.4)
Nationals (7.0) (8.8) (1.8)
Rays (6.0) (8.0) (2.0)
Royals (5.3) (8.2) (2.9)
Twins (3.2) (7.0) (3.8)
Cubs (16.7) (22.3) (5.6)
White Sox (21.6) (27.5) (5.9)
Rockies 11.0 4.7 (6.3)
Indians 9.5 2.3 (7.2)
Mariners (11.5) (18.7) (7.2)
Padres (9.9) (17.7) (7.8)
Braves 12.6 4.4 (8.2)
Blue Jays (10.2) (21.3) (11.1)
Angels 10.0 (2.0) (12.0)
Dodgers (1.2) (15.3) (14.1)

The Cardinals have scored 24.6 more runs than we’d have expected based on their context neutral performance, simply through the act of bunching their hits together. That’s over one run per game in sequencing. On the other side of the spectrum, we see that the Angels, Dodgers, and Blue Jays have all lost double digit runs due to their situational hitting, and not surprisingly, they’re currently the three biggest disappointments in terms of record versus expectations.

Side note – how about the Braves coming in at minus eight runs here? The team that entered play with the best record in baseball has actually underperformed their raw offensive totals. That’s amazing. Okay, back to the topic at hand.

Now, this is the kind of gap that could be accurately described as unsustainable. You shouldn’t look at that chart and conclude that the Cardinals are full of clutch warriors while the Dodgers are pansies who melt under pressure. These numbers are going to get closer together as the season goes along, and teams who are at the extremes of the spectrum are going to get pulled back towards the middle over the course of 162 games.

However, not everything is going to completely even out. Last year, the Braves were +25 in difference between RE24 and Batting Runs, while the Royals were -13. That’s a nearly 40 run swing from top to bottom, and which is essentially equal to having another All-Star hitter in your line-up. Sequencing can be a big factor in a team’s overall record, especially early in the season when things haven’t had time to regress to the mean yet.

And this is one of the reasons why I’ll continue to caution against using pythagorean win-loss records as some kind of stand-in for “true team performance”, especially early on in the year. Pythag record is built on the notion of stripping out the sequencing of when runs are scored and allowed, on the belief that the distribution of runs is mostly random, which has historically been shown to be true. However, the same concept applies to the actual scoring and allowing of runs.

The Cardinals +27 run differential in 21 games means that their pythag winning percentage is .637. However, we know that 25 of those runs are due to their offensive sequencing, so if their distribution of hits had been more normal, they’d have a run differential of +2, and their pythag winning percentage would be .512. If the Cardinals had a .512 pythag and a .637 winning percentage, you’d probably see some comments about how they’re headed for regression. Because their .637 pythag is actually better than their .619 winning percentage, you probably won’t see anyone write about the Cardinals over performing in the first few weeks of the season.

At the same time, though, we don’t think the Cardinals are really the most clutch offensive team in baseball. We expect their situational hitting will regress as the year goes on. At the same time, we expect that Allan Craig, Jon Jay, and David Freese will hit better than they have so far, so there’s positive offensive regression coming for the Cardinals too. Those might end up offsetting, and who knows, St. Louis may very well average 4.9 runs per game all year long.

But, it’s worth remembering that pythagorean record isn’t really context neutral, and quoting it as a true talent measure at this point in the season isn’t really accurate either. There’s a lot of noise in both runs scored and runs allowed too, especially in small sample sizes. Let’s not solely focus on regressing one aspect of performance while holding all the rest steady.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Steve 1
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Steve 1
3 years 2 months ago

Dave,

You just need to admit that you are now a Cardinals fan. It’s ok, no one minds. Just stop pretending to be impartial when it comes to them.

Steve 1
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Steve 1
3 years 2 months ago

I didn’t meant to say the above work/conclusions is wrong. Dave just clearly loves the Cardinals.

CardinalRules
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CardinalRules
3 years 2 months ago

There actually doesn’t appear to be much interest in the Cardinals on this blog. There wasn’t a story on the Wainwright extension, even though it was almost $100MM. That’s an ace 1 season out from TJ whose peripherals were good last year, but conventional stats were down. I don’t want to be the “everybody on this blog hates my team” guy, but there definitely isn’t a particular love.

Anon21
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Anon21
3 years 2 months ago

This doesn’t even make sense. Are you being sarcastic? The point of this article, as I read it, is that the Cardinals have been exceptionally fortunate in an aspect of the game that historically, as Dave says in the article, has been shown to be random. Thus, if it means anything, it means that the Cardinals have been overperforming, and should expect their runs scored per game to drop going forward. How do you read that and jump to the conclusion that Dave is a Cardinals fan?

Steve 1
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Steve 1
3 years 2 months ago

I said above that there was nothing wrong with the analysis. It has more to do with noticing over time his Cardinals references (often on Twitter). He did probably get the idea for this by watching a bunch of Cards games and wondering what was up.

Luke I am your Father
Member
Luke I am your Father
3 years 2 months ago

It’s just not fair to blame a Mariner’s fan for watching other teams’ games. It happens!

Baltar
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Baltar
3 years 2 months ago

You took the words right out of my mouth. Steve 1 is wrong about the article being pro-Cardinal and also about Dave Cameron being pro-Cardinal.
And even if Dave were pro-Cardinal, so what?
That makes Steve 1 wrong in at least 3 ways.

Jay
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Jay
3 years 2 months ago

Huh? He seems to be saying that hit sequencing is more a matter of luck than skill. If that’s the case then he’s saying that the Cardinals (and the Reds, As etc.) have been getting lucky.

chuckb
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chuckb
3 years 2 months ago

Someone needs a diaper change.

Anon21
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Anon21
3 years 2 months ago

Side note – how about the Braves coming in at minus eight runs here? The team that entered play with the best record in baseball has actually underperformed their raw offensive totals. That’s amazing. Okay, back to the topic at hand.

Doesn’t surprise me too much–maybe the magnitude of the deficit, but it’s been obvious that their sequencing has been poor. They’ve been making up for it with a surplus of home runs so far, so the question is whether they’ve been getting luckier on balls leaving the park than they’ve been getting unlucky on sequencing.

Tim A
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Tim A
3 years 2 months ago

Look at the A’s numbers, and realize Cespedes is on the DL, and Reddick is just getting rolling. This is a team that can hit! Heres to getting a 2B who will do something so slap hitting Sogard can UT while Parrino goes down.

brendan
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brendan
3 years 2 months ago

A’s have also played houston 6 times and swept them so far. I don’t think you should get too excited about their current record.

I’m an A’s fan, but I think they are going to have a tough time keeping up w/ texas and LAA.

Matt
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Matt
3 years 2 months ago

Have you seen LA’s pitching? Or noticed that Pujols can barely walk and Hamilton sucks?

Texas is tough, but the A’s are gonna hang.

reading_steiner
Member
reading_steiner
3 years 2 months ago

Texas is good, but the Angels are terrible.

Trent Phloog
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Trent Phloog
3 years 2 months ago

Before playing around with this chart, I honestly didn’t realize how great the A’s have been this season so far. They lead in Batting Runs — by a lot — and RE24 — by even more — and are 3rd in the differential. So while they’ve been a bit “lucky,” it’s by no means all luck in Oakland these days.

Anon
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Anon
3 years 2 months ago

You shouldn’t look at that chart and conclude that the Cardinals are full of clutch warriors while the Dodgers are pansies who melt under pressure.

We don’t need this ‘chart’ full of your ‘data’ to tell everyone facts that are obvious from watching actual baseball with your own eyes.

P.S. That data would be great in a graph to better show the Marlins’ outlier quality.

Desdroia
Member
Desdroia
3 years 2 months ago

Yeah Dave! Give us that data in a graph to better show the Marlins’ outlier quality! This’ll be sick, I bet they’re total outliers!

…oh.

ODawg
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ODawg
3 years 2 months ago

This “I want to see it with my own eyes” argument of anti-SABR people is hilarious. No one is saying you can’t (except you, McCarver), they’re just saying you don’t have 3000 eyes and 36 hours a day to watch every single thing that happens all year and form accurate opinions of it.

Ruki Motomiya
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Ruki Motomiya
3 years 2 months ago

I am pretty sure he was being sarcastic…

Desdroia
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Desdroia
3 years 2 months ago

Lets hope so.

Anon
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Anon
3 years 2 months ago

Yes, I used sarcasm on the internet. I know, bad idea.

P.S. I actually meant the postscript.

GTW
Member
GTW
3 years 2 months ago

Dave, I’ve noticed that historically NL teams’ RE24 outperforms their Batting runs and wRAA moreso than the AL teams. Is there an intuitive explanation for this that I’m missing because IIRC it’s not due to a couple years of SSS but rather a consistent result.

I haven’t had a chance to look extensively at this year’s numbers yet but from the quick glance at your chart it looks to have similar results.

philosofool
Member
Member
philosofool
3 years 2 months ago

I would expect this has to do with having a putrid hitter that always bats ninth. A good batting order is about the only way to control sequencing and should allow a team’s RE24 to slightly exceed batting runs. Batting runs basically treat the pitchere’s performance as randomly distributed among the teams hitters, RE24 is smarter.

Bob
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Bob
3 years 2 months ago

Re: Braves

JUpton has 11 HR, another 5 doubles and 9 more singles… and has driven in 16.

chuckb
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chuckb
3 years 2 months ago

Not enough RBI for 11 HR. Must not be a team player.

ettin
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ettin
3 years 2 months ago

The Athletics have a Batting Runs of 21.3? That’s nearly twice as high as the next closest team?

Jaack
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Jaack
3 years 2 months ago

Clutch Warriors sounds like a reality show on the Discovery Channel.

Baltar
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Baltar
3 years 2 months ago

More like a cartoon on the Cartoon Network.

Nitpick
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Nitpick
3 years 2 months ago

On the chart, when you try to sort on a column, it doesn’t recognize that the parentheses are negatives. It ends up sorting by absolute value. Not sure if there is an easy fix, or that this matters much, but just something to think about.

If you sort (aka click) on any of the columns, you can’t even get it back to the way it was originally presented.

Otherwise, very interesting article!

Tim
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Tim
3 years 2 months ago

Without sequencing, we wouldn’t be able to clone Rickey Henderson. So it’s pretty important.

ODawg
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ODawg
3 years 2 months ago

Can whoever goes back and does this analysis on the last 10 completed seasons (with actual records in the next column) please post a link to their work when completed?

MGL
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MGL
3 years 2 months ago

The only thing I would add (to a very good concept – and I have always said that (pythag records are garbage for the exact reasons that David articulates) is that batting runs should include base running and SB/CS since actual runs includes sequencing plus base running. Maybe the batting runs above do include base running. If they do fine. If not, they should.

As far as I know there is zero evidence that sequencing for a team is a skill. Thus, actual runs scored is garbage (although obviously it will approach linear weights runs the larger the sample). If you want to do a quick and dirty analysis of a team’s expected w/l record, please use linear weights runs in the pythag formula and not actual runs! For runs allowed, you should actually do the same thing although it is a bit harder to do so.

Anon
Guest
Anon
3 years 2 months ago

I expect some amount of sequencing is a natural occurance. An ineffective and/or tiring pitcher would be more likely to give up hits. The result is more sequencing than would be expected from random variation in the distribution of hits. Other factors do contribute, but I expect this has a significant effect.

Nick Doyle
Guest
Nick Doyle
3 years 2 months ago

Great article. After reading I went to create the same chart for team pitching, while re24 is listed as an available stat for pitching, batting runs is not. If the cardinals are getting 25 of their current pythag in runs scored from sequencing, how many are they also getting/losing on the pitching side? Is their any way to figure that out?

Jay29
Member
Jay29
3 years 2 months ago

I’ve never heard of sequencing as referring to the stringing together of hits/baserunners. When I saw the title I figured the article was going to be about pitch sequencing. Which seems like a good topic to cover, as well.

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