During the two weeks leading up to Opening Day, we’ve been taking a look at some of the most interesting teams in baseball – one contender and one rebuilder from each league. What makes a team “interesting”? Taking advantage of the extreme nature of its ballpark, for a couple of clubs. Bucking some of the game’s most prevalent current trends and having success, for another. Or almost completely breaking from every pattern displayed in a club’s fairly successful recent past. In this installment, let’s look at our NL contender, the reigning NL champs, the St. Louis Cardinals, who have built a sustainable winner by having a somewhat contrarian plan, and sticking to it.
A DIFFERENT PATH TO AN IMPACT OFFENSE
Over the last decade, offense throughout the game has steadily trended downward, for reasons much larger than can be covered in this post. Walks are down, strikeouts are up, and homers are down – though by not nearly as much as one would expect given the decline in run-scoring. Every team seemingly has multiple high-K, low-BB, go-for-the-pump pull hitters in its lineup. The Cards are a high-achieving offensive club that gets it done in a different way.
Many will point to the Cards’ otherworldly performance with runners in scoring position as the primary driver behind their 2013 success. I would submit that while it certainly didn’t hurt, the fundamentals of the Cards’ offense were good enough on their own to mark it as one of the game’s best.
First, let’s introduce a simple little niche stat called “pull ratio”. For a lefty hitter, it’s simply the number of balls hit to (RCF + RF) divided by the number of balls hits to (LF + LCF) – for righty batters, it’s the opposite. Below are the pull ratios by batted ball type for all of MLB and for the St. Louis Cardinals, by batter handedness:
While the Cards’ lefty hitters pulled a little more than the MLB average, their righty hitters pulled far less than the MLB average in each of the major batted ball types. Overall, the Cards pulled much less often than the MLB average. While using the entire field is a good thing in and of itself, it alone doesn’t come close to guaranteeing an elite offense. As we shall see, however, it does aid in the minimization of weak ground ball contact, which is one of the drivers of the St. Louis offense.
Taking batted-ball data into account, and assuming that balls hit at specific speed/angle combinations were converted into singles, doubles, triples and homers at MLB average rates, the 2013 Cards projected to have the 5th best offense in baseball last season, easily the best in the DH-less National League. Batted ball data doesn’t care about clutch hitting – this offense was for real. Based on contact quality alone, the Cards ranked 11th, and 4th in the NL. The Cards as a team hit 985 line drives last season, 2nd to the Miguel Cabrera-employing, DH-using Detroit Tigers, nearly two standard deviations above the MLB average. The Cards also hit a high number of ground balls – 1894, 6th in the majors, over a standard deviation above the MLB average. A high team grounder total is typically not a good thing – the five teams with more ground balls ranked among the seven least productive projected offenses using this method.
Why doesn’t the Cards’ high ground ball total negatively affect their team offense, as it does the other five? Well, let’s go back to that pull ratio. The majority of weakly hit grounders are pulled, “rollover” ground balls – and the Cardinals simply don’t hit many of them compared to their peers. Once you add the K’s and BB’s back to the team’s batted-ball mix, they soar from 11th to 5th in projected total offense, as they struck out about one standard deviation less than the MLB average, despite the absence of a DH in their lineup.
What didn’t the Cards do well offensively? Well, they didn’t hit the ball very hard in the air, ranking 21st in projected fly ball offense, utilizing the same granular batted-ball data. There is, contrary to popular belief, more than one way to build a productive offense, and the Cards have done so by minimizing negative events like K’s, popups and weak grounders, while maximizing relatively unsexy positive events like line drives. Chicks may did the long ball, but such an attraction may be fleeting. The Cards’ approach is more conducive to the sustenance of a productive, mutually fulfilling long-term relationship.
Let’s take a look at the outcome frequency and batted-ball production data for some of the 2013 Cards’ key position players, to see what makes their individual offensive games’ tick:
|Carpenter||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
|Craig||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
|Holliday||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
|Y.Molina||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
Matt Carpenter is the pure technician of the group. His success is all about optimization of frequency of outcomes, and not about batted ball authority. His K and popup rates are very low (percentile ranks of 17 and 22), his walk and line drive rates very high (percentile ranks of 76 and 98). Yes, line drive rates are the most variable of batted-ball type rates from year-to-year, but Carpenter’s rate was also very high in 2012 (80), suggesting that there is likely quite a bit of skill in there. He needs that high liner rate to drive his performance, as his relative production on fly balls is quite low (64 percentile rank after adjustment for context). His production on ground balls is well above MLB average, partially because of a relatively low weak ground ball rate, and also because of quality baserunning, as he had a surprisingly high total of ground ball doubles in 2013. His adjusted relative production of 112 on all BIP is solid, and moves sharply upward to 129 once the K’s and BB’s are added back in. Moving forward, Carpenter is reliant on a high line drive rate and strong K and BB rates, as his batted ball authority is insufficient to keep at him at the star level on its own.
Allen Craig is a slightly more authoritative and less technical version of Carpenter. As with Carpenter, Craig’s 2013 performance was driven by an off-the-charts line drive rate (97 percentile rank), but unlike him, Craig’s K and BB rates (50 and 38 percentile ranks) are quite ordinary. Craig’s line drive rate is much more likely to regress going forward, as his 2012 line drive percentile rank was only 16. He does hit the ball much harder in the air than Carpenter (119 adjusted relative production), and shares his tendency to avoid weakly-hit rollover ground balls. Adjusted for context, Craig’s relative production on batted balls exceeds Carpenter’s (134), and almost exactly matches him once the K’s and BB’s are added back (130). Craig’s standing on the defensive spectrum is shakier than Carpenter’s moving forward, and his corresponding offensive bar is higher. His ability to impact the baseball gives his offensive game some staying power, however.
Matt Holliday relies on solid K and BB rates and good, old-fashioned batted-ball authority for his success. His 2013 line drive rate was relatively low (42 percentile rank), and it has been below MLB average in four of his last six seasons. Holliday, however, is the only one of these four core Cardinals to truly crush the ball in the air on a regular basis – 159 fly ball actual relative production, adjusted up to 206 due to context, largely due to Busch’s pitcher-friendly status. His line drives are among the hardest hit in baseball, with an adjusted relative production figure of 128, and his adjusted relative ground ball production is in the same range as Carpenter and Craig’s, though Holliday’s success is based more on maximizing hard contact than minimizing the soft variety. Holliday is an unappreciated long-term stud who does it all offensively, and who very well might have a strong Hall of Fame case when all is said and done. He combines brute force and the more salient facets of hitting such as using the field and managing an at-bat as few in the game can.
Then there’s Yadier Molina. He never strikes out (6 percentile rank) and rarely pops up (36 percentile rank), and like Carpenter and Craig, hits a ton of line drives (88 percentile rank). His line drive percentile ranks have been in the narrow band between 87 and 89 in three of the last four seasons, so this is who he is. He impacts the baseball similarly to Craig, with a 119 adjusted relative fly ball production figure that includes a healthy positive park adjustment. Like Carpenter and Craig, he rarely hits weak, pulled rollover ground balls – his adjusted relative production on grounders is a massive 172, which his utter lack of speed unfortunately prevents him from actually approaching. Molina is this generation’s version of Ozzie Smith – a historically elite defender who figured out the offensive side of the game as he aged, weeding out the negative events while studiously, methodically maximizing the positive ones.
So, you want to hit .300 in the big leagues? A) don’t strike out, and B) don’t pop up. Do everything else at a level approaching average, and you’ve got it down. Toss in high line drive rates, and you’ve got this group of Cardinal hitters, except for Holliday, who adds fairly extreme batted ball authority into the mix. The Cards’ offensive success is more than anything about the avoidance of the most negative outcomes – the strikeout, the popup, the pulled, rollover ground ball. Oh, and Jhonny Peralta‘s skill set should fit right in.
FOUR-ACE PITCHING STAFF
What about the Cards’ pitching? Let’s come at it in the same way we approached the hitting. Using batted-ball data and the number of singles, doubles, triples and homers that “should have been” allowed based on the actual batted-ball mix yielded by their staff, the Cards ranked 2nd in the majors in contact management, fractionally behind their division mates from Pittsburgh.
Their contact management ability was exceptional across the board. Only three teams allowed fewer line drives than their 845, and only five clubs induced more grounders than their 1891. Only two clubs allowed weaker ground balls on average than the Cards, and only one, the Dodgers, allowed weaker fly balls. Once K’s and BB’s are added back into the mix, the Cards still rank second in projected 2013 overall pitching, now just behind the Dodgers. We are once again witnessing the avoidance of negative outcomes – the line drive, the base on balls, the hard fly ball or grounder – as the primary driver of team success. Let’s take a look at the Cards’ top three starting pitchers’ outcome frequency and batted-ball production data to see how they fit into this model:
|Lynn||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Miller||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Wainwright||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
Let’s start with Wainwright, the fully evolved ace. Frequency-wise, he walks no one (3 percentile rank) and allows hardly anyone to hit the ball in the air. The rest of his frequency profile is so strong that he can withstand a relatively high line drive rate (66 percentile rank in 2013, and 66 or 67 in three of the last four seasons) and remain a true ace. Not only does he induce a ton of grounders, they are also hit more weakly than average (91 adjusted relative production) – in fact, after adjustment for context, he allows weaker than average authority on all batted-ball types. Add back his exceptional K and BB rates, and you have a “tru” ERA of 2.81, 73 relative to MLB average, 4th best in baseball last year among ERA qualifiers, behind Matt Harvey, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Masterson.
Next, let’s look at the budding ace, Shelby Miller. As a 22-year-old rookie last season, he showed the complete young power pitcher starter set. High K rate……check. High BB rate……check. Not a lot of focus on contact management…..check. He did prove to be a significant popup generator (87 percentile rank) and did minimize line drive contact (17 percentile rank), and while the line drive rate is likely to regress, the popup tendency is likely real, and bodes extremely well for his future. Overall, his batted ball authority allowed is quite close to MLB average. His adjusted relative fly ball production figure is better than MLB average at 89, but his line drive and ground ball adjusted relative production figures of 105 and 128, respectively, are indicative of a young colt still learning how to use his stuff. If he can eventually manage contact at a Wainwright-esque level – a solid possibility given his popup tendency – he too can be a legit #1.
Now, let’s look at the stealth ace, Lynn. Do not be fooled by last season’s 3.97 ERA. As with Miller, Lynn’s K and BB rates were both high in 2013 (71 and 85 percentile ranks). Also like Miller, Lynn has a fairly significant popup tendency (73 percentile rank). Looking at the production table, one can see how Lynn manages contact authority better than Miller. Lynn’s soft fly and ground ball rates are quite high – note his context-adjusted relative production figures of 69 and 82 on fly balls and ground balls, respectively. Even his line drives are weakly hit (93 adjusted relative production). Overall, his 86 relative production figure on all BIP is even better than Wainwright’s, and his “tru” ERA of 3.13 is almost a full run better than his actual 2013 mark. Lynn may never be a #1, but a strong #2 ceiling is likely.
We haven’t even discussed Michael Wacha, and given the small sample size, we won’t delve into his numbers, but suffice it to say that he too fits the Cardinal mold, and should slide in right next to these guys qualitatively. Joe Kelly is nowhere near as good as his gaudy 2.69 2013 ERA, but he too manages contact well and makes a fine #5 starter or quality staff utilityman. There may be a brief period within the next two to three years — as Miller and Wacha’s stars ascend and before Wainwright’s begins to fall — when the Cards will have four true aces; that is not good news for the rest of the National League.
SHORING UP THEIR ONLY WEAKNESS
The 2013 Cardinals did have an Achilles’ heel – team defense. Based on granular batted ball data, the Cards were out-defended by their opponents to a greater extent than all but seven MLB clubs last season, and their largest shortcoming was in the outfield. What to do? Well, simply acquire a center field defender good enough to move Mike Trout to a corner, at an affordable cost.
Peter Bourjos turns 27 this season, and though his individual advanced defensive numbers were just ordinary in 2013, he historically ranks as the Andrelton Simmons of the outfield, with a UZR/150 figure of 20.2. He’s coming off of an injury that limited him to just 55 games last season, which enabled him to be acquired at the relatively low cost of third baseman David Freese. Bourjos has shown surprising extra-base pop in his brief major league career, and should approximate the offense of previous starter Jon Jay, while dramatically enhancing the defense. Jay now becomes a fourth outfielder or a part-time corner guy, where his glove plays much better. This top five offense, top five pitching club will no longer be a bottom 10 defense club. Bourjos might just be good enough – think Franklin Gutierrez, 2009, if he stays healthy – all by himself to push them into the top 10.
LITTLE DROPOFF FROM PLANS A TO D
Look at your favorite club and think about the dropoff experienced when a key player goes down. The Rangers might be looking at Josh Wilson at second base, and the Jose Iglesias injury has caused the Tigers to actually use the coach Omar Vizquel‘s name in vain. The Cards have basically turned over their infield in 2014, from Craig-Carpenter-Kozma-Freese to Adams-Wong-Peralta-Carpenter. If any of them get hurt, there are viable, major leaguer-ready Plans B, C and D ready to put in place. It’s the same in the outfield – if Bourjos gets hurt again, they just snap back to last year’s configuration, minus Carlos Beltran, or snap Oscar Taveras into place. They have survived entire lost years from Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, and segued neatly from Ryan Franklin to Fernando Salas to Jason Motte to Edward Mujica to Trevor Rosenthal in the closer role. Their big league club, and organization in general, possesses uncanny flexibility. If they lost Yadier Molina, well……..every team has their Waterloo.
Part of this is due to a constantly productive farm system, largely built upon the paradoxical combination of polished college draftees and raw Latin American signees. They have proven to be adept finding and developing the Seth Manesses, the Mike O’Neill‘s, the James Ramseys – college draftees who minimize negative outcomes – as well as the Carlos Martinezes and Oscar Taverases, who maximize the positive ones. The system is a conveyor belt that churns out MLB-ready “Cardinal Way” prospects on an annual basis.
Quite a bit of turnover in personnel is reflected in the 2014 Opening Day roster of the defending NL champions. But in Kolten Wong, Jhonny Peralta, Peter Bourjos and others, we will likely continue to see the characteristics we have grown accustomed to seeing in a Cardinal team – a lot of things being done the right way, and even more importantly, very few being done the wrong way. A couple of predictions for this season’s Cardinals – they won’t hit as well with runners in scoring position, but they will be playing just as deep into October.