The Split Personalities of the Cardinals

One of the most remarkable things about the Cardinals’ clutch hitting — aside from the reality of the Cardinals’ clutch hitting — is the way it refuses to regress the way we’d expect it to. From a Cardinals game recap over the weekend:

At the end of April, the team was batting .327 with runners in scoring position. A month later, the average was up to .333. Three months in, it sat at .335. And after going 2-for-5 with runners in scoring position on Sunday, the Cardinals now boast a mark of .338. No team in baseball history has even come close to maintaining such a pace.

The Cardinals came out of the gate hitting well with runners in scoring position. At least by batting average, every month they’ve only gotten better. That’s not what regression looks like. That’s the polar opposite of what regression looks like. It’s been enough to make some people wonder. Just what are the Cardinals doing, and how are the Cardinals doing it?

What the Cardinals have been doing is coming up with timely hits. That much isn’t a secret. Buster Olney likes to tweet about it, and if you ask any of the Cardinals or the coaches, they’ll tell you it’s about a mature, responsible approach. The players want to be hitting in big spots, and they don’t try to do too much, and that explains why the Cardinals’ numbers are so historically high.

Over nearly a thousand plate appearances, the Cardinals have a team 141 wRC+ with runners in scoring position. They’ve generated a hit in every third at-bat, and they’ve slugged .468. At this writing, Evan Longoria has a 141 wRC+. The Cardinals, with runners in scoring position, have hit as well as Evan Longoria, as a team. That’s going to get noticed, because it’s amazing. We’re almost into August.

But all the talk about the Cardinals’ hitting with runners in scoring position ignores something important: the Cardinals’ hitting with the bases empty. Over more than two thousand plate appearances, the Cardinals have a team 89 wRC+ with nobody on. At this writing, John Buck has an 89 wRC+. The Cardinals, with the bases empty, have hit as well as John Buck, as a team. That hasn’t been noticed so much, because it isn’t sexy, but there’s significance in here.

Believe if you want that the Cardinals are capable of amazing things with the pressure on, but how do you explain the performance under a little less pressure? Those are still mostly important plate appearances, and, where are the results? If the pressure results are a consequence of a solid approach, why has that approach failed the team in other situations? Or, why hasn’t that approach been adopted in other situations? If the Cardinals deserve praise for their clutch performance, they deserve also criticism for their performance with nobody on. I mean, as long as we’re assigning responsibility.

The split is too wide. It will regress. At the very least, any reasonable person would expect it to regress, and if it doesn’t, that’s just because the season stops at 162 games. This is the simple, easy point. The Cardinals aren’t that good, or that bad. They deserve some credit for what they’ve already done, just like Mike Cameron deserves credit for having homered four times in one game, but Cameron never did that again. Cameron didn’t make that a habit.

Here’s easy evidence. A year ago, the Cardinals had a very similar baseball team. Similar team, same manager. With nobody on base, the Cardinals posted a .326 wOBA and a 106 wRC+. With runners in scoring position, they posted a .328 wOBA and a 106 wRC+. Whatever they’re supposedly capable of now, they weren’t capable of last season, with mostly the same roster. Again, it’s really easy to say the Cardinals are going to regress to something more normal.

Might there be some meaningful differences in how plate appearances have been distributed? Well, for one thing, this year almost all of the Cardinals’ hitters have been good. But, David Freese and Jon Jay have gotten 16% of plate appearances with no one on, and 22% of plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran have gotten 25% of plate appearances with no one on, and 17% of plate appearances with runners in scoring position. No solutions can be found here. This isn’t a distribution thing — this is just a weird thing.

By OPS, there’s a 125-point difference between the Cardinals’ scoring-position performance and their overall performance. No team has posted a bigger gap since 1969, with the 1981 Brewers showing up at 124. Just six teams have come in at greater than 100, with the Cardinals leading the way. With more than two months left to go, the Cardinals are on a historic pace. That much probably isn’t surprising.

Something I’ve more recently become interested in, as far as the Cardinals are concerned, is how regression might look. The Cardinals can be expected to hit worse with runners in scoring position. But they can also be expected to hit better with nobody on, and there are more of those plate appearances. And more success with nobody on leads to more scoring-position opportunities. To what extent might these dual regressions cancel out? What’s the effect on run scoring of more timely hitting? What’s the effect on run scoring of less timely hitting?

The core of the research:

runsgamewoba

That’s runs per game, plotted against wOBA, on the individual-team level since 1969. The relationship is obviously strong, deliberately strong, and it allows us to play around. For example, the Cardinals this year have a .328 wOBA and are averaging 4.97 runs per game. As a group, the 26 teams with .328 wOBAs have averaged 4.58 runs per game. Those teams have also averaged very slightly negative base-running scores, while this year’s Cardinals are a few runs worse.

That equation up there on the graph allows us to calculate an “expected runs per game.” Do so and 73% of teams fall within +/- 0.20. I decided first to look at the 20 teams from the sample with the most lopsided performances in terms of hitting with runners in scoring position. These 20 teams averaged an .813 OPS with runners in scoring position, and a .719 OPS overall. They also averaged 4.48 runs per game, against an expected average of 4.37. By base-running, they averaged -1.4 runs.

Then I looked at the opposite 20 teams — those teams with the worst relative performances with runners in scoring position. These 20 teams averaged a .676 OPS with runners in scoring position, and a .731 OPS overall. They also averaged 4.29 runs per game, against an expected average of 4.50. By base-running, they averaged -0.8 runs.

By that evidence, hitting poorly with nobody on doesn’t cancel out hitting well with runners in scoring position, even though there are far more plate appearances in the former sample. And hitting well with nobody on doesn’t cancel out hitting poorly with runners in scoring position. It makes good sense, because those scoring-position plate appearances have a higher leverage to them, as there’s more to be gained from each hit. The Cardinals have hit too well with runners in scoring position and too poorly with the bases empty, but as a consequence of this they’ve scored more often than they should be expected to.

Which is kind of reflected by their projected 4.44 runs per game. The Cardinals have averaged more runs per game than any other team in the National League. They’re projected to be behind the Rockies, and though they should still be good, they should score less often, because this split shouldn’t sustain, no matter how long it’s been sustaining. It doesn’t make sense why this would be reality, so absent any compelling reason, we needn’t accept it as reality. We need to accept what’s already happened, but it isn’t completely reflective of the team’s true ability.

Which is all to say: you could’ve guessed this conclusion. It’s nothing particularly surprising. The Cardinals have been too good at producing runs, and going forward they should be less good. They’re still a very good team, and they presently have the lead in their division so they’re sitting in a comfortable spot. It helps that they ought to start performing better with nobody on base. But when there are people on base, on dangerous bases — expect more stranded runners. The Cardinals can only do so much, from here.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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