Cards’ April wrap-up

As the first calendar month of Major League Baseball’s comes to a close, we’ve begun to accumulate enough data to make spring training projections look silly. While the NL Central has already begun to pan out the way most experts projected–the Cubs leading the way, the Cardinals and Pirates in contention, and the Reds and Brewers bringing up the rear–the reason for the Redbirds’ moderate success appears to be the polar opposite from projections made in March.

The 2015 Cardinals allowed 525 runs all season, an average of about 3.24 runs allowed per game; the pitching staff’s ERA was 2.94 (478 earned runs allowed on the season), best in the majors by over a quarter of an earned run per 9 innings. Conventional logic dictated that, with Adam Wainwright, who lost most of last season due to injury, essentially replacing John Lackey, who departed for Chicago’s north side, and Mike Leake coming on board to fill in for the injured Lance Lynn, the Cardinals would still have the best starting rotation and one of the best overall staffs in the majors.

Unfortunately, this year’s team has already allowed more runs (92) through 22 games than last year’s did (91) in its first thirty. The team’s two youngest starters–Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, both only 24–are a combined 6-1 with a 2.51 ERA. The perennially-injured Jaime Garcia also showed why the Cardinals picked up his option for this season in his one-hit shutout of the Brewers in his second start of the season; he has posted a decent 3.73 ERA thus far. Instead, it’s Wainwright and Leake, far and away the most experienced starters in the rotation, who have dragged the rotation down thus far. Waino’s 7.16 ERA is particularly disconcerting in light of the 1.44 he posted before tearing his left Achilles running out of the batter’s box last April.

Given the problems of the pitching staff relative to last year–they are currently fifth in the NL in ERA and tenth in strikeouts–and the prevailing offseason concern that general manager John Mozeliak didn’t do enough to shore up 2015’s painfully average offense, the offensive output thus far has been a pleasant surprise. Mo’s moves, or lack thereof, were predicated on the following expectations:

  • Continued improvement over with regular playing time for Randal Grichuk & Stephen Piscotty. Piscotty is hitting .297 (.305 last year) with 4 HRs; his OPS is up vs. 2015, as well. Grichuk’s average is down significantly (.189 vs. .276) and, as a result, his on-base and slugging percentages have suffered.
  • A power surge for Matt Holliday, who only hit 4 HRs last season after playing in only 73 games due to two stints on the DL. Holliday has already gone deep three times this season, but his average is a little lower (.253 vs. .279) than last year.
  • Ditto for Matt Adams, who mashed 17 HRs in under 300 ABs in 2013, then managed two fewer while exceeding 500 ABs in ’14; missed over 100 games last season due to injury. He’s been used off the bench for the most part this season, and has only hit .244 with 2 HRs and 17 strikeouts in 45 ABs.
  • Better consistency from Matt Carpenter who, despite hitting 28 HRs and leading the league in doubles last season, went through a couple of slumps and power outages when shuffled around in the lineup. Marp’s average (.230) is well below that for his career (.286), but his on-base percentage would be a career high if today were October 2nd. While his slugging percentage is down versus 2015, his OPS is above his career average.
  • While 2B Kolten Wong has essentially been a singles hitter thus far in his career, he has provided some offensive and defensive stability at a position which the franchise has had little for quite some time. Unfortunately, he’s yet to contribute any extra-base hits in 51 ABs this season, and his four errors are tied for fifth in the NL.
  • Typically-excellent defense from Yadier Molina, and an uptick in batting average and, more importantly, power numbers. Sure enough, he’s been solid behind the plate thus far, and he’s hitting .341, albeit with 0 HRs. Still, Yadi’s on-base and slugging percentages, as well as OPS, are much improved over 2015.
  • A little more rest throughout the season for Jhonny Peralta, whose average was above .300 at the end of April and May, and even as late as mid-July, but fell off to .275 by the season’s end. So, Peralta got hurt in spring training. The Cardinals signed Ruben Tejada, whom the Mets had just released, to fill in. Then he got hurt, so manager Mike Matheny was forced to turn to Aledmys Díaz, a Cuban defector signed by St. Louis in 2014. Through twenty games played, Díaz’ .423 average leads baseball by a wide margin. Tejada has since returned from the DL, which will be advantageous as Díaz has provided suspect defense at short, committing 5 errors already.
  • Given Brandon Moss’ career numbers entering the season, a batting average above .250 is probably out of the question, so he was expected to provide some power off the bench or when filling in for Adams at first. Sure enough, he’s hitting .226 so far, but with 5 HRs in only 62 ABs, so he’s actually surpassed Adams a little in the pecking order; Adams is linked to trade rumors that have persisted since the offseason.
  • Did I mention more power off the bench? Led by Tommy Pham, and the odd man out between Holliday, Adams, Piscotty, Grichuk, and Moss on a given day. So Pham got hurt in game #1… enter Jeremy Hazelbaker, who’s hit .317 with 5 HRs in 63 ABs in his first action in the majors.

St. Louis Cardinals Jeremy Hazelbaker

Overall, the offense has improved significantly. They are currently 2nd in the NL with a .275 average, have scored the most runs (135), and are behind only Colorado and Arizona in HRs. They’re currently on pace to mash 229 HRs, only twenty off the NL mark set by the Astros (including Jeff Bagwell and Ken Caminiti, and a nifty little short porch in LF in Enron Field’s inaugural season) in 2000. On April 27, they scored 10+ runs for the sixth time, a mark which wasn’t achieved until July 18 last season.

What I do find troublesome is the offensive output in games against good teams. Don’t get me wrong, you’re generally going to score more runs against bad teams than against good ones, but this iteration of the Cards has been quite extreme. In 16 games against the Braves, Brewers, Reds, Padres, and Diamondbacks, they’ve pushed 124 runs across the plate, or 7.75 per game. They’re 11-5 against these teams with sub-.500 records.

However, may recall the opening-series sweep in Pittsburgh, in which El Birdos scored precisely one run in two of the three games and seven total. Two weeks later, at home against the Cubs, they managed all of six runs in three games, with five coming in the third game to avoid the sweep. And now, having lost the first two (again, at home) in the current series against the Nationals, they’ve only managed five runs. So, in eight games against teams above .500, they’ve scored 18 runs, or 2.25 per game. That wouldn’t be enough even with last year’s pitching staff, so it’s no surprise the Redbirds are 1-7 against the Pirates, Cubs, and Nationals.

Ultimately, while the pitching staff and defense do need to improve (for what it’s worth, they’ve allowed 4.5 runs per game against the three aforementioned postseason-bound clubs and 4.2 per against the five lesser teams they’ve faced thus far), the offense is only halfway to goal of improving. They’ve bailed out the pitching staff in several games, the reverse of the situation countless times last season. The 2016 lineup has proven it’s capable of hanging a crooked number against inferior pitching; now it must show it can manage to scratch runs across against the better pitching staffs the league has to offer.

Here’s to hoping May and beyond offer a *little* better than .500 baseball.

Cards/Cubs Rookies

One constant talking point in the National League Central throughout the 162-game schedule was the quality of the young players and rookies on the Chicago Cubs’ roster.  Kris Bryant, of course, was a focal point from Spring Training on, but Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, Starlin Castro, and Addison Russell, all under the age of 26 back in April, saw regular playing time this season.  Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez, neither a regular starter during the season, both made immense contributions during the four-game NLDS.  Among pitchers, Kyle Hendricks made his mark, as well.  For the purposes of this discussion, though, I’m only going to look at players fewer than three full seasons under their belts; that omits Rizzo and Castro, both of whom have played since age 20 and were 25 in April.

The Cardinals also received important contributions during the regular season and in October from their youngsters, despite less acclaim from national media outlets.  Jason Heyward, who turned 26 in August, was in his sixth season, so is disqualified.  Kolten Wong was the Cardinals regular second baseman, and Randal Grichuk started regularly from mid-May to mid-August, between stints on the DL.  Stephen Piscotty, a late-July call-up, also received regular playing time with injuries to Grichuk, Jon Jay, and Matt Holliday.  St. Louis also received more significant contributions from young pitchers than did the Cubs.  Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Kevin Siegrist all have pitched fewer than three seasons, but Trevor Rosenthal, who has been a big-leaguer for about 3 1/2 seasons, is ineligible for this discussion.

For the purposes of statistical comparison, then, I’m looking at Bryant, Soler, Russell, Schwarber, Baez, and Hendricks for the Cubs; and Wong, Piscotty, Grichuk, Martinez, Wacha, and Siegrist for the Cards.

On offense, the Cubs received about 1.5 times as much contribution from their young players as the Cardinals–1700 ABs to 1100.  But, overall, the results aren’t that dissimilar, which is somewhat surprising given the hype surrounding Bryant and Russell, in particular.

If you don’t feel like following the link, let me break it down for you a little.  The Cardinals’ triumvirate strikes out significant less, though Kris Bryant (one shy of 200) hurt the Cubs the most there.  The Cubs’ players hit a homer about every 26 ABs; the Cardinals’, about every 32.  Overall, OBP and Slugging % were pretty similar, with Chicago leading the former category, and St. Louis, the latter.  The Redbirds also held the advantage in batting average, but overall, it doesn’t appear one set of players is more dominant than the other.

Pitching, on the other hand, swings quite obviously in the Cardinals’ direction.  Aside from the Cardinals’ pitchers pitching more games and winning them at a superior rate to Hendricks, most of the comparable “average” stats were similar (Hendricks led in FIP, WHIP, SO/BB ratio, and BB/9, but the Redbird trio held the advantage in ERA+, Hits/9, HR/9, and SO/9), but Cardinals fans should undoubtedly be excited that they have such a deep crop of young pitchers at their disposal for several years to come.

In their NLDS series, Wong, Piscotty, and Grichuk combined to go 10/38 (.263) with 5 HRs and 8 RBI.  The five Cubs, meanwhile, went 18/47 (.383) with 6 HRs and 12 RBI.  In fact, while the much-ballyhooed Bryant struggled through a 3/17 performance, Soler, Schwarber, and Baez (fewer than 200 games played between the three of them on the regular season) played a huge role in the Cubs’ victory, despite seeing comparatively limited action, going 12/20 with 5 HR and 9 RBI.

On the pitching side, Martinez was placed on the disabled list late in the season and missed the series.  Hendricks, though not credited with a victory because he was chased with two outs in the fifth of Game 2, did enough to keep his team in the lead before turning it over to the bullpen, which shut the Redbird bats down for the remaining 4 1/3 innings.  Conversely, Wacha and Siegrist greatly impaired the Cards’ chances: Wacha struggled with his command in Game 3, and couldn’t survive through five without surrendering the lead to the Cubs.  Siegrist started out well enough, striking out Chris Coghlan and Addison Russell to end the top of the 8th and preserve his team’s 1-0 lead.  But in Game 3, Siegrist, on in relief of Wacha, surrendered a crippling solo shot to Anthony Rizzo.  In Game 4, attempting to preserve a 4-4 tie in the 6th, he allowed the go-ahead homer to Rizzo, followed by another to Schwarber in the 7th, and was ultimately saddled with the loss in the deciding match.

Overall, not a spectacular four-game stretch for the Cardinals’ youngsters, especially compared to how their counterparts on Chicago performed, but it’s certainly far too soon to proclaim the Cubbies as the new standard-bearers for the NL Central.

Divisional Winning Percentage

With the frenetic pace set by the top three teams in the NL Central this year–especially compared to the supposed banality of the NL East and West–I found myself checking the average winning percentages of each division, just to see if the Central really was that dominant, or if the fourth and fifth place teams impacted the average significantly enough to make their division as average as the rest.  Bearing in mind that all teams play an identically-composed schedule now thanks to fifteen teams in each league and five in each division, here are the end-of-season results:

  1. NL Central – .527 average winning percentage
  2. AL East – .517
  3. AL Central – .506
  4. AL West – .498
  5. NL West – .490
  6. NL East – .462

These generally agree with the way the season played out.  Even with the Mets emerging as the favorite in the East two months ago when Washington never could compose itself to make a run, the Phillies and Marlins appeared headed for dreadfulness by May 1; before all was said and done, the Braves wedged themselves between the two in the race to the cellar.

The AL East, while unspectacular outside of Toronto, boasted great depth from top to bottom; removing first and last place “outliers” from the average would make the NL Central seem more pedestrian, right?

  1. NL Central – .541
  2. AL East – .510
  3. AL West – .508
  4. AL Central – .495
  5. NL West – .488
  6. NL East – .455

Wrong.  Whereas the AL East’s average dropped, the Central’s average actually increased when removing the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Cardinals, and Reds, respectively.  The AL West benefited from removing the underachieving A’s (if you follow Pythagorean won-loss records) and Rangers, who had the lowest winning percentage among division champions this season.  And speaking of the Rangers, their winning percentage of .543 (88 wins) is only marginally better than the .541 (87.6 wins) generated by the Pirates, Cubs, and Brewers.  The other dramatic number is the dip by the AL Central, which is unsurprising given the distance by which the Royals won the division (12 games).

Just for grins, I decided to find the average of the top three and bottom three teams in each division.

  1. NL Central – .607
  2. AL East – .537
  3. AL Central – .534
  4. AL West – .533
  5. NL West – .525
  6. NL East – .502

No surprises that the NL Central blew everyone away when finding the median of the top three; on the other end, it’s depressing how close to average the Mets, Nationals, and Marlins finished.  But take a closer look, and compare this list with the one immediately preceding it.  The middle three teams in the NL Central were, on average, better (.541 winning percentage) than the collection of top three teams in any other division (AL East was closest at .537).

The bottom three averages:

  1. AL East – .492
  2. AL Central – .477
  3. NL Central – .471
  4. AL West – .471
  5. NL West – .455
  6. NL East – .414

The thing that catches my eye here is the AL East’s (O’s, Rays, and Sox) average percentage.  It works out to 79.7 wins, which is pretty darn close to the 81.3 wins that the aforementioned top three teams in the NL East averaged.

Overall, it was a fun season, especially here in “flyover country.”  Even with the un-noteworthy seasons by the Brewers and Reds (save for the latter club’s string of consecutive games started by a rookie pitcher), it’s pretty remarkable just how dominant the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs were.