Friday, September 19, 2014

Flyover: St. Louis Cardinals

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month. Last time up I wrote about the Los Angeles Angels, so let's stay on that topic and hit on the other team that's roared to a divisional lead of late, the St. Louis Cardinals.

How Are They Doing Lately? They're 17-11 over the past 30 days, tied with the Nationals for the second-most wins in the National League. A month ago, they were in second place in the Central division, two and a half games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. Since then, the Brewers have collapsed, and the Cardinals enter play today leading the Central, 2.5 ahead of the Pirates and six up on the fading Brewers after taking two of three against Milwaukee over the past three days. Their ticket to the postseason is pretty much punched. They've scored 4.0 runs per game over the past 30 days, ninth in the league, but they've given up only 3.4, the third fewest.

What's Going Right? The team's ERA over the past 30 days is 3.05, third best in the league. There are a couple items that make me think there's been some luck involved here. The Redbirds have allowed a batting average on balls in play, .275, that's well below the league average of .301, and they've stranded 78% of batters who've reached base compared to a league average of 73%. Outliers that large are unlikely to persist. There's no question that they've been good, though, as both the starters' 3.01 ERA and relievers' 3.12 ERA are third in the league. They haven't racked up a lot of strikeouts (they're third to last at 19.5% of batters faced) but they've walked a below-average number of hitters (6.9%, fifth lowest). And remember the On The Field Of Play mantra: It's good to throw strikes, it's better to get strikes. No team has been as good as the Cardinals at throwing strikes over the past 30 days--52% of pitches in the strike zone, best in the league--and they're second in the league at getting strikes, getting batters to swing at 32% of pitches outside the strike zone. As a result, opposing hitters are making contact at lower-than-average rates, and the contact's been weak, with 13% of fly balls going to the infield, most in the league. 

What's Going Wrong? The offense has been middling at best over the past 30 days: .257 batting average, .331 on base percentage, .353 slugging percentage compared to league averages of .253, .314, and .383, respectively. The standout has been the on base percentage, buoyed by a third-in-the-league walk rate of 8.4% of plate appearances compared to a league average of 7.4%. The Cards haven't hit for power--.096 isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average), fourth-lowest in the league--and they haven't stolen bases (last in the league with five stolen bases but tied for second with nine caught stealing--they really ought to give up on SBs). Their hitters have been selective, though, swinging at just 29.5% of pitches outside the strike zone, the second-lowest percentage in the league, and making contact on 80.5% of their swings, fourth-highest. I will point out that back in March, when I projected the Cardinals to win their division, I wrote:
Still, that ridiculous .330 batting average with runners in scoring position [that the Cards maintained in 2013], by far the best since World War II (there aren't accurate statistics before then)? No way they keep that up.
They are batting .255 with runners in scoring position this year. That's not bad (the league average is .250) but it does illustrate that last year's Redbirds, third in the league in runs scored per game, were due for a decline. We're getting it.

Who's Hot? Adam Wainwright is the team's ace starter, and over the last 30 days, he has a 4-2 record and a 2.66 ERA. That makes him fourth in ERA on the team among starters with ten or more innings pitched. Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Marco Gonzales have combined for a 6-1 record and 1.69 ERA. Closer Trevor Rosenthal, who appeared to be on thin ice for a spell over the summer (from July 4 to August 18, he had a 4.94 ERA over 20 appearances), has eight saves and a 1.54 ERA over the past 30 days, and setup men Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness have ERAs of 1.76 and 2.13, respectively. Maness has allowed no unintentional walks over 12.2 innings. The key player on offense has been left fielder Matt Holliday, who is putting up why-don't-they-walk-him-more numbers: ninth in the league in batting at .311, eighth in on base percentage at .393, tenth in slugging at .553, second in RBI with 25, tied for third with six homers. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta's batting .260 but his four doubles and four homers are second on the club to Holliday, giving him a .420 slugging percentage that's second on the team. Highly touted rookie outfielder Oscar Taveras, disappointing much of the year (a horrid .197/.225/.276 slash line at the All-Star break), has a promising .311 batting average over the past 30 days.

Who's Not? The only starter who with an ERA over 3.00 over the past 30 days is trade deadline pickup John Lackey, who's at 4.64. On offense, first baseman Matt Adams has been cold (.174/.270/.314 slash line) and the team's two best players from last season, third baseman Matt Carpenter and catcher Yadier Molina, haven't contributed much. Carpenter's batting .214 over the past 30 days with a punchless .265 slugging percentage, while Molina's .254 average has been accompanied by an also punchless .296 slugging percentage.

What's the Outlook? The Cardinals should win their division but will have the worst record among National League divisional champs, meaning they'll face the second-best team, at this point the Dodgers, with Los Angeles enjoying home-field advantage, in the Divisional Series. This isn't as strong as club as last year's Redbirds. The pitching's been good but a bit lucky, and the hitters have had less pop and haven't maintained their stratospheric batting average with runners in scoring position. I'd be surprised to see them return to the Fall Classic, despite their formidable starting rotation.

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