Fresh off their second World Series championship in the last six seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals have done just about everything a fan could ask of them this year, and statistically speaking, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be a contender for the crown once again.
Through 121 games in the first season of the post-Tony La Russa era, the Cardinals’ pitching has been good despite the absence of Chris Carpenter, their hitting has been awesome despite the Albert Pujols-sized hole in the lineup, their run differential is at an astronomical plus-106 and everything is — or at least should be — hunky-dory in St. Louis.
Except it’s not.
Because the Cardinals, at 65-56, are currently third in their own division, eight games behind Cincinnati for first in the NL Central and 1 1/2 games back of Pittsburgh in the wild card standings — and that’s to say nothing of Atlanta and Los Angeles, which also lead St. Louis in the race for the NL’s two wild card spots.
But based on nearly every conceivable metric, the Redbirds should already be virtually assured a playoff spot, like the powerhouse Yankees or upstart Nationals, not struggling in the standings, needing another late-season rally in order to clinch a postseason berth.
According to the Cardinals’ Pythagorean win-loss record, a metric popularized by statistician Bill James to reflect the number of games a team should have won based on their runs scored and allowed, St. Louis should be 71-50, two games back of the Reds for the division lead and in a virtual tie with Atlanta atop the wild card standings.
Which begs the question: How can such a statistically superior team have such an average overall record, and where did those six victories — the games James’ theorem says St. Louis should have won — go?
Some of St. Louis’ shortcomings can be tied to a lack of timely hitting and other losses can be traced back to struggles in the bullpen late in games — we’ll get to that later — but above everything, the most reasonable explanation for the Cardinals’ underwhelming record may be simpler than that.
“The difference between a team’s won-loss record and run differential, when there is a big difference, I would say that almost all of it is going to be luck,” said Phil Birnbaum, editor of the Society for American Baseball Research’s sabermetrics publication, “By the Numbers.”
“If you’re looking for some sort of indicator of how good a team is, how much talent a team has or what you should expect from that team in the future, I would say that run differential would give you a much better estimate than wins and losses.”
Birnbaum’s assessment makes enough sense; all year long, St. Louis has proven to be one of the most talented teams in baseball.
For starters, the Cards can swing the stick, boasting the highest team batting average and on-base percentage in the NL, not to mention the NL’s second-highest OPS and third-highest slugging percentage. Additionally, St. Louis has scored the most runs and collected the most hits in the NL.
On the mound, St. Louis has seen the top four pitchers in its rotation combine to go 48-26 with a 3.41 ERA, while producing a quality start in 63.9 percent of outings. And Jason Motte has been solid in the closer role, with 28 saves and just five blown opportunities to go with his 2.73 ERA.
The rest of the Cards’ relievers have combined for a 4.44 ERA in 282 innings, not atrocious by any means, and St. Louis’ team ERA of 3.67 is still one of the top 10 in baseball. All of this production has led to lots of blowouts, as St. Louis has won 24 games by five or more runs — a fair indicator of how much better they can be than the competition when they’re on.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals have also lost 21 one-run games this season and have lost nine of 12 extra-inning contests — with those two numbers representing a the most sizable portion of the disparity between St. Louis and the teams they’re chasing.
“In one-run games they’re 13-21; if they were 17-17 in those games, that’s four games right there,” Birnbaum said. “Their extra innings record is 3-9 — not ideal, but if they were 6-6, which you would kind of expect, that’s three more games.”
That powerful Cardinals offense is hitting just .234 in extras, with virtually no power to speak of. And St. Louis’ stalwart bullpen boasts an ERA of 5.79 in innings 10 and beyond, with opponents hitting .310 — 56 points higher than the Cards’ overall opposing batting average for the season.
Relievers Barret Browning, Eduardo Sanchez, Victor Marte and Trevor Rosenthal have a combined 17.47 ERA in 5 2/3 innings of extra-inning work this season, alone. But that still doesn’t explain the 17 one-run losses that have come in nine-inning games.
St. Louis’ batting metrics are relatively unchanged whether the team is winning, losing or tied. And while the team ERA does go up from 3.55 in innings one through six to 3.92 in innings seven and later, the starting pitcher has taken the L in nearly half of those one-run losses, anyway.
In 12 of St. Louis’ one-run losses, the team gave up three runs or fewer, and more often than not just ran into an opposing pitcher having a great day — the type of fluky output that one couldn’t possibly predict, except to say that it probably won’t keep happening.
“My expectation would be that it doesn’t continue,” Birnbaum said of St. Louis’ string of disappointing defeats. “If you look at what’s going to happen in the rest of August or September, I would say they would be close to normal in one-run or extra-inning games. What you’re seeing is almost all bad luck.”
And they’ll need all the good fortune they can get, because the Reds, who haven’t won a playoff game since 1995, and the Pirates, who haven’t even finished above .500 since their last playoff appearance, in 1992, don’t seem likely to fade into the ether down the stretch this fall.
Fortunately for Cards fans, their team is always capable of a late-season run, and should they piece one together this year, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time in recent memory.
Last year, you’ll recall, St. Louis went 23-9 over the final 32 games of the season to eliminate a 10 1/2-game gap between themselves and the Braves and take the NL wild card. In 2009, the Cards took a 10 1/2-game division lead into September after going 24-7 from July 27 through the end of August.
In 2004 and 2005, the Cardinals’ only two 100-win seasons since 1985, St. Louis went a combined 40-19 in August. From 2000-2002, a span of three straight playoff berths and two NLCS appearances, St. Louis combined to go 54-35 in August and 61-23 in September and October.
Every rule has an exception, of course, and that thinking also applies to the Cardinals, who haven’t always found a summer surge to be the winning formula. When St. Louis won the World Series in 2006, it went from 16 games over .500 at 58-42 on July 26 to just five games over .500 at 83-78 when the season ended.
That lose-now-and-win-later plan may have worked once for St. Louis, but if the 2012 season so far has been any indication, the Cardinals would probably be wise not to test their luck again.