The Cardinals’ Missing Magic

Over the last couple of years, we’ve talked a lot about the Kansas City Royals and the ability of certain teams to sustainably beat estimates like the BaseRuns expected records we publish on our standings page. Famously, the Royals have won far more games than our numbers thought they would — over the last three years, they’ve won 25 more games than their BaseRuns Win% would suggest — making two straight World Series appearances and winning last year’s fall classic along the way.

Interestingly, though, with less fan fare, Missouri’s other team has also been winning far more often than BaseRuns suggested was likely. Over the last three years, they’ve won 23 more games than their BaseRuns expected record, nearly as many as the Royals. Last year, they won 11 more games than expected on the strength of an historic clutch performance. As Ben Lindbergh noted in a Grantland piece last summer, the Cardinals pitching staff was insanely good at stranding runners last year, so their run prevention ended up being fantastic even as their pitchers routinely danced with danger.

Six weeks into 2016, however, the tables have turned. The Cardinals are just 20-18, already finding themselves eight games back of the Cubs in the NL Central, except BaseRuns thinks they should actually be 25-13, which would give them the second best record in all of baseball. A year after posting one of the largest positive differences between expected record and actual record, the Cardinals have already won five fewer games than expected, and if they continued at this pace, they’d post the largest negative differential for any team in a single season.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Cardinals are falling victim to the very thing that propelled them to such lofty heights a year ago. In 2015, the Cardinals pitchers performed at roughly an average rate with the bases empty, but were incredible with men on base and runners in scoring position. That has flipped on its head — though to a less extreme degree — this year.

Cardinals Pitching By Baserunner State
Cardinals wOBA Allowed MLB Rank
Bases Empty 0.286 7th
Runners On 0.320 15th
RISP 0.311 13th

This year, the Cardinals pitching and defense has been very good with the bases empty, but less so with men on, leading to a higher runs allowed total than expected; BaseRuns thinks they should only be giving up 3.8 runs per game, and they’re actually allowing 4.3 runs per game.

Of course, they’re scoring 5.6 runs per game, so even at their actual runs allowed rate, the Cardinals should have a much better record than they actually do; a team outscoring their opponents by 1.3 runs per game should not be playing .526 baseball. So it’s not just that the pitchers are failing to strand runners; they are failing to strand runners at the worst possible time.

As Jeff Sullivan’s linked post above notes, we have a stat here that measures a team’s clutch performance, and last year, the Cardinals racked up nearly 10 additional wins due to “clutch” pitching. The runner-stranding numbers were a big part of that, but above and beyond their ability to leave men on base, the Cardinals pitchers were excellent in high leverage situations. This year, the Cardinals pitchers are already at nearly -2 wins due to a lack of clutch performance, the second-worst performance by a pitching staff in baseball this year.

And unfortunately for St. Louis fans, the team’s hitters have actually been even worse. By the same clutch metric, the Cardinals hitters have been -2.2 wins relative to a team with an average clutch performance, ranking 27th in hitter clutch. The primary offender? Randal Grichuk, already at -1 win by himself, the second least “clutch” hitter in baseball through the season’s first six weeks. In 15 high-leverage plate appearances, Grichuk has managed just two singles, making 13 outs on his way to running a .118 wOBA in those 15 PAs.

This is a far cry from 2013, when the Cardinals were the best hitting team with runners in scoring position that anyone had ever seen. That year, the Cardinals rode their clutch hitting to the World Series, falling just short of the championship in a six game series loss to the Red Sox. Back then, the narrative was that the Cardinals had figured out the key to hitting with men on base, with Allen Craig being held up as the paragon of the approach; spraying line drives all over the field and avoiding strikeouts to increase the Cardinals chances of stringing singles and doubles together.

Overall, the Cardinals offense is still pretty good at all those things. They still run a better-than-average strikeout rate, they’re fourth in the majors in doubles, and they regularly hit the ball as hard as anyone, leading to a .311 BABIP. Their offense has been excellent with the bases empty, with men on base, and with runners in scoring position. But once you factor in the score and the inning, their excellence has dropped off as the game has gotten tighter; they are running a .360 wOBA in low leverage situations and a .343 wOBA in high leverage situations.

Lots of teams would kill for a .343 wOBA in high leverage situations, as that’s still a really good mark. But the fact that the Cardinals have distributed more of their hits into situations where they didn’t really impact the outcome of the game is one of the reasons the team is 2-5 in one run games, which is the easiest way to quickly underperform any calculation’s expected record.

Of course, no post about clutch performance would be complete without including this graph from Jeff Sullivan’s piece on the topic from last September.

overall-clutch

That’s a plot of the relationship between a team’s first half and second clutch performances over the last 15 years, and as you can see from the flat line, that’s about as random as a scatterplot gets. In other words, a team’s first half clutch performance tells us nothing about what we should expect from that team’s second half clutch performance.

For the last three years, the Cardinals have been remarkably clutch — in differing ways — and have gotten big returns based on timing their events as optimally as possible. This year, they’ve regressed past the mean, and are now getting bitten by the very thing that helped prop up their win totals in previous years. The good news for the Cardinals is that there’s no reason to expect them to continue to perform this poorly relative to their expected record, and the fact that they’re playing like a .660 team to start the year suggests that they’re probably still a pretty good ballclub. The bad news is that they don’t get to play those 38 games over again, so they now have to overcome an eight game deficit that their lack of clutch performance helped build.

Catching the Cubs was never going to be an easy task, and they were going to need some of their #CardinalsDevilMagic to help them keep pace with the best team in baseball. Through the season’s first quarter, though, the magic has turned on them, and now the Cardinals are probably left fighting for a wild card spot. This the problem with magic; it isn’t the most reliable building block for success.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

newest oldest most voted
Dick Monfort
Member
Dick Monfort

Missing? Who took it?

Get the FBI involved, I demand an investigation!

OddBall Herrera
Member
OddBall Herrera

They should look on the Astros’ servers, maybe it’s hiding there

Spudchukar
Member
Spudchukar

This reminds me of something I have been thinking about in the past few days, with the advertisement of the June 9th draft. The Cards have 3 first round picks, albeit towards the end. If nothing is heard by the commissioners office in the next 3 weeks they will be able to retain all three. Odd there has been nothing but silence in some time.

stan
Member
Member
stan

MLB is waiting for final sentencing of Correa to punish the Cardinals. Correa has been trying to subpoena the Astros in order to prove that he was legitimately trying to figure out what they stole from the Cardinals in order to show that he had an innocent motive (at least at first) but the judge isn’t allowing it, at least not so far.

Spudchukar
Member
Spudchukar

Correct, but I thought April was the original court date, not that attorney’s aren’t notorious for delaying proceedings.