Just a couple of weeks ago, the Cardinals were just behind the Brewers in the National League Central. Just over a week ago, the Cardinals pulled just barely ahead of the Brewers. Today, after taking three of four against Milwaukee, including yesterday’s 9-1 crushing, the Cardinals are five games up on the Brewers, who are actually now in third next to the Pirates. Over the last week the Brewers’ rotation has not exactly made its defenders look good.
While one could go on about the Brewers’ fall, the Cardinals are the main story. They have never really been out of it. At the beginning of the season, St. Louis was a solid favorite to win their division. Two months ago, when they were four games behind the Brewers, the Cardinals’ chances of winning the division were roughly the same as the Brewers. Today, they are overwhelming favorites.
The 2014 Cardinals are not clearly dominant in either pitching or hitting. In particular, on the offensive side they have not hit nearly as well as the 2013 team. Yet they again are poised to win the division. In many ways, the regression was predictable. But does that mean the Cardinals made mistakes when preparing for 2014?
In terms of just straight up run-scoring, the 2013 Cardinals led the National League in runs handily with 783. In particular, the 2013 Cardinals rightly were known for hitting well in clutch situations. With runners on base, the 2013 Cardinals (excluding pitchers) had a 241 wRC+ (.324/.389/.481) with runners on, far ahead of the next best team in the league, the Diamondbacks (110 wRC+). With runners in scoring position, the Cardinals were even better: 148 wRC+ (.384 BABIP).
Whether or not this represented some particular skill, it seems to me that people tended to miss how well the Cardinals hit last year, period. Cardinals non-pitchers led that National League with a 112 wRC+ (.278/.342/.416, .462 BABIP). Last year’s Cardinals’ hitters were not very powerful, as they were third-to-last in home runs with 124. What really made the 2013 Cardinals hitters stand out was their apparent ability to smack line drives around the field, as they had a .318 BABIP, second only to the Rockies, who play in a hitter’s BABIP paradise.
Now, wherever one comes down on the “skill” issue, it is clear from the basic numbers that the Cardinals hit better in key situations. The Clutch metric does a decent job of painting the overall picture. As a description, it basically gives an account of how many wins a team or player was worth by performing better (or worse) in key situations relative to how they performed in general. According the the Clutch metric, the Cardinals’ hitters were easily the best in the National League last year at 3.33. The next best were the Brewers at 2.35.
Now, individual players who are at the top of the league and the teams constituted from them are always “regression candidates,” but the Cardinals in particular were seen as due for serious regression when it came to scoring runs. Not only had they hit well, but they did so with a high BABIP, they hit much better with runners on and in scoring position (not generally considered a repeatable skill), and, worst of all, their BABIP was extremely high with runners on and in scoring position!
While it would have been fun for the defenders of the 2014 Cardinals if they had defied the odds and kept it up, the 2014 Cardinals offense did indeed come back to earth. They are currently 10th in National League in runs. St. Louis is seventh in non-pitcher wRC+ (102, .261/.330/.384) with a .303 BABIP (ninth). They are currently last in the National League in non-pitcher home runs with 94.
The team’s alleged skill with runners also seems to have disappeared. With runners on they have a 97 wRC+, (.256/.330/372), 12th in the National League. With runners in scoring position the Cardinals have just a 98 wRC+ (.260/.344/369), 12th in NL. Their .66 Clutch is fourth in National League, but that is not an extreme score, and given the previous numbers, clearly has more to do with late-inning performance than with hitting with runners on base.
Given that they are in the middle of the pack in terms of runs scored and are a near lock to not only make the playoffs but win the division, it is tough to criticize the Cardinals’ off-season decision making. Still, it is a sharp drop in performance. What happened? One thing is clear: the team did not simply see its luck with runners on change.
Carlos Beltran, who had a nice season for the Cardinals in 2013, left. His replacement, Allen Craig, who hit well as the Cardinals primary first baseman in 2013, was a disaster (80 wRC+) for St. Louis in 2014 before getting traded. Oscar Taveras’ future should not be judged by a bad partial season as a rookie, but he has been even worse (70 wRC+) than was Craig. Matt Adams, who finally got the first base job when Craig moved to right field, has hit decently in 2014 (115 wRC+), but not up to Craig’s or even Adams’ own 2013. The constantly-underrated Matt Holliday is still a good hitter (126 wRC+), but is significantly down from last year (147 wRC+).
Two of 2013’s superstars for St. Louis have had changes in fortune that have made a big difference for the Cardinals’ offense. The most obvious is that the Cardinals lost Yadier Molina for a big chunk of the season due to injury. While Molina has hit well for a catcher when he has played (106 wRC+), it is a significant drop off compared to last year (133 wRC+).
The other big drop was last year’s surprise superstar Matt Carpenter. In 2013, Carpenter looked like the paradigmatic Cardinals hitter: low strikeout rate, good walk rate, only decent power (11 home runs but 55 doubles), and, yes, lots of line drives (.359 BABIP) adding up to a 146 wRC+ (.318/.392/481), which would be great anywhere, but especially for a second baseman. Carpenter shifted to third this year to make room for Kolten Wong. Wong has not hit as well (94 wRC+) as last year’s third baseman, David Freese (105 wRC+) did, but the bigger change has been Carpenter’s offense. A 118 wRC+ (.275/.375/.382) is still very good for a second or third baseman these days, but is obviously not anywhere close to last year’s performance. Given what we know about the relative correlation of hitting metrics, the particular manner n which Carpenter has regressed is not very surprising: he has retained his good plate discipline and contact, but his BABIP has come down to more normal levels. He is hitting home runs a bit less frequently, but the main source of his power drop has been that his rate of doubles has gone down.
Leaving aside issues of being clutch (as the 2014 Cardinals had the best offense in the National League even setting those aspects issues aside), did the Cardinals make mistakes when planning their 2014 offense? It would be easy to point to the standings and simply say “no,” but even looking deeper, it is hard to go that far. Yes, many players have performed worse than last year. But they have not all been disasters. Matt Holliday still hits well enough, and Carpenter does, too, while playing a position that is hard to fill. I doubt many think that the Cardinals should have kept Carlos Beltran. Though Craig was pretty terrible, that was unexpected, and in any case the Cardinals had one Taveras waiting in the wings. Matt Adams has not been bad, necessarily, just worse.
In other words, most of the players the Cardinals kept around hardly projected to be easy to improve upon, and, Craig (and perhaps Wong) aside, have mostly performed well, if not up to last year. And it is not as if everything has gotten worse. The Cardinals’ big post-2013 free agent signing was Jhonny Peralta, who has filled the gaping hole at shortstop extremely well (.270/.344/.461, 127 wRC+). Peralta has not been the only surprising performer at the plate, either, as John Jay has hit .315/.384/401 (124 wRC+).
The 2014 Cardinals’ offense is not the juggernaut that the 2013 team’s was. Even if last year’s team’s ability to score runs was exaggerated by their hitting incredibly well in key spots, they were excellent nonetheless. The 2013 offense is decent. Even without pointing to the standings, though, it is difficult to say the Cardinals made a bunch of wrong moves. Molina had been one of the more durable catchers in the league for years. Keeping Beltran would hardly have helped the team in even the short term. While players like Carpenter, Holliday, and Adams have not lived up to their 2013 performances, it is not as if their 2014 numbers would have been easy to replace. And the Cardinals did quite successfully fill their major hole at shortstop.
Even before the season started, the 2014 Cardinals offense was quite unlikely to match 2013’s, and it has not. But it has been good enough, and it is hard to blame the decision making that led to it.
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.