After starting the season anemically, the Cardinal offense has recently been a beacon of health. Their cadaverous batsmen averaged a mere 2.6 runs per game in their first eight games; they’re now flush with tallies, averaging 8.4 over their last eight. Have they suddenly remembered how to hit, were they shamed into action by a blog post or is something else going on?
As with much in baseball, small samples tend to distort things, in positive and negative ways. Couple that with the idea that some of what happens in baseball is the result of “luck,” and it’s not unthinkable that a team would have a couple of back-to-back eight-game runs that make it seem like two different ball clubs were playing. Such is the case with the Cardinals, who were never as bad as they seemed as they started 2-6, nor as good as they’ve been going 6-2 recently.
Their batting average on balls in play explains a lot of the change in fortune. Over the first eight games, the Cardinals had a BABIP of .252. Over the last eight? .396. For those short stretches, the rates are, respectively, abnormally low and abnormally high. But over the season so far – still far too small a sample – it’s a more-reasonable .328 – the same as the division-leading Reds and .32 points higher than the team finished in 2010.
BABIP is partly a function of line-drive rate. Indeed, the Cardinals are hitting the ball squarely now, with a LD% of 19.0, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Looking at the two halves of the team’s season start, we might be able to tell whether hitters did start making better contact, whether because they’re “seeing the ball better” or for whatever reason. But the team’s line-drive rate for the eight-game periods is nearly identical at 16.1% for the first eight games and 16.2% for the second eight (presumably the discrepancy between the 19% and 16% is due to some inconsistencies in the way batted balls are counted). So that indicates that the Cardinals were simply getting “unlucky” to start, and their luck changed recently, since “luck” is one of the remaining variables in BABIP (and we can assume that they didn’t suddenly start running faster).
No doubt, the recent uptick in scoring – and the attendant increase in wins – has been reassuring. It’s likely that the Cardinals won’t keep it up, though – but neither will they finish the year as the feeble hitters that they began as.