“As changeable as the weather.”
“Running hot and cold.”
“Runs are like a box of chocolates.”
Observers of the Cardinals have been applying those venerable expressions (at least the first two) to the team this season for their perceived inconsistency in scoring runs. But is it true? And if it’s true, how much does it matter?
First, let’s define terms. People often use “inconsistency” to mean “mediocrity.” For we know that, if anything, ballplayers, all of whom endure hitting slumps, and teams, which can lose a series to the worst team after just having beaten the best, are inconsistent. When it comes to scoring, a team can be both inconsistent and proficient, as well as consistent and proficient, and of course inconsistent and nonproficient or consistent and nonproficient. Consistency and proficiency are two different axes.
And that brings us to the 2013 Cardinals. The club, after its thrilling 16-inning 5-4 win last night in Cincinnati, lead the league with 4.75 runs per game. So it’s difficult to see how anyone can find anything to complain about regarding the offense’s proficiency (they still do, of course). We suspected that this was a case of people confusing lack of consistency for lack of proficiency. And those who cannot abide inconsistency (we recommend following another sport) have a point.
Reviewing the Cardinals’ offensive production since 2001 both by runs per game but also by the variance (a measure of how far a set of numbers is spread out) in game-to-game scoring, we see the following:
Indeed, we can see that scoring proficiency — at least in this sample — has little to do with consistency. The 2007 Cardinals were below-average in scoring runs (not surprisingly in winning games, as well), and they had a relatively high variance. But the high-powered 2003 offense, which was second in the league in scoring, had an even higher variance. Conversely, the 2004 squad led the league in runs/game but had a relatively low variance. And of course, in the present year, the team has the best offense in the NL but its highest variance since 2003.
What’s the point? That’s what we’d like to know. It seems that, if no strong correlation exists between proficiency and consistency (as measured by variance), worrying about inconsistency when the team is proficient is a bit daft. We suppose that it’s true that one can never quite expect what the offense will do on any given night, but unless you’re a gambler, we’re not sure why this would bother anyone.
It could be that Cardinal fans have become so accustomed to winning that they want their cake and to eat it, too: It’s not enough that the team lead the league in scoring, but they must produce consistent run totals. And it’s true that if the team scored exactly 4.75 runs per game (if that were possible), they would have a better record — that’s essentially what the pythagorean record points out. But it’s also a conceit to think that teams have much control over it. And if we had to take one over the other, we’d take proficiency every time.