Since the beginning of baseball, the best strategy for winning a game has been to hold the opponent scoreless. With Adam Wainwright combining with Pat Neshek, Sam Freeman and Trevor Rosenthal to blank the Rays 1-0 last night, the staff’s third straight shutout, the Cardinals are finding that shutouts are indeed a successful approach.
The Cardinals now have shut out their adversaries an incredible 13 times this season, accounting for more than a third of their total victories (34). For comparison, the team had 15 on the entire 2013 season, and the most in baseball last year was the Dodgers’ 22. The Cardinals’ club record is 30, set in 1968 when they had some guy named Gibson who was so adept at keeping runners from crossing the plate that the league lowered the mound five inches the next season.
Without the great Gibson, how have the Cardinals done it? Primarily with outstanding starting pitching. Led by Wainwright’s 2.15 ERA and 2.44 FIP, the staff has the third-lowest ERA. ERA isn’t necessarily an indicator of future success, but it’s obviously important for actual shutouts, and the good news is that the front five’s FIP (3.40) is among the best in baseball, too (tied for third).
But these days, with starters averaging less than 70% of the pitching workload, shutouts are a team accomplishment. Therefore, that the Cardinals have held their opponents scoreless speaks almost as well of their relievers as it does of their starters. The pen has a respectable 3.63 ERA (15th in MLB), but an even better — 3.10 — FIP (fourth in MLB).
And given those differences in fielding dependent and independent number, we’d be remiss if we didn’t note team defense as a factor in those shutouts. What was once a sore spot is now a strength, as Cardinal fielders have saved the most runs (37 Defensive Runs Saved). Not bad for a team that ranked 22nd last year in that category.
Amazingly, the strategy works in reverse, too. The Cardinals are 0-6 when scoring zero runs themselves. That might’ve happened last night if not for Matt Holliday’s solo homer, one of only three Cardinal hits on the night. Which brings us to our final point: Sometimes, a little luck seeps into the game and makes those shutouts possible. Indeed, the Rays (nine) reached base twice as much as the Cardinals did (four). The Cardinals prevailed partly because the Rays hit the ball into gloves when a few feet left or right would’ve brought a run home. To wit: David DeJesus and Logan Forsythe’s line-drive outs with runners on in the fourth.
Will the shutouts continue? Even without much extra luck, we’d say that the Cardinals are a good bet to reel off some more. Overall, the Cardinal pitching staff ranks third in baseball with a 3.31 FIP and fifth in ERA. And the defense shows no signs of falling down. Here’s to keeping the opponent off the board.