Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Graph: MVP candidates by percentage of team WAR

August 13th, 2014 by Pip

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Cardinals-Marlins Series Preview

August 11th, 2014 by Pip

[Originally posted on the Bird's Eye View]

The Cardinals and the Marlins enter their three-game series Monday going in different directions. The Cardinals pulled within two games of the NL Central leading Brewers on Sunday to improve their playoff odds to 54% and look to catch the Brewers against the Marlins, who struggle to maintain relevance in light of their sub-.500 record and 5% playoff odds.

Whereas the Cardinals shook up their clubhouse in recent weeks, the Marlins were quiet as the trade deadline passed, though they will feature a couple of minor staff changes since the Cardinals faced them in July. Righthanded starter Henderson Alvarez, boasting a rotation-leading 3.38 FIP, hit the DL with a shoulder inflammation and will miss the series. Meanwhile, the Marlins recalled former Cardinal Brad Penny from Triple-A to fill in. In addition, infielder Jordany Valdespin has also joined the big club and has displaced Donovan Solano at second base as a left-handed platoon option.

What to watch for

Cardinal second baseman Kolten Wong continues to quietly make his case for Rookie of the Year. He’s fifth among NL rookies with 1.4 WAR. Billy Hamilton will likely win on the strength of his eye-catching defense and 43 stolen bases, but Wong deserves credit for his stolen base rate, swiping 17 and getting nabbed only twice (89%). Hamilton leads the league with 18 caught stealings, a success rate of only 70%. 

Shelby Miller, who starts tonight, may have finally gotten his control problems under, er, control. After averaging five walks per nine innings in his first 19 starts, he has walked only one total batter in his last three, spanning 66 batters.

Nathan Eovaldi has been the Marlins’ most reliable pitcher, leading the staff with 2.2 WAR and 151 innings. The key to his success? Avoiding walks — he boasts the league’s eighth-best walk rate at 1.85 BB/9.

Giancarlo Stanton (4.5 WAR) ranks only fifth in the league in WAR. But look a little more closely and you’ll see how much he mean to his clubs: The next highest WAR is less than half his total, and he accounts for 20% of his team’s total.

Around the horn

The Cardinal offense is slowly but surely picking up the pace, raising its wOBA to .308 (seventh in the league) on the strength of a .331 clip so far in August. The Marlins have fallen to eighth (.307 wOBA) … Jarred Cosart will make his second NL start after arriving from the Astros in a trade … Cosart is second in MLB in ground ball rate (56.8%). First is Dallas Keuchel, his former teammate in Houston … After ranking ninth in MLB with a 19.3% K-BB rate in 2013, Tuesday’s starter Adam Wainwright ranks 29th at 14.8% — the same rate that Justin Masterson posted in 2013. Miller ranked 22nd last year with 15.5%, and John Lackey 21st with 15.6% … the Cardinals are coming off their fifth-longest nine-inning game of the season. Their Sunday getaway game from Baltimore was a plodding 3:39.

Holliday’s ejections and the strike zone

August 6th, 2014 by Pip

As Cardinal fans know, Matt Holliday can sometimes whine after a borderline strike call. On three occasions in his career, according to Chris Tunno, he has been ejected, all for arguing called third strikes, including last night in the seventh inning of the Cardinals’ 3-2 win over the Red Sox. But is it possible that the Cardinal left fielder is justified in his complaining?

Thankfully, MLB Gameday has pitch data to prove it. Let’s visually review the calls that precipitated those ejections:

9/9/10: Cristhian Martinez

6/25/11: Jon Rauch

8/5/2014:  Burke Badenhop

In the 2010 and 2011 ejections, it appears that Holliday had a legitimate beef: Both called third strikes were clearly outside the zone and missed calls by the umpire. In last night’s game, though, the pitch appeared to be on the black. In fact, all three of the strikes in that plate appearance were called, and all three were virtually in the same place. So Holliday may have been expressing his cumulative displeasure with all three of the calls, though, given that all three were close enough to the zone, that hardly excuses him.

Actually, Holliday may have simply not seen any of Burke Badenhop’s pitches well. For a pitcher with a rather nondescript major-league career, Badenhop may be the most effective pitcher in baseball against Holliday. Holliday has struck out in six of his eight plate appearances against the Boston righty, which may help explain Holliday’s irritation. For a player who seemingly has a good command of the strike zone, Holliday appears to be disoriented when it comes to locating Badenhop’s pitches in the strike zone.

With trade, both Cardinals and Red Sox may have relied on availability heuristic

August 4th, 2014 by Pip

As the Red Sox arrive in town for a three-game series, let’s take another look at the deadline trade involving John Lackey, Corey Littrell, Allen Craig and Joe Kelly. What made the teams’ respective GMs pull the trigger on this particular package of players?

Back when the Cardinals signed Ty Wigginton two years ago, we attempted to comprehend the logic by proffering the excuse that the Cardinals suffered from the availability heuristic. To refresh your memory, this heuristic, as Wikipedia defines it, is

a mental shortcut that occurs when people make judgments about the probability of events by the ease with which examples come to mind.

The Red Sox and Cardinals are generally strangers to each other — that is, except for a little season-ending get-together called the World Series last October. What better way to create some long-lasting mental shortcuts than on the sport’s biggest stage and with the entire offseason to literally and figuratively replay the series. Is it possible that the two teams sought players who made good impressions on them during the Fall Classic?

Let’s check the numbers. According to the theory, the player would have performed better in the small sample witnessed by his prospective team than his career norms. That is to say, his new team made a judgment about the probability of his future success based on the examples that come to mind. Was that the case for the three major-leaguers in the deal?

Allen Craig OBP SLG
2014 World Series .412 .438
Career .343 .460
Joe Kelly ERA K/BB
2014 World Series 3.38 2.00
Career 3.25 1.99
John Lackey ERA K/BB
2014 World Series 2.57 3.67
Career 4.02 2.72

Kelly was essentially the same pitcher in the series as he has been in his career. But both Lackey and Craig significantly outperformed their normal rates. Craig in particular stood out not only because he was better than usual, but because he was pretty much the only Cardinal who did much of anything with the bat. And Lackey had a hand in two victories, including winning the clinching Game 6 with a workmanlike effort — just the kind of reliable starter profile they’ve been needing.

If the Cardinals and Red Sox, respectively, based their opinions on what they saw during the series, they would think they’re getting much better players than they are (albeit unknowingly). This would be a rare case in which both teams fall prey to the availability heuristic, though of course any advantage is nullified because it affects them both equally (or so it would seem in this case). It certainly wasn’t the only reason the teams sought the players they did. But it’s possible that the teams were particularly motivated (and in the aftermath, more satisfied) because of the mental shortcuts that developed last fall.

Cardinals improve, but is it enough?

July 31st, 2014 by Pip

In separate trades, the Cardinals supplemented their starting rotation, acquiring right-handers Justin Masterson and John Lackey. The moves were quintessentially Mozeliakian, as the GM followed his typical script by accurately identifying needs then fulfilling those needs with solid but not blockbuster (or bank-busting) transactions. The only question will be whether they’re enough.

As with the wintertime transactions, in which the team’s needs were fairly perspicuous and Mozeliak addressed them, the needs of the mid-summer version of the team were written on the wall. After Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha succumbed to injuries, to say nothing of Shelby Miller’s untimely aberration, the starting staff was obviously not deep enough to take an offensively-challenged team to the playoffs. Masterson and Lackey (a curious pairing of names, to be sure), fit the bill and effectively take the place of Carlos Martinez and Kelly in the rotation for the rest of the season. How much more effective? Let’s look at rest-of-season fielding-independent pitching (FIP) projections for the four pitchers:

Pitcher ZiPS Steamer
Martinez 3.75 3.48
Kelly 4.02 4.14
Masterson 3.74 3.53
Lackey 3.88 3.76

So yes, the Cardinal rotation is better, by only by a slight margin.

As for the offense, it was a matter of addition by subtraction. The Cardinals jettison the perplexing 2014 campaign of Craig and offer right field fully to prospect Oscar Taveras, who,  we should note, Mozeliak opted to keep after rumored deals involving the team’s top prospect for top-end pitchers like David Price. Craig wasn’t showing any signs of regressing to his career norms of .343 OBP and .460 SLG (possibly related to declining bat speed, as we recently wrote), but manager Mike Matheny was reluctant to completely bench the 2013 All-Star, perhaps out of a kind of loss aversion. Still, a player with Craig’s resume would seem a steep loss. But since the club trading a player tends to have more knowledge about the player than the team receiving him, we have to assume that the Cardinals know something more about Craig’s state and his chances of rebounding than the Red Sox do.

It’s also worth noting that recent performance matters, namely in the case of Matt Adams. As of the spring of 2013, Adams was persona non grata and had no future with the team. Yet he has been the team’s best hitter in 2014, leading the club with a .362 wOBA. Ironically, his performance made Craig (who had the lowest wOBA on the team) — and not himself — expendable.

Ultimately, the Cardinals, including Craig, have only themselves to blame for the trade becoming necessary, not to mention the shabby handling of informing the traded players, who found out via media channels. Two lost starting pitchers are hard to replace, but if their offense had performed even close to their production last year — they’re currently 21st in MLB in wOBA — Mozeliak might’ve stopped after the Masterson trade. In the end, the Cardinals’ much-heralded pitching depth was illusory, and instead their outfielders — as evidenced by James Ramsey fetching Masterson and Craig becoming superfluous because of Taveras and Memphis’s Stephen Piscotty — provided the surplus. The team overvalued Martinez’s ability to contribute this year and forced itself to have to go outside the organization to seek help. It’s a fair amount of clubhouse pain to endure — Craig and Kelly were popular, and the team has seldom traded players from the active roster — for a marginal upgrade. It hardly seems like a clinching pair of moves, a la Oakland’s bold plays for Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija. But with five playoff spots per league, the bar to aim for is low these days. The game is to spend just enough to make it over the bar and enter the postseason lotto. With Lackey and Masterson, John Mozeliak has slightly increased the Cardinals’ odds of getting a ticket.