Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Shutouts a recipe for Cardinals’ success

June 11th, 2014 by Pip

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.

Game 64 Recap: Cardinals 5, Blue Jays 0

June 10th, 2014 by Pip

Players of the Game

  1. Jaime Garcia: Held Toronto’s high-powered offense to a 3.22 FIP over 28 batters and seven innings
  2. Jhonny Peralta: Turned in a game-high (among starters) .847 wOBA on strength of a home run and a double
  3. Matt Carpenter: Table-setter reached base twice, tallying five total bases and a .600 wOBA

Plays of the Game by WPA

  1. Matt Carpenter homered, scoring Tony Cruz (+.138): Carpenter hit it out of the deepest part of Skydome (centerfield) to double the Cardinals’ lead in the second inning.
  2. Tony Cruz doubled, scoring Mark Ellis (+.096): With Blue Jays starter Drew Hutchison perhaps distracted by Mark Ellis’s stolen base, on the next pitch Cruz rocked a double on a full count.
  3. Mark Ellis singled, advancing Jon Jay to 3B (+.065): Ellis and Jay started the rally, showing that speed serves the team well at the bottom of the order.

Notes

  • Here’s hoping that taking two of three games from the second-best team in the AL boosts the club’s confidence.
  • After walking his first batters of the year, Garcia’s K/BB ratio is 8.67. Cliff Lee is impressed.
  • Garcia’s K-BB% is a heady 18.6%, 23rd in MLB among pitchers with at least 30 IP. The only Cardinal pitcher ahead of him is Adam Wainwright at 19.6% (19th).
  • The walks were Garcia’s first after 97 batters faced to begin his season. Adam Wainwright opened his 2013 by facing 133 batters without a free pass. Bob Tewskbury once went 224 straight batters in 1993 without yielding. He led the NL in K/BB that year with 4.85. He also led the league in hits allowed (258).
  • With his five total bases, Matt Carpenter raised his wOBA to .352. He is creeping closer to his career mean of .366.
  • Speaking of regressing to the mean, Matt Adams — .349 wOBA in 2014, .349 career — began his rehab Monday night, going 0-for-3 for Memphis.
  • The Cardinals finally got a day off after 20 straight games.
  • When the Cardinals had their last off day, they were four games behind the Brewers. Today they find themselves five back.

Cardinal Bullpen: Competitive Advantage or Albatross?

June 5th, 2014 by Pip

You’re Mike Matheny, and Adam Wainwright has taken a a lead into the ninth inning. Your team has lost the last three games, the most recent one after your bullpen failed, including the third loss of the season by your closer, Trevor Rosenthal, to go with his three blown saves. What do you do?

We don’t envy the Cardinal manager. He’s made his share of mistakes and deserves the scorn of fans for occasional wrong deployments and bad strategy. But one could hardly fault him for letting Wainwright try for the complete game Wednesday night. With the Cardinals sitting on a 91% win expectancy and Wainwright on 104 pitches, Matheny trotted the staff ace out to the mound. Bad luck ensued, as the first batter struck out but reached on a wild pitch, and the next batter hit a perfect ground ball for a double play, except that it was exactly where no fielders were.

Matheny was now between Scylla and Charybdis. He opted for Rosenthal, who proceeded to give up the tying runs. Another game snatched away from certain victory by poor relief execution.

The bullpen was indeed one of the team’s core capabilities last year, as they were third in MLB with a 3.21 FIP and 3.49 xFIP. Once Cardinals’ strength, their bullpen is now an albatross. Or is it?

Certainly, the team has had its share of high-profile bungled games. They’ve blown the fourth-most saves in the majors (10). But that needs some context: They’ve also had the third-most save opportunities. And, as most know, saves are a blunt instrument of measurement, barely meaningful. Looking a little deeper, we see that the Cardinal bullpen has dealt with the second-highest average leverage index — basically, they’ve been handed some tough situations — and their relievers have entered 78 games in which their first plate appearance represented a leverage index of 1.5 or more (league average is 65 games). (Last night, when Rosenthal faced Alex Gordon with the tying run on first base, the leverage index was 5.2.)

What’s more is that they’ve  been just about as good as they were last year in results: They’re currently fourth in baseball with a 3.07 FIP and 11th with a 3.57 xFIP. Their K-BB% is seventh in MLB at 14.6%, just about where it was last year when the pen was fifth at 15.0%.

So what’s going on? Unfortunately, they’ve had one of the worst left-on-base rates in baseball at 69.7%, which is probably what is accounting for much of the perceived and real failure. The good news is that the relief corps’ peripherals give us reason to expect that that number will regress to something more normal, with the happy result that fewer games will be lost or tied in the late innings.

So yes, Trevor Rosenthal needs to cut down his walk rate. And yes, Carlos Martinez probably needs to return to Memphis to increase his strikeout rate.  And certainly, Kevin Siegrist needs to return from the DL ASAP. But for the most part, the Cardinal bullpen isn’t the albatross it appears. In fact, it’s looking like one of the team’s competitive advantages again, as hard as it may be to believe.

Royals-Cardinals Series Preview

June 2nd, 2014 by Pip

[Originally posted on the Bird's Eye View]

The Cardinals begin a strange four back-to-back home-and-home series with their intrastate rival Royals tonight at Busch Stadium. They’ll play two games in St. Louis to conclude the Cardinals’ nine-game homestand, then head to KC to play two more immediately after.

Team Pulse: Cardinals 

Despite Saturday’s jolt by top prospect Oscar Taveras, who homered in his major-league debut, the Cardinals still linger in their season-long funk. They began their current nine-game homestand by losing five-of-seven to the Yankees and Giants and again find themselves only three games over .500 at 30-27, four games back in the NL Central. Allen Craig has begun reaching base again, bringing back some fans from the edge, but the team lost Matt Adams to the DL, so the offense won’t necessarily realize a net gain with Tavaras in the lineup.

Team Pulse: Royals

The Royals are no stranger to season-long funk, either, toiling at a sub-.500 record (26-30). But the Royals find themselves perhaps surprisingly only 6.5 games back in their division. On Sunday, they recalled third baseman Mike Moustakas from a seven-game “go-find-yourself” demotion to Triple-A Omaha. It’s not clear that that was enough to revive the former prospect, but he’ll be back in the lineup tonight and perhaps tomorrow, though the lefty Jaime Garcia may preclude that.

Pitching Matchups

Monday: Danny Duffy (LHP) vs. Shelby Miller (RHP)
Both of tonight’s pitchers are coming off bad starts. Duffy lasted only four innings as he walked five and yielded two home runs to the lowly Astros last week. Miller wasn’t much better, failing to fool many Yankees, whom Miller walked twice and struck out only once, a career low. Monday’s game will be Miller’s first agains the Royals. Duffy, some Cardinal fans will remember, mowed down the Cardinals three years ago (6/19/11), striking out nine in 3 2/3 innings.

Tuesday: James Shields (RHP) vs. Jaime Garcia (LHP)
Coming off a career year in his first season in the royal blue, Shields is repeating as one of the league’s most underrated pitchers. He owns a 3.75 FIP/3.42 xFIP and is 18th in the AL in Wins Above Replacement, owing to his durability: He’s fifth with 333 batters faced. Garcia has bounced back from the disabled list with a vengeance, featuring a 2.27 xFIP in his first three starts in 2014. He’s striking out batters at an 8.69 rate and has yet to issue a free pass to any of the

What to Watch for

The Cardinal bullpen has been anything but their strong suit this season and is in a state of flux. Closer Trevor Rosenthal appears to be finding himself, but setup man Carlos Martinez appears more lost than ever. Ironically, non-roster invitee Pat Neshek has been the relief corps’s most-reliable pitcher. Now that Mike Matheny has erstwhile closer Jason Motte back from injury, it’ll be interesting to see how he deploys him, considering Martinez’s struggles. Will Motte nudge his way into the setup role and more high-leverage outings?

Is Lance Lynn pitching to contact?

May 29th, 2014 by Pip

In 74 career major-league games started prior to May 27, 2014, Lance Lynn had only ever made it as late in the game as eight innings (twice). So when he turned the trick of completing nine innings Tuesday night, it was something to celebrate, especially given the decided lack of confidence in the righty from fans as well as what appears to be from his employer. That he completed the game in style — as in a shutout — made it that much sweeter. The icing on the cake was that he did it against the Yankees (albeit a Yankee team featuring Kelly Johnson at first base).

But beyond the headline complete game, Lynn’s outing was strange. True, he faced a career-high 34 batters (previous high was 33 set last June 26). But he struck out nearly a career-low two batters. In only two career starts has Lynn whiffed fewer, and he lasted just five and two innings in those contests. What’s more, he walked three — almost his high-water mark in that category on the season.

Until Tuesday, Lynn exhibited a strong correlation (.60) between his strikeouts and his batters faced, which stands to reason: The more batters you face, the more opportunities you’ll have to whiff them. So it was ironic that the burly right-hander who own’s the franchise’s 2nd- and 4th-highest single-season strikeout rates (9.20 in 2012, 8.84 in 2013), earned his first complete game by inducing 85% (29 of 34) of batters to put the ball into play. Has the Hoosier Thunderbolt, Jr. suddenly become a pitch-to-contact disciple of Dave Duncan?

Probably not. First, this game was an outlier on Lynn’s season. It’s true that his overall strikeout rate is down, but not meaningfully so. Second, a starting pitcher’s chances at a complete game are highly contextual, and circumstances over which he has no control enter the equation. For instance, on the heels of a 12-inning affair, in which he deployed five relief pitchers and staring at 12 consecutive games ahead, Mike Matheny was surely more apt than usual to give Lynn a long leash. And the fact that the Cardinals held a four-run lead from the third inning on gave the Cardinal manager plenty of reason to give Lynn a chance to deal himself a loner.

It’s worth noting, though, that perceptions may also play a part, namely the way in which a pitcher is succeeding. Could it be that Matheny and his staff perceive one way of succeeding — say, through inducing ground balls — over another?  In Lynn’s case this season, his ground ball rate has a stronger correlation to his staying in the game than does his strikeout rate. We’ll see if that holds for the rest of the season. But regardless of whether Lynn has begun his conversion to becoming a pitch-to-contact guy, it may be that, if he wants to complete some more games, that will be his best chance.