2021 Cardinals? –not a saber-metric friend
Sunday’s game being postponed against the Cubs might have been a blessing in disguise for a Cardinals team that has spent the majority of the first half looking sluggish and not at all like what we are used to. Especially in the last month and a half, there have been some back-breaking moments that have just piled on in terms of a disappointing season.
Being swept by the Cubs in mid-June, losing three out of four to the last-place Pirates who are trying their best to emulate a minor league team, and most recently losing three out of four to a Rockies team that is a perennial NL West bottom-feeder, just to name a few.
The hits keep coming and, on the surface, things would not appear to add up to a 44-46 record. The Cardinals have got 4 All-Stars this year led by Nolan Arenado and Yadier Molina, Tyler O’Neill is having a breakout season, and Dylan Carlson is making a great case for some Rookie of the Year consideration with his play on both sides of the ball. On the pitching side, Jack Flaherty has had his typical ace stuff pitching to a 2.90 ERA.
Adam Wainwright has apparently found the fountain of youth, leading the pitching staff both in innings pitched and Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
So why are the Cardinals 44-46 with a -40 run differential, 8 games back of the Division-leading Brewers? This is in stark contrast to their performance in recent years. To explain the performance we’re seeing on the field, we’ll need a deeper dive than what traditional baseball statistics offer.
A Saber-metrics Lesson
Now I know any stats past batting average, home runs, and RBIs are scary but don’t worry. Think of me as your saber-metric guide on this journey. Before we take a nose-dive into the meat of the stats, let’s go over some of the big acronyms in play, what they are and what they represent in the game today. A big one that we will use is Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), which is a statistic that tries to represent the value of a player’s offensive value in one big number. The + sign allows us to compare a player’s wRC relative to the league average and accounts for park and league effects, where 100 is exactly average.
This allows you to compare players from different leagues, different parks, and different years. For example, lets say you wanted to compare Mickey Mantle’s 1959 season to Albert Pujols’s 2006 season and see whose was better. You could look at wRC+ and see that Albert Pujols had a 174, compared to Mickey Mantle’s 152 and you could generally say that Albert Pujols had a better season.
On the pitching side, we are going to mainly look at Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). In the new age of strikeouts and home runs, the pitcher’s job is to minimize contact and maximize strikeouts. FIP measures how well a pitcher can prevent the other team from scoring without considering the surrounding defense. This is primarily looking at strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. In the saber-metric community, FIP is generally seen as a better indicator of run prevention compared to ERA. It puts all pitchers on a level field, neutralizing the benefits (and sometimes disadvantages) of the team defense around you.
Don’t worry, I know this was quite the information/stats blast and if you have stuck through it congrats! This is the end of the baseball saber-metrics explain it to me like I am 5 segment, now on to the Cardinals conundrum.
Currently, they rank 27th in the majors in team wRC+ at 88. Looking at an individual level, only 4 players have a wRC+ above league average – Tyler O’Neill (138), Nolan Arenado (120), Paul Goldschmidt (113), and Dylan Carlson (106). Matt Carpenter, Tommy Edman, and Paul DeJong have all regressed from their 2019-20 numbers and this has created a black hole in the Cardinals’ offense.
As the game of baseball has shifted from contact hitting to power-hitting, we can look at Isolated Power (ISO) which is a statistic that represents the pure power of a hitter.
If we look at the ISO of the Cardinals team, it ranks low alongside bottom feeders like the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers. Yikes, definitely not what an aspiring playoff team would like to see. For all the traditional stat lovers out there, it’s not much better on that front. The Cardinals rank near the bottom in batting average (AVG), on-base percentage (OBP), and slugging percentage (SLG).
Right now the Cardinals offense is very top-heavy, which allows opposing pitchers to be able to work around the heavy hitters and get outs when they need to.
Now we have all heard that pitching wins games, and we definitely know how far good pitching can carry a team. We all remember the lights-out pitching of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright at their prime. You just had so much confidence when they were on the mound.
Sadly, this isn’t the case for our 2021 Cardinals. Contrary to the last two seasons where the pitching staff was the bright spot and could carry an anemic offense on any day, that same magic is no longer there. The Cardinals rank in the bottom three in terms of strikeouts per 9 innings (K/9), worst in the league in walks allowed per 9 innings (BB/9) which in total contributes to having a bottom 10 team FIP. On the surface, the Cardinals have a middling team ERA but looking beneath the hood there are definite cracks that saber-metrics unlock.
On an individual level, Jack Flaherty has regressed from his Cy Young caliber 2019 season with his K/9 down and his BB/9 up. Although Adam Wainwright has the most amount of WAR on the pitching staff, he has been prone to the long ball allowing an HR/FB (ratio of home runs allowed per fly ball) of 15.5%. Apart from Flaherty and Wainwright, the rest of the rotation has been subpar. Kwang Hyun Kim, the KBO star who came over in 2020, has shown flashes of good stuff but has been quite inconsistent.
Carlos Martinez has continued his struggles from the pandemic shortened 2020 season and there hasn’t been a consistent 5th starter. Looking at the bullpen, there isn’t much relief apart from Giovanny Gallegos. Gallegos has continued to impress after coming over from the New York Yankees in 2018 but other than that the bullpen has been a black hole. Injuries to Jordan Hicks have put a strain on an already struggling bullpen that can barely find the strike zone.
So we’ve spent the bulk of our time talking about what is wrong with the Cardinals, and you might think all is lost. However, I wouldn’t lose all your faith just yet. Amid all the problems, the Red Birds are still tied for third in the Central Division, only eight games behind the Brewers and seven and a half games back in the hotly contested wild card race.
Even though baseball is taking a standstill with the all-star break, the Cardinals front office is hard at work to get some deals done before the July 31st trade deadline. Another bat in the lineup that can close some of the black holes would be key, but probably the most important problem that needs to be addressed is the bullpen.
Getting another bullpen arm alongside Gallegos would do wonders for a pitching staff that ranks near the bottom of the league in all major statistics. Especially with the potential news that Jordan Hicks could be out for the season, the bullpen needs to be reinforced before the trade deadline. Although there are plenty of problems, we have seen time and time again these Cardinal teams go on a hot streak and close the gap.
Here’s to hoping that the boys can take the break, work to address these underlying issues, and go on a run and make the playoffs.
Adding up the numbers!!