September 22, 2010
Checking the Numbers
The Cards Come Crumbling Down
On August 13, the Cardinals defeated the Cubs, 6-3, improving their record to 65-49. Recently acquired Jake Westbrook scattered two runs over six innings in his third start with the team, Matt Holliday knocked in a run on two doubles, Albert Pujols hit his league-leading 29th home run, and Colby Rasmus showed one of the many facets of his value by walking in all four of his plate appearances. The win kept the Cardinals a game up in the NL Central over the Reds, who had beaten the Marlins. Entering play the next day, our playoff odds report gave the Cardinals a 66 percent chance of winning the division, as well as a 13 percent chance of winning the wild card. Put together, the Cardinals made the playoffs in four out of every five simulations, a very safe position.
Anyone who has followed baseball lately knows where this story is headed. Since August 13, the Cardinals have gone 12-24, and with a 77-73 record their odds of making the playoffs have plummeted to just 0.35 percent. In other words, they aren’t mathematically eliminated from contention, but they’re eliminated from contention. What the heck happened? How can a team set to perform so well fall flat on its face so quickly? The roster construction might not be the greatest of all time, but it is tough to imagine that a team with Pujols and Holliday in the lineup, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter atop the rotation, and a very solid bullpen could play like a cellar dweller for over a month.
Roster Construction: Stars and Scrubs
Stars and scrubs is the moniker given to rosters consisting of a smaller number of uber-talented players and a majority of below-average players. The latter group is not always at the replacement level, but they are usually closer to that realm than they are to league average. Rosters constructed in this fashion are usually considered to be volatile in their results, as the stars could align and 92 wins could be in store, or everything goes wrong and a team with three or four legitimate award candidates musters 80 wins. The idea is that, if the stars have a cold streak, there isn’t much help in the lineup capable of picking up the slack. If the stars go cold at the same time, then a minor league offense could be on display at the major league level. Teams like this can score six runs as easily as no runs, which was evidenced during the 12-24 stretch; in that span of 36 games, the offense scored three runs or fewer 19 times, while scoring six or more runs in nine games.
The Cardinals are widely considered to have a stars and scrubs roster. Both Pujols and Holliday are legitimately great and Rasmus is looking more like an offensive force every day, but aside from those three, nothing in the lineup stands out. The rest of the lineup consists of Skip Schumaker, Yadier Molina, Brendan Ryan, Pedro Feliz, and Jon Jay, while bench players Aaron Miles, Felipe Lopez, Nick Stavinoha, Tyler Greene, Allan Craig, and Randy Winn have received their fair share of playing time as well. Other than Jay, whose .312/.368/.445 essentially equals what was expected from Ryan Ludwick prior to the season, none of these players has been even remotely effective on offense. In spite of their ineptitude with the bat, this group—sans Jay—has amassed 2,561 of the team’s 5,336 non-pitcher plate appearances. The scrubs have accounted for just about half of the team’s trips to the dish.
These players weren’t necessarily expected to perform this poorly, though it was certainly a possibility. Feliz was a downright dreadful acquisition at the time made even worse by his declining defense, and Miles hasn’t had anything to offer since his first go-around with the Cardinals earlier in the decade. Ryan and Greene are defense-first players, and even they have fallen well short of their projected offensive performance. The real surprises have been the complete offensive fall-offs of Molina and Lopez. The former has never been known for his stick work, but he has at least been passable, hitting .292/.353/.382 from 2007-09. The latter isn’t an all-star either, but he hit .280/.349/.407 from 2005-09, including an impressive .310/.383/.427 in 680 PAs last season.
Regardless of their past exploits, much has gone wrong this year. The table below compares their current TAv to their weighted mean PECOTA projections. The final column shows what PECOTA percentile their actual line resembles:
No, offense is not the only way to add value to a team, but when 10 players who have received more than a cup of coffee in terms of playing time produce as poorly as these guys, it has to be tough to compete, even if they offer the top-notchiest of glove work. Winn actually has a .275 TAv with the Cards (after a .228 TAv with the Yankees to start the season), but his slash line is ugly and his TAv is inflated by stolen bases. While swipes are certainly productive, something just feels a bit off about having them elevate his value that highly given a .325 OBP and .404 SLG while under Tony La Russa’s watch. Miles and Greene have also either reached their weighted mean or surpassed it, but the below-average numbers indicate that their overachieving hasn’t been particularly productive. None of these players has been able to reach base or display power with any consistency, meaning that there is little aside from each other for Pujols, Holliday, and Rasmus to knock in.
The Math of the Matter
From August 13 through September 17, the Cardinals hit .252/.315/.384, producing a .717 Raw TAv in the process. Amongst NL teams, that mark ranked 10th, virtually in line with the Mets, the Astros, and the offensively starved Padres. What made matters worse was that, aside from Pujols, Holliday, and Rasmus, the team managed just a .231/.284/.300 line. In other words, they were playing like a three-man offense with the remainder of the lineup hitting about as well as Feliz. Pujols put up a gaudy .306/.394/.669, Holliday hit .320/.381/.560, and Rasmus, amidst media battles with La Russa, tore the cover off of the ball to the tune of a .286/.400/.514 line.
On the other side of the offensive spectrum, Feliz hit .208/.232/.260, Ryan clocked in at .231/.273/.288, the ghost of Lopez put up an anemic .134/.234/.194, Jay (who was supposed to replace the production lost when Ludwick was traded to the Padres on July 31) managed just a .241/.303/.313 line. I could go on, but I think the point is clear—the Cardinals were relying on their big three to manufacture and produce the runs, and if any of them had an off day, the rest of the beleaguered lineup was too inept to contribute. In the aforementioned span, 203 NL batters tallied 25 or more plate appearances, and the Cardinals produced seven of the 50 worst from a TAv standpoint. They weren’t the only team to accomplish such a feat, but the others were the Mets and Pirates, which really should not come as a surprise to anyone that has been paying attention.
Pitching-wise, the Cardinals staff allowed 153 runs in 292
In that span the Cards hit .267/.336/.415, a slash line in the upper third of the league, while the pitching held down the fort, ranking third in the league with a 3.78 RA and first with a 7.77 percent walk rate. While these numbers are obviously vastly superior to those produced in the 11-22 stretch, they can be construed as coming within arbitrary end points.
To that end, here are their slash lines by month:
Similarly, their pitching lines by month:
What can be taken away from these splits? For starters, while September appears to be their worst overall month, the Cardinals have performed similarly in many regards in other months as well. The difference has obviously come in the wins and losses columns, which leads to an interesting question: Do I have the wrong story here? I assumed the Cardinals had been playing very well when they hit their high water mark of 65-49, and that all hell had broken loose when everything fell to pieces. But what if the real story is that they managed to get out to a 65-49 record without being at full strength, and their recent poor performance was more of a catch-up effect?
Keepers of the Cards
To find out more about the Cardinals season, I spoke with Larry Borowsky of the tremendous blog, Viva El Birdos, and with Matthew Leach, the Cardinals beat reporter for MLB.com. Borowsky immediately pointed to the comparison between actual and projected results, noting that Ryan, Schumaker, Molina, and Lopez were all being counted to be around league-average but, instead, have fallen below their 10th-percentile projection. Instead of contributing around two wins apiece on offense alone, they have combined for two wins. Borowsky noted that while it was one thing for Lopez to have an unexpectedly terrible season, knowingly giving at-bats to terrible hitters like Feliz, Stavinoha, and Miles isn’t going to cut it on a team trying to contend.
Additionally, the loss of David Freese to injuries hurt, as did losing Brad Penny earlier in the season. With Penny in the rotation, four above-average starters were set to toe the rubber every five days. Without Penny and with an injury to Kyle Lohse, the Cardinals turned to Jeff Suppan. That would be the equivalent to needing a big bat off the bench and finding Miles. Compounding the situation was that the team played terrible defense for the first half of the season. To test this theory I calculated PADE before and after the All-Star break for every team and found that the Cardinals produced a -3.61 mark that ranked worse than every team except the Pirates prior to the break. Not only could the majority of their roster not hit, but anyone trying to excuse them for their offensive struggles by suggesting they were a defensive-minded team really had no ammo to back that assertion.
What it seemed to boil down to is that the Cardinals really had a lot go right for them leading up to their drastic downfall. They had a three-man offense because several players took major steps back or just weren’t that good to begin with, and while their starting pitching and bullpen were both solid, they weren’t absolutely spectacular and neither was their defense. Given everything that has transpired, it makes much more sense that the Cardinals would be just five or six games over the .500 mark and in second place, as opposed to safe and secure in a playoff spot. It’s just the way that they reached their current record is maddening to a wonderful fan base. It should not be all that surprising that a team with so much working against it has struggled so much recently. What should be surprising is that they managed to look like a legitimate contender for half of the season.