February 6, 2017
The 2016 Cardinals were a disappointing team. The year before, they’d been the first team since the 2011 Phillies to win 100 games. Their loss to the Cubs in the Divisional Series stung, but it was the team’s fifth straight trip to the postseason. With a strong pitching staff—the team’s 2.94 ERA was the majors' lowest in 27 years and the first team ERA under 3.00 since the 1989 Dodgers—and a farm system that produced a seemingly endless supply of new talent, they seemed poised to remain a playoff contender, if not fend off the fast-charging Cubs.
We know what happened next. As the stat-heads predicted, the team’s FIP (3.50, fifth in the league) and DRA (4.11, sixth) presaged 2016 better than the sparkly ERA, as the Redbirds compiled a 4.08 ERA that ranked seventh in the league. That decline in pitching pretty much summed up the story of the season, as the team finished with an 86-76 record, one game behind the Mets for the second Wild Card.
The team’s pitching woes and absence from the postseason overshadowed a dramatic offensive improvement. In 2015, the Cardinals scored 647 runs. Only the decidedly non-contending Reds, Phillies, Marlins, and Braves scored fewer. In 2016, the Cardinals scored the third-most runs in the league with 779, trailing only Colorado and Chicago. Measured by True Average, the team improved from .262 in 2015 to .278, which was second in the league. Their year-over-year improvement of 132 runs was the largest in baseball.
How did they do it?
As I did a while back with the Pirates, I’m going to compare the 2015 and 2016 lineups, position by position. The reason I’m doing it that way instead of player by player is that the players change. The team’s primary center fielders in 2015 were Peter Bourjos (29 percent of plate appearances), Jon Jay (28 percent), Randal Grichuk (20 percent), and Tommy Pham (16 percent). It was a group effort in 2016 as well, primarily Gruchuk (65 percent of plate appearances) with assistance from Pham (16 percent) and others. Right field was Jayson Heyward’s job in 2015 but Stephen Piscotty’s last year. By looking at positions rather than players, we can get a fairly apples-to-apples comparison in terms of role.
To evaluate the differences, I’m going to use Baseball Reference’s sOPS+. It measures OPS, adjusted for park and season, relative to the position, rather than relative to all batters. That way I can see how the team did at each position, relative to the position, rather than relative to the league as a whole. For example, Cardinals first baseman had an OPS of .759 last year. In a league with an average OPS of .734, that’s decent. But relative to other first basemen, the sOPS+ was only 91—9 percent below average, given that first base is an offense-oriented position where the average OPS was .809.