How are the Cardinals Doing This?

The biggest differences between the early season and current Cardinals

From September 11 to September 28 the Cardinals didn’t lose a single game. Seventeen games, and just Ws to show for it. At the time, the Cardinals needed it to keep their postseason hopes alive. During a winning streak like that (tied for 14th-longest all-time in MLB history), of course the team is going to demonstrate improvement in their underlying statistics. You don’t win 17 in a row by just performing at your season average production.

It’s not that St. Louis has been bad this season. Their lowest point record-wise came in late June when they were only 4 games below .500. Their season’s strength has been defense, where they lead all of baseball in Outs Above Average (OAA). The Cardinals’ defense has been led by a strong “up-the-middle” defense, with Tommy Edman at second (14 OAA), Harrison Bader in center (14 OAA), and shortstop Edmundo Sosa (6 OAA) combining for what would be elite defensive production for an entire team. Then you add on Nolan Arenado (9 OAA) and Paul Goldschmidt (5 OAA) to round out the infield, and it’s easy to see why the Cardinals are the best defensive team in baseball.

But what changed from the early season to the Cardinals’ recent 17-game win streak? 

On the offensive side, the Cardinals have likely benefited from some batted ball luck, to be sure. To start the season, the team was 24th in the majors in BABIP at .283, and over their win streak had the second-best BABIP at .329. The most significant change in their offensive production, however, has mostly been the Cardinals just simply hitting the snot out of the ball.

Prior to the win streak, St. Louis slugged .396, the eighth-lowest mark in baseball. During the streak, they’ve been the highest slugging percentage team in baseball (.530), with no one else coming particularly close.

As you might expect during a dominant stretch, that production is coming from quite a few places. Tyler O’Neill and Paul Goldschmidt each hit 7 homers during that 17-game stretch (a 66-home run pace over a full 162 games). Nolan Arenado has also rounded into form, chipping in 5 home runs over the streak. Adding it all up, the Cardinals are a team that prior to their win streak were collectively hitting 6% below league average by wRC+ and have hit 23% above league average since.

Adam Wainwright’s age(less) 40 season aside, the pitching hasn’t been much of a strength for St. Louis this year, with the fourth-worst xFIP in MLB. The Cardinals don’t strike out a lot of hitters, with the second-worst rate in baseball in that metric. There’s more than one way to get an out though, as the Cardinals have shown with their league-best defense. The problem for St. Louis has largely been their walks. Cardinal pitchers have walked more batters than any other team. It’s easy to see the problem, here. Nolan Areando’s arm and Harrison Bader’s range in centerfield are powerless against free trips to first. Combined with fewer strikeouts than almost any other team in the league, that’s a lot of traffic on the bases and run-scoring opportunities even with the best defense in baseball.

During September’s winning streak, however, the Cardinals have fixed the walks, issuing the eighth-fewest walks of any team over that stretch. 

That’s tough to figure. Walk rate stabilizes pretty quickly, so it seems odd to see such a drastic improvement in a short time frame and one that addresses a team’s biggest weakness. I’ve written about the Cardinals’ excellent pitches yet simultaneously issuing base-on-balls before, but it doesn’t seem to be a significant pitch mix or approaches that are fueling the Birds’ turnaround on the mound.

There haven’t been drastic in-season improvements to the team’s most walk-heavy pitchers. Jon Lester’s walk rate is down to its lowest level of the season but still sits at 7.4% in September thus far, for example. Kwang Hyun-Kim’s walk rate has actually increased from the first half to the second. Instead, it appears the Cardinals are simply using their most walk-friendly pitchers less, or in lower leverage situations. 

Name IP BB/9 Status note
John Gant 76.1 6.6 Traded to Twins
Alex Reyes 71.1 6.56 Demoted from closer’s role
Junior Fernandez 20.2 6.53 60-day IL
Daniel Ponce de Leon 33.1 5.94 Released 9/23
Johan Oviedo 62.1 5.34 AAA
Ryan Helsley 47.1 5.13 60-day IL
Génesis Cabrera 69.1 4.28
Kodi Whitley 23.1 4.24

 

Of the team’s 10 highest walk rates (min 20 IP), only Génesis Cabrera, Kodi Whitley, and Alex Reyes remain with the team, and Reyes is throwing in fewer high-leverage situations. 

Through injury, attrition, and shifting bullpen roles, the Cardinals have given fewer high leverage innings to the most walk-susceptible among their pitching staff. It’s probably a bit tautological, in that walking a ton of batters rarely leads to good results– so naturally, players that walk a lot of batters are not going to stick around long on any team. The Cardinals may benefit from that attrition more than most teams, though, in that they can afford to allow their pitchers to put more balls in play due to their outstanding defense. 

There isn’t a clear approach change fueling the Cardinals’ September surge. Their good hitters are hitting the ball hard and over the fence, and the pitching staff is suddenly stingy with free passes. Any team that does those two things would likely have success; the Cardinals may stand to benefit from it more than most teams as it capitalizes on their defensive strengths. If they can continue to limit their walks and play elite defense, they need not continue their torrid pace at the plate to have success in October. 

Photos Wikipedia Common/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

 

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a contributor to Pitcher List and writes mostly about the Brewers at Sausage Racing Form. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league.

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