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follow the leaders

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so here we are again - half a season to go, a playoff berth all but assured. the cardinals' record is now in synch with that of the franchise's last repeat pennant winners, the 1968 team. those storied redbirds won their first 7 games in july to reach the all-star break at 53-30, 10 games in front of the field. they went 14-5 coming out of the break, extending their lead to 12.5 games over the braves, then split their last 60 games to finish at 97-65, a comfortable 9 games ahead of the giants. (i thank retrosheet for the information.)

in the 35 years since, no cardinal team has reigned this supreme, and no stl fans have been this lucky - until us. savor it, soak it up, appreciate it now. we may never see the like again.

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in the 1984 baseball abstract, bill james discussed a system of leading indicators by which we can identify successful postseason teams. he arrived at it empirically, by studying the regular-season characteristics of postseason winners. i don't have my copy of that abstract on hand at the moment, but i trust my memory --- per which, james found that successful postseason teams tend to be those that, during the regular season:

  • throw a lot of shutouts
  • outhomer their opponents by a healthy margin
  • don't make a lot of errors
  • turn a lot of double plays
  • have low eras

there were other characteristics on the list, but these lay at the core. using them, james was able to correctly predict the winner in 75 percent of the postseason series played over a period of years. the game has changed much in 20 years, but the basic premise of this little system hasn't: postseason teams tend to have good pitching staffs that stifle long rallies; therefore teams must rely disproportionately on homers, or what james referred to as "short-sequence offense," to score. a walk and a homer --- one mistake pitch, two runs. it's a fact that homeruns account for a greater percentage of runs scored in the postseason than in the regular season; the playoffs are in essence a test of a team's short-sequence abilities. and james' "leading indicators" provide a rough measure of how a team is likely to fare in a short-sequence environment.

can those leading indicators tell us anything about the 2005 cards' chances in the postseason? i dunno. before we begin i will gladly acknowledge that the leading-indicators test is absurdly reductive, leaving out innumerable factors that may influence the outcome of a given series. also that the indicators are designed to measure a full season's performance, and not just half. in other words, this is an idle exercise, the type of thing you do when your team is 12.5 games ahead and so damn good you've run out of ways to say it. so no need to parse the "methodology" in the comments section; this is just a preliminary read, however imperfect.

let's begin by using last year's series as test cases.

LA STL
sho 6 12
hr margin 25 45
errors 73 97
dp 145 154
era 4.01 3.75
HOU STL
sho 13 12
hr margin 13 45
errors 101 97
dp 136 154
era 4.05 3.75
BOS STL
sho 12 12
hr margin 63 45
errors 118 97
dp 129 154
era 4.18 3.75

two outta three ain't bad . . . . the 2004 cards were an excellent short-sequence team; the leading indicators predicted they would beat all three opponents. at the same time, the sox's superior hr differential should have been a serious red flag to anybody expecting a decisive stl victory.

halfway through 2005, what do the indicators suggest about stl's chances this october? let's put the cards in a couple of hypothetical matchups: vs the nationals, who have the nl's second-best record; and vs the white sox, who have the best record in baseball. and i'll repeat my disclaimer --- this is a raw gauge, and the exercise a simple one:

WASH STL
sho 4 7
hr margin -2 20
errors 45 50
dp 75 96
era 3.88 3.50
CHIS STL
sho 5 7
hr margin 26 20
errors 45 50
dp 81 96
era 3.53 3.50

half a season to go, personnel changes still to come --- the picture will surely look different come october. but for now, the leading indicators show the cards with another excellent chance to reach the series --- and another team of sox looming as formidable opponents.