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return with me for a moment to sunday's game, in which the cards gave up 4 unearned runs. i was shocked to discover not long ago that the cardinals have allowed the fewest unearned runs in the national league this season --- 39, including the 4 runs they gift-wrapped for the dbacks the other day. the astros have ceded the next-lowest total of free tallies, 44; then the giants at 46, the padres at 50, the mets at 52.

am i the only one who had the subjective impression that they've been sloppier than a slobbering hound in that regard? seems as if they've given away 4 or 5 games in this fashion, when in truth they've probably gained a game in the standings, on balance, vis-vis unearned runs. the cardinals have made 83 errors this year, which ranks 5th in the league, and the standard multiplier is 0.6 -- ie, an average error costs 0.6 unearned runs. so we would expect the cards' 83 errors to have cost them 50 runs; they're 11 runs better than that, a savings that's worth about a full game in the standings.

they've been pitching around their errors extremely well this year -- but we probably take greater notice (understandably) when they don't.

suppan leads the team with 12 unearned runs -- he already led the team before sunday and padded his total in that awful 3d inning. some of us have suggested that bad defense seems to follow supps around, and the high unearned-run total might tend to support that. but we also might draw another conclusion -- viz., he is not particularly adept at pitching around errors when they happen. subjectively, we all have the opposite impression -- supps is unflappable, doesn't get snitty when misplays occur behind him. i'm not suggesting that he got rattled on sunday, but he also didn't contain the damage effectively; after the botched rundown he gave up three straight singles, which magnified the cost of the miscues. the converse example might be jeff weaver, who -- though generally regarded as susceptible to pouts and deficient in stiff-upper-lipness -- has only yielded 1 unearned run as a cardinal. either the team has fielded flawlessly behind him, or he has pitched around the errors they've made.

before we draw too many conclusions from this, let's qualify --- heavily. first of all, i don't have the distribution of errors the cards have committed behind each pitcher -- i don't know where to find that data -- but i would be shocked if the distribution were even. you'd expect strikeout pitchers to have fewer errors made behind them, because they allow fewer balls in play -- all other things being equal, they should suffer from fewer boots. and david gassko showed a few months ago at the hardball times that groundball pitchers incur a higher rate of errors behind them -- not surprising, since (according to that article) groundballs account for 85 percent of all errors made. supps, a high-groundball / moderate-strikeout hurler, may be more prone to error-itis than his staffmates -- lots of balls in play, a majority of them on the ground.

of course, there's a ready-made indicator of fielding's impact (pro or con) on a pitcher's line: FIP, or fielding-independent pitching. (if you're not familiar with the concept, there's a decent explanation of it at wikipedia; the quick n dirty is that FIP distills a pitcher's line into walks, hbps, strikeouts, and homers, ignoring all balls in play.) by that measure, supps' fielders have helped him immensely, lowering his era by half a run; his FIP is 4.76, half a run worse than his actual era of 4.25. the other starters have similar spreads -- weaver's regular era as a cardinal (5.19) is 0.64 better than his FIP (5.84); carp's spread is 0.55, reyes' 0.52. all rank among the most defense-reliant pitchers in the league -- say, in the top 10 percent or so -- which is exactly what you'd expect of a put-it-in-play staff.

that trues up with the st louis' low unearned-run figure; also with their high defensive efficiency rating, which ranks 4th in the nl.

the two stl pitchers who've been helped least by their defense this year are marquis and ponson. marquis' ERA (5.66) and FIP (5.72) are nearly identical; he's had neither good nor bad fortune in terms of his defensive support. ponson appears to have had bad fortune -- his FIP (4.86) was 0.38 lower than his actual ERA (5.24), which means fielders were less efficient chasing down batted balls behind him than they were behind the other pitchers. but in ponson's case, that's no aberration -- in 2005 and 2004 he had even larger FIP-ERA spreads (1.47 and 0.80, respectively). if this were a one-year instance, you might say ponson was victimized by bad luck, but after three years it seems safe to call this a trend -- he must consistently be yielding hard-hit balls that fielders have little/no chance to catch up with.

a final thought before we leave the subject -- given that st louis has played the last month with two out-of-position starters (at ss and lf) and that 2b and (to a lesser extent) cf have been revolving doors all season, it's pretty remarkable that the defense has held together so well. low error total, high der, respectable double-play total -- not at all bad, under the circumstances.