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Line of Defense

My new favorite website is beyond the boxscore. It’s not a new website at all; in fact, it’s part of our sbnation family but it is one I’ve recently fallen in love with. Whenever I’m looking around at websites for ideas about what to write about or just baseball info, BTB is one of the first ones I turn to.

I stumbled across this post a few days ago and I thought I’d take a gander at what the same sort of approach had to say about the Cards in ’08. We all know that the Cards were a much better defensive team in ’08, particularly in the infield and the post linked above inspired me to see what impact it had on our pitchers last year.

My expectation was that, like the Rays, the Cards’ pitchers BABIP against would have been significantly lower last year. After all, our team ERA improved by nearly half a run last year – 4.20 last year vs. 4.67 in ’07. The defense yielded just 46 unearned runs vs. 64 in ’07. I didn’t find that at all. In fact, the BABIP of Wellemeyer, Franklin, Springer, Looper, Thompson, Pineiro, and Isringhausen all went up from ’07 to ’08. Only Adam Wainwright saw his BABIP fall from ’07 to ’08. See below: (I only compared pitchers who pitched 40 or more IP in the season).

Flores .390
Jimenez .364
Wells .332
Wainwright .315
Thompson .301
Pineiro .294
Reyes .287
Looper .284
Wellemeyer .259
Franklin .255
Springer .240
Isringhausen .226
Percival .215

Isringhausen .338
Pineiro .318
McClellan .318
Villone .311
Franklin .308
Lohse .303
Looper .297
Wainwright .281
Perez .278
Wellemeyer .273
Springer .265

There are some noticeable differences at the top and it says all you need to know about last year’s pen that Isringhausen went from the best BABIP on the team to the worst in ’08. People hit lasers against him all over the yard. His LD% went from 18.1% to 21.6% -- a big jump. Still, team BABIP against only fell 2 points – from .303 to .301. I expected a bigger drop than that. There’s absolutely no way that explains the fact that the team yielded 104 fewer runs from ’07 to ’08.

So what was the explanation?

Cards’ staff ‘07 5.92 3.19 1.05 68.1 4.67 4.66 19.0 43.5 37.6 9.6
Cards’ staff ‘08 5.92 3.07 1.01 72.9 4.20 4.40 20.8 45.3 33.9 10.3

A few things here jump out at me. After seeing that there was very little BABIP difference, I expected to see a higher K rate and a considerably lower BB rate. Well, the K rate was exactly the same but the BB rate did improve considerably. Our strand rate was much higher in ’08. In fact, in ’07 it was more than 2.5% lower than league average and in ’08 it was nearly 1.5% better than league average. It was 8th in baseball last year and 29th in ’07. There’s a big difference. Strand rate is subject to a lot of luck. Makes you wonder whether we were particularly lucky last year or unlucky in ’07. Maybe neither – we did see a whole lot of Jimenez, Flores, and Kip Wells in ’07.

Our HR rate fell a little in ’08. It still strikes me as a little high considering the pitchers’ park in which we play half our games but maybe not. It’s interesting that our HR rate fell despite the increase in our HR/FB. Clearly that’s a result of our pitchers giving up far fewer fly balls in ’08. They saw increases in the LD rate (bad) and in our GB rate (good) so there were fewer fly balls that might leave the park. Even though our HR/FB went up in ’08, it was right at league average in ’07 and only slightly higher than league average in ’08. I’d have thought there was some bad luck for our pitchers last year (as HR/FB is often associated w/ luck also) but, if we’re going to be right at league average both seasons, it seems that luck had little to do w/ it.

So our BB rate improved, our GB rate improved slightly, and our strand rate improved. How significant was all that? If you believe ERA, pretty damned significant. However, look at the FIPs. In ’07, our ERA was a pretty true measure of our how well our pitchers pitched – the FIP was almost exactly the same as our ERA. Last year, our ERA was .20 runs per 9 IP better than our FIP – meaning that our pitchers weren’t as good as they appeared, to the tune of 1 run every 5 games. In other words, our pitchers weren't that much better than our pitchers in '07. Maybe that, more than the difference in BABIP, is the true indicator of how well our defense played last year. With an average defense, our pitchers should have yielded 711 earned runs (w/ a 4.40 ERA) – an increase of 32 earned runs over what they actually yielded. Those 32 runs would have been worth at least 3 wins in the standings. I think it’s pretty fair to say that our defense added at least 3 wins just by how they improved the pitching – something to keep in mind as Mo makes his decisions this winter.

BTW, congrats to Oquendo for being interviewed for the M’s job. I’m sorry for him that he didn’t get it but I do believe it’s always good to be part of that process. He’ll get more interviews and have a managerial job soon enough.