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faux foes?

last week a reader named jeremy sent me an e-mail which read, in part:

I was looking around at some of Baseball Propsectus' stats and came across Batter Quality of Pitcher Faced. I thought it sounded cool, so I sorted by decreasing OBP to see who'd faced really easy pitching to date. I was shocked when 8 Cards showed up in the top 10. This made me pretty worried that our OBP is a mirage and our offense is going to collapse in the near future. I looked at our schedule, and we've played 9 games against the top 7 NL staffs according to ERA, going 2-1 against the Cubs, Dodgers, and Pads. We haven't faced the Braves, Diamondbacks, Phillies, or Mets yet. This means we've played 87% of our games to date against the bottom half of the pitching in the league.

the cardinals played the phillies over the weekend, which gets them up to 12 games against above-average nl pitching staffs; they also have 3 games against the tampa bay rays, who rank 5th in the american league. so that gives them 15 games against good-pitching teams; they’re 10-5 in those games, for whatever it’s worth. here’s how the hitters have fared:

vs above avg staffs  533   70 143   19  3  18  48 | .268 .329 .417 4.67
vs below avg staffs 1901 264 518 106  9  51 246 | .272 .358 .418 4.71

jeremy’s concern does not appear to be entirely misplaced; the cards’ obp drops almost 30 points against good-pitching teams. but their overall scoring average doesn’t, and their average and slugging average have remained the same. another consideration --- the five pitching staffs in question have yielded an aggregate obp of .320 this year, and the cardinals beat that by 9 points. for that matter, they came out ahead on the other two markers as well, batting 16 points higher than the rest of the league against those 5 staffs and slugging 22 points higher. but then, it has to be noted that the cardinals generally avoided facing the ace of these good pitching staffs --- they didn’t have to hit against zambrano, kazmir, peavy, or hamels. that’s not a knock against the cardinals --- it’s not as if they are dodging good pitchers on purpose. but it might explain why they’ve outperformed the league against these good teams.

sample-size caveats apply heavily here; we can’t really draw any conclusions from a 15-game sample. the available evidence suggests that jeremy might be on to something, at least where obp is concerned; it’s worth keeping an eye on this. it will still be a while, though, before the cards run into a spate of difficult pitching. in their next 5 series (16 games), they only have 1 against a pitching staff that ranks in the upper half of its league --- the 3-game set at fenway. but starting on june 30, they will face good pitching on a daily basis for more than a month. 30 of their next 37 games will be against the mets, cubs, braves, padres, dodgers, and phillies, all of whom rank 8th or better in nl era. they’ll also have 4 games in that stretch vs the brewers, who rank 9th in the league; the only truly bad staff they’ll get to face is pittsburgh’s (last in the league in era). the good news is that pujols probably will be back on the field for most or all of that part of the slate.

jeremy’s inquiry got me wondering: does a similar effect help explain the unexpectedly good showing by the cardinals’ own pitching staff? apparently so: per BP, kyle lohse has faced the 5th weakest slate of opposing batters in the nl this year (aggregate ops of .709); wellemeyer ranks 7th (.709), looper 11th (.715), and wainwright 16th (.719); that’s among pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched to date (there are 60 such in the league). but before we write off the stl staff’s performance as a mirage, i have to point out that 4 cub pitchers (zambrano, dempster, lilly, and marquis) rank among the top 18 in terms of feeble opposition batters; if the stl pitchers are merely lucky, then the cubs’ hurlers are no less so. moreover, nearly all of the top 10 pitchers on the nl leaderboard rank among the top 15 or so in terms of low-ops opposition.

still, the cardinal pitching staff has only faced 3 teams this year with an aggregate OPS+ higher than 100 --- the cubs (111), phillies (110), and rays (103). they also have played 21 games against the astros and pirates, who both have OPS+s of 100 --- ie, dead average. in a total of 30 games against those clubs, the cards are 18-13, a .581 winning percentage; they’re 23-16 against everyone else for a winning percentage of .590. they’ve allowed 5.27 runs a game against the average-or-above lineups (4.76 runs/game if we eliminate the 20-run pasting at the hands of the phils, which skews the average), vs only 3.70 runs/game against below-average lineups.

cutting (belatedly) to the chase, it’s safe to say the cardinals still haven’t hit the difficult part of their schedule. only 18 of their games so far have come against teams that are currently .500 or better; the cards are 10-8 in those games, and 32-21 against losing clubs. they get 6 games vs the royals in the next couple of weeks, but beginning on june 30 they will face good competition nearly every night. 35 of their next 41 games will be against teams that are currently no worse than 1 game under .500 --- that includes 7 games each against the mets and braves, who are both 1 game under at the moment but can hardly be described as easy competition. it’s obvious carpenter won’t be back for any of that stretch, and unclear how much wellemeyer and / or wainwright will be available. . . . . best not to think about that now. they have an easy opponent at home this week, an extremely winnable series; better fatten up, because there may be some leaner times ahead.