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The Greek Mathematician Blues, 2013 Edition

Pythagoras is not your friend, St. Louis.

Damnit, Oquendo! Seriously, just stop...sending...him...home!!!
Damnit, Oquendo! Seriously, just stop...sending...him...home!!!
Dilip Vishwanat

I'm writing this article ahead of time, Tuesday afternoon to be exact, so I don't actually know the outcome of tonight's historic tilt between Clayton Kershaw and Joe Kelly just yet. I'm going to hope Kelly somehow managed to outduel last year's Cy Young award winner, but I have to admit I'm not feeling particularly confident. That's not to denigrate Kelly, by any means; I'm a big Joe Kelly fan, and have been since writing a scouting report before he was drafted. It's just, well, Kershaw vs. Kelly kind of feels like a bit of a mismatch, unfortunately.

Ergo, I will hope this missive from the past does not reach you on a morning the Cardinals find themselves in a brand new two game losing streak they absolutely cannot afford, but I fear it will. It sucks, I know, but take heart, dear friends. I'm here to give you some good news about the Cardinals and why they should be well ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates! Well, okay, maybe not good news, or at least not good good, but good-ish. Sort of.

Okay, so here's the good news: the St. Louis Cardinals are, at least in what we think of as true talent level terms, way better than the Pittsburgh Pirates.

By true talent level terms, I mean of course Run Differential. Where we get things like increasingly infamous (at least to we Cardinal fans), Pythagorean Record. We all know -- or should know, anyway -- that run differential is a much better predictor of future success, largely because it seems to measure the talent level of a team much more effectively than a simple win/loss record. So much....stuff goes into wins and losses that it's hard to predict how things will go in the future based on how they went in the past. Outscoring the opposition by a large margin over the course of however many dozens of games, though, that gives you a pretty good idea of just how talented a team really is.

El Birdos Grande, as I shall call them pretty much never again, are the best team in baseball, measured by run differential. They currently sit at +149; the Detroit Tigers are second at +139. The next best National League club is the Atlanta Braves, or El Bravos Gigante Dickheades, with a +117. The Cards are more than 30 runs clear of the second best NL team in run differential. That's pretty damned impressive.

The Pittsburgh Pirates? They're not even in the Cardinals' league. Nowhere close. El Buccos es Fuccos are +56, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but when you're talking about a difference of nearly a hundred runs over the course of 110 games, there's a pretty clear difference in power to be observed.

So that's the good news. Further good news, or at least a slightly different illustration of the same piece of good news: the Cards' Pythagorean record is 71-40; the Pirates' is 63-48. That's right; the Cardinals are underperforming their Pythag by six wins, while Pittsburgh is overperforming by four wins. That two game deficit should be an eight (!) game cushion. Kind of hard to believe, I know, but there it is.

To recap: lots of good news, folks. (Imagine Professor Farnsworth voice; it will make you feel better.) The Cardinals are way underperforming, and the Pirates are way overperforming. Things should turn around, and soon.

Now, to get to the bad news. This underperforming Pythagoras thing? Well, itt's...not exactly new territory for El Birdos Should Be Betteros.

If all this talk of a mysterious gap between the Cards' run differential results and their actual, real-world record has a smack of deja vu about it, that's because it should. I'm sure all of you -- or at least the ones who have not suffered a catastrophic head injury in the past twelve months; my condolences and apologies to anyone who has -- remember the 2012 season. Pretty good season, in fact, overall. It ended poorly, but still, a trip to the NLCS and a thrilling comeback against the Washington Nationals and a really goofy game against the Braves? Pretty sweet.

Funny thing about the 2012 season, though. The Cardinals led all of baseball in run differential for much of the season, was far and away the strongest team in the NL Central by that measure, and failed to win the division. Wow, sounds familiar, huh?

The Cards of 2012 finished the regular season with a +117 run differential, and that's with a rather brutal stretch in late August/early September which saw them lose games by scores of 9-0, 5-0 (those were against the Pirates, damn their eyes), 8-1, 10-0, and 11-3. In roughly two weeks' time, the Cards lost 39 runs off their differential in those five games. Tough stretch. Still, they paced the NL Central; the Cincinnati Reds had the second-best RD in the division, with 81. The Redbirds were 36 runs clear of their nearest competitor, reflecting, again, a pretty clear difference in quality. The Cards crossed the finish line with a Pythagorean record of 93-69, compared to the Reds' 91-71 mark.

The problem? The Cardinals' actual record was 88-74, and the Reds' real-world was 97-65. Five games of underperformance for El Birdos; six games of overperformance for Cincinnati.

Now, the 2011 Cardinals actually managed to overperform their Pythagorean record; to wit, they finished with a 90-72 mark, compared to an 88-74 Pythag. The 2010 team, though, was 86-76 compared to a Pythagorean of 91-71. The 2008 and '09 editions both hit their Pythagorean records right on the nose, while the 2006 and '07 teams both outperformed their run differentials. Only one win in 2006, but it was a big extra win, if you recall how the standings ended up that year. The 2007 club was way, way better than their Pythagorean record, winning 78 games with a PR of 71-91. In other news, that 2007 team was just flat-out awful. It's a little hard now to remember just how miserable a season it was, but when I think back, the only really happy memories I can come up with are Rick Ankiel's home run in his first game as an outfielder and a game Kip Wells tossed in Houston where he was really, really good. That's it. Dark days, they were.

But back to the matter at hand, and present day pains in the collective ass of us all. I'll be the first to say it: two data points is not really enough to establish a trend. Then again, we are talking about the first two seasons of managerial stewardship of one Mike Matheny, and in both seasons of Matheny's tenure, his charges have managed to underperform what "should" be the team's true talent level by at least five wins. In both seasons he's been at the helm, the Cardinals have looked to clearly be the most talented team in the National League Central, at least going by one of the better, more context-neutral measures we have. (Somebody else can look up third-order wins if they want; I'm a little curious, but not enough to stretch this thing out even further.) And, at least at this particular moment, in both seasons of looking to be the best team in the division, there's been a non-Cardinal club sitting atop the standings. The actual standings, that is.

Maybe I'm making too much out of Matheny's effect on the game, though. After all, it isn't as if things like, oh, I don't know, bunting in situations where it makes absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever could possibly mess with a team's ability to win close ballgames, could it? As noted by my colleague bgh in his very nice postgame wrap from Monday night, or by Dave Cameron, who put together an even more in-depth argument against the horror we saw, tiny little marginal moves like that never, ever make a significant difference in a game. Then again, it appears that bunt might very well have been Carlos Beltran's idea, which is just...inexplicable

Of course, I should also point out, in the interest of fairness, that one of the prime factors we know of that allows teams to outperform their expected results is an exceptionally strong bullpen. Teams with great relief corps simply win more close games; it's kind of just the way things work. The Cardinal bullpens, at least of recent vintage, have seemed to be of the leaky, creaky, rebuilt on the fly variety, which could very well have something to do with it. Not that I'm complaining, necessarily; as someone who regularly bemoans the massive allocation of resources many major league teams throw into bullpen construction, I admire the Redbird front office for putting together relief efforts that don't consume a ton of resources, and generally can be fixed midseason with a promotion here or a middling trade for a Florida Marlin there. Still, considering Matheny has been dealing with some rather slapdash bullpens his first couple seasons, maybe I should cut him some slack.

I kind of don't think so, though.

To me, while the bullpen can certainly be blamed for part of the Cards' underperforming ways the past couple seasons (seriously, how many games did the Redbirds lose in April this year as Mitchell Boggs and Scrabble the Magnificent crashed and burned?), I also have to wonder if there isn't a more pervasive problem, as in a small ball mindset we see coming into play just often enough to be noticeable. I like Mike Matheny. I really do. But the more I watch him managed, the less I like the actual job he's doing. Then again, one of the teams which outperformed the Cardinals was the Cincinnati Reds, who are dragging Dusty Baker around behind them like the world's biggest tin can tied to the tail of the world's saddest dog, so chalk up a point to strategery of the managerial variety not meaning fuck all, I suppose.

So instead of me telling you what I think over and over in various different ways, I would prefer to hear your thoughts on the matter. To wit; why is this the second year in a row the Cardinals are so badly underperforming their run differential? And does it piss you off to be trailing, for a second year in a row, a team which would seem, at least on paper, to be outclassed? Do you expect it to turn around? Or, are we going to be staring down the barrel of a one-game winner-take-all again this early October?

I don't know the answers to why the past two seasons have seen Cardinal teams which seem bound and determined to defy the sabr-y types, perhaps out of simple spite. But I do know this: I'm really, really effing tired of it.