With a few weeks of life remaining in the 2016 season (even though the Cardinals are no longer participants), this is one last look back at interesting, independent subplots to this past season, and what, if anything, it means for 2017.
Feast or Famine Offense
As I type this, Game 2 of the NLCS ended moments ago with Clayton Kershaw going seven shutout innings to lead the Dodgers to a 1-0 victory over the Cubs to tie the series. It was a classic postseason game with two really good teams, and a pitcher who led the National League in ERA squaring off against the best pitcher in the world.
It’s also the type of game that the Cardinals rarely won in 2016. It happened once, in fact, on August 5 when Jaime Garcia shut out the Braves for eight innings and finished with a game score of 86. The Cardinals didn’t have much luck when scoring two runs either (more on that later). To be clear, no one wins all that often when scoring two or less runs but between 2014 and 2015, the Cardinals won 23 games under these circumstances. In 2015, the Cardinals had a staggering 9-8 record when scoring exactly two runs, which nearly equalled their overall winning percentage in 2016 when they averaged a second-best in the NL 4.81 runs per game.
Feast or famine was a cliche used somewhat often to describe the 2016 Cardinals offense, but was it true? MLB teams scored an average of 4.41 runs per game in 2016, and below are all NL teams’ records when scoring two runs or less and six runs or more:
Only the Reds, Padres, and Rockies (the ever-present outlier when analyzing any sort of “runs scored” statistics) played more games in which they scored two runs or less, and six runs or more. And think of all the bad teams in the NL in 2016. The Cardinals won the least amount of games and had the worst record by winning percentage in games in which they scored two or less runs. In contrast, when scoring six or more runs, their winning percentage ranked in the top third of the NL. So the feast or famine story seems to check out.
Failing to win games when the offense is more or less absent logically seems like a pitching issue, but the Cardinals, in spite of their reputation, were actually slightly better than league average at suppressing runs this year. It’s likely dumb, frustrating luck that had the Cardinals been able to manage to win at the same rate in games in which they scored two or less runs as the Reds or Diamondbacks - two of the worst pitching staffs (and teams) in the NL - then they would have been playing extra baseball.
On Friday, Michael Baumann of The Ringer wrote a preface for the ALCS and contrasted Cleveland and Toronto’s offenses, namely the platoon advantage. Cleveland’s hitters led baseball with a 70% platoon advantage this year, Toronto was second-to-last at just 40%. As Baumann noted, these teams have shown there’s obviously more than one way to play into late October. And previous studies have shown there’s very little correlation between high platoon advantage over the course of a season and runs scored. Bottom line, good players are going to hit and bad players aren’t.
Still, I was surprised that the Cardinals - who by most metrics had the second best offense in the National League after the Cubs - ranked so low in 2016 in platoon advantage. At just 47%, the Cardinals ranked 24th in MLB (12th in the NL) even though over 70% of pitchers in MLB are right-handed and six of the Cardinals’ top 13 position players in 2016 ranked by plate appearances were lefties.
Was Mike Matheny mismanaging the lineup? Using one player as an example, I do recall several “Why isn’t Kolten Wong playing with such-and-such righty on the mound?” questions being asked down the stretch. Personally, I felt Wong deserved more playing time, but much of that was so he could provide a bit of relief to a defensively-challenged team. As much as I enjoy Wong and think he should be the everyday second baseman in 2017, he still has only a career 92 wRC+ when hitting with the platoon advantage.
The Cardinals’ pinch hitting prowess was well known and they set a new major league record with 17 home runs. But according to Baseball-Reference, they had a 1.18 leverage index for pinch hit plate appearances which ranked 25th in MLB.
The Cardinals also attempted 61 sacrifice bunts in 2016. The good news is that’s down from 102 in 2012, and was the lowest in the Matheny era. The bad news is that still ranked 11th in MLB and their actual success rate (61%) on these sacrifice bunts ranked 20th. I can’t stand bunts but they don’t have quite the devastating impact for all the noise that is made about them. For perspective, only five teams attempted more sacrifice bunts than the Cubs this season and only eight teams were less successful.
For a team that was hardly light on their feet, the Cardinals actually didn’t ground into that many double plays - only 117 and only eight teams grounded into less. As for other situations with runners on base, only the Nationals scored at a higher rate in the NL when they had a runner on third and less than two outs (Cardinals were at 54%), but the Cardinals ranked near the bottom of the NL at advancing a runner from second to third when there were no outs (51%).
There’s not a common theme present here, rather some stats that stood out when taking a final look at the 2016 season. Given how different this team was from past models - particularly as it pertains to slugging - it will be interesting to see how they look from a statistical (and luck) standpoint at the conclusion of 2017.
Credit to Baseball-Reference for most of the statistics in this post.