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What the first 20 games say about the Cardinals

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A dissection probably too early in the making

Toronto Blue Jays v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

With last night’s cancellation due to weather, the Cardinals enter today with twenty games in the books. On an individual level we’re still dealing with small sample sizes and from a team standpoint we really don’t know much. Schedules are imbalanced at this point to an absurd degree. And any team can fake being good or bad for twenty games. The Cubs, the best team in baseball last season, went 5-15 at one point, and the worst team, the Twins, played at a 105-win pace for at least one stretch of twenty games. For sure, twenty games is basically nothing, it’s less than one-eighth of the entire season, and the first twenty typically don’t reflect the end result. Look no further than the White Sox having the best record in the American League in 2016 after twenty games.

But posts still need to be written in late-April. And twenty games is a nice symmetrical number to examine what’s gone well and what hasn’t. For the Cardinals all five starters have logged exactly four starts, the relief core as a whole are near 60 innings pitched, and the team has totaled 747 plate appearances, which is sort of like a full individual season, as it’s just a few more plate appearances than George Springer saw last season. So what follows will be a comparison of their early stats with the NL average, as well as the 2016 Cardinals.

Batting

You might want to skip this part because if you’ve watched a fair amount of games you know the story and don’t need to see the stats, and if you haven’t, well, it’s not that pretty to look at.

(1st row: 2017 Cardinals; 2nd row: 2017 NL Average; 3rd row: 2016 Cardinals)

2017 Cardinals Batting

PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
747 8.3% 22.2% 0.144 0.283 0.235 0.306 0.379 86
11,474 8.4% 21.9% 0.164 0.289 0.245 0.314 0.409 94
6,223 8.5% 21.2% 0.187 0.294 0.255 0.325 0.443 104

What catches my eye are the slugging numbers. On Monday Ben Markham took an in-depth look at the Cardinals’ early power production by way of Statcast and above you can see a more direct look at how diminished the Cardinals’ power has been in this young season. In 2016 they out-slugged the NL average by 31 points. This season they’ve not only regressed to the mean but have fallen quite a bit behind. Basically the team as a whole is sending a slightly worse version of 2016 Josh Harrison to the plate for each at-bat.

And then there’s this...

...which made me curious if Cameron ended up there after scanning the early returns for the Cardinals. Fortunately, the Cardinals haven’t been that bad, and that’s good because those Expos lost 95 games. But the Cardinals only have six players with a wRC+ over 100 and Adam Wainwright and Eric Fryer are two of them. Jose Martinez is another, meaning only three regulars (Jedd Gyorko, Matt Carpenter, Stephen Piscotty) are producing above league average.

I made a big to-do this offseason about the top of the lineup and how Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, and Carpenter combined for a .381 on-base percentage in 2016. No encore as of yet. In fact, not even close. Both Fowler and Diaz - the top two hitters in the lineup - are at or below a .250 on-base percentage. That will improve - it almost has to - and hopefully soon.

Pitching

Here’s what we’ve seen from the Cardinals starters so far in 2017 as compared to the NL and Vol. 2016:

(1st row: 2017 Cardinals; 2nd row: 2017 NL Average; 3rd row: 2016 Cardinals)

2017 Cardinals Pitching (Starters)

IP K% BB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
IP K% BB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
116.2 23.6% 7.1% 0.306 75% 3.32 3.21 3.46
1,705 20.9% 8.0% 0.285 72.5% 4.04 3.97 3.91
934.1 19.6% 7.1% 0.317 70.6% 4.33 3.92 3.89

Even with a few consecutive shaky starts from Carlos Martinez, the Cardinals starters in 2017 have been better than league average nearly across the board and certainly better than their 2016 selves. Now, of course, the comparison to 2016 is not fair. It’s still April, there has barely been time for injuries, dead arms, or whatever else might and will ail a pitching staff. But the starters’ run prevention numbers for April 2016 were considerably worse (4.32 ERA; 3.94 FIP in 145 IP) than this season and fairly reflective of the season they ended up having.

In contrast, this season the starters have a league-best ERA which mirrors 2016 Chris Sale to go along with Kyle Hendricks’s FIP. Will Leitch stated on the most recent Viva El Birdos podcast that the Cardinals might have the best rotation in the NL Central and so far the stats probably agree.

Here’s where it goes a bit south, the bullpen:

(1st row: 2017 Cardinals; 2nd row: 2017 NL Average; 3rd row: 2016 Cardinals)

2017 Cardinals Pitching (Relievers)

IP K% BB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
IP K% BB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
59.1 20.6% 10.5% 0.316 69.4% 5.46 4.71 4.75
1,001.1 23.6% 9.7% 0.290 72.7% 4.10 3.92 3.92
514 23.4% 8.8% 0.278 74.2% 3.62 3.83 3.87

Oh my. If there’s a saving grace it’s that bullpens are often a work in progress. They aren’t typically built in the offseason so much as they fall into place once a few test runs divvy up the roles. All could be fine by June. But so far too many players are getting on base, and too often those same players are coming around to score, as the Cardinals pen is in the bottom third in the NL in both walk and strand rate.

The context might be missing with these stats. We know from both the anecdotal evidence and the early stats that this is probably not a great defensive team and they have likely already failed the bullpen a time or two. To wit, if Piscotty catches Kevin Pillar’s drive to right on Tuesday then Chris Coghlan never (amazingly) dives over Yadier Molina, and Matt Bowman still has an 0.00 ERA. Nevertheless, the relief core has been a sore spot and if we’re keeping with the same theme from earlier, for relievers with at least 50 innings pitched in 2016, only our old friend Carlos Villanueva had a worse ERA last season.

So that’s the 2017 Cardinals after twenty games: Along with fielding and base running issues carried over from 2016, they hit like Josh Harrison, their starters pitch like Chris Sale, and their bullpen is last season’s version of Carlos Villanueva. But to circle back to the opening paragraph on how twenty games really don’t mean all that much, by this time tomorrow the Cardinals could be just a game out of first place with still 140 left to play. Should be fun.