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The Cardinals are still a good team

A lost season is always disappointing, but let’s not let frustration blind us to the facts.

Tampa Bay Rays v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Emotions are riding high. Many wanted the Cardinals to move in some direction this deadline, but they mostly stood pat. Then the Cardinals went on an 8-game winning streak that brought them to a virtual tie with the Cubs at the top of the division. It wasn’t to last though, as the Cards currently sit at .500, 4 1/2 games back of the division and 5 games back of the second Wild-Card spot.

With the current slide, many Cards fans have expressed a lot of frustration with the local club. If I had a dollar for every tweet I’ve seen this year from a Cards fan accusing the team of being “horrible”, “unwatchable”, or just plain “bad”, well, I could just be a student instead of a working student. Some feel the team needs a complete rebuild to return to contention. I think these claims are completely unjustified.

In the run-up to the deadline, I wrote plenty of articles advocating for the Cardinals to sell. However, that was based on the premise of a typical seller’s market at the deadline, one that never materialized in 2017. I was always careful to point out that the Cards are indeed a good team. The standings matter though, and a rough season for the Cards (and an unexpectedly strong one for the Rockies and Diamondbacks) means that even if one believed the Cards were good, they didn’t have much of chance to catch up in the standings.

Why do I think they’re good? Well, because they are. Take their performance at the plate. Among non-pitchers, the Cards rank 6th in wRC+, with a 106. That’s the same mark as the Cubs, who evidently have a better unrounded figure as they’re ranked 5th. The Dodgers are the only other N.L. team ahead of them. For as much heat the offense has received this year, in a context-neutral sense they’ve been one of the best hitting teams in the majors.

The rotation is similarly good. Their 10.4 fWAR ranks 8th in the majors. WAR is a counting stat, but going by rate doesn’t change things. Their FIP- also ranks 8th. The Cubs, by the way, rank behind the Cards in both categories.

Believe it or not, the bullpen has been good too. They rank 10th in FIP-, despite getting the lion’s share of the blame for the way this season has gone. Of course, that bullpen just lost its best pitcher in Trevor Rosenthal, so yeah, that sucks. Still, they’re projected as the 13th best bullpen going forward. While a bullpen is important though, offense and starting pitching is more important, and it’s not like the bullpen is actually the dumpster fire many make it out to be.

The base-running, that’s got to be what’s costing them, right? Nope, it’s not that either. Say what you want, but by the math the Cards are the 9th best base-running team in the league, with 1.9 runs above average in 2017.

The defense depends on who you ask, as the best two defensive metrics differ considerably from each other. By Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), the Cards are 18th. That’s only 0.6 runs below average though, so UZR essentially graded them out as an average team defensively. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) tells a much different story though. They see the Cards as the 5th best defensive unit in the league thus far, at 27 runs above-average.

So with all these good rankings, why do the Cards sit at .500 right now? They’ve been very unclutch. Clutch is a stat that fangraphs tracks, and in their words it is “how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.”

This is where the Cards are costing themselves games. The Cards hitters rank 26th in clutch. The pitchers rank 27th. Add each team’s hitting and pitching clutch scores together and they rank 28th. That’s a problem, because it has a lot to do with how a team’s win-loss record shakes out.

However, it’s only a problem insofar that it’s caused a poor season thus far. From the link above:

Clutch does a good job of describing the past, but it does very little towards predicting the future. Simply because one player was clutch at one point does not mean they will continue to perform well in high-leverage situations (and vice versa). Very few players have the ability to be consistently clutch over the course of their careers, and choking in one season does not beget the same in the future.

Don’t want to take someone else’s word for it? That’s fine. I took every team’s clutch hitting score for the last ten years (2008 to 2017). I matched up each of the first 9 years with how they did the following year. That’s 270 matches. Here’s the results:

...and for good measure, here’s is the same thing but for each team’s pitching staff:

These are both extremely low relationships, with R-squared values of .016 and .005 respectively. This shows that clutch isn’t a repeatable skill at the team level either.

The Cards are pitching and hitting well, and have respectable base-running and defense. The problem is that they’ve been one of the most unclutch teams of the year. Going forward, there’s no reason to worry about that continuing. This is good news!

That brings us to BaseRuns, which grades out all of a team’s performance in a context-neutral setting, and is also brought to you by Fangraphs. The Cards’ BaseRuns expected record going into yesterday was 70-57, a full 6 games better than their actual record. That’s better than the Brewers’ and Rockies’ BaseRuns records by 6 12 and 7 games respectively. That’s also just a 12 game worse than the Cubs’ BaseRuns record. BaseRuns isn’t a projection system, but it is more predictive of future win-loss record than win-loss record itself. The Cards’ six game gap is the 4th biggest negative difference in the majors.

What does BaseRuns have to do with all this? For 2017 at least, the gap between a team’s BaseRuns record and their actual record is very strongly related to their clutch score. I totaled every team’s hitting and pitching clutch scores, and compared them to their actual wins minus their BaseRuns wins. Here’s the result:

It’s only one year, but this is a .77 R-squared value. Using the best-fit line, the Cardinals -6.11 clutch score implies a win-loss record that is 5 12 games worse their BaseRuns record. That’s pretty darn close to the -6 they’ve posted thus far. That’s a rounded number of course, but it’s the best we got. It appears their underperformance compared to their BaseRuns record is almost entirely due to their unclutch performance.

Looking at their actual performance hitting, pitching, running the bases, and playing defense, the Cardinals are a good team. Consequently, by BaseRuns the Cardinals have been a good team. However, they’ve also been incredibly unclutch, and it’ll probably cost us the fun of watching Cards play-off games this year.

What does this mean going forward? For the rest of 2017, not much. The Cards could catch two of the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Brewers, or they could upset the Cubs (while also passing the Brewers). That’s not very likely given the standings and the fact that they only have a little more than a month remaining to pull it off. Anything can happen though, and I’m a little more optimistic about it given that the team has been much better than their win-loss record implies.

The more important thing to me is this team’s direction after this season. The Cards are 128 games into the season, and in a context-neutral sense they’ve played almost as well as the Cubs, and better than the rest of Wild-Card competition with the exception of the Diamondbacks. That, to me, justifies some heavy investment in the short-term. Upgrading this team is hard, but it’s not impossible. Don’t let this seasons’ results to-date fool you: This is a good team, and one worth supplementing.