Few things distinguish the Enlightened Baseball Fan from the n00b as clearly as the ability to not overreact to the Small Sample Size.
When it comes to the team record, you’ll hear people say things like “I don’t even look at the standings until Flag Day,” or Mother’s Day, or Ramadan... And when it comes to individual stats, it’s probably prudent to wait even longer.
This is prologue to the fact that I had not even opened the Cardinals pitching stats on Fangraphs until yesterday. Sure, I realized the first spin through the rotation had been a little rough. I know guys like Flaherty had not quite found their footing. But I wasn’t going to jump to any conclusions based on a few April starts. But for whatever reason, yesterday, I felt like the first month of the season was nearly over, and even if the numbers aren’t solidified enough to be predictive yet, I might just take a peak.
It is an absolute horror show.
So here’s a few numbers, in no particular order, that jumped off the page at me:
The Home Runs
Every Cardinals starter, except Wainwright, and 10 of the 15 pitchers they’ve used this season, have given up homers at a level above league average - many monstrously so. Dakota Hudson has a HR/FB rate of 53%. Andrew Miller and Giovanny Gallegos have given up homers on 40% of their flyballs.
The Cardinals team ERA of 4.34 doesn’t look terrible, right about the middle of the pack. But it is a mirage of their 81% Left On Base percentage, 2nd in the league. When you look at Fielding Independent Pitching, they sit at 3rd from the bottom, and when you look at FIP-, only the husk of the Baltimore Orioles is below them.
Now, if you squint, and you assume the high home run rate is just bad luck, you can look at xFIP, which regresses the home run rate to league average. There, the Cardinals rank 20th, which is not a disaster, but it ain’t good either.
I like to look at Game Score as a quantifier of the value of individual starts. An average start scores 50. Through their first 22 games, the Cardinals have 10 starts that have been at or above average. And the sub-mediocrity has been spread among the staff. Not a single starter has an average Game Score above 47.
Fangraphs added a fantastic new feature, which shows you stats in terms of plus/minus... in other words, putting each stat on a scale where 100 is league average. It’s an easy way to see how a team measures up to league average in each category.
Take a glance across the Cardinals page, and here’s what you will find: Their K% is exactly league average. Beyond that, they are on the wrong side of league average in every single category. The only two exceptions: Batting Average, which nobody cares about, and BABIP, where they are actually the best in the league. That suggests they’ve been very lucky on those balls in play, and in fact that Batting Average number will soon head in the wrong direction as well.
Dakota Hudson’s -0.7 WAR is the lowest among all starting pitchers in baseball. Andrew Miller has racked up -0.5 WAR in just 7.2 innings, also the worst of any reliever in baseball. As a team, the Cardinals have been -0.5 Wins below Replacement Level - 2nd worst in baseball. Only three teams are underwater in pitching WAR. Even the Brewers, who have similarly struggled with their pitching, sit nearly a half-win in the black as a team.
The Cardinals pitching staff has been half a game worse than a team you could scrounge together from the Pacific Coast, International and California Penal leagues.
Can we draw any conclusions from this?
The short and safe answer is no, it’s still too early to consider much of anything predictive. These sample sizes are small and the Cardinals Pitching Staff could just have run into a month of bad luck.
But I think there’s reason for alarm here, even if we can’t be sure exactly where.
My biggest concern is the fact that these awful numbers are pervasive throughout the entire pitching staff, with only a few exceptions, and all of those in the bullpen. Yes, some of this could absolutely be luck. But luck works both ways, so you’d expect across an entire staff to see some over and some underperforming.
Is Mike Maddux good at his job? I think it’s next-to-impossible from the outside to surmise if an individual coach is effective, but if nearly every pitcher on the staff is underperforming, isn’t it at least worth asking the question?
If I had to make predictions about individual pitchers, there’s a few I would venture a guess at.
Jack Flaherty’s poor numbers seem most like a mirage, partly because he’s looked good by the eye test, and partly because his xFIP is a very solid 3.09. His problem has been almost exclusively giving up a ridiculous number of home runs, and I think that’s just a fluke. Gallegos likewise looks like only a fluke rash of HRs are inflating his numbers.
As for Hudson, who sports the most ridiculous HR numbers so far, a regression to league average would bring his FIP down to 4.66. That’s still below league average, even among starters, but it’s the kind of number you could stomach for a 5th starter. That looks like about the best case scenario for him right now.
I already wrote once about my concerns with Andrew Miller, so let me just say: I am still very concerned. As a caveat, especially with a reliever like Miller, we’re looking at a microscopic sample size, so he could still lock in and this could all go away. But that hasn’t happened so far, and the Cardinals have continued using him (and State TV continues to speak of him) like he’s an elite reliever. He has very much not been that.
The NL Central standings - which we also aren't supposed to look at this early - show the Cardinals tied for 1st place as I write this Tuesday. Their offense has been doing things we haven’t seen since the MV3 era. They are probably a very good team. But their pitching has been a disaster, and even though they are likely to improve through simple regression, there are still reasons for alarm.