Baseball is in an era of home run dominance. Since 2014, the number of home runs hit in each year has risen from 4,186 to 6,776 in 2019. This sharp increase has meant that an increasingly large part of a team’s offensive production is based on their home run output. However, the Cardinals seem to be one of the few exceptions to this league-wide rise in home run output. However, despite this, they have managed to consistently perform at a high level.
In 2019, 7 of the top 8 home run hitting teams made the playoffs (the Cubs were the exception). This means that just three playoff teams finished outside the top eight in terms of home runs. Those three teams were the Nationals, the Rays, and the Cardinals, who finished 13th, 21st, and 24th, respectively. So, in a league of 30 teams, just two teams outside the top 15 home run hitting teams made the playoffs. Clearly, power, and especially home run power, are important. Except the thing is that the Cardinals have not always had that, and yet they always find a way to stay competitive.
It makes sense that the top home run hitting teams tend to be playoff teams. For starters, a home run is the most valuable hit in baseball. Additionally, though, the top teams tend to have the top players and the top players tend to be good at hitting lots of home runs.
However, while teams have gone about chasing home runs, the Cardinals have stayed near the botttom of the league in that statistic. Sure the Cardinals have hit more home runs too (105 in 2014, 210 in 2019), but they are nowhere near the top of the league.
Instead, in order to counter other teams, the Cardinals have focused on home run suppression. As was previously mentioned, the Rays and the Cardinals finished 21st and 24th in home runs hit during the 2019 season. In home runs allowed per nine innings (HR/9) the Rays and the Cardinals rank 1st and 3rd respectively. While other teams have been hitting more and more home runs too (the Cardinals have as well), the Cardinals have instead focused on preventing home runs from being hit against them. Additionally, the Rays and the Cardinals rank 7th and 4th, respectively, in ground ball rate. This is a large reason why they have managed to stay consistently competitive despite ranking near the bottom of the league in home runs.
This ability to suppress home runs is even more crucial for the Cardinals as their pitching staff ranked 17th in strikeout rate in 2019. As a whole, the pitching staff is not lite at keeping the ball out of play. This is why it is even more crucial for them to be able to keep the ball out of the stands. If more home runs are being hit, and the Cardinals allow plenty of balls to be put in play, then it makes sense that suppressing home runs is a crucial aspect of the team’s success.
As was mentioned before, good team put up good numbers, but it is interesting to see that 8 of the top 10 teams in terms of home runs suppression also made the playoffs. For the Cardinals, the difference is that they were truly elite at preventing home runs even as they were below average at hitting them. This allowed them to remian competitive with some of the more slugging teams, and ultimately helped them become the lowest ranked home run hitting team to make the playoffs in 2019.
This seems to be a theme for the Cardinals as they have been a top five team in terms of home run suppression in every year since 2014 when they finished 6th. Sure, they have had some very good pitching over the years and good pitchers tend to be good at preventing home runs. However, the Cardinals finished in terms of FIP, the Cardinals finished 8th in 2016, 7th in 2017, 10th in 2018, and 11th in 2019. This is good but it is not elite. Additionally, those FIP numbers are boosted by the Cardinals home run suppression, so if that was factored out or changed to league average then the Cardinals were likely have been around average in FIP too. This means that the Cardinals pitching is good, but it is not elite in terms of strikeouts and walks like other pitching staffs. Instead it is very good at home run suppression. This has been a key reason why the Cardinals pitching has been so good, and why the team has been so competitive over the last couple of years.
Home runs and strikeouts are flashy and they can make teams very fun to watch. The Cardinals, however, have focused on home run suppression in order to stay competitive, which is less flashy, but equally important.