So, the pitching has improved. (I wrote this before Friday’s blow-up by Martinez...) That’s a (short-lived) relief. The Cardinals swept three games at home against the hapless Marlins. Two wins came in walk-off fashion, with the pitching – both starters and the relief corps – finally settling down with solid performances.
The attention now turns to the offense, which came through with just enough against Miami but did nothing in the opening game of a four-set series against the Braves. Charlie Morton blanked the Cardinals on three hits Thursday. (It wasn’t much better on Friday.)
For June (as of Friday morning), the Cardinals have scored just 44 runs in 15 games. That’s an average of 2.93 runs a game. That’s bad. Real bad. Painfully bad, especially since it timed out with soul-crushing injuries in the rotation and migraine-inducing control issues in the bullpen.
It’s also not reflective of the team’s performance for most of the season. Today we’re going to look at three stats that I think help tell the story of the Cardinals’ offense this season.
Stat One: 4.3 runs per game (April and May combined)
It’s easy when a club is in the middle of a glaring bad (or good) stretch of baseball to get lost in the trees and lose sight of the whole forest. A baseball season is long. And a small stretch of games can impact how we feel in the moment but they won’t define a whole season of performance.
The Cardinals have been terrible lately. 2.9 runs per game this month is bad. No doubt about it. Before this stretch, though, the club was scoring 4.3 runs per game rounding down. Right now, the league average is 4.4 runs per game. So, the club was a hair below average for the first third of the season, which is probably where most expected this club to be.
That average-ish performance came with Tyler O’Neill – perhaps the team’s MVP and certainly their most productive hitter – missing time with injury. Harrison Bader has essentially been a non-factor this season. He’s not a huge offensive threat, but his PAs went to some really terrible players. First, it was Matt Carpenter, who provided his worst production when given the most playing time. Then it was Justin Williams, who stole about as much with his poor performance as a player like Dylan Carlson has been able to add. Paul DeJong and Yadi Molina have also missed time.
The point is that despite injuries and some miserable role players, the Cardinals’ bats have still been about where they were expected to be for most of the season. They should be able to return to those levels if they can break out of their current funk.
Stat Two: Park Factor for Busch - .864
Simply looking at runs scored by team removes context from the equation and I think that’s an important component when evaluating a team’s offense. Where runs are scored matters. A lot. Particularly when a club plays half its games in Busch Stadium.
This season the run environment in St. Louis is down notably. We know this by “Park Factors”. Park Factors measure the runs scored by ballclubs in one stadium vs. all others. It then does some fancy math to normalize those to a factor of 1. A factor above 1 – more runs scored for all teams at a certain ballpark than at others – mean a stadium plays up. The park itself contributes to more runs scored for every team that plays there. A factor below 1 – fewer runs scored for all teams at a certain ballpark than at others – means a stadium plays down. Runs are suppressed by the stadium and not by player performance.
Right now, Busch stadium is sitting at .864. That means the Cardinals, when playing at home, are going to be 14 percentage points below what they would be in a neutral ballpark. Compare that to a place like Cincinnati, Denver, or Milwaukee. Those places add offense – park factors range from 1.2 to over 1.4.
In 2020, Busch stadium played at .970 – almost neutral. In 2019, the park played at .917. At .864 now, it is well below those norms and ranks 25th in the game.
As we know, St. Louis can be sweltering in the summer. This season the Cardinals added a humidor to try to keep balls at a consistent humidity all season. So far, that has resulted in a massive decrease in offense, not only for the Cardinals but for all teams at Busch. It’s become essentially impossible to hit home runs in the park. The Park Factor for homers at Busch is at .745 – way below average.
The point is that, yes, it feels like the offense has been bad. Part of that is overemphasizing a small but noticeable sample and not factoring in what Busch does to hitters. An average offensive club is better than it seems because Busch suppresses so much offense.
If only the Cardinals pitchers were taking advantage of that. If they did better at limiting walks, the park and defense would do their part in limiting the damage on balls in play.
Stat Three: -1.2 fWAR from bench players
Let’s narrow the Cardinals’ offensive issues down a little further by dividing the roster in twain: the expected starters and everyone else. Now, you would expect the expected starters to have a higher WAR than the bench/role players. That’s the case with the 2021 club.
The expected starters (O’Neill, Arenado, Molina, Carlson, Edman, Goldy, Bader, DeJong) have a cumulative fWAR of 7.7. The team has played about 43% of their games. Do the math and the Cardinals starters are on pace to produce around 16 fWAR total. Since fWAR is cumulative, that assumes players continue their playing time pace from the first half. In other words, Harrison Bader, who should be back within the next few weeks, would only have a little over 83 PAs for the rest of the season – or about 180 PAs total. Assuming he doesn’t have another major injury, he should probably have at least 180 PAs from this point forward. His fWAR is likely to be quite a bit higher than his currently projected .4 just by sheer volume
Applying that to the rest of the roster, if the injury situation for the offense improves, 16 fWAR might be a little on the low side. Even if it doesn’t, that fWAR total is better than the starters were projected to do. Fangraphs’ Depth Charts had those players at 15.7 fWAR on the season, with significantly more playing time given to several core players than their current pace.
Meanwhile, because of injury, Cardinals reserves have been asked to cover a higher-than-expected percentage of the team’s PAs. They have almost universally been terrible. The non-starters for the Cardinals have a collective -1.2 fWAR in 642 PAs. First, that’s a very high PA total for reserve players on the season. Second, that production total is so very bad.
To put that in context Cardinal pitchers have a -.1 fWAR in 128 PAs. Yup, if you normalize the plate appearances, Cardinal pitchers have been twice as productive with their bats than Cardinal reserves.
That’s… I don’t even know what to say about that. It’s bad.
The point is that the offensive starters aren’t the core of the club’s offensive woes so far this season. At worst, they’re performing as expected and will probably exceed expectations by the end of this season as injuries and outliers in batted ball performances (DeJong) even out. The rest of the roster is not even coming close to pulling their weight.
Speaking of losing the forest through the trees, let’s circle back around to how this article started. Right now the offense is legitimately struggling. Right now, they barely squeaked out runs against the Marlins and they’re getting walloped by the equally disappointing Braves. Right now, it doesn’t really matter what the club did in April and May, how they compare against projections, or what their park factor is.
What matters now is the club needs to get their bats going. And they need to have a sustained run of at least average offense to make up for continued absences in the rotation and bullpen.
The Cardinals bats can’t just pull their expected weight this season. They need to do more if the club wants to claw back into playoff contention.
That might be easier said than done. Still, a glance through the stats tells me there is improvement to be made. Yes, the run-scoring environment at Busch is sapping production from players who have been relatively consistent – like Arenado and Carlson. It also wouldn’t surprise me if we see more from them soon. Carlson, in particular, should have a power bump in the second half of the season as he learns to translate his obviously excellent hitting tool into more consistent drive and less slap.
Goldy is likely to get hot. He’s shown signs of life over the past few weeks. He’s bound to have one of those runs where pitchers just can’t get the ball by him.
DeJong’s BABIP is still in the tank. And while he hasn’t looked very good since coming off the IL, there’s more in his bat than he’s shown. Eventually, it will come out.
The rest of the roster just needs to stay healthy and keep the bench players off the field. That’s really the key to the success in the offense in the second half of the season. If we see O’Neill, Carlson, and Bader in the outfield instead of Williams, Carlson, and Edman, then the team’s runs scored will jump. By more than you might think.
It will help the pitching, too, as the outfield defense will be wildy improved.
Enjoy your weekend. It’s gonna be hot… maybe that will heat up the bats, too!