The St. Louis Cardinals entered their series against the Pittsburgh Pirates last Friday with a record of 86-48. The Cardinals' winning percentage was .642, the highest in baseball. In terms of true talent, though, the Cardinals were not that good.
"But," you may be thinking, "the Cardinals won 86 games out of their first 134, Ben! That's good for a .642 winning percentage. The math checks out!"
Yes, of course the Cards banked that many wins. When I say the team was not that good, I mean that their true talent level was not that high. I don't mean that as a putdown or anything. Over a full 162-game season, winning at that rate will see you tally 104 wins. Hardly any team ever has a collection of players on the roster that collectively possess .642 winning percentage talent. It's the signal versus the noise. The 2015 Cardinals are truly good, to be sure, but they are not and were never that good. The .642 winning percentage included a lot of noise.
First, we must consider injuries.
Ace Adam Wainwright tore his Achilles early on. Matt Holliday, a metronome of offensive production for the Redbirds, has missed a sizable chunk of the season. So has 2015 flash-in-the-pan Randal Grichuk. Jon Jay, who the Cardinals proclaimed their "everyday" center fielder shortly after he underwent wrist surgery last autumn, has been a mix of awful and absent due to that same wrist. Matt Adams was to be the club's primary first baseman, but a torn quad gave the job to Mark Reynolds for much of the year. Then Randal Grichuk, who was hitting for a .284/.333/.561 line thanks in part to a .376 BABIP, strained a muscle and a ligament in his throwing arm. (Grichuk has since returned, cracked a homer as a pinch-hitter, and gone 0-for-4 with a Gold Sombrero—while making no outfield throws.)
Most importantly, there's the foundation of the Cardinals' 2015 success: run suppression.
The Cardinals' sub-3.00 staff ERA is an amazing feat. St. Louis has consistently outperformed their team FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) throughout the year. A word about FIP since some folks—like ESPN's Jayson Stark—don't seem to know what the stat measures. FIP is a child of the Defense Independent Pitching (DIPS) theory, which posited that a pitcher does not have control over balls in play. FIP is calculated by the following events: strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen, home runs, and innings pitched. It's then converted to an ERA scale, so that we as lifelong baseball fans can recognize what is good and what is bad without having to learn a new context.
FIP takes those pitching events over which the defense and official scorer have no control and measures individual pitcher performance using only them. It is thus a limited stat—and perhaps too limited. Even so, it is informative for our purposes today. Multiple studies have shown that FIP is better at predicting a pitcher's ERA in the future than ERA is.
Let's look at this in the context of the Cards. Unfortunately, I didn't record the club's collective pitching staff ERA or FIP after each game and I've been unable to dig them up online. So we're stuck with today's numbers. Even after the recent blowouts (including Thursday's 11-0 drubbing at the bats of the Reds), St. Louis still has a collective ERA of 2.85 that is 0.36 lower than the second-best MLB club (Pirates, 3.21). Moreover, it's 0.55 lower than the team's 3.40 FIP. Based on how the Cardinals have pitched to date in 2015, we should expect their ERA to be closer to 3.40 over the remainder of the year than 2.85. This is one type of regression sabermetric types are always prattling about.
On a smaller scale, consider Shelby Miller's ERA-to-FIP regression in 2015 as an example. At the end of May, folks were proclaiming that the Braves had won the Miller and Tyrell Jenkins for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden trade because Miller had posted an 8-2 record and 1.48 ERA through his first ten starts. At that time, Miller had also put up a 3.40 FIP. This suggested that Miller's ERA was lower than it ought to have been and would be higher moving forward. From June 1 through September 10, Miller has posted a 3.67 ERA and 3.30 FIP. To be sure, it isn't perfect. Regression rarely is. But Miller's ERA has been closer to his FIP than it was through ten games.
It's not uncommon for a pitching staff do that, especially if they have an excellent defense behind them. But the Cardinals are not an elite fielding unit in 2015, at least according to the defensive metrics that are publicly available. El Birdos have been a good fielding team—ranking 9th by UZR and 10th by DRS—but they just have not provided the type of upper-echelon glovework necessary to generate a belief that a team's ERA should be about 50 points lower than their FIP because of the fielders behind the staff.
Sometimes regression can be brutal thanks to the vagaries of the 162-game season. That's what has happened to the Cardinals. Since the start of that San Francisco series two weeks ago—yes, the team's regression started (to the extent that it ever has a clear beginning point) before the losing stretch—the Cards have allowed 5, 0, 5, 5, 5, 4, 9, 1, 7, 9, 8, 3, and 11 runs. Consider:
- In their last 13 games, the Cardinals have allowed five or more runs nine times (69.2%). In their first 127 games, they allowed five or more runs 32 times (25.2%).
- In the Cards' last seven games, St. Louis opponents have plated seven or more runs five times (71.4%). In the club's first 133 games, they allowed seven or more runs 11 times (8.3%).
- In the Cardinals' last seven games, they have given up nine or more runs three times (42.9%). During the team's first 133 games this year, they surrendered nine or more runs six times (4.5%). A full one-third of the games in which the Redbirds have allowed nine or more runs have come in the last week's worth of games.
That's brutal. (Not that you need me to tell you that. You lived through it the same as me.)
Maybe there are injuries. It's possible that fatigue has set in. Perhaps giving Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, or Lance Lynn extra time between starts has had a negative impact. But the runs-allowed uptick predates some of these events and involved a lot pitchers—starters and relievers alike. All of these are possible. And I don't mean to completely discount them. Some of these potential explanations may help to assuage concern about the staff's recent runs-allowed performance. Others may make it worse.
For my money, I think it's just as likely that the vagaries of the 162-game gave us a horrible week toward the end. The club's ERA is bending to its peripherals. This has been likely for months. It's unfortunate that it has transpired as the Cardinals turn down the home stretch of the Central race, allowing the Pirates and Cubs to close and the standings to be too close for comfort.
Thankfully, we can also take comfort in the idea of regression. The concept is a two-way street. The Cards' true pitching talent is not this bad when it comes to run suppression. There's no reason that it shouldn't be better going forward. Of course, that's a different question from whether the lineup will plate enough runs to combine with the pitching and defense for a sufficient number of wins over the remainder of the schedule to allow the Cardinals to finish in first place.
SBN and FanDuel have entered into an exclusive partnership regarding daily fantasy baseball. This won't assuage the panic that has gripped so many of the Best Fans In Baseball, but Jake Arrieta starts against the Phillies in one half of the clubs' double-header in Philly. I think he'll probably fare pretty well against that lineup. Play FanDuel here.