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The Cardinals and the solo home run

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The Cardinals hit more solo home runs when compared to their peers but it probably doesn’t matter.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Home runs are the current trend in Major League Baseball. Last season across the league there was a 12.8 percent home run per fly ball ratio, the highest it has been since this batted ball data first started being logged in 2002. This season has hit that same mark - 12.8 percent - even though we’re not yet to the hot, humid days of summer when the ball typically carries even further. For instance, in 2016 there was an average of 852.5 home runs hit in the months of April and May, and a jump to 971.3 home runs on average for the other months, even when accounting for the four-day break every team enjoys in mid-July.

So expect to see even more home runs as the season drags on, and ideally more home runs from the Cardinals with runners on base. Yesterday, the Cardinals scored all of their runs by way of the dinger en route to a 5-0 win over the Cubs, giving them their first home series win against the Northsiders since June of 2015. And it wasn’t by way of five solo home runs either, but rather two 2-run shots from Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter off starter Jake Arrieta, and then another home run from Molina late in the game, this one of the solo variety.

I bring this up because Fox Sports Midwest announcer Dan McLaughlin mentioned something during Saturday’s game that caught my eye: All seven of Jedd Gyorko’s home runs this year have occurred with the bases empty. McLaughlin further implied that a lot of Gyorko’s home runs last year were solo home runs and he was correct only to the extent that most home runs are solo home runs. Of Gyorko’s 30 home runs last season, 18 were with the bases empty - roughly 60 percent. Compare that to the rest of the league where 59.4 percent of the 5,610 home runs were hit without anyone aboard and you’ll see that Gyorko was just above league average.

But I can see why McLaughlin would make that comment. Anecdotally, going back to last season, it certainly feels to me like the Cardinals hit a lot of home runs which only add a single run to the board. That could be one of those stats that everyone thinks applies to their favorite team because it’s likely the team they watch the most, and, per above, most home runs are without anyone aboard anyway. Still, when it comes to the Cardinals the numbers sort of back this up.

As noted above, 3,332 of the 5,610 home runs hit in 2016 were solo home runs - 59.4 percent. Break it down to just the National League and the numbers were close to the same: 2,657 total home runs of which 1,561 were solo home runs - 58.8 percent. The Cardinals, however, were worse than average: 225 total home runs, including 139 solo home runs, coming in at 61.8 percent. Only the Nationals with a whopping 64.5 percent solo home run rate in 2016 were worse. A 94-loss Reds team hit the least amount of solo home runs on average (50.1 percent), suggesting there likely isn’t much of a correlation between this stat and winning actual baseball games.

And that might provide a little comfort since the same thing has unfolded so far this season, although to a lesser extent and with still plenty of time for the pendulum to swing in the other direction. But even after yesterday’s two home runs with a runner aboard, the Cardinals are hitting more solo home runs as compared to the rest of baseball. They now have 40 home runs on the season and 25 with no one on base. That’s 62.5 percent. The entire league heading into Sunday was averaging around 59.7 percent, however, the NL brings that number up with an overall 62.0 percent solo home run rate even though the NL is surprisingly getting on base more than the AL this season (.321 OBP vs. .318).

But the point here is that the Cardinals are now working on nearly a season-and-a-quarter of hitting a higher percentage of solo home runs than the rest of the league on average. What does this mean? Probably nothing beyond some silly, bad luck. If Gyorko stays in the cleanup spot - and for the foreseeable future he probably should - he’s likely to hit a home run with a runner aboard pretty soon, especially with Carpenter batting ahead of him. In fact, if the season ended today, Carpenter’s on-base percentage (.410) would rank in the top 95 percentile for all seasons dating back to 2000 and his walk rate (20.8%) would be bested only by four seasons from Barry Bonds, and one from, you guessed it, Brian Giles in 2002.

And speaking of Gyorko, when Daniel Murphy hit free agency following the 2015 season he was dismissed by some as having had a good second-half of 2015, an ultra-hot postseason and not much more. Fast-forward to today and he now has a wRC+ of 143 over his last 1,010 plate appearances. The best, most relevant evidence points to Murphy being nothing but a great hitter. To a lesser extent, here’s Gyorko’s line over his last 400 plate appearances heading into Sunday: .275/.338/.569, good for a 138 wRC+. We might be near the point where that resembles who he is more than his final two seasons in San Diego and his first half of 2016.

Bottom line, the Cardinals have hit a lot of solo home runs and you probably don’t need to even be a baseball fan to know that it would be better if they hit some of those with runners on base. However, I would categorize all of this as more of a fun (not fun?) fact rather than a big concern. Since their 3-9 start the Cardinals have been the best team in baseball and have the second best on-base percentage (.357) behind the Nationals during that span. Going forward if the home runs come so likely will the crooked numbers.

Credit to the FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards for most of the stats in this post.