Two months into the 2017 season, and the St. Louis Cardinals offense has failed to live up to expectations. Dan Buffa of KSDK eloquently hit on the offensive struggles a few days ago, and my Intrepid STL colleague Brenden Schaeffer discussed how the offensive blueprint hasn’t materialized. The offense ranks 23rd in the MLB and 11th in the NL with only 4.24 runs per game. Is there any reason for optimism going forward?
The Cardinals core is extremely unlucky
Arguably the biggest issue plaguing the Cardinals offense is the disappointing starts from Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter, as well as Stephen Piscotty (when he’s been around). The team’s three most important hitters all hold an average in the .220’s through May 30th. If you prefer wRC+, each is at least 14 points worse than their career mark. Put simply, Fowler isn’t getting on, and neither Carpenter nor Piscotty are driving him (or anyone) in.
How much of that is luck, though? Dexter Fowler’s BABIP currently sits at .264, compared to a .339 career and .334 post-Coors marks. Matt Carpenter’s is at .248, which is 77 points below his career level. Stephen Piscotty’s is at .263 compared to his .326 career BABIP.
Many would immediately chalk this up to luck. However, contact quality and defensive positioning (read: shifts) are important to BABIP. By focusing on expected results based on contact quality, we can determine whether these players are unlucky or hitting the ball poorly. In this case, luck is a big factor for all three.
All three are underperforming their expected production by a significant amount. It’s even more significant considering that xwOBA and xBA typically underestimate wOBA and batting average. Assuming each player can maintain a similar contact quality profile going forward, we’d expect their production to kick up. While the most likely result is they’ll regress toward their career marks, here’s what they’d look like right now if their actual batting average matched Statcast’s xBA metric.
Not great, perhaps, but far from bad. It’d be a welcome improvement.
On Tuesday night in the 2nd inning, the Cardinals were gifted a runner on third base with no outs. They failed to score. Wasting opportunities with runners in scoring position is becoming a theme in 2017. In fact, the Cardinals appear to get worse as more runners get on base.
I used Run/opp to measure the Cardinals success at converting runners into runs, measured as Runs/PAs. This isn’t perfect, but its gives us a sense of whether the Cardinals are blowing more opportunities than other teams. And they are.
There’s some situational overlap between RISP and “runners on,” but this will do for now. The cause of this futility with RISP is a batting average that drops as more runners get on base. The team’s BABIP with RISP is only .278, compared to .291 with runners on and .306 with the bases empty. The team’s overall BABIP sits at .300, which is slightly above league average.
There’s really no reason to expect the Cardinals to hit for a lower BABIP with runners on or RISP than with the bases empty. In fact, the MLB as a whole hits for a slightly higher BABIP with runners on base than without. So, with better batted ball luck, we should see the Cardinals average with RISP rebound toward the overall team batting average.
Power outage in St. Louis
When the St. Louis Cardinals decided to let Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss walk, everyone knew they’d lost a lot of power. Yet, the team still had power threats throughout the lineup in Aledmys Diaz, Carpenter, Piscotty, Jedd Gyorko, and Randal Grichuk. They’d have less thump than 2016, but power wasn’t supposed to be a major issue.
Unfortunately, the power in St. Louis is out. The Cardinals 10.4% HR/FB rate is the 4th lowest in the MLB and they’re only 22nd in ISO and slugging percentage. Almost every player has seen their power numbers decline:
Part of the drop is due to lower exit velocities: last year, the Cardinals ranked 9th in the MLB with an average exit velocity of 92.8 mph on line drives and fly balls. This year, that number is down to 92.2 mph, which ranks only 17th in the MLB. More importantly, last year they hit the 3rd most LD/FB at exit velocities of 95+ mph. This year, they’re only 12th.
Even here, though, the batted ball data suggests the Cardinals are hitting the ball better than their results indicate. Based on the exit velocities mentioned above, the Cardinals should be hitting for about average power. They’ve been the 6th unluckiest team on line drives and fly balls, with a wOBA that trails their xwOBA by 24 points. Part of that is playing in a spacious home park, but they’re still 9th unluckiest on the road.
Overall, the Cardinals offense has been bad. There’s no denying they could use a big bat to anchor the lineup. But the Cardinals offense has also been pretty unlucky in a few critical areas. Even if the front office stands pat and the Cardinals continue to run out similar lineups, it’s likely we’ll see some positive regression some time going forward. Hopefully, it’s not too late.