TOWER GROVE • There is a school of thought with a bulk of research to back it that agrees with Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who said last week that the team’s record in one-run games was “bizarre.”
Nothing escapes databases these days, and as researchers dug into the nature of one-run games they discovered that there is a randomness to close games. Through multiple years, the teams that succeed in one-run games don’t all have a lockdown closer, don’t all have tremendous starting pitching, and they certainly all don’t end up as contenders. Over the course of several seasons, the one-run record normalizes. As Alex Poterack wrote for Disciples of Uecker, a Brewers fan blog, earlier this season: “Baseball teams generally have no particular skill at winning one-run games.” That is a concise way of describing a stance that is echoed elsewhere and has been carried by Jamesian researchers and writers. A losing trend in one-run games is, in that way, bizarre.
Rob Neyer, one of the best writers when it comes to taking high-concept stats or dive-deep research and translating it into news all of us can use, attacked the Cardinals’ run-differential riddle partially through the one-run lens at SBNation. He pointed out that a third-place team Arizona was 8-17 at the time in one-run games. That Toronto was 6-15. That the meandering Padres were 20-31 one year in one-run games and 16-16 the next, and didn’t contend either time. Neyer explains:
One-run records are approximately one part managing, one part relief pitching, two parts team quality, and six parts luck. Maybe seven parts luck. The Cardinals are good, but that's not done them any good. … But it's mostly been bad luck. They simply haven't been able to distribute their runs, both scored and allowed, in a way that would bring their wins and losses in line with their +101 run differential.
(His story was published on Aug. 13.)
The overall point is that the Cardinals shouldn’t look too deep into their 13-21 record in one-run games. It will correct itself. They must just wait for the law of averages to bend their way and keep on hitting and hitting and hitting ...
“If we could put our finger on it we would have fixed it a long time ago,” Matheny told a group of us reporter types in his office this past weekend. “What it does say is we’re not getting blown out, which says a lot about our pitching. It also says we’re not capitalizing on opportunities, doing some of the little things, getting runners over and in. … Those hurt when you’re tight situations, close games, you have to do the little things right to win those. They haven’t been happening. As you look at the bigger picture the things that we have been doing it just seems in those close, tight games that it’s not happening.”
With respect to the research, it’s that comment that makes me think the Cardinals’ one-run record goes beyond randomness. It’s the result of something missing. Maybe it's that hitting the Cardinals need to do.
Over the course of the weekend, I went through the Cardinals’ 32 games decided this season by one run. As I was going through box scores and flipping through pages on my trusty yellow legal pad, the Cardinals played two more one-run games. In the lost series to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cardinals split one-run games – losing 2-1 on Friday and winning 5-4 on Saturday. Sunday was listing toward another one-run game before the Pirates sunk the Cardinals with three runs in the 19th inning of that 6-hour, 7-minute delight. I added the two games from this past weekend into the research this morning.
Some of what I found feeds into the randomness theorem or fit snugly with the Cardinals' numbers overall this season:
• The Cardinals are 9-7 at home in one-run games, and 4-14 on the road.
• Not unrelated, the Cardinals are 3-9 in extra-inning games overall, and they’ve lost seven of the 11 one-run games decided by a “walk-off” hit. Hand in hand.
• Nineteen times the game has hinged on the bullpen, and the Cardinals are 9-10 in those games.
• Starters average six innings per start in one-run losses.
• Starters average 6 1/3 innings per start in one-run wins.
• Kyle Lohse has been the starter in 11 of the Cardinals’ 34 one-run games, and they are 5-6 when he starts. Eight of those games have been no decisions for the righty, and that falls right in line with the overall sense of Lohse’s season.• Lance Lynn, however, has started five of the Cardinals’ 34 one-run games, and the club is 3-2 in those games. The Cardinals are 1-4 in one-run games when Jaime Garcia starters, 1-2 for Adam Wainwright, 2-4 for Jake Westbrook, and 1-3 for rookie Joe Kelly.
• The bullpen’s ERA is 3.64 in one-run losses, it’s 3.23 in one-run wins, and it’s 4.13 overall this season.
And then there are the trends.
Earlier in the season, four of the Cardinals’ first 18 losses by one-run were decided in the seventh inning. This could be statistical noise. But it’s hard to ignore how those four games were clustered. They all happened between May 18 and July 28 – or about the stretch of time that the Cardinals were frantically searching for that bridge between the starter and Mitchell Boggs. Kyle McClellan was injured and out for the season. And the run ends a few days before the Cardinals acquired righty Edward Mujica from Miami. Mujica has appeared in the seventh inning eight of his nine times with the Cardinals, and he has seven holds as a result.
To dig deeper into the reasons, I went box score by box score to see where the games pivoted.
At Baseball-Reference.com, the box scores use WPA (Win Probability Added) to weight certain plays in the game. WPA basically presents how each moment in the game alters a team’s chance of winning. A grand slam and that number spikes. A strikeout with the bases loaded and that number dips. In Game 6 of the World Series last October, the Cardinals’ chance of winning was down to 8 percent when David Freese stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning. His triple changed the probability of winning by 54 percent. That’s the WPA.
I charted the biggest plus-WPA moments in all 34 games. Here are the moments in the losses (scroll down if you want to avoid the gory details; I’ll summarize):
April 11, 4-3 at Cin: +29 WPA – Heisey RBI single to CF, bottom 9th (walkoff)
April 23, 3-2 at Chi: +76 WPA – Mather 2-RBI single to CF, bottom 9th (walkoff)
April 24, 3-2 (10) at Chi: +44 WPA – LaHair HR, bottom 9th (walkoff)
April 29, 3-2 vs. Mil: +45 WPA – Molina Ks, Greene CS DP, bottom 9th
May 4, 5-4 at Hou: +24 WPA – Jay GIDP, top 9th
May 18, 6-5 at Lad: +22 WPA – Loney RBI single off Rzepczynski, bottom 7th
May 20, 6-5 at Lad: +57 WPA – Van Slyke 3-run HR, bottom 7th
May 24, 10-9 vs. Phi: +17 WPA – Galvis RBI single off Salas, top 6th
May 29, 5-4 at Atl: +21 WPA – Uggla 3-run HR, bottom 3rd
June 5, 9-8 at Hou: +14 WPA – Snyder 2-RBI single, bottom 1st
June 15, 3-2 at KC: +23 WPA – Freese GIDP, bottom 8th
June 21, 2-1 (10) at Det: +17 WPA – Berry RBI single, bottom 10th (walkoff)
July 3, 3-2 vs. Col: +27 WPA – Colvin 3-run HR off Kelly, top 3rd
July 6, 3-2 vs. Mia: +21 WPA – Reyes RBI single and E1, top 7th
July 14, 3-2 (10) at Cin: +42 WPA – Ludwick HR off Marte, bottom 10th (walkoff)
July 17, 3-2 at Mil: +25 WPA – Schumaker K by Rodriguez, top 9th
July 18, 4-2 at Mil: +23 WPA – Berkman fly out to LF vs. Rodriguez, top 9th
July 28, 3-2 at Chi: +20 WPA – Johnson RBI single off Fuentes, bottom 7th
Aug 12, 8-7 at Phi: +44 WPA –Kratz 3-run HR off Boggs, bottom 8th
Aug 16, 2-1 vs. Az: +39 WPA – Young solo HR off Motte, top 9th
Aug 17, 2-1 vs. Pit: +11 WPA – Freese K by Hanrahan, bottom 9th
It makes sense that in the cases of late innings or walk-offs the biggest shift in win probability would be, you know, the hit that won the game. Ryan Ludwick’s homer. Joe Mather’s single. And so on. What stood out to me as I put this list together is the number of times the Cardinals were at the plate when the deciding event happened. These were all losses, and it was the Cardinals inability to do something on offense that shifted the game the most.
This feeds into the ongoing riddle of the 2012 Cardinals, one best dissected recently by Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz. (See his column here.)
The lineup that leads the league in so many significant offensive categories remains mercurial at best. It can thump a team and add on late with the best of them. But it also seems to struggle when situational hitting is necessary. Matheny has commented several times in the past few weeks about how his team, brawny as it is, has failed to execute when small ball could win.
The one-run losses highlight that failing.
There are two places where the one-run loss and the one-run win are significantly different. First, consider the starting pitching. In one-run wins, the starters have a 2.71 ERA and average 6 1/3 innings per game. In the one-run losses, the starters have a 3.92 ERA and average 6 innings per start. That ERA is about a ½ run worse than their overall ERA this season, but it’s still better than the league average. In short, the starters aren’t pitching as well in the one-run losses – news flash! – but it’s not awful enough for the offense not to overcome.
Except that it is.
This is the silver-bullet stat that I found. In one-run wins, the Cardinals average 7.1 at-bats per game with runners in scoring position. In one-run losses, the Cardinals average 7.4 at-bats per game with runners in scoring position. Consider those WPA changes again and how slightly less than a third of them came when the Cardinals were at the plate. Then there is this:
• Cardinals hit .250 (23-for-92) with RISP in one-run wins.
• Cardinals hit .173 (27-for-156) with RISP in one-run losses.
A lack of offense is not part of Neyer’s recipe for deciding one-run games. And yet it is definitely at the root of the issue for the best offense in the game. It appears that there is a skill to winning one-run games for the Cardinals.
Yes, there is an element of randomness.
How is it that the Cardinals hit so much overall and hit so little in those specific situations? Is it a statistical illusion? Is the randomness of when hits come? Is it something that will correct/normalize over time? Or, is it an example of what our eyes tell us when we watch a leadoff runner reach second base and never budge. It is probably a blend of all of those things. That means it’s not just bizarre or just bad luck.
It also means it can be fixed.