There is a word that Cardinals left fielder and rookie Stephen Piscotty remembers echoing through his development as he worked his way up to the major leagues.
His Class AAA manager, Mike Shildt, would repeat it as they worked on defense or when he discussed baserunning or when he tried to impart on the young players when they worked on fundamental things that would help them reach their goal of being with the major-league team and helping the major-league team reach its goal of being in October.
“There’s an expectation,” Piscotty recalled Sunday. “You’d hear that a lot. There’s an expectation that you will be able to do this, to make this throw, to make the smart play on defense, to know when to throw, when not to throw. There are expectations on when you run. There are expectations that when you get here (to the majors) you’ll be able to jump right in and do that because it’s what they do here.”
That Piscotty listed skills from outside the batter’s box is telling because that is where the Cardinals have excelled this season. The Cardinals, at 71-40, have the best record in baseball because they have the finest pitching staff in baseball, and they have backed their arms with solid defense and an opportunistic, if at times flighty, offense. Just as the Cardinals expect their pitchers to get quick outs and have a pitch they can command low in the zone, the fielders are expected — that word again — to make the routine play, reliably. The combination has this year’s Cardinals on pace to allow the fewest runs in franchise history through a full season.
At a time when offense has been choked by defensive shifts, flame-throwing pitchers, and, yes, drug testing, it’s not the team that can score runs that’s king.
It’s the team best at preventing them.
“Every team struggles to score runs against this team,” Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said this past weekend. “That’s not a news flash. They are really good at preventing runs. They’ve lapped the rest of baseball in prevention. They are outstanding at it.”
Coming out of a three-game series against the first-place Cardinals, Counsell’s Brewers have scored 443 runs this season. That puts them in the middle third of baseball and three runs ahead of the Cardinals. Despite that, the Brewers trail the Cardinals by 24 games in the standings. The three teams closest to the Cardinals in scoring are the Brewers, San Diego (436) and Cleveland (442). All three have losing records, combining for a .450 winning percentage. The difference is their run differential.
Few statistics in baseball measure the greatness of a team better than the difference between its runs allowed and runs scored. That number is the best longterm indicator of a team’s record, and the Cardinals lead the National League with a plus-121.
Only Toronto’s plus-129 is better in baseball.
There are essentially two ways for a team to approach a strong run differential. The Blue Jays, who added Troy Tulowitzki at the trade deadline to a formidable lineup, have the ability to bludgeon teams. So do the Colorado Rockies, but they are less skilled at what the Cardinals, New York Mets, and Pirates do – muzzle teams. The Cardinals have scored the 11th-fewest runs in the majors but lead baseball with a 2.60 ERA. No other team has a staff ERA less than 3.20. The Cardinals have allowed 319 runs this season, 76 fewer than the next-closest team, the Mets. The 2015 Cardinals are on pace to finish with 466 total runs allowed. Only four teams in Cardinals history have played at least 150 games and allowed fewer than 500 runs. The 1968 team, anchored by Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA, allowed 472 runs in 162 games.
A team that struggles with run generation can only contend with run prevention.
“Last year, people talked about how we don’t score a lot of runs, that we play so many tight games, that the bullpen gets worn out,” leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter said. “We got to the postseason and we were tested and ready for that. It helped us. This is the same thing with this year’s team. We’ve played in close ballgames before. Just scoring runs is not a good plan over the course of the season. You have to play good defense. You have to pitch. That’s how you win close games. That’s how you lead the league in wins, in my opinion.”
Added outfielder Jason Heyward: “I honestly think this is how you win in the playoffs, so we’re going to have a lot of experience built up.”
The list of the top 10 scoring teams in baseball features three teams with losing records. There is only one in the top 10 when it comes to ERA or total runs allowed. Six of the teams with the best ERA in the majors also lead the majors in Runs Saved, a defensive metric available at Bill James Online that calculates how many runs a team’s gloves have stopped opponents from scoring. The Cardinals’ 21 Runs Saved are the sixth-most in the majors, and there are only two teams with losing records who crack that top 10.
Manager Mike Matheny had a description he used recently to describe the team’s ethos and its reliance on scene-stealing pitching and sturdy defense.
“We’re all about the controllables,” he said. He paused.
“I tried that the other day, but I don’t think that’s even a word,” Matheny said “We’re all about the things that we can control. I think what we’re doing is because there has been a change in the air of baseball right now. It is an era of less production. I think we have the ability to be a top higher-end team with runs. We should be. There are different philosophies. Being that (a run prevention team) would be a complement to pitching and defense. I’m sure our offense would take offense.”
The second-place Pirates, who trail the Cardinals by five games, arrive for a three-game series at Busch that starts Tuesday, and they too are gifted at run prevention. Pittsburgh has been one of the most aggressive teams in baseball when it comes to using defensive shifts. Analytics led them to embrace the shift, and that data was based on a simple goal: run prevention. The Pirates have allowed 402 runs this season and carry a plus-58 run differential despite ranking in the lower half of runs scored.
In 60 of the Cardinals’ 111 games – 54 percent of the schedule – they and their opponent have scored four or fewer runs. These games can be decided by a swing, and it’s the times the Cardinals have faltered at run prevention that prove the rule. The Cubs swept a doubleheader from the Cardinals in large part because of two errors pitchers made that put games out of reach. On this past road trip, the Cardinals lost two games by a combined two runs. The Reds took their lead when a poor play in center cost the Cardinals an out, and the Brewers got their win when reliever Jonathan Broxton misplaced one pitch, his first of the game.
A run generation team can create larger margins for error.
Run prevention is, by definition, stingy.
That’s why the minor-leaguers are drilled on making the routine plays and striving for the extra base, because those are “controllables.” As Piscotty said, “hitting comes and goes.” Pitching and defense are less volatile, more controllable. They can be expected.
They are necessary to get where the Cardinals expect to be.
“You would think that every team has that same level of – here’s that word again – expectation,” reliever Carlos Villanueva said. “But saying it doesn’t mean you believe it. ... You look around here and you see how this team does things and how we talk about getting to the World Series. It took me awhile to put myself in that same conversation, to get used to it.
“But, yeah, good pitching, good defense, timely hitting. Why not?”
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