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Unlucky Cardinals: Pitching Better Than it Looks

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Through the first two months of the season, the Cardinals pitching staff has given up more runs than expected, but there has been a lot of bad luck involved.

We are a little past one-third of the way through the Major League Baseball season, which means, according to the official fandom handbook, you’re allowed to panic if things aren’t going the way you expected them to. For many Cardinals fans, that means worrying about the pitching staff and whether it will ever be able to pitch the way the team had hoped.

While the ERA does not look great, the team has been hit by some misfortune, which is skewing the overall numbers. The Cardinals rank 17th in team ERA, but 9th in FIP and 8th in xFIP. FIP has proven to be a better indicator of both how well a team has actually pitched and how well a team will pitch in the future than ERA. xFIP is just an adjustment for park factors.

The Cardinals also have the 8th largest positive gap between their ERA and FIP (.29). That difference essentially amounts to one or two wins to this point in the season. Going the other way, the two teams ahead of the Cardinals in the National League Central have large negative gaps between their ERAs and FIPs.

The Cubs have the largest (-.80) and the Pirates have the third largest (-.45). This indicates that Cubs pitchers should have given up enough runs to give them four more losses than they have to this point and Pirates pitchers should have cost the team two or three more wins than they have. If these teams’ ERAs reflected how well they have actually been pitching, then the division race would be much closer right now.

Getting back to the Cardinals, the question now becomes, “why is there such a big gap between their ERA and FIP?” Perhaps one of the biggest reasons is the Cardinals’ large difference in opponents batting average on balls in play with runners on versus with the bases empty. What you do with runners on base will affect your ERA much more than your FIP, since only walks, strikeouts, home runs, and innings pitched factor into FIP.

With the bases empty, opponents are hitting .265 on balls in play, which is the third lowest mark in the league against a particular team. With runners on base, that number jumps up to .315, or the sixth highest mark in the league.

Each pitcher is affected a little differently with runners on base. Two of the most important factors will be how well he holds runners on and how much his stuff changes due to changes in his delivery with runners on base. Given that Yadier Molina is catching most games, holding runners on shouldn’t be too much of a problem for Cardinals pitchers. The other factor is harder to measure, but given that there is only a tiny jump in the Cardinals’ team FIP with runners on versus the bases empty, their pitches probably aren’t significantly worse with runners on base.

All of this leads us to the following conclusion: the Cardinals are getting really unlucky when there are runners on base. The jump in BABIP should not be that high, and the high ERA is partially a function of opponents being able to string hits together more often than they statistically should. Both of the BABIP numbers that I quoted should move closer together, but, given where their FIP is, the Cardinals should end up in a better place than they currently are.

If you’re interested in which pitchers are getting the unluckiest, Michael Wacha (5.16 ERA, 3.53 FIP) and Adam Wainwright (5.40, 4.17) are the starters who have been hurt the most, while Seth Maness (6.39, 4.15) and Dean Kiekhefer (6.75, 5.16) are the relievers who have pitched better than their ERAs indicate.

You’ll notice that this does not mean that every pitcher has been good. Specifically, Maness and Kiekhefer have still not pitched well. What it does mean, though, is that the Cardinals have been pitching more like the ninth best team in the league than the 17th best. They have given up hits closer together than they should have, and when that changes, the pitching staff’s ERA will get closer to what you expected at the start of the season.

Photo captured by Jasen Vinlove – USA TODAY Sports

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