How to spot a truly special World Series game

On June 6, 1990, newly-named coach Willie McGee hit a double with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th inning to score Rex Hudler and Denny Walling, allowing the Cardinals to beat the Phillies in walk-off fashion. Moments earlier, Walling had singled to score Milt Thompson to jump-start the needed rally.

It had already been a wild game, with six different lead changes from beginning to end. With two outs in the bottom of the 9th, Pedro Guerrero singled to score McGee and Ozzie Smith in order to force extras. Meaning the Cardinals entered the bottom of the 9th down two and tied the game. Then, they entered the bottom of the 10th down two runs again and scored three to win the game 12-11. From Baseball Reference, here’s what the win probability chart looked like:

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 12.35.48 PM

I still remember this game even though it was more than 27 years ago and happened to occur in the middle of one of the most underwhelming seasons in franchise history. And I was reminded of this game in the aftermath of Game 2 of the ongoing World Series, a crazy, back-and-forth affair that ended with a 7-6 Astros win. (If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend Grant Brisbee’s piece on the game.) That’s because if Game 2 of the 2017 World Series had been some random game in May it would have still been remarkable. The same absolutely applies to Game 6 from 2011 World Series (six years old, yesterday), probably even more so.

The events from those games were already beyond belief. Put those games in the middle of the regular season and they would still be a big deal. Put them on the biggest stage with most of the sports world watching and they are rightfully in another stratosphere. Craig Edwards of FanGraphs (and my old boss at Viva El Birdos) had a great piece outlining the historical craziness of the two games, which is worth reading because sometimes it takes seeing the unlikely course of events in print to really appreciate them. And returning to that meaningless 1990 regular season game from above – had it occurred in October it would probably also be the stuff of legends.

And this is where Game 7 of the 2016 World Series fails to live up to Game 6 in 2011 and Game 2 from a few days ago. It was nuts, to be sure. But it was mostly context-driven: Two championship-starved teams (to put it mildly), a rain delay right in the middle of all the drama, and the fact that it was by definition the last game of the season. Remove all of that and I don’t think you have anything too remarkable. Cleveland never had the lead. And there was never a moment when Cleveland appeared seconds away from miraculously winning the World Series. Put that game in the regular season and the next day it likely reads like a game the Cubs almost blew but didn’t, and that’s about it.

That said, I don’t blame a single Cubs fan for believing it was the greatest game of all time – as many of them do. I probably would too if I’m in their shoes. In fact, the 2006 World Series – an affair with way less drama, intrigue, and pretty much everything else when compared to the 2016 World Series – is something that in many ways is more dear to me than 2011. It was the first time I saw the Cardinals win a World Series (I was three-years old in 1982) after plenty of painful near-misses. That’s tough to beat. Sure, we were all watching an 83-win team take on the other league’s wild card with David Eckstein somehow being the best player on the field. Totally irrelevant. It was special. So I can only imagine the reverence that Cubs fans feel for last year’s Game 7.

Still, it wasn’t better than the game we saw the other night. It wasn’t better than Game 6. And it wasn’t even better than that stupid, meaningless Cardinals-Phillies game from a forgettable season many years ago. And that’s the test. If you plant a World Series game smack dab in the middle of June and can honestly say it would still leave a lasting impression then what you saw was something truly great.

UPDATE: Yes, last night’s Game 5 absolutely counts. Holy smokes.

The Cardinals excelled at hitting with runners on base in 2017

On the most recent FanGraphs Audio podcast, David Cameron mentioned to host Carson Cistulli that batters typically have better numbers with runners on base. That’s true. In 2017, the league had a 95 wRC+ with the bases empty, and a 99 wRC+ with runners aboard. Those are identical numbers from 2016, and in 2015, MLB hitters averaged a 101 wRC+ with runners on base but slipped to 93 with the bases empty.

I don’t know exactly why this is, and neither did Cameron and Cistulli, which is why it was brought up in the first place. It could be the smaller sample size of high leverage situations, something I believe Cistulli alluded to. Maybe there is a human element involved, and players are more focused on putting balls in play when there are runners aboard, and pitchers are more tense with the smaller margin for error.

Who knows but cue the 2017 Cardinals. When you spend an entire season with one team, your biases are relegated to them. It’s why almost everyone thinks their closer is bad. Or why unless you’re paying close attention to the stats or a team is such an obvious outlier like say the 2013 Cardinals, fans more often than not remember the missed opportunities with runners in scoring position versus the successes. You hear that all the time during individual games throughout the season, right?

I tell you what, the Cardinals are wasting too many opportunities early…

The Cardinals strand two more as we head to the 6th…

And so on. But were the Cardinals bad at hitting with runners on base in 2017? Not at all. In 2,771 plate appearances with runners aboard in 2017, the Cardinals had a wRC+ of 103, which outpaced the National League average (96 wRC+) with runners on and their own numbers with the bases empty (98 wRC+).

To further the point, here’s a look at a few more specific situations (this information can be found on FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards):

wRC+ in 2017

Cardinals

NL Average

Bases Empty

98

92

Runners On

103

96

Runners In Scoring

100

97

Bases Loaded

130

99

As is customary, the Cardinals improved with runners on base and were better than the NL average across the board. To the surprise of few, Tommy Pham was a big contributor. He hit .338/.436/.632, good for a 177 wRC+ in 243 plate appearances with runners on. Furthermore, with the bases loaded, the Cardinals had the third highest wRC+ in the NL behind the Nationals and Cubs, and hit .355/.366/.539 in such situations (161 plate appearances).

The takeaway is that the Cardinals had several problems in 2017, but they weren’t “unclutch” and they weren’t squandering too many opportunities – at least, not when compared to the rest of the league. Perhaps I’m inflating the perception that this was even at issue with the fanbase, but I heard it enough throughout the season that I thought it was worth a look.

 

 

Play Index: Adam Wainwright in the postseason edition

Clayton Kershaw was his usual, masterful self last night in the 2017 World Series opener. He went seven innings, struck out 11, gave up only three hits, and didn’t allow a single free pass, to help guide the Dodgers to a 3-1 victory over the Astros. It was a performance unlike many in the World Series, and I’m guessing the postseason altogether.

That right there tells us that no post-Musial era Cardinal has put up a similar line in the World Series, so I thought I would do a Play Index search and expand it to the entire postseason. However, searching for Cardinals who have struck out at least ten, walked zero, and pitched at least seven innings in the postseason turned up zero results. Not a huge surprise, I suppose, so I lowered the strikeout total to five and left the other parameters the same and this is what I found (as sorted by strike outs):

Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 7.17.39 AM

Not unlike Kershaw, Adam Wainwright has a postseason reputation that has been a bit unappreciated. That happens. We remember the bad starts (Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS, Game 1 of the 2013 World Series), and tend to forget the run-of-the-mill variety. (Although, to be fair, I think everyone remembers his postseason relief appearances in 2006 quite well.) But in 89 total innings pitched in the postseason, Wainwright has a 3.03 ERA, better than the likes of Jack Morris, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, to name a few, and Wainwright’s own career regular season mark of 3.29.

His postseason numbers are bolstered by his pitching in the 2013 NLDS against Pittsburgh. When I think of that series, I first go to Michael Wacha keeping the Cardinals alive in Game 4. Most of us probably do, as is the norm when a pitcher keeps the other team hitless for 7 1/3 in a win-or-go-home game.

Still, as shown above, in Game 1 of that series Wainwright came closer than any Cardinal to replicating what Kershaw did last night. It took him about 20 more pitches and he recorded two fewer strikeouts, but everything else across the board is nearly identical. Then, for good measure, he came back six days later and pitched a complete game, with six strikeouts and only one walk, to send the Cardinals into the 2013 NLCS – the place where the Kershaw “chokes in the postseason” myth was perhaps first born.

Lastly, Wainwright appears on the list above three times. No other Cardinal can claim more than a single start. Wainwright will likely never be unappreciated by Cardinals fans. In fact, it’s fair to say he’s universally beloved, which is what happens when you spend your entire career with one organization, while being one of the best pitchers in the league and an overall decent human being. That said, being one of the best postseason pitchers in Cardinals history should certainly be a part of his legacy, too.

Credit to the Baseball Reference Play Index for most of the stats in this post. Subscribe to the Play Index here.

 

The Cardinals’ record under Mike Matheny every day of the week

Just a heads-up, what follows is pretty stupid.

Glad we got that out of the way. I know for a fact I’m far from the only person who does this, but I have a ritual during baseball season which consists of printing out the Cardinals’ schedule, pinning it on my wall at work, and then tracking the wins and losses until the very bitter end. The end result looks like this:

IMG_0413

Notice the annotations. Those are typically reserved for memorable moments throughout the season, like walk-off wins, Matt Holliday hitting a home run in what many thought would be his last at-bat as a Cardinal, etc. Take this one, which is a pretty sad in retrospect:

IMG_0414

That was marking Oscar Taveras’s debut in May 2014, in which he homered.

Often the references are obscure enough that I have to take a minute to remind myself just what the hell I was even talking about. Like here, for instance:

IMG_0415

That was from May 2015. And “haha” was apparently my way of commemorating the Cardinals falling behind the Cubs 5-0 in the top of the 1st, only to claw their way back and eventually win 10-9 (which is always a good final score). Haha.

This is not the stupid part I warned you about. At least, it’s not stupid to me. I enjoy doing it, and it’s a good way to remember past years and to keep track of trends throughout each season.

Here comes the stupid part: I’ve been doing this for a long time, covering the entire Mike Matheny era and then some, and I was curious enough to see how the Cardinals have fared every day of the week during Matheny’s tenure. Consulting my trusty completed schedules, this is what I found:

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS, 2012-2017

Wins

Losses

Win%

Sunday

87

71

0.551

Monday

63

34

0.650

Tuesday

81

66

0.551

Wednesday

89

60

0.597

Thursday

60

49

0.550

Friday

76

80

0.487

Saturday

88

68

0.564

Total

544

428

0.560

I added all of these up by hand. Someone who knows their way around Baseball Reference a bit better than I do could have perhaps found these numbers in 60 seconds (although I’m pretty confident that sorting records by days of the week is not an available feature), but it took me about 45 painstaking, time-wasting minutes. I double-checked though and it should be accurate so respect the process.

And what I found is that for whatever random reason, since 2012, the Cardinals have easily played their worst baseball on Fridays. It’s not even close. Have you noticed you’ve oddly been in a somber mood on Saturday morning, likely the beginning of your weekend? Perhaps this is why. On the other hand, the Cardinals have played at a 105-win pace on Mondays, taking a bit of the sting off the start of the work week, so we’ll call it a wash. The other five days don’t see much variation.

There you have it. Is this important information? Absolutely not. Am I glad I took the time to figure this out? Not really. Go Cardinals, anyway.

Play Index: Jack Clark and the three true outcomes edition

Yesterday marked the 32nd anniversary of Jack Clark effectively sending the Cardinals to the 1985 World Series with a decisive three-run home run against the Dodgers in the top of the 9th inning of Game 6 of the NLCS. (Check out RetroSimba’s detailed account of the home run here.) Ozzie Smith’s walk-off home run two days earlier in Game 5 is likely more famous, but to a Dodgers fan I imagine that this one to be more devastating.

For starters, the Dodgers had a one-run lead. First base was open (Ozzie was on second, Willie McGee was on third) and Clark represented the Cardinals’ only real power threat. Remove him from that lineup and Andy Van Slyke would have led the team in home runs that season with 13. The smart move was probably to walk him, and the decision to pitch to him haunted Tommy Lasorda long after this game ended. And, there were two outs, so the Dodgers were just inches away from forcing a Game 7. At home no less. But then:

Clark may have taken it extra slow on this particular home run trot, but I remember that being his demeanor almost 100 percent of the time. If his stats didn’t tell you otherwise, you’d almost mistake him for disinterested. But a slouch he was not. In fact, Clark might be the most significant hitter in Cardinals lore to have less than 1,500 plate appearances with the organization (1,371 total, to be exact). And since this is a Play Index post, this claim can be corroborated to some degree.

Here are the top ten Cardinals as sorted by wins above replacement, with less than 1,500 plate appearances with the team:

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 8.15.22 PM

Story checks out.

Without question, 1987 was Clark’s finest season in St. Louis, and I’ve written about it before. To sum it up, Clark led the National League in both on-base percentage and slugging, and posted the highest walk rate (24.3%) in the NL since the league was integrated – so long as we exclude Barry Bonds.

Clark finished third in MVP voting in a competitive field with outstanding seasons turned in by teammate Ozzie Smith (who I believe should have won the award), along with contemporaries Eric Davis, Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn, and Darryl Strawberry. Andre Dawson went home with the trophy in what was probably a miscarriage of justice but he led the NL in home runs and RBIs so what can you do.

Clark’s candidacy was likely hampered by injuries, which was a theme during his three-year stint in St. Louis. He only saw 559 plate appearances that season, just the 44th most in the NL, but something caught my eye and curiosity when looking at his stats: He still eclipsed 30 home runs, 100 walks, and 100 strikeouts. He was the epitome of a three true outcomes player.

Thinking that must be rare, I did a search on the Play Index for all players since 1901 who had less than 600 plate appearances, but also reached at least 30 home runs, 100 walks, and 100 strikeouts. The result? Only ten total seasons. Ten. 

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 8.47.28 PM

And, as you see, at the time Clark’s was the first. Perhaps that’s a result of the Play Index whiffing on seasons from way back when, but I doubt it. In my experience the Play Index is as good of a research tool you’ll find for baseball stats, and this is likely a product of evolution. Take a look at players who qualified for a batting title 40 or 50 years ago and you’ll see that they simply didn’t strike out as much as they do today.

Last thing, of Clark’s 559 plate appearances in 1987, 56 percent ended in a home run, walk, or strikeout. That’s the highest on the list above, save for that magical Jack Cust season, which came in right at 57 percent. (It strangely makes me happy that guys named Jack Clark and Jack Cust excel at this skill.) Fifty-seven percent. That’s the same percentage of three true outcomes turned in this season by rookie Aaron Judge, who led the American League in all three categories. In that sense, Jack Clark, true renaissance man, was ahead of his time.

Credit to the Baseball Reference Play Index for most of the stats in this post. Subscribe to the Play Index here.

On home plate collisions, including the famous Ray Lankford play

By now you’ve probably seen or at least read about the most talked about play from last night’s Game 1 of the NLCS, a 5-2 Dodgers victory. But in case you missed it, here’s the Cliff Notes version:

In the bottom of the 7th inning, Charlie Culberson attempted to score from second on a single to left but was initially called out for not touching the plate and being tagged by catcher Willson Contreras. In both real time and on replay, Contreras quite clearly stuck out his left leg before receiving the ball, thereby blocking Culberson’s path to the plate. After a review, Culberson was called safe, Manager Joe Maddon went nuts, got tossed, and the Dodgers now lead 1-0.

A couple of things:

Who knows for certain why Contreras stuck out his left leg – Joe Sheehan noted this morning on Twitter that a lot of people are claiming he did it for positional balance – but I suspect he instinctively did it to prevent Culberson from easily reaching home. In the moment, that’s pretty understandable. I also suspect a lot of catchers would have done the same thing. But this seems like a pretty textbook example of why this rule (often called the Buster Posey rule, although Grant Brisbee has pointed out that’s an erroneous moniker) was created in the first place. If you wanted to show an audience an obvious example of what you can no longer do as a catcher per the rule book, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one.

My experience with this rule and its application, which to put it mildly is quite anecdotal, is that MLB has not done the best job articulating it nor enforcing it. MLB would be better served making sure the runner is always called safe in this situation (i.e., when the catcher intentionally blocks the runner’s path before receiving the ball), whether it’s the regular season, or Game 7 of the World Series. Still, they got the call right last night, and that’s a step in the right direction.

After the game, Joe Maddon had a few thoughts on the situation, most notably this one:

He’s sticking up for his players, which is fine and understandable, but that’s a dumb and boorish thing to say. I’m guessing Buster Posey is fine with the rule. We know Mike Matheny is. They have about 8,500 combined plate appearances at the highest level of baseball compared to Maddon’s zero.

Lastly, any time I see a play litigated like that at the plate, I think of Ray Lankford bowling over Darren Daulton in April 1991, even though it’s an entirely different play altogether. In case you haven’t seen it, here you go:

Ouch.

This play was celebrated by Cardinals fans at the time and still is. And again, this is apples and oranges to last night in that the throw brought Daulton directly into Lankford’s path making him a sitting duck to no fault of his own. Conversely, Lankford really didn’t do anything wrong either. But shoot, that’s hard to watch. Anything baseball can do to limit violent collisions like this is in the best interest for all involved. The Lankford play might be harder to avoid, but a home plate collision was possibly prevented last night and that’s a good thing.

Play Index: Tommy Pham slash line edition

As I’m typing this, the Chicago Cubs are on my television screen playing postseason baseball (UPDATE: gross) and the Cardinals are not, a fair indicator that 2017 was not much fun. There were exceptions, the biggest one being Tommy Pham. I imagine the rest of the baseball universe grew a bit tired of the Cardinals’ side of the aisle constantly screaming about Tommy Pham, but they’ll have to forgive us. This was a 29-year old career minor leaguer/resident of the DL with less than 320 career plate appearances to his name putting up a .300/.400/.500 line in his first full season. It was like something from a sports movie.

And you saw that correctly, Pham had a .300/.400/.500 season, one of only seven for qualified batters in all of baseball. Here they are, via Baseball Reference’s Play Index as sorted by wins above replacement:

Screen Shot 2017-10-12 at 9.21.29 PM

Pretty decent company. Also, this is why Pham – a guy who in April wasn’t even deemed worthy of being the fourth outfielder – has a legitimate shot to finish in the top-five in National League MVP voting. And that’s insane.

Further, here’s a tweet earlier this week from must-follow and all-around decent guy @SimulacruMusial:

Similar to above, this had me wondering how these numbers stacked up with recent Cardinals seasons. So again, using the Play Index, I searched for Cardinals who qualified for the batting title going back to 1988 who either equaled or eclipsed all of Pham’s numbers from above (because Baseball Reference doesn’t use wOBA or wRC+, I substituted in Pham’s 144 OPS+), and this is what I found:

Screen Shot 2017-10-12 at 10.04.19 PM

First, these are always good exercises to ensure that Albert Pujols’s time in St. Louis is properly appreciated. Second, going back 30 seasons, only two Cardinals have turned in a better slash line across the board than Pham’s 2017, and you have to go back to 1971 to find a third (Joe Torre – .363/.421/.555; 171 OPS+). We weren’t imagining anything, Pham had a phenomenal season.

A quick rundown of a few of the other notable seasons that popped up in my head: The two other MV3s in 2004 were close. Scott Rolen just missed with a .409 on-base percentage (.314/.409/.598; 158 OPS+). Jim Edmonds fell short by hitting .301 (.301/.418/.643; 171 OPS+). Ray Lankford was similarly close in 1997 (.295/.411/.585; 159 OPS+). In 2013, Matt Carpenter missed the .300/.400/.500 mark in both on-base and slugging and had a lower OPS+ than Pham’s (.318/.392/.481; 140 OPS+).

The takeaway is that even when a season doesn’t go as planned, there’s often something positive worth remembering. In 2016 it was the offense coming out of nowhere and slugging their way to the top of the leaderboard. In 2017, it was Tommy Pham.

Credit to the Baseball Reference Play Index for most of the stats in this post. Subscribe to the Play Index here.

With three seasons in as a starter, Carlos Martinez continues to shine

My very first post at Viva El Birdos nearly two years ago focused on Carlos Martinez and how his 2015 season fared with other recent, age-23 starting pitchers in the National League. You probably already know this but he fared quite well. In 2016, Martinez didn’t take a huge step forward as a starter, but he turned in another above-average grade. That’s what I called it anyway at the end of the 2016 season when I basically did a “Part 2” of that first post, and compared Martinez’s two season in the books to other NL starters in their age-23 and 24 seasons.

Since this is the first post at Seat Cushion Night (first post of substance, at least), I’m going to start off the same way. Consider this “Part 3” of the series. And if you want to know why 1988 is used as the starting date, I don’t have that great of an answer other than that’s what I believe a half-earnest Sam Miller tabbed as the beginning of the modern era of baseball on an old episode of Effectively Wild. Makes sense. It covers the entire steroid era up to the present and it just cuts off 1987, an outlier year of high-octane offense relative to the rest of the 1980s.

So here we go. Using Baseball Reference’s Play Index (which might honestly be my favorite thing online – subscribe here) and also comparing notes from FanGraphs Leaderboards, I looked at the three combined years for starting pitchers in the NL going back to 1988 in their age-23, 24, and 25 seasons. With a set minimum of 400 innings pitched, I got a sample of 88 pitchers. Of the 88, here’s where Martinez ranks in the following categories:

  • IP: 580 (26th)
  • ERA: 3.24 (14th)
  • ERA-: 80 (8th)
  • FIP: 3.59 (27th)
  • FIP-: 88 (24th)
  • K%: 23.7% (10th)
  • BB%: 8.4% (53rd)
  • GB%: 54.0% (2nd)
  • OPS: .675 (25th)
  • bWAR: 12.3 (12th)
  • fWAR: 10.1 (27th)

Carlos Martinez is no Clayton Kershaw (few are), who has a stranglehold on a lot of the categories outlines above, but Martinez rests comfortably in the top third of every notable category but for walks, which he lowered from 8.7 percent in 2016 to 8.3 percent this past season – a mark right in line with the NL average for starters in 2017. He’s also excelled at striking out batters and keeping the ball on the ground. Last season he was one of only three starting pitchers (min: 175 IP) with a strikeout rate above 25 percent and a ground ball rate above 50 percent, joining Luis Severino and Jimmy Nelson.

Also, here’s a screenshot from the Play Index of the first 20 of the 88 as ranked by bWAR:

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 9.51.39 PM

As shown, Martinez is firmly embedded with some of the best young pitchers the NL has seen over the last 30 seasons. Martinez, of course, rates well in bWAR, which is calculated using more basic run prevention numbers, i.e., what actually happens on the field, and Martinez’s 3.24 ERA since 2015 is approximately a full run less than the NL average for starters during that span. fWAR is calculated with a “three true outcomes” FIP approach, but Martinez’s 3.59 FIP still outpaces the NL average for starters  since 2015 which comes in around 4.20.

So what do we make of this? That depends on your outlook.

Personally, I think the most welcoming sign is that Martinez is proving himself a durable pitcher. He threw 205.0 innings in 2017, his first time eclipsing the 200 IP mark and second to only Jeff Samardzija (207.2) in the NL. Now, maybe he shouldn’t have thrown that many innings. Last month, Tyler Kinzy of Viva El Birdos made a pretty convincing case that Mike Matheny is too slow to yank starting pitchers. But be that as it may, Martinez’s durability is not a trivial thing since it’s not easy figuring out where the innings are going to come from in 2018 with Mike Leake gone, Lance Lynn likely heading elsewhere as a free agent, and an aging Adam Wainwright coming off his second straight sub-par season.

Whether Martinez is an “ace” probably depends on your definition. What should be clear though is that he’s the most valuable pitcher on the Cardinals’ staff, and from that standpoint he is an ace, or at least he’s our ace. And he’s been one of the better young starting pitchers in the NL over the last 30 seasons.

 

 

Hello and welcome to Seat Cushion Night

For all intents and purposes, Seat Cushion Night is a St. Louis Cardinals-dedicated blog which I hope to update on both a frequent and consistent basis. This blog is named for the very first Cardinals game I attended in April 1987, which you can read about here.

If you follow me on Twitter (@alexcards79) or used to read my work at Viva El Birdos, you might know that I like to dabble in advanced statistics and toy around on Baseball Reference’s Play Index. Expect that to be the focus here.

Finally, I recognize that there’s no shortage of St. Louis Cardinals content online. Plenty of good stuff, too. And free time is not always everyone’s friend. So if you only have time to read one Cardinals blog, make it Viva El Birdos. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy this site.

Go Cardinals.