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Five Things I Learned About the Cardinals in the Season’s First Half

Here’s my final look at the Cardinals’ first half and a list of things I’ve learned about this team so far in 2017 …

1. Starting pitching is the strength, and still the most important factor. The Cardinals ended the first half ranked 5th in the majors with a 3.90 rotation ERA, were 7th among MLB rotations for most innings pitched, and were No. 3 in the bigs with 48 quality starts. When the Cardinals are gifted with a quality start in a game, their winning percentage is .708. And with no quality starts? The Cardinals were 9-31 before the break for a .225 winning percentage.

2. The defense isn’t is as smooth as we’d like it to be, but there has been improvement. Bill James developed the Defensive Efficiency metric and it’s really quite simple. It boils down to this, and you don’t need to be an MIT grad to understand it: of all the batted balls in play against your team, how many are converted into outs? In the first half the Cardinals ranked 15th overall in Defensive Efficiency, turning 70.4 percent of balls in play into outs. In 2016 they finished 24th in DE,  getting outs on 69.6 percent of batted balls in play. The 2017 Cardinals are also 9th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency on ground balls. The outfield is still a problem though, with the Cards ranking 24th in DE on fly balls.

3. Mike Matheny has made progress in the basic task of betting his best team on the field with the necessary frequency and urgency. Two quick points here: first, this has been one of the things about the Beloved Leader of Men that’s caused me to ramp up my supply of Polish vodka. The Matt Adams/LF thing was an early travesty. Second, some of the better personnel usage can be attributed to roster decisions made by John Mozeliak and Mike Girsch, and when the bosses send a player to the minors or designate him for assignment, they’re making the manager turn to other choices. But I think Matheny is figuring it out better than he used to. Yeah, yeah … he should have snapped to it sooner. And he still isn’t in the clear; we’ll be monitoring playing time in the outfield and watching right fielder Stephen Piscotty — who shouldn’t have a free pass, entitling him to regular starts, unless he ratchets up his hitting performance. Another area to monitor is center field; will Matheny put his best CF defender there (Tommy Pham) and move Dexter Fowler to a corner OF spot?

But Matheny supported 2B Kolten Wong early in the season when it would have been easy to overreact to a few bad games …  it was a little slow, but at least Matheny came to realize that Jhonny Peralta needed to sit, and Jedd Gyorko needed to be the third baseman. When the bosses demoted Aledmys Diaz, Matheny embraced the idea of playing rookie Paul DeJong at shortstop. Matheny has been enthusiastic in working rookie Luke Voit into the lineup at first base. And while injuries and at least one demotion (Randal Grichuk) obviously factor into this equation, Pham has started the most games by a Cardinal outfielder since being called up from Memphis on May 5. And though I believe as a general principle this notion of Matt Carpenter being unable to function unless he’s batting first is absurd, Carpenter has a .438 onbase percentage, .543 slug and .981 OPS in 30 games since being moved to No. 1 in the lineup.

4. The Cardinals offense has absolutely, positively improved. And I don’t think it’s an accident, or just the usual randomness that’s part of a long season. As I wrote and talked about Wednesday the Cardinals are transitioning during this season, and personnel changes have put some juice in this offense. Carpenter batting first created a spark. The Memphis brigade (DeJong, Voit, Pham) boosted the adrenaline and the production. Yadier Molina put together some impressive hitting streaks. Dexter Fowler is having his best slugging-percentage season of his career. Dead bats have been removed, or at least deemphasized, and replaced by lively impact bats.

In their last 30 games before the annual All-Star celebration, the Cardinals averaged 5.7 runs per game —  third best among the 30 teams over that time. In this 30-game groove the Cardinals batted .268, had a boffo .346 team onbase percentage, slugged .475, and had an .822 OPS that ranked fourth. The Cards’ timely hitting perked up, with a .310 average with runners in scoring position in these last 30.

How important was this blast of offense? The Cardinals put up a 17-13 record despite their rotation straining with a 4.58 ERA over 30 starts.  Look, I don’t know if this pace is sustainable. Probably not. But is this offense genuinely better? Absolutely. That said, the Cardinals’ season-long average of 4.57 runs per game — 19th overall, 10th in the NL — is misleading. It isn’t an accurate representation of where this offense is right now because of meaningful personnel changes and lineup switches. The team averaged 4.0 runs through the first 58 games; in the NL only San Francisco scored fewer runs from the start of the season through June 8.

In the first 58 games, when you look at who had the most plate appearances, the top six in PA includes Aledmys Diaz and Randal Grichuk.

Over the last 30 games, the Cards’ top six for most plate appearances doesn’t have Diaz or Grichuk on it but does include Pham and DeJong.

In the last 30 games the Cardinals have seven hitters that are at least 30 percent above the league average offensively for park-adjusted runs created (wRC+). That includes Voit, who wasn’t promoted until June 25. It also includes Jose Martinez, who was inexplicably demoted to Memphis earlier this month.

5. The Cardinals were a bad-luck team in the first half. I talked about this on my Thursday radio show and said I wouldn’t bore anyone by trying to explain “cluster luck” in a comprehensive way. It’s complicated. But the most simple way I can explain it is this:  When a team’s hitters cluster hits together to score more runs and a team’s pitchers spread hits apart to allow fewer runs, that’s known as cluster luck. All 30 front offices in MLB pays attention to this advanced metric, and that’s good enough for me.

In the first half of the season the Cardinals were ranked 23rd in the majors in overall cluster luck — and were especially unlucky on offense. Contrast that to Milwaukee, the first-place team in the NL Central, which was No. 3 in cluster luck in the first half.  If the Cardinals’ luck turns more favorably, and Milwaukee’s luck sours, the clustering could influence the division race.

That said, the Cardinals were a tad above average in cluster luck for preventing runs. And the rival Cubs ranked 25th in cluster luck, so they’re probably going to benefit from a turn in luck in the second half.

You can take a look at the current cluster luck rankings by clicking here.

I learned a lot of other things in the first half but wanted to keep this list at five, to help you stay awake rather than fall asleep while you’re trying to get through a list of  “172 things I learned in the first half.”

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie

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