One nice thing about blogging about a singular team is that I can piggyback ideas from better writers who cover the sport at large and whittle those ideas down to just the Cardinals. Today's example, Solo Homer-A-Rama by Rob Mains at Baseball Prospectus. In this current era in which there are fewer balls put in play, Mains looked at whether this led to a rise in solo home runs. Makes sense, right? If there are fewer balls in play, there are fewer runners reaching base, and fewer runners to drive in when a player hits it out of the park.
You should absolutely read Mains's article (as well as everything else he writes), but if you lack the time or don't subscribe to Baseball Prospectus, I'll give away the conclusion: Yes, an increase in solo home runs in MLB dating back to the 60s is, in fact, a thing, and reached an all-time high in 2013 at 60.3 percent across the league, but the overall upswing is not that significant.
An inordinate amount of solo home runs feels like one of those things that each fan base thinks is more of an issue with their team. We spend all of our time with one team and after a while those are the types of biases that start to set in. The Cardinals are no different. Last season for whatever reason it felt like a statistical impossibility for Jedd Gyorko to hit a home run with runners on base. And 80 percent of Matt Carpenter's home runs this season have been of the solo variety, but that immediately makes sense when we remember that he bats leadoff.
But let's look at how this trend pertains to the Cardinals anyway. Going back to 2002 - mostly because that's what FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards allowed for - here's the percentage of solo home runs hit by the Cardinals as compared to the National League average (as always, excuse the poorly made graph).
Percentage of solo home runs
There does appear to be a trend in which the Cardinals have hit a higher percentage of solo home runs the past few seasons. Overall, however, there are really only three truly outlier seasons: 2002, 2009, and 2013.
In 2009, a whopping 64 percent of the Cardinals' home runs were of the solo variety even though the NL average held steady at 58 percent (and with a few exceptions, between 2002 and the present, the NL average has held steady at 58 or 59 percent). It didn't matter. The Cardinals went 91-71 anyway - which was right in line with their Pythagorean win/loss record - and won the NL Central by a comfortable margin.
In 2002, 53 percent of all home runs hit by Cardinals were with no one on base while the NL average was 59 percent. That's a possible indicator of a high scoring team and that was certainly true. The 2002 Cardinals were the second highest scoring team in the NL behind the Diamondbacks and turned that into a 97-65 record, and another comfortable NL Central title.
The season that jumps out the most, however, is 2013. That season was basically magic. It's almost common knowledge by now that the 2013 Cardinals hit .330 with runners in scoring position (along with a 137 wRC+), and to give you an idea of how unsustainable and crazy that was, the Tigers were second in MLB with a .282 average. But of their home run total (125), only 52 percent were solo shots, while the NL average was 61 percent (a tick above the 60 percent MLB average that season, as Mains detailed). Or, to put it another way, 48 percent of their home runs occurred with at least one runner on base and that's pretty remarkable.
Perhaps that's expected of a team that was very good at getting on base (their .332 on-base percentage led the NL), and, as noted, was also very good at hitting once runners were on base, but this stat had escaped me. (It didn't escape everyone though as Ben Humphrey, the former site manager at Viva El Birdos, wrote a very good column on this very thing back in March 2014.)
Other than theses three seasons, the Cardinals have stayed pretty close to the NL average. And they certainly haven't had a solo home run problem over the years. In fact, they've hit more home runs with runners on base by percentage than the NL average for ten of the 17 seasons detailed above. Last season they were exactly league average (59 percent), and the remaining six seasons in which they lagged behind, which includes the present season, everything turned out just fine, with the exception of 2007, I guess.
The lesson? There probably isn't one. The 2004 team, a scoring machine and arguably the best Cardinals team of a lot of our lifetimes, didn't excel at hitting a high percentage of home runs with runners on base. Even this season in which the team has hit the highest percentage of solo home runs (63 percent) for all Cardinals teams over the last 17 years is projected to do pretty well, all things considered. And we already discussed the 2009 team. But in the event (and in spite of Paul DeJong's welcoming two-run homer last night) you were ever wondering if the Cardinals were hitting too many solo home runs as compared to their peers, that has been the case this season, but that's been the exception and not the rule, and they've stayed pretty close to the overall trend in MLB.
Credit to FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards for the stats in this post.