Updated: Nov 24, 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
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.
this article was originally written on Seat Cushion Night