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The Cardinals' three runs or fewer problem

A couple of things happened when the Cardinals coughed up their 3-0 lead in the top of the 9th during the rubber match with the Braves on Sunday evening:

1) The eventual extra-innings loss meant that the Cardinals are still without back-to-back victories in the month of May (today is May 28, by the way);

2) The Cardinals are left still fighting for their first series win in May; and

3) The Cardinals (still) have just one victory in 2019 when scoring three or fewer runs.

(The 4-3 loss is also in pole position for the worst loss of the year but that is something we can discuss on a later date, or never.)

Regarding numbers 1 and 2, this has been a dreadful month of Cardinals baseball, the worst that I can recall. A mere 11-12 record through this point in May would have them currently sitting in first place. Instead, they've gone 7-16 (EDIT: original post incorrectly had this as 6-17), including 4-8 at home, and are tied for third with Pittsburgh. There's been bad pitching - partly a result of negligent roster construction - bad hitting, and some questionable managing to round it all out. A true collaborative effort.

For this post, however, I want to focus on arguably the least important note from above, that the Cardinals only have one victory in 2019 when scoring three or fewer runs. That came in the form of a 3-2 victory on April 30 over the Washington Nationals, perhaps the one team who has had as disappointing of a month as the Cardinals.

Let's get this out of the way right now: No one wins a lot of games this way. In 2019, teams have approximately a .185 winning percentage when scoring three or fewer runs. Still, MLB teams have been victorious 120 times when scoring three or fewer runs in 2019, and, to repeat, the Cardinals are responsible for only one of them. And that's in 17 tries. So 1-16. Here's how they stack up with the rest of the league by sheer wins.

Victories when scoring three runs or fewer

There's nothing entirely dispositive about any of this. Certainly no one wants to be associated with the Marlins and Giants, who find themselves firmly on the left side of the graphic above, whereas the 35-18 Yankees only have two more such wins than the Cardinals. And a good way to win a lot of games when scoring three or fewer runs is to compile a large sample size of scoring three or fewer runs. In other words, this might skew in favor of teams who don't score a lot. The Padres, for instance, rank 12th in the National League in total runs scored. That said, look at the right side of the graphic. Only one (Boston) of the final 11 teams noted - these are the teams who have won two games or fewer when scoring three or fewer runs - has a record above .500. Most of the good teams are hanging out at or near the left side.

We're approaching the completion of the first third of the season and it would be nice if the Cardinals exuded some confidence that they could win a low scoring, one-run game (as an FYI, they are currently 5-9 and have averaged 3.5 runs in one-run games), or a low scoring any type of game. That it's not necessary for the offense to put up a few crooked numbers in order for this team to have a chance. When I first mentioned this phenomenon (does this rise to the level of a phenomenon?) in last week's 10.5, I noted that this is not your 2015 Cardinals. No, indeed. That team won 16 games in this fashion, tied for the most in MLB with the Cubs. Overall, they won 100 games yet ranked in the bottom third of the NL in runs scored. They were a marvel.

So what to make of 2019? We can blame the bullpen (and the offense) for Sunday but this is mostly an indictment on the rotation, which, by now you should know the story. The starters have the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in the NL, and that should give you an idea where they rank in almost all predictive pitching metrics as well. The offense, however, should not be left off the hook here. At least not in the month of May. They mustered only three hits in ten innings during the Sunday night game that precipitated this post. Collectively, the Cardinals have a .370 slugging percentage in May, second worst in the NL after the Marlins. On paper, the pitching never quite looked good enough but the offense certainly did, and they're in a lot of trouble if the offense more resembles this month than April.

There's never a dignified way to end a post that might not even rise to the level of being that important in the first place, but here's a plea anyway: Batters, until we know otherwise, score more runs. They will probably be needed. And to the month of May, you may go now.

Credit to Baseball Reference's Play Index for a lot of the stats in this post.


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