Updated: Jun 17, 2018
If you're like me, you're probably finding yourself becoming more interested in a Team USA-less World Cup and less interested in Cardinals baseball these days. OK, that's not totally true as I'm no fan of the footie, but still. It's not been watchable baseball. The team's recent performance against what should have been a soft spot in the schedule and recent merciless beatdown by the Cubs has left even the most die-hard front office apologists calling for firings. Everyone hates the Mabes right now, and some cogent cases have been made for his release.
Throughout the season we've seen some weird, prolonged slump from seemingly everyone in the lineup at one time or another. It's like the team is cursed with only being allowed to have one or two hitters at a time be hot. I'm as perplexed as the rest of you, so that led me to do a little investigation. I know the Cardinal's lineup has been less than what we hoped, but are they really this bad?
The club has a .308 wOBA, that's tied for 6th lowest in the National League. Not good. But I also noticed that they had the 4th lowest BABIP in the league at .278. That either indicates some bad luck or bad contact. Now this lineup -- as flawed as it is -- isn't filled with a bunch of Punch & Judy hitters, so I thought bad luck could be involved.
So I strolled over to FanGraphs and saw that according to Baseball Info Solution's data the Cardinals are making more hard contact than any team in the National League. Yes, you read that right. 38.8% of the balls they put in play are considered "hard" contact.
Thanks to Statcast, we have more detailed data than what we have from BIS. They have a fancy stat called expected wOBA, which should tell us what the Cardinals should be hitting based on the balls they put in play. I can make a lame attempt at defining xWOBA for you, but I'll just quote it straight from the source:
"Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) is formulated using exit velocity and launch angle, two metrics measured by Statcast.
In the same way that each batted ball is assigned a Hit Probability, every batted ball has been given a single, double, triple and home run probability based on the results of comparable batted balls -- in terms of exit velocity and launch angle -- since Statcast was implemented Major League-wide in 2015.
All hit types are valued in the same fashion for xwOBA as they are in the formula for standard wOBA: (unintentional BB factor x unintentional BB + HBP factor x HBP + 1B factor x 1B + 2B factor x 2B + 3B factor x 3B + HR factor x HR)/(AB + unintentional BB + SF + HBP), where "factor" indicates the adjusted run expectancy of a batting event in the context of the season as a whole.
Knowing the expected outcomes of each individual batted ball from a particular player over the course of a season -- with a player's real-world data used for factors such as walks, strikeouts and times hit by a pitch -- allows for the formation of said player's xwOBA based on the quality of contact, instead of the actual outcomes."
If your brain hurts a little, I'm sorry. Be patient for me and wait for the punch line, hopefully it'll make you a little more optimistic.
So anyway, expected wOBA is helpful because this stat tells us more about the player's actual skill than regular wOBA. Hitters are able to influence exit velocity and launch angle. But they have zero control over what happens to a batted ball once it's put in play. So if a player has a .375 wOBA but has hit a lot of dribblers go through the middle or bloops that fell in for a hit, they're due to regress to the mean. On the other hand, if a low-wOBA player is hitting a lot of "loud outs", they're a candidate to improve.
Interestly, Craig Edwards of FanGraphs discovered that xWOBA is a better predictor of future performance than actual wOBA. Cardinal Twitter's favorite trade target Manny Machado is a poster boy of this fact. Hakuna Machado produced a meh .328 wOBA in 2017. But based on the quality of his contact, his xwOBA was .368. This season he has an actual wOBA of .393.
So as a team, could the Cards be victims of some bad luck? What has been the Cardinal's expected wOBA?
The answer: .334, which is tied for 1st with the Dodgers and +.001 ahead of the Cubs, who have an actual National League-leading wOBA of .328.
You read that right. Based on batted ball data, the Cardinals should just not be experiencing this much suckitude. I'm not saying Mabry is a great hitting coach or that he's a very bad hitting coach. But the Cardinals are hitting the ball on the screws more often than other teams, they're just victims to a mix of good defense and bad luck. That's not Mabry's fault. It's crazy to think, I know.
Let's look at individual performers here:
Well, well, well. Look what we have here. All of the team's notorious slumpers throughout the season have huge differences in wOBA and expected wOBA. Marp got off to a horrible start but was the victim of some bad luck as pointed out by our own Zach Gifford. He's now seemingly back to his normal self.
Ozuna was not at all the player we thought we were getting, at least up until his recent tear that has made us all take a deep sigh of relief. Has he made some adjustments? The recent uptick in homers definitely indicates that, but he's also having more balls fall for hits.
Pham is the most recent Cardinal hitter that suddenly has been less than Phamtastic. But based on what we've seen here, he has been squaring the ball better over the course of the season than his actual numbers indicate. I'm confident Pham will be back.
And Molina...well, he's been making better contact than I expected. The one funny thing about xWOBA is it fails to consider footspeed, so he's probably not a .381 wOBA guy considering he has to speed up to stop. But he's been hitting into some funky luck. Matheny's probably not a secret genius by batting him 3rd in Saturday's lineup, but maybe -- I know this sounds crazy -- but just maybe he's seen that Yadi's been making as good of contact as Ozuna and Pham.
And while Fowler has been absolutely wretched, according to his batted balls he's merely been ...well, by this standard he's still been bad, just not as bad as his current numbers indicate. The crazy thing is he's actually been a hair better than everyone's favorite hustler and defensive whiz Harrison Bader, who according to this has had the reverse luck of much of the Cardinals lineup. I'd rather see Bader get more starts too, because of his glove, but it's interesting to note.
And by the way, Jose Martinez is still good at hitting the based balls.
So take a deep breath everyone. Put down your torches and pitchforks. I know it has felt bad. And that's because it has been bad, according to the results. But if you're a believer in that if you square the ball good things will happen, the Cardinals actually have been really good at that so far this season. Way better than many of us have realized. Yet those good things that should be happening somehow have not been consistently happening. And that's just not sustainable. There's a good reason that the heart of the lineup can actually be expected to rebound.
Baseball, please stop being so weird to my team.