Friday, October 02, 2009

Cardinal Pitching, Defense - Good Enough to win the NL?

In our last post, we looked at the Cardinal offense as compared to the rest of the NL playoff teams, and the last few NL champs, to see how they stacked up.

The results were not encouraging.

However, unlike rec softball, playoff baseball is not just about scoring runs. It's also about preventing runs from being scored by your opponent. OK, that's true in rec softball too, but its not as critical (You can win a softball game 35-29. Don't know if any playoff game has featured a score that ridiculous). So let's look at Cardinal pitching and defense.

Team Pitching

It's a well-documented fact the Big 3 (Carpenter, Wainwright, Pineiro) fueled the Cardinals' August surge to the NL Central pennant. They won't throw all the innings in the playoffs, however, so this will be a team comparison. I looked at ERA for the casual fan, and BABIP and FIP for the more statistically-inclined (and by way of explanation, BABIP is Batting Average for Balls In Play, which does have a defensive component, and Fielding Independent Percentage, which tries to take the defensive effect on ERA out). All stats are from the Fangraphs database.

Number in parens is the team's NL rank.

BABIP: LA - .283 (1), STL - .297 (5), PHI - .303 (8), COL - .306 (11).
ERA: LA - 3.45 (1), STL - 3.62 (4), PHI - 4.14 (6), COL - 4.23 (8).
FIP: STL - 3.80 (2), LA - 3.81 (3), COL - 3.98 (5), PHI - 4.38 (11).

If sports reporting is to believed, Los Angeles' starting pitching at the moment is in disarray (less Randy Wolf), but the body of their work doesn't support that. Based on their ERA and BABIP numbers their pitchers have benefited from good defense behind them, but their FIP says the pitching's been good too (for what it's worth, ATL leads the league in FIP at 3.65). St Louis' pitching has benefited slightly from their defense, but their pitching as we've seen has been outstanding.

The interesting thing to me is Colorado's staff has pitched better than ERA would imply. Philadelphia's staff has been worse than their ERA indicates, despite the addition of Cliff Lee, and Joe Blanton being one of the best pitchers in the NL since 1 June.

Looks like the Cardinals/Dodgers series will be a low-scoring one, and the Colorado/Philadelphia might be a high scoring affair.

Comparing the last 5 NL Champions in these categories, here's what we find:

All these teams were in the top 5 of National League teams in BABIP; only LA and STL rank in that range with 3 to play. Everyone's in the top 8 in ERA (all of the 2009 teams are too), with 3 of the 5 winners in the top 4 (again only STL and LA). There's a lot of variation in the FIP numbers, driven by the 2006 and 2007 champs; the other teams are top 5, and in 2009 that's Colorado, Saint Louis, and LA.

If any conclusion can be drawn from this small sample, it would indicate St Louis and Los Angeles most closely fit the profiles of most of the previous NL Champs, so they would have a leg up. Of course, this year's Phillie pitching staff looks a lot like the 2006 Cardinal staff, although that Cardinal team hit better than this year's Phillie team based on the stats I'm using in these posts.

BABIP indicates that good defense is a factor too (duh, right?). Let's look.

Team Fielding

Fangraphs defensive data is a bit limited, so I've looked at UZR. Their UZR/150 data was +/- 1 place of the UZR data.

UZR: PHI - 4, LA - 7, STL - 8, COL - 9.

As expected, UZR data tracks with the difference between ERA and FIP discussed above. PHI is a lot better defensively based on UZR than I thought prior to looking at the data.

Looking at past Champs:

2008 - PHI #1 in NL
2007 - COL #6
2006 - STL #5
2005 - HOU #5, STL #6
2004 - STL #4

Small sample size conclusion: Teams winning the league were ranked no lower than 6th in the NL in team defense (as evaluated by UZR). That would suggest only Philadelphia has the defensive chops to win the NL this year.


Cardinal Pitching is definitely good enough to win the NL. Their defense is decidedly average, and might not be good enough.

To summarize these 2 posts:

1. Need to be in the top 3 in wOBA. All playoff teams but STL meet that requirement.
2. Need to be top 5 in BABIP. LA and STL meet that requirement.
3. Need to be in top 6 in UZR. Only Philadelphia meets that metric.
4. Small sample size makes these conclusions suspect.

What we can say is, going into next week, the Phillies, Rockies, and Dodgers have better offensive numbers than St Louis, and only Los Angeles' pitching staff is comparable to St Louis'. And although Philadelphia has the best defensive numbers of the four, that advantage is offset by their overall below-average pitching. And it gives some credence to the belief the playoffs under the current format are ultimately a crapshoot; the team that just barely qualifies has just as good a shot at winning the whole thing as the team that's played .600 ball all year.

If good pitching stops good hitting, then LA or STL will win the league. If good hitting is more important, then Colorado is the team to beat.

Let's start already.

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