The St. Louis Cardinals were eliminated from the postseason by the Nationals in the NLCS. What does a deeper dive into analytics tell us about their run?
2019 has been a very interesting year for the St. Louis Cardinals full of ups and downs throughout the season, with first-half struggles followed by a second-half rise towards the postseason!
The Cards were hovering around .500 up until July 12th (56% of the season) before they maintained a run from July 13th onwards where they went .644 (47-26) for the remainder of the season.
This culminated in a team that was widely predicted to end up with mid-80’s wins finishing with 91 wins, winning the National League Central and therefore making the postseason for the first time since 2015. The redbirds then went on to win their National League Divisional Series and made their first National League Championship Series since 2014.
The postseason was an absolute rollercoaster of highs and lows, with an NLDS Game 5 win over Atlanta followed up by a very challenging, and rather disappointing, NLCS series against Washington. What does a deeper dive into analytics tell us about their run?
NLDS –Atlanta Braves vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals had previously played in 13 NLDS series, winning 77% of these whereas the Braves had won just 43% of their 14 NLDS series. Additionally, of these 13 series, the Cardinals had won 74% of their games held at Busch Stadium (19) comprised of five sweeps, four splits and a loss.
Across the five series, per Baseball Reference, there were 396 periods classed as having a relevant Win Probability Added (WPA) and the St. Louis Cardinals had a greater than 50% chance of winning in 53% of these. Both Games 1 and 3 were bullpen meltdowns, with the Cards trailing or drawing for 24 of 27 at-bats in Game 1 and so only had a greater than 50% chance of winning for 17% of the game.
Likewise in Game 3, the Cards lead for seven innings and so had a greater than 50% chance of winning for 86% of the game, but lost it in the top of the 9th. Games 2 and 5 were blowouts with the Braves having at least a 50% chance of winning for the entirety of Game 2 and similarly for the Cardinals in Game 5.
Then lastly in Game 4, there was a lot of back and forth with the score staying close throughout and the Cardinals having a greater than 50% chance of winning for 57% of the game, finally getting the win through a Yadier Molina walk off.
This series with the Braves was the Cardinals first Divisional Series game since they took on the Cubs in 2015 and it started in much the same way with the Cards taking Game 1 to kick off with a series win, then losing Games 2 and 3 meaning they went into Game 4 on the brink of elimination.
But unlike that Cubs series in 2015, this roster was able to mount a Yadier Molina-filled comeback. Yadi hit a single in the bottom of the 8th to score Paul Goldschmidt and then coming up clutch in the bottom of the 10th hitting a sac fly to score Kolten Wong and take the series back to Atlanta for a Game 5! Game 5 was then over by the end of the first inning with the Cards scoring 10 runs and having a 98% win expectation by the end of the 1st.
So a look into some of the numbers that underpinned the series:
St. Louis Cardinals pitching was excellent throughout the series, with the entire pitching staff having a 2.60 ERA which is the second-best team ERA in the 2019 Divisional Series only bettered by the Yankees 2.33 ERA in their 3-0 sweep of the Twins. This was the Cardinals lowest since their 2013 series against the Dodgers where they had a 2.09 ERA.
The one challenge of the pitching staff was closing out games and Carlos Martinez struggled in this series giving up six earned runs in 3.1 innings. So, if you were to remove Carlos Martinez’s innings from the pitching staff, the Cardinals would have had a 1.51 ERA which would have been their best since the 2006 NLDS where they had a 1.50 ERA against the San Diego Padres.
Although starting pitching was strong for the Cards, closing out games was a struggle for both teams with three blown saves recorded in the series (one for the Red Birds and two for the Braves) which in turn is the most blown saves ever in a Cardinals Divisional Series game since the inception of the Divisional Series in 1995.
Not only was the pitching excellent in this NLDS, the batting was also very hot for the Cards with the cleanup hitters, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, having a big series. Goldy had a 1.383 OPS, hitting two homers, six extra-base hits and having a 0.46 WPA mirrored by Ozuna’s 1.335 OPS, two homers, five extra-base hits and a 0.41 WPA.
This was the most WPA by two offensive players on the Cardinals in the postseason since Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams combined for 1.30 WPA in the 2014 NLDS.
So, overall the Cardinals hitters managed to get hits aboard in this series, a large proportion of which went for extra bases. 48% of the Cardinals hits went for extra bases which was the best % of all teams in the 2019 NLDS and the best % of a divisional series team since the Dodgers in 2018 (48%) and the most in a divisional series game (21) since Astros in 2004 (23).
The Cardinals hit the most doubles (16) since the Red Sox in 1999 (17) and had four players with at least three doubles (Kolten Wong, Goldy, Tommy Edman, Ozuna) which is the most ever in a Divisional Series game since they started in 1995.
And this wouldn’t be a Cardinals write-up without mentioning THAT Game 5 1st inning where the Red Birds scored 10 runs, the most ever scored in the first inning of a postseason game and the joint-most scored in any inning of a postseason game. They scored all of their runs in this game without hitting a single home run, bettered only by themselves when they scored 17 runs against the Pirates in May 2019 without hitting a homer.
So this culmination of good starting pitching, a solid bullpen (aside from Carlos Martinez), and the batters staying hot throughout lead to the Cardinals’ first National League Divisional Series win since 2014, and this set them up with a Championship Series with home-field advantage against the Washington Nationals.
NLCS – St. Louis Cardinals vs. Washington Nationals
The St. Louis Cardinals had previously played in 13 NLCS series, winning 54% of these whereas the Washington Nationals had never been in an NLCS before, with their prior franchise Montreal Expos losing 3-2 to the Dodgers in 1981.
Unlike the back-and-forth series against the Braves which kept everybody on edge throughout, the Washington Nationals steamrolled the Cardinals with four dominating pitching performances from the Nats and the Cardinals bats desperately struggling to come to life, leading to a 4-0 sweep and Washington going on to their first World Series in franchise history and denying the Cards the opportunity to make their 20th world series and first since 2013.
Looking into the numbers that defined this Championship Series:
This was the first NLCS sweep since the Cubs were swept by the Mets in 2015, and only the fourth NLCS sweep since the Championship Series become a best-of-seven series in 1985.
The St. Louis Cardinals pitching wasn’t bad at all with Miles Mikolas only allowing one earned run in 6.0 IP in Game 1, followed by a vintage Adam Wainwright performance where, had Mike Schildt pulled him after 7.0 innings and trusted the bullpen, he would have allowed just one earned run over those seven innings.
Additionally, the team threw 11.65 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched with the Nationals pitching 12.00 SO/9. So the key issue was the lack of offense from the team, a historical lack of offense in fact!
The Cardinals started the game hitless for 7.2 innings in Game 1 and six innings in Game 2, only mustering four hits in total at Busch Stadium across those two home games to open the series.
Anibal Sanchez threw 7.2 innings allowing only one hit which was closed out by Sean Doolittle, and then the following day Max Scherzer threw 7.0 innings allowing only one hit which was collectively closed out by Doolittle, Patrick Corbin, and Daniel Hudson. The Nationals starters across the first three games threw 21.2 innings for a 0.00 ERA and combined for a 1.253 Win Probability Added.
The Cardinal offense never came to life during this series, so much so that they never lead Washington throughout the entirety of the series. A feat only matched by the 2015 Cubs against the Mets and the 2012 Yankees against the Tigers in a best of seven championship series in the entirety of the postseason!
The Cardinals offense batted for a .130/.195/.179 slash which is the worst performance ever in a championship series and the .130 batting average was, in fact, the worst ever in a best-of-seven series in the entirety of the postseason with the next worst being the 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers who hit .142 against the Orioles.
What goes hand in hand with a lack of hits? That would be a mountain of strikeouts, which the Cardinals managed to do with striking out 48 times across the games, which is an average of 12 strikeouts per game.
More from St Louis Cardinals News
- Cardinals Rumors: 3 pros and cons of signing Carlos Rodon
- Cardinals: Here is Willson Contreras’ first message for St. Louis fans
- How do the St. Louis Cardinals stack up with Willson Contreras?
- Cardinals: The insane asking price the Athletics had for Sean Murphy
- St. Louis Cardinals: Ask me anything with Josh Jacobs – 12/8
This was the most ever in the NLCS since it became a seven-game-series and the most in any seven-game series since the 2013 Red Sox in the ALCS who average 12.1 strikeouts per game. The Nationals did their best to mirror this with 44 strikeouts, but the Cardinals took the “trophy” here with the NLDS key bats taking the lead with Paul Goldschmidt and Marcel Ozuna striking out a combined 17 times (more than every Cards player together in Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS).
The sole saving grace on offense for the Cardinals was Jose Martinez who came off the bench in Games 1 and 2 and started Games 3 and 4 to get 31% of the Cardinals total hits (5 of 16) while only taking 12% of at-bats (10 of 123). So if we removed Jose Martinez from the lineup, this further reduced the slash line down to .097/.171/.133 which would have given the Cards a .304 OPS and added further insult to injury!
The drop in OPS from the NLDS (.737) to the NLCS (.374) was .363 was the largest drop since the Dodgers hit .962 in the 2013 NLDS against the Braves but then were held to .593 in the 2013 NLCS against the Cardinals leading to a .369 drop in OPS. This poor showing ensured the Cardinals had a lower drop in OPS than even the 2012 Tigers who swept the Yankees 4-0 in the NLCS then were swept in the World Series 4-0 against the Giants.
So lots of excitement early on with the Divisional Series, kept fans enthralled and looking forward to the 2020 season, but when followed up by four tepid performances, particularly from the offense in the Championship Series this has opened up many questions about what the Cardinals should do in the offseason. It will be a very interesting winter in St. Louis!