Beneath the surface: Why the Pirates caught the Cardinals -

Beneath the surface: Why the Pirates caught the Cardinals

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By Vincent Pugliese By Vincent Pugliese

(Baseball StL) -- Hold on to your rapiers, here come the Pittsburgh Pirates again. The Bucs have made their now-familiar surge in the early half and have overtaken the Cardinals.

Many Cardinals fans, though largely unconcerned at this point in the season, still may wonder exactly how this happened. More importantly, they wonder how long it will last.

The first question is a bit easier to answer than the second, though it may not be immediately apparent. The Cardinals are better than the Pirates in nearly every offensive category. They are in the top 10 for runs, hits, doubles, RBIs, strikeouts, batting average, on base percentage, and OPS.

All of those stats have flaws of their own, but they show a pattern of undeniable offensive success. The catch-all (and perhaps best) offensive measurement is wOBA. As all hits are not created equal, wOBA combines all offensive factors and assigns value to each category. The Cardinals are averaging .326 (average) where the Pirates are averaging .306 (below average).

To put it in clear comparison, the Cards have 81 more runs, 102 more hits, and 77 more RBIs. St. Louis batters are also outperforming league averages in batting, slugging, and OPS at home, while the Pirates are hitting worse than the rest of the league in their own park.

So if it’s not hitting that did it for the Bucs, it must be pitching. I’ll skip right past the starters for the sake of time and assure you that the starting pitching for the Cardinals isn’t where the weakpoint is. Any fan worth their salt knows the Redbirds are dealing with a shaky pen, but they may not understand just how much better the Pirates are in that category.

Pittsburgh relievers have allowed just 13 of their 87 inherited runners score. The Cards have allowed 31/118. That’s 15% compared to 26%. The Pirates have 51 holds to the Birds’ 39, and 32 saves to the Cardinals' 23. They also have 19 wins in relief compared to the 6 for St. Louis.

Again, context perhaps informs these stats more than just raw numbers, but it's a pattern of superiority. One thing is certain: the Pirates are pitching on another planet when the game is on the line.

Leverage Index is a measure of how much the game hangs in the balance at a current moment. While the debate will rage over whether or not “high pressure” or “clutch” is an actual thing, Leverage Index is undoubtedly useful when comparing relief situations. I say this if  for no other reason than how you do when the bases are loaded in a one run game immediately affects the game more than how you do with no one on and a two-run lead.

High leverage situations are the most impactful situations when it comes to immediate game influence, and the Pirates relief team is hilariously ahead of the rest of baseball when it comes to winning them.

In high leverage scenarios, they are holding opposing teams to a wOBA of .216. The next best number (Reds) is .270. For reference, here’s the basic chart*:



Excellent .400
Great .370
Above Average .340
Average .320
Below Average .310
Poor .300
Awful .290


That means that the Reds relievers (good thing they aren't in our division too) are forcing opposing hitters to perform 20 points below awful in high-impact situations. The Pirates are dropping them 54 points lower than that- which is what? Super duper awful? Using-a-whiffle-bat bad?

The Pirates also lead the league in high-leverage innings pitched at 99.2. While the Diamondbacks are at 99.1, their opposition's wOBA is .302. 

The Cardinals are registering at .320 during those situations, by the way. So if you’re looking to figure out why the Birds couldn’t hold off the Pirates, there’s your answer. The Pirates don’t give up runs in relief and St. Louis does.

When the game is on the line, opposing players are hitting as well against the Cardinals as the Cardinals do normally. The Pirates reduce them to a team made entirely of Randy Johnsons.

Next: Can the Pirates Last?

*I say basic because wOBA is adjusted season-by-season. Depending on the year, ‘average’ might be a slightly different number that it was the season before based on league-wide performance. This chart is the general rule of thumb (provided by Fangraphs).


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