When Adam Wainwright tore his Achilles tendon in April, the St. Louis Cardinals were left without their true ace—let alone one of baseball’s top pitchers—for most of the season. Despite the setback, the National League powerhouse has relied on a pitching staff on pace to challenge MLB record books.
At 73-41, St. Louis owns the majors' best record in 2015—at least five games ahead of any other team and six in front of a tough NL Central that might produce three playoff teams.
Yet the Cardinals have done so not by scoring runs—sorry, Bill James apologists—but rather by preventing them.
St. Louis pitchers have allowed 2.93 runs per game this season—the best in the league by more than 0.5 runs—while scoring just 3.97 (21st in the league).
But it’s the 2.93 per game that could go down as one of the best marks ever when considering it’s 29.2 percent lower than the league average of 4.14.
|Runs Allowed Per Game Since 1995|
|Year||Team||Runs Allowed||MLB Avg.||Pct. Diff.|
|The Wall Street Journal|
Its dominance blows away the average MLB team at a rate that's almost unheard of.
A study by Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal pointed out the Cardinals arms corps is one of MLB’s best of the past century: "Only one team since 1900, the 1906 Chicago Cubs, performed better, allowing 2.46 runs a game compared with a league average of 3.62—a difference of 32 percent."
Even without Wainwright, who went 2-1 with a 1.44 ERA in four starts before his injury, for much of the season, Cardinals starters own a collective 2.77 ERA so far this season.
If it holds up, that would be the lowest ERA by a starting rotation in 30 years—the 1985 Dodgers accumulated a 2.71 mark.
Paul Casella of Sports on Earth noted the unusual path the St. Louis starters have taken, though: "The Cardinals have seemed to collectively master run prevention, all without a single pitcher ranking within the top 15 in strikeouts, WHIP or strikeout-to-walk ratio."
Either way, all five starting pitchers, from the 36-year-old John Lackey to the 23-year-old Carlos Martinez, sit below a 3.00 ERA at the moment.
Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh pointed out the St. Louis pitching staff strands baserunners at a rate no other team in history can match.
|Highest Team Left-on-Base Percentage: MLB History|
Some of the contributions might come from a resilient starting rotation. But the Cardinals employ a bullpen that isn’t shabby, either.
More interesting are the members of the Cardinals pen.
There’s the starter-turned-closer, Trevor Rosenthal, who’s tied for the league lead with 35 saves. There’s Randy Choate, a 39-year-old workhorse, and Kevin Siegrist, a 26-year-old setup specialist. Then you have two recent additions in veterans Jonathan Broxton and Steve Cishek—former dominant closers who are now role players.
No matter the name or story, each reliever is capable of entering a game in a jam and shutting down opposing offenses.
The statistics show that Cardinals pitchers, as an entire unit, get more dominant once runners reach base, per Baseball-Reference.com:
|Cardinals Pitching Splits: 2015|
St. Louis pitchers allow a .257 batting average when the bases are empty—23rd in MLB and 10 points worse than the league average this season.
When runners get on or, even worse, get in scoring position, they turn into monsters and allow batters to hit just .212 and .194, respectively, in those situations—both marks rank first in the majors by a wide margin.
No other club is close to the Cardinals when it comes to the key moments of run prevention: when the opponent has scoring chances. Credit has to go not only to the pitchers, but also to veteran catcher Yadier Molina, whose skills at framing and calling pitchers are most valuable in those pressure situations.
Baseball's new-age thinking based in analytics claims that scoring runs ultimately leads to winning ballgames. Yet the Cardinals are dispelling that notion in 2015.
Even the offensive stars in St. Louis have bought in. Per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter said the following:
We’ve played in close ballgames before. Just scoring runs is not a good plan over the course of the season. You have to play good defense. You have to pitch. That’s how you win close games. That’s how you lead the league in wins, in my opinion.
A team that struggles with creating runs, as St. Louis does, needs to excel in run prevention—something the Cardinals do.
“I honestly think this is how you win in the playoffs," outfielder Jason Heyward told Goold, "so we’re going to have a lot of experience built up.”
The Cardinals may be without their bona fide ace, but they have more than made up for the loss.
Their pitching has them on pace for a 99-win season, according to FanGraphs' projections, and one of the best overall performances by a staff in MLB history.
It's safe to say, no matter how many runs the Cardinals score in a given game, they'll be darned if they don't allow fewer.