The Cardinals Struggle Against Lefties (Or Do They?)

It’s all the same, only the names will change. Every day, it’s seems the Cards are wasting away…versus lefties, at least. It’s become normal, and expected, that when the Cardinals face a lefthanded pitcher the results probably aren’t going to be very good. We can’t explain it. The hitters change, the pitchers change, but the struggles remain. And it’s been this way forever.

At least that’s the way it seems.

So, on the heels of a no-run performance against Chicago LHP, Carlos Rodon, I decided to dig into the numbers and find out; does perception match reality?

Over the last few years…

It’s been all over the place. The following chart shows the team record in games started by a LHP (and MLB rank), and their wRC+ vs. LHP (and MLB rank) going back to 2002.

To keep things simple, I’ll just use one stat, wRC+, which is a catch-all offensive stat and is weighted relative to the league, so it keeps things in perspective. I went back to ’02 because that is how far back Fangraphs provides the vs. L split for teams. Thanks to Fangraphs for the split tool and Baseball-Reference for detailed historical standings.

Year | wRC+ (Rk) | Record (Rk) | Year | wRC+ (Rk) | Record (Rk)
2018 | 92 (17th) | 11-13 (18th) | 2009 | 80 (29th) | 28-21 (7th)
2017 | 104 (6th) | 19-16 (8th) | 2008 | 100 (14th) | 27-29 (20th)
2016 | 99 (17th) | 20-24 (24th) | 2007 | 98 (19th) | 29-27 (12th)
2015 | 84 (25th) | 25-18 (3rd) | 2006 | 89 (24th) | 23-34 (26th)
2014 | 104 (9th) | 21-18 (12th) | 2005 | 103 (10th) | 32-20 (1st)
2013 | 86 (22nd) | 19-23 (20th) | 2004 | 110 (3rd) | 26-13 (2nd)
2012 | 113 (2nd) | 31-17 (2nd) | 2003 | 122 (2nd) | 19-17 (11th)
2011 | 113 (5th) | 19-20 (20th) | 2002 | 102 (8th) | 21-16 (8th)
2010 | 96 (15th) | 26-28 (19th)

Here’s how that summarizes:

Starting with wRC+, the Cardinals have been Top 10 in MLB vs. LHP 8 times in the last 17 years. They have been 14th (nearly middle of the pack) or lower 9 times, including 4 times in the bottom 10. Now, 4 of those Top 10 seasons occurred from ’02-’05, seasons in which the MV3 was together and healthy, and supplemented by very good RH hitters, like Edgar Renteria and Reggie Sanders.

Fittingly, league average wRC+ is 100, and that has typically fallen right around 15th every year. So if we just look at the last 13 seasons, 4 have seen Top 10 finishes in wRC+ vs. LHP (above average), with the other 9 years ending with the Cardinals in the bottom half of baseball (exactly average or below).

In nearly 70% of the seasons since ’06, they haven’t hit LHP very well, as a team.

Now to the records. Since 2002, the Cardinals are a collective 413-354 (+59) in games started by a LHP. If we again take away those peak MV3 years, they are 315-288 (+27). So they have won more games started by LHP than they have lost. But not by much, averaging a hair more than 2 games over .500 in that category over the last 13 years. 7 of the last 13 have had records below .500.

There is some correlation between how they hit collectively and their record, but there are also a couple major outliers each way. 2009 and 2015, in particular, were great pitching years so it makes sense that they overcame poor offensive performance and posted good records. Still, typically they win when they hit well and lose when they don’t, as you would expect.

And as I said before, over the last 13 years, they’ve hit poorly and had a losing record the majority of the time.

So, going back to my original question…Does perception match reality?

Yes.

It’s not just fan exaggeration, the Cardinals actually have a track record of mostly being not-so-good vs. LHP, over the last dozen years.

But should they be bad in 2018?

Collectively, the team is currently below average with a 92 wRC+ (17th in MLB), and their 11-13 record vs. LH is ranks 18th in baseball. However, many key players have above average numbers vs. LHP this year.

Running down the list by wRC+ we have: Jedd Gyorko-172, Harrison Bader-148, Matt Carpenter-129 (some fans probably can’t believe that he hits LH well), Tommy Pham-112, Jose Martinez-102, and Marcell Ozuna-98. That’s 6 players you can start that are (nearly) average or better against lefties. The two that aren’t are Dejong and Molina, who have a .208 and .200 BABIP, respectively, vs. LHP. That’s unsustainable and unlucky. Even so, 6 average-to-above hitters should be enough to find success.

I attribute some of the struggles to bad timing. When Pham was hitting LHP early in the year, Carpenter wasn’t, Gyorko was hurt, and Bader had yet to take on a platoon role with Fowler. Then those things flipped. The offensive pieces have never been healthy or clicking at the same time all year.

Jose Martinez should be doing more as well. Last season he had an insane 240 wRC+ and .847 SLG against lefties. This year its a modest 102 wRC+ and puny .361 SLG. Pham has also dropped 164 points off of his SLG compared to last year. And it’s well documented that Fowler has just 4 hits from the right side this year, which is almost unfathomable for a guy that is a career .290 hitter against LHP. Ozuna should also be doing better than just below average, which is the theme for his season. Still, against LH the last two years he’s had a wRC+ of 143 (’16) and 112 (’17).

This particular team should not be bad against LHP, but they are.

Same as it ever was.

For whatever reason, not hitting LHP well is just a Cardinals thing.

Thanks for reading!

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Brewers9667.589 -
Cubs9568.5831.0
Cardinals8874.5437.5
Pirates8279.50913.0
Reds6795.41428.5

Last updated: 10/01/2018

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