Sep 14, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Tommy Edman (19) is congratulated by catcher Yadier Molina (4) after hitting a solo home run off of Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Jordan Lyles (not pictured) during the second inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
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It’s a seemingly flukey, intangible sports thing. Some players have a knack for stepping up — or at least staying the same — when the moment gets big, as opposed to shrinking and failing. Clutch moments make sports exciting, and success in those moments typically separate the good teams from the bad.
And so I pose a question. On offense, are the 2019 Cardinals clutch?
Not sure, right?
Feels like they could be, but then again they have been pretty mediocre on offense, right?
Well, they are.
Digging Up Numbers
This began as many posts do, with me perusing FanGraphs. This time, due to several articles focused on Paul Goldschmidt and his return to Arizona, I was looking over his numbers.
I had noticed last week that Goldschmidt was, kind of quietly, putting together a big September, trailing only his Player-of-the-Month performance in July as far as monthly splits go. I went to his splits to check in on that progress, and found something interesting.
Quick aside, in case you are wondering. Yes, Goldy is having a big month, posting the following numbers: .271/.435/.557, 12 runs, 21 RBI, 13 Extra-base hits.
A little further down his 2019 splits, my eye was drawn to his “clutch” stats, which are the Low-, Medium-, and High-Leverage classifications that FanGraphs assigns to plate appearances.
While Goldschmidt’s low and medium leverage numbers largely reflect his overall numbers (those represent 604 of his PA’s) he has been a monster in his 54 high-leverage PA’s.
Here are his numbers: .340/.407/.681 ; 176 wRC+
So I went to see how that stacked compared to the rest of the lineup.
He actually hasn’t been the best, that has been Tommy Edman — although he has had less than half the plate appearances. But it’s not just those two, several Cardinals have better numbers in high leverage than they do overall. Here’s a breakdown of OPS and wRC+ overall vs high-leverage for the 12 hitters with >20 PA’s in high-leverage.
|PLAYER||2019 OPS||H-L OPS||+/-|
|PLAYER||2019 wRC+||H-L wRC+||+/-|
Notably, Carpenter has struggled in high-leverage and — surprisingly — Kolten Wong has really bad numbers despite being very good overall on the season.
Outside of those two, everyone of consequence has been either close to the same or significantly better in big spots. The jumps for Edman, Goldschmidt, Fowler, Molina, and Bader are extremely impressive.
For Bader — probably the most surprising name in that group — he is elevated by a big 23.3% walk-rate that is surely related to being pitched around in big spots in order to get to the pitcher. It’s a by-product of hitting 8th.
When you reflect on the season, it isn’t that surprising that Fowler, Molina, and Edman have been the guys consistently coming through in big moments. Molina, who bottomed out offensively following his hand injury, has surged late in the season and has been coming up with big hits almost every night, lately.
“Ok, so the Cardinals have some guys that elevate their game when it matter most,” you say. But how does that look compared to the league?
Well, the Cardinals .850 OPS in high-leverage ranks 2nd in the NL (to Milwaukee, of all teams) and 4th in baseball.
Their 121 wRC+ in clutch situations ranks 1st in the NL and 2nd to the Yankees in all of baseball.
But a big part of my point is the significant elevation of performance by the Cardinals, so I checked the change in team-wide wRC+ between 2019 overall and high-leverage.
The Cardinals overall wRC+ for 2019 is currently at 94. As stated, they are at 121 in high-leverage, an increase of 27.
That is the largest increase in wRC+ in all of baseball.
Miami (what?) ranks 2nd with a 23 percent increase. The nearest NL contender is Milwaukee, who have a 17 percent increase.
Here’s how the *current* NL postseason teams look:
|TEAM||2019 wRC+||H-L wRC+||+/-|
The Cardinals are the most clutch hitting team in the NL playoff picture in both straight-up performance and relative to their baseline production.
This surprised me, but it probably shouldn’t have. It makes sense. For a team that has been inconsistent on offense all year, with under-performance scattered throughout, timely hitting has been the key.
And it’s not timely hitting in terms of runners in scoring position, their 95 wRC+ with RISP ranks 11th in the NL this season and tracks with their overall numbers. But when the stakes are higher, with or without RISP, they have come through. They might only be 1-for-8 with RISP, but the one hit swings the game in their favor.
That’s how they beat Strasburg and Scherzer last week, and then proceeded to sweep the Cubs in 4 1-run games.
Somehow, some way, they have continuously come up with just enough offense to back up the run prevention that trails only Los Angeles and Cleveland this season.
That run prevention — strong defense, good pitching — along with clutch hitting plays in October.
Thanks for reading.