Regression Discussion

Evan Glantz

We all knew it was coming; there was no way to avoid it. It was bound to catch up and impose its will. I’m talking, of course, about the concept of “regression to the mean” and its impact on the 2016 Cardinals.

Last season, a historically strong pitching staff buoyed the Birds. The Cardinals easily paced the league with a 2.94 team ERA, and gave up 70 fewer runs during the season than the next closest team (the Los Angeles Dodgers).

That was more than enough to make up for their lackluster offense. In 2016, the Cards experienced a season-long power outage. They ranked 24th in the league in runs scored with 647, and 25th in home runs – 137 as a team. The team knew this wasn’t a sustainable model, so they spent the offseason trying to reshape their lineup to pump up production.

The results, thus far, have been outstanding. The Cardinals scored 158 runs in April, good for second in the league, and blasted 40 home runs in the season’s opening month, tied for the league lead. Players are producing up and down the lineup, and from the bench as well.

Three of the team’s top six home run hitters are new additions in 2016, and it’s hard to say who’s been the biggest surprise. Is it Aledmys Diaz, the shortstop who was dropped from the 40-man roster last season, who’s now batting at a .381 clip? Or maybe it’s Jeremy Hazelbaker, the career minor leaguer who made his MLB debut this year at 28 years old and has responded with a .308 average and five long balls. Then there’s Jedd Gyorko. The Cardinals acquired the former top prospect from the San Diego Padres this offseason with a platoon role in mind. In limited action, he’s provided four homers of his own.

In typical Cardinal fashion, the team has uncovered strong contributors who were previously overlooked. It’s resulted in an offense that produces over 5.5 runs per game – more than a run and a half better than last year.

As nicely as the offense has rebounded, the pitching has taken a hit (pun intended). It was unrealistic to expect a repeat of last year, but the Cardinals have fallen to the middle of the pack in pitching. Of particular concern are Mike Leake, the team’s big free agent acquisition, and Adam Wainwright, one of the team’s core members.

The Cardinals signed Leake to a five-year, $80 million contract in December (I’ll give you a minute to pick your jaw up off the floor………). He’s been a durable, if not unspectacular hurler throughout his seven-year career, and has been good for at least 190 innings in each of the last three years. Through his first six starts as a Cardinal, he has rewarded the team with an 0-3 record and 6.03 ERA. Not good.

Then there’s Wainwright. The presumed ace of the staff missed most of last season after rupturing his Achilles tendon, and seems to be finding it hard to shake off the rust. He’s been lit up for a 6.68 ERA, but more concerning is his falling strikeout total and rising walk rate. 

The rest of the rotation – Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia – have pitched admirably. They have 10 quality starts among them. And the bullpen has been lights-out. Four pitchers – Jonathan Broxton, Seung Hwan-Oh, Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal – are averaging more than a strikeout per inning. But the Cardinals need Leake and Wainwright to round into form.

The good news is that both of these pitchers have a long track record of success, so a turnaround can (hopefully) be expected. In fact, the idea of regression would seem to suggest a turnaround is all but guaranteed. When statistics seem too tilted in one direction, chances are they’ll even out in the long run.