On the road again. We just can’t wait to get on the road again.
When last we left our heroes, they were wrapping up a 9-0 victory in Philadelphia that finished up the last road trip at 6-3 (after an 0-2 start). Again, the team was starting to feel pretty good about itself.
One frustrating 2-4 home stand later – composed of series losses to both a Met team that they could have helped themselves a lot by beating, and an Oakland team that is one of the worst in the American League – and all the old concerns begin cropping up again.
But not to worry. It was time to go on the road again.
The 2016 Cardinals began their penultimate road trip of the season – a three-city, nine-game affair – in Milwaukee last night, where they opened up a 3-1 lead behind Carlos Martinez, gave it all back and then some as Matthew Bowman and Kevin Siegrist struggled, and then finally rallied late from a 5-3 deficit to wrest the game away from the Brewers, 6-5 and give Miguel Socolovich his first victory of the season (box score).
With the victory, St Louis is now 39-24 on the road and 30-37 at home. The only thing more puzzling than this disparity is trying to explain it. Almost without fail, anomalies like this leave a statistical footprint. This one is uncommonly difficult to find.
You start with the offensive run differential. This is the most visible difference. In 67 home games, the Cardinals have put 295 runs on the board (4.40 runs per game). In 63 road games, they have scored 352 runs (5.59 per game). So, this certainly seems like the smoking gun. But accounting for those extra runs is a puzzle.
At this point of the season, St Louis is hitting .256 at home and .260 on the road. Their on base percentage at home is .325 against .332 on the road. They slug .433 at home and .466 on the road. All of these numbers are modestly better on the road than they are at home. They OPS .798 away from home and .758 at Busch III. It’s a difference all right, but not a 1.19 run per game difference.
The prevailing theory has to do with the relative difficulty of hitting home runs in Busch III. The Cards, they say, have re-invented themselves as a fly ball hitting team in a ballpark that doesn’t really reward fly ball hitters.
And there is something to this. In 67 home games, the Cards have 86 home runs (one every 29.3 plate appearances), and 101 home runs in 63 road games (one every 25.0 plate appearances). A difference, but how much? Given that this difference is spread over 5000 plate appearances, it works out to the difference between someone who would hit 17 home runs in 500 PAs at home hitting 20 home runs in 500 PAs on the road.
So, I’m going to say that the home run factor is about half of the run differential. St Louis has scored 57 more runs on the road (352-295) and the runs resulting from home runs have accounted for 31 more runs on the road (160-129). So where is the rest of it?
There are two other things that decidedly distinguish the road Cardinals from the home Cardinals. First is their ability to sustain big innings. The Cards have scored in 166 of their 589 home innings (28.2%) and 172 of their 576 road innings (29.9%). But the Cards have scored just 1 run in 93 of those 166 home innings (56%), while they were held to just 1 run in only 80 of the 172 road innings (46.5%). They scored two runs in an inning 43 times on away as opposed to 38 times at home. Three-run innings are 25 on the road and 19 at home. Four-run innings are 12 each. Five run innings have happened 9 times on the road and 3 times at home. And six-run innings are three on the road and one at Busch.
Home runs account for only a piece of this difference. The Cards have 27 home runs in their 43 two-run innings on the road, but have hit 24 in their 38 two-run innings at home. The 25 times they’ve scored three runs in an inning on the road have included 14 home runs. The 19 times they’ve done this at home have involved 12 home runs. In the four-run innings (which are 12 each), the Cards have more home runs at home (10) than on the road (9).
Hits with runners in scoring position? Like everything else, slightly better on the road (.279 to .271), but not enough to account for the difference.
The other element is late-inning lightning. In 67 home games, St Louis has scored 239 runs from the first through seventh innings. In their 63 away games they have scored a slightly higher 250 runs through those same innings. They have scored 54 runs in the eighth and ninth innings of their home games and 95 in their road games in those innings. Randal Grichuk hit the two-run homer to tie last night’s game in the eighth inning and the Cards won with a run in the ninth – a very familiar refrain when the Cards play on the road.
Again, more than a park factor is going on here. If a park is easy to hit home runs in, it is as easy to hit a home run there in the first inning as it is the last.
All of this has the feeling of something that’s part real (a discernible difference in the ability to hit home runs) and part mental. Sustaining big innings and late inning rallies aren’t connected to ballparks. The Cards hit the same when they score three runs in an inning at home as they do anywhere else. The same with scoring runs in the eighth inning. They just do it more frequently on the road.
When you’re more confident that the ball will leave the park, your at bats are more confident. If your home park is in your head, you will press more. On some level, I think everyone accepts that this is a principally mental issue.
This is also true on the pitching side.
Here the home/road difference is all but invisible. The ERA’s are identical – 4.02 at home and 4.02 on the road. The unearned runs are also all but identical (23 allowed at home and 22 on the road). The batting line against the staff is actually better at home (.250/.309/.380 vs .256/.320/.412) – which adds credibility to the thought that Busch is significantly pitcher friendly.
But there is a fairly glaring difference in the bullpen, which struggles with a 3.85 ERA at home and only 3.06 on the road. In fact, the Cardinals have pretty much hemorrhaged runs at home while depending on their set-up men to hold slim leads or maintain small deficits. While the Cardinals are leading by no more than one run, tied, or trailing by no more than two, the Cardinal middle relief has served up 59 runs (53 earned) in 81.2 innings (5.84 ERA). In that same situation on the road, the ERA is 2.85.
As problematical as the offensive brown-out has been at home, there have been far too many games lost when the set-up men have imploded before we could get the game to the closers.
Again, I’m not sure why these same pitchers should perform this function so much better away than at home. When evaluating the truth behind a number, if there is no direct cause, the result is either coincidence or mental. Mental can be fixed and coincidence will fade away.
In other news: your 2016 St Louis Cardinals wrapped up their 130th game of the season with three more home runs. They now have 187 for the season and are on pace to hit 233. This was their eighteenth consecutive game with a home run, and the fifth time in that span that they’ve hit at least three.
For the season, they now have 53 multi-homer games, including 21 with at least three home runs. They have now surpassed the season home run total of the 2006 team (185). Next up will be the 214 home runs hit by the 2004 team, as this edition of the Cardinals moves toward becoming just the third St Louis team in this century to amass 200 home runs. In multi-homer games they still have a ways to go to catch that 2004 team that did this 67 times. Their three-homer games have tied the 2006 team. The next time they do this they will tie the 22 achieved by both the 2002 and 2003 teams.