'Sunday Night Baseball': Cardinals' defense, Votto's production on the rise

Mike Leake (0-0) faces Adam Wainwright (1-1) as the Cincinnati Reds take on their National League Central rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, on “Sunday Night Baseball.”

Here are some of the statistical storylines the broadcast crew of Dan Shulman, Curt Schilling and John Kruk will likely be talking about starting at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN.

Sustained success for Cardinals

In major league baseball’s modern era (since 1900), there have been nine instances of an organization advancing to the league championship series round or later in four or more consecutive seasons. The Cardinals are among that group, having made at least the NLCS each season from 2011.

The Cardinals posted a +16 run differential last season - the worst by a division winner since the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks, who were outscored by 20 runs en route to winning the NL West (90-72).

The Cardinals averaged 3.82 runs per game, the fewest by a division winner since the 1973 Mets scored 3.78 runs per game en route to winning the NL East.

St. Louis’ total of 619 runs last season was the team’s fewest in a nonshortened season since 1990. That was 164 runs fewer than the Cardinals scored in 2013 – the biggest decrease in runs among NL teams by 49 (Atlanta’s runs decreased by 115 runs).

Defense tightens up

Credit for the Cardinals’ 90 wins, then, could largely go to their improved defense. In 2013, they ranked 22nd in baseball in defensive runs saved (-39 runs); in 2014, they were first (+76 runs).

St. Louis’ primary offseason move was acquiring Jason Heyward. He is the most productive outfielder based on defensive runs saved over the last five seasons: +98, including +32 last season.

Wainwright, Sunday’s starter, has thrown 519 2/3 innings the last two seasons. In the Wild Card era (since 1994-95), that is the 20th-most innings pitched over a two-season span by any pitcher.

Since 2012 – including the postseason – no pitcher has thrown more innings than Wainwright (733 1/3). Further, he is fifth in pitches thrown since then (10,933). Only A.J. Burnett (1,147) threw more curveballs last season than Wainwright (895).

Notable Reds’ struggles against Wainwright

A number of current Reds players have struggled against Wainwright.

Billy Hamilton is 0-for-7 with seven strikeouts. Joey Votto is hitting .133 (4-for-30). Marlon Byrd has a .509 OPS with 12 strikeouts in 30 plate appearances.

Last season, Hamilton had 56 stolen bases, but he was caught stealing 23 times. His 70.9 percent success rate is the fourth-lowest in the Wild Card era for anyone with 50 or more steals in a season. In eight attempts this season, Hamilton has been caught zero times.

Votto entered this season coming off an injury-shortened 2014 in which he hit .255/.390/.409 for a career-worst .799 OPS. Through his first 41 plate appearances (nine games), he’s hitting .353/.463/.735.

Votto has been pulling the ball more regularly this season. Of his batted balls this year, 43 percent have been pulled, compared with less than 36 percent last season. Eighteen percent of his batted balls have been hit to the opposite field this year, compared with more than 30 percent last season.

All 45 of Votto’s plate appearances this season have come from the second spot in the batting order. That’s a distinct change, as 39 percent of his plate appearances last season came in that spot (107 of 272), and he received zero plate appearances from the 2-hole in 2013.