The St. Louis Cardinals have made a name for themselves as the team that never dies -- the "Cardiac Cardinals," if you will. Their late-series comeback against the Texas Rangers last year and their equally improbable Game 5 revival against the Washington Nationals in the NLDS have lent credence to the Cardinals' seemingly inherent clutch ability. On Twitter, @spacemnkymafia described them as cockroaches, as the unfriendly insect is known for being able to survive a nuclear explosion.
However, it is no coincidence that they have finished at least 10 games over .500 five seasons in a row and are poised to defend their World Series championship. To insinuate that the Cardinals' recent success is luck or due to some supernatural characteristic is to devalue the incredibly smart and talented people that populate the front office. Sure, having Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols (before this year, anyway) helps a great deal in reaching the postseason, but few saw Lance Berkman reverting from a career-worst year in 2010 to a career-best adjusted OPS in 2011. How many other teams would have trusted Pete Kozma, owner of a career .652 minor league OPS, to replace Rafael Furcal?
The Cardinals became famous under Tony La Russa for micromanaging relief pitching matchups, causing games to drag on much to the chagrin of baseball fans everywhere, but they have approached baseball intelligently from another important angle: groundballs. Former pitching coach Dave Duncan made a name for himself turning around the careers of pitchers, thought to be on their last legs, by having them induce groundballs and become more stingy with walks. Joel Pineiro, for example, had a career 4.55 ERA going into 2009, but he boosted his groundball rate from around 45 percent to 61 percent and decreased his walk rate from 7 percent to 3 percent. As a result, he finished the year with a 3.49 ERA, parlaying that into a two-year, $16 million contract with the Angels. Kyle Lohse, a 2012 NL Cy Young candidate, is another success story like Pineiro, and many lesser-known names (Jake Westbrook) have had similar results.
The Cardinals pitching staff finished in the top five among National League teams in groundball rate in each of the past five years, leading in 2009, 2011 and 2012. As hitters, they led in groundball rate last year and finished second in 2012 (see table). This is important because groundballs are beneficial for both hitters and pitchers, which seems contradictory, but is not in reality.
For hitters, grounders put in play are converted into hits roughly 10 percent more often than fly balls (non-line drives). Depending on the hitter's style, quality of contact, and speed, he can heavily influence his own rate of success on groundballs. As an example, in the past three years, Austin Jackson has the highest hitter BABIP at .370 because he is extremely fast, but the not-so-agile Joey Votto isn't far behind at .367 because he makes excellent contact.
Pitchers tend not to have as much control over BABIP as hitters, but they can still influence whether a ball is hit in the air or on the ground. The pitchers who induce a lot of weak contact, including lots of groundballs, tend to have a lot of success. Tim Hudson is a great example, with the second-highest groundball rate between 2010-12 with an aggregate 3.19 ERA to show for it. Other pitchers induce a lot of groundballs but otherwise are very hittable, such as Derek Lowe (59 percent grounders, 4.52 ERA).
The Cardinals' recent shift towards more groundball-style hitters affects their BABIP -- as the above table shows, they led the league last year and finished second this year. High BABIP hitters are better to have to start a rally for the obvious reason that they get on base more often when they make contact. The league average BABIP last year was .296; the Cardinals had seven qualified players post a BABIP of .310 or higher, including David Freese at .356. In the postseason, Freese hit .397 with a .455 BABIP. Matt Holliday, with a .340 BABIP during the regular season, hit .294 in the postseason with a .389 BABIP. Skip Schumaker had a .321 BABIP in the regular season and hit .381 with a .444 BABIP in the playoffs. This season is no different. Their playoff offense has been led by Allen Craig (.334 regular season BABIP), Freese (.352), and Pete Kozma (.415 in 82 major league plate appearances).
If any team was going to overcome mathematical improbability, it was going to be the St. Louis Cardinals. They saw the value in groundballs for pitchers, then adapted it to their hitters over the past few seasons with great results. It is not a recipe that makes for 100-win teams, but it does put your hitters in a position to put together late-inning rallies in the season's most important games. The design of the Cardinals offense lends itself to that very well, and GM John Mozeliak and his trusty front office staff deserves a lot of credit for their success in recent years.