The Feast and Famine

Is it more notable this year?

Many of the people on the email subscription list know this, but when I listen to Cardinals podcasts, I often get thoughts and ideas. Sometimes that means the host gets an email or a private message on Twitter, which if they are smart they ignore as the rantings of a crazy person.

To that end, I was listening to the beginning of the latest Conversations with Cerutti, where Ben was chatting with Dan Buffa. He noted that, for all the anxiety about this offense right now, it was averaging over five runs a game and that, if it continued throughout the year, would be the highest average since 2004. Now, it’s not likely it’s going to stay at that level, of course, but then again, as crazy as things are, who knows.

There are obviously different ways to get to the same sort of average, though. Over a ten-game span, a team can average four runs by scoring four runs in each game, five runs in eight games and zero in the other two, or going 10-2-8-3-0-5-4-9-4-5. The last is going to feel like riding with a teenager just figuring out the accelerator and brake.

We prize consistency, of course. We’d rather that five runs a night rather than things being scattershot. Are we seeing more erratic results so far this year than others?

I’m not really the person to tell you, but I did some very rough calculations that I’ll share with you for you to draw your own conclusions. I took data from 2012 forward for this. I wanted to go back farther but it got a little time consuming and, honestly, you start getting into a different era when you see Pujols and company in the box score. So, first off, let’s look at how runs through 16 games stack up.

Year, Runs 
2016, 92 
2019, 85 
2013, 85 
2021, 83 
2012, 82 
2018, 74 
2014, 67 
2015, 63 
2020, 62 
2017, 53

So it looks like 2021 isn’t really much out of the normal. In fact, it’s slightly above average for our sample. 2017 was really rough, though it got better, and 2020 you can sort of toss out given that half of that sample was played after the COVID breakout and had a few seven-inning doubleheaders in there as well.

So far so good, I guess. The offense doesn’t seem to be bad, at least in general. However, we know that they’ve gotten a lot of those runs in just a few games. They scored 12 last night, for instance, and that was the third time in less than a week that they’d hit nine or higher. Are they more variable than others?

I took the average of all runs scored for these years, then checked to see how often they scored plus or minus three runs or more from that average. Now, this isn’t perfect at all—for 2012-2020 I used the season average instead of what the season average was after 16 games. Probably should have done that to have apples to apples, but this is really not that scientific so go with me here. Three runs seemed to be a good range, but I’d listen to arguments it should have been broader.

Anyway, here’s what we see.

Year, Games +/-3
2016, 10
2021, 9
2013, 7
2012, 6
2014, 6
2017, 4
2018, 4
2020, 4
2015, 3
2019, 3

So yes, according to this back-of-the-envelope math, we’ve seen them diverge from average more than any other team besides 2016. You’ll note above that 2016 was also the year they scored more runs than any other in their first 16 games, for what it’s worth.

I also did how many of these games the other seasons had all year to see if there’s any connection. The answer is….not really. 2016 had the most overall, but it was tied with 2014, which is in the middle of the list. 2019 brought up the rear in the early sample but wound up tied with 2012 for third.

To go back to the title of this piece, it seems like if the Cardinals bust out one day (like last night) they go quiet the next (and, sometimes, vice versa). So I looked for swings of five runs one way or another between games for this sample.

Year, +5, -5, Total
2013, 5, 5, 10
2012, 5, 3, 8
2014, 3, 4, 7
2021, 3, 4, 7
2016, 3, 2, 5
2019, 2, 2, 4
2020, 2, 2, 4
2017, 2, 1, 3
2018, 2, 1, 3
2015, 1, 0, 1

Looking at this, it does seem like the Cards are more “feast or famine” than they have been in a long time. The stretch from 2020 (which, granted, had fewer options) to 2015 saw just 20 such games total. You have to get back to the 2012-2014 teams to find these.

(It doesn’t quite keep to this when you look at the full season. Like others, it’s a mixed result. 2013 did have the most such games at 58, but 2019 wound up having 57. Those two stand out from a group that is pretty close together, though 2015 had 30, lower than any but last year.)

So what have we learned from this, other than I have too much time on my hands? Maybe not a lot, though I encourage anyone that actually knows statistical work to mess round with it. To me, it looks like the 2021 Cardinals are a little more streaky, a little more boom and bust, than what we’ve seen in the last few years. It’s something to track going forward to see if it settles down or they are much more erratic than any team in the past decade.