First Pitch: The Cardinals Have No Advantage Over the Pirates

Each time the Pirates have played the Cardinals this year, the popular opinion has been that the Cardinals will be nearly unbeatable. Granted, a lot of the matchups between the two teams were preceded by the Pirates losing against bad opponents, which led to questions about how they could beat a good opponent.

The Cardinals were the number one seed in the National League, so viewing them as a difficult opponent is totally natural. But there has been a lot of disbelief in the Pirates this year, to the point that they’re not seen as a good team like the Cardinals. Let’s review the facts:

**The Cardinals finished with 97 wins.

**The Pirates finished with 94 wins.

**The Pirates went 10-9 against the Cardinals.

The Cardinals won three more games than the Pirates, and in the head to head matchup the Pirates edged out St. Louis. All year this has been a matchup seen as favoring the Cardinals, but the truth is that these two teams are pretty much even. Pirates fans will focus on the flaws of the Pirates (mostly an inconsistent offense), but the Cardinals have their own flaws, such as defense and a poor bullpen. This team probably won’t have Allen Craig in the NLDS, which will tip the scale a bit in the Pirates’ favor.

A.J. Burnett could face the Cardinals twice this series. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

A.J. Burnett could face the Cardinals twice this series. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

St. Louis has some good pitching. But the Pirates match up well. Adam Wainwright and A.J. Burnett could both make two starts this series. Both have put up strong numbers this year, and both have decent 2013 numbers against their opponents in this series.

The Cardinals will get one start from Shelby Miller, while the Pirates will send out Gerrit Cole for a start, giving each team a young ace.

Lance Lynn and Charlie Morton have both struggled against their respective opponents in this series, but both will be making their starts at home, where they each have better numbers.

Then there’s Joe Kelly and Francisco Liriano, who don’t really compare. Kelly put up big numbers this year, but is a huge regression candidate. Meanwhile, Liriano has the stuff and the secondary numbers to make his excellent season legit. It’s possible that the Cardinals could go with Michael Wacha instead of Kelly, but Liriano is still better.

Outside of Burnett/Wainwright, those aren’t the pitching matchups. It’s just how the two rotations for this series will be very similar. Both teams have a great rotation, and when you factor in the bullpen, the Pirates take an edge.

A lot has been made about the Pirates offense this year, but they finished with a 106 wRC+. The Cardinals have been much better on the season, with a 113 wRC+. However, in the second half the Pirates had a 111 wRC+, while the Cardinals had a 104 wRC+. The key to that for the Pirates was that they added players at the deadline and finished strong offensively in the final weeks. Meanwhile, the Cardinals lost Yadier Molina for a stretch, and lost Allen Craig for a longer stretch.

With Craig expected to miss the NLDS, the Cardinals shouldn’t be expected to perform as well as their season totals. Meanwhile, the Pirates offense right now isn’t the same as the offense from the entire season. They also have several hot bats in the lineup, which means they shouldn’t be expected to perform as poorly as their season totals. The two sides should be close to equal when you look at what they will each have in this series, compared to the lineups that made up their season stats.

Finally, there’s the defense. Overall the Pirates rank in the middle of the pack in UZR. The Cardinals are one of the three worst teams in the league this year in the same category. The Pirates do have an unquestioned advantage here.

The Cardinals are seen as the better team because they’re flashy. They get “clutch” hits, and they win with offense first, although their pitching does great especially considering the lack of defense. The Pirates aren’t as flashy. They win with pitching and defense, and a streaky offense. When the offense is going, they win like the best teams in the league. When the offense isn’t going, they win like a .500 team. Either way, both teams get the job done, even if the “offense first” approach by St. Louis gets more attention than the “pitching and defense” approach by Pittsburgh.

If you’re looking at how these teams stack up, then the #1 and #4 seeds don’t tell the story. The Pirates match up well with the Cardinals in every aspect in this series. That doesn’t mean the Pirates are guaranteed a win, just like noting this doesn’t mean the Cardinals are guaranteed a win. What it means is that this series could go either way. Neither team has a serious advantage here, and any advantage one team has is slight. Just like the one game against the Reds, on paper it looks even, despite the fact that the Cardinals are considered the much better team in this series.

Links and Notes

**Pirates Set the NLDS Rotation

**Pittsburgh as Baseball Town: How the 2013 Pirates Brought Back the Fever

**The Top Ten Moments From Last Night’s Wild Card Victory

**Tyler Glasnow Ranked the Second Best SAL Prospect

Wild Card Coverage

**The Pirates Bought a Wild Card Win Against the Reds

**Fourth Inning the Key to Liriano’s Outing, Pirates’ Wild Card Victory

**Cue-to, Cue-to — The Value of Home Field Advantage

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • skliesen

    The Cardinals were expected to be here, while the Pirates weren’t. The Cardinals have experienced playoff success in the past, while the Pirates are playoff neophytes. And lastly, the Cardinals have home field advantage. Otherwise, the Pirates have the advantage.

    In my opinion, as long as the players treat these games as just what they are, baseball games, than they’ll come out victorious.

    Let’s Go Bucs!!!

  • timdwyer8

    For reasons unknown, the Cardinals have Lance Lynn going in Game 2 instead of Shelby Miller. Miller and Wacha coming out of the pen, with one of them (you would think Miller, but I would’ve thought him for 2 as well) going Game 4. Seriously, Lance Lynn? Over Miller??

  • http://MultiMatchupSports.com Stephen Stasa

    The Pirates have actually played against the Cardinals better than 10-9 would suggest. Two of those losses were McDonald and Sanchez starts in April, and another was Kris Johnson in September. Cumpton got a win and the Pirates were 2-1 in Locke’s starts (Locke’s record was 1-1). So non-NLDS roster player starts saw the Pirates go 3-4, and those starters have a 2-4 record. Of the NLDS scheduled starters, Cole hasn’t faced St. Louis. The Pirates went 0-3 in Morton’s starts (he was 0-2) so he’s the only one who has struggled. The Pirates were 4-2 in Burnett’s starts and 3-0 in Liriano’s. One of those losses for Burnett was Marte’s drop in the 9th. So the Pirates could easily be 8-1 against St. Louis in games started by guys who will start 3 of the 5 games, and 1 more of those will be started by a guy they’ve never seen (advantage pitcher).

  • elgaupo

    Cards have a better 40 man. The Pirates have a better 25 man. In the playoffs it’s a push.

    • leadoff

      I think and have thought all year the Pirates were the better team, with addition of Byrd and Morneau as starters I think that makes them even better.
      I have seen a lot of Cards games and they have weaknesses that they cover up with offense, the Pirates don’t have the same weaknesses, In fact the Pirates don’t have many weaknesses at all. The only chance the Cards have IMO, is if they can out pitch the Pirates. The difference in pitching is that the Pirate pitchers are solely dependent on their defense, the Card Pitchers don’t have much of a defense, their pitchers generally succeed on their own.
      The Pirates have more speed, power and better defense, the Cards strength is they pitch when they have to and most of all they are bunch hitters and they do it well.

  • IC Bob

    I am not sure if this is true but I heard the Cards really struggled against LHs. Its unfortunate that Locke tanked and Wandy never got better. Those guys really could have been an asset in a series like this.

    • http://MultiMatchupSports.com Stephen Stasa

      St. Louis has an OPS of .672 (26th in MLB) against lefties, and .755 (3rd in MLB) against righties.

    • Andrew

      The only two of their regular hitters who have been better against LHP are Molina and Freese. Granted it is not like Carpenter, Holliday, Beltran, turn into below average hitters against LHP. Stating the obvious, their lineup is very balanced, the opposite of the Reds. Additionally the lack of shift candidates outside Adams, maybe Beltran, could limited the effectiveness of the Pirates defense/fielding.

      Pirates should welcome that Joe Kelly and his 12% K, 9% BB, is likely the game three starter.

  • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

    I think people tend to underestimate how big the gap is between the Cards and Bucs in terms of defense and the bench; defensively, the Cards have Yadi Molina and seven guys who run the gamut between “meh” and Matt Holliday, and the only really scary bench piece they have is Matt Adams, who isn’t gonna be on the bench. If this is a series of close games, the Cards lack of defense and pinch-hitting options really puts them behind the 8-ball.

  • https://profiles.google.com/104910637267425428572 Noel Weer

    I will open with disclosing the obvious, yes I am a Cards fan, but I am looking forward to a good, competitive series. I’ve said for weeks I’d rather face Cincinnati but was expecting to see the Pirates.

    I was, however, confused about the stress on the Cardinals’ poor defense in this article looking at the matchup…

    Cardinals had 75 team errors, tied for fourth best in baseball. Tied for best in NL. This earned them a statistical tie in the NL for fielding pct. Sure most of the team isn’t flashy or going to compete for a Gold Glove, but… those numbers sure contrast sharply to the idea that “…flaws, such as defense” and “…lack of defense”

    And with the Pirates at over 100 errors, the surface says the Cards have an edge in the field. The rest seemed like it was fairly reasonable assessments, but defense being a liability for the Cards seems like a stretch…

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      The defensive analysis is based on advanced metrics like UZR, rather than errors.

      • https://profiles.google.com/104910637267425428572 Noel Weer

        Thanks. That makes more sense then, though probably needed more than just a throw away comment in the article. And interesting, as poor defense wasn’t something I’ve seen attributed to St. Louis in a long time. Advanced fielding metrics aren’t something I’ve made a habit of looking at when I have dabbled in the newer numbers. The resulting small number of actual errors says quite a bit about the on-field shifts (managing edge?) and/or Cardinals pitchers keeping the ball out of play/gaps.

        Again, I see the series as tight, but still a stretch to arbitrarily throw out their fielding as a Pirates advantage, especially as the Fangraphs doesn’t have the Pirates at any great shakes with the same fielding numbers.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

          People who have read the site for a long time probably know by now that all of the defensive analysis is based on UZR. We never focus on errors. But for a first time reader from another team it could be easy to miss that.

  • michaelbro8

    A couple of weeks ago I’d have stated that the Cards have the edge, based primarily on the factor of “self- belief” . That’s a factor that cannot be quantified; except maybe to explain the Cards unusually high RISP numbers. But right now, I’d say the Pirates have as much or more “self-belief”. They’re beaming with self-confidence, and if they take one of the first two games in St Louis, I’ll be saying WATCH OUT CARDS !

  • smurph

    Adams is a nice sub, but when you take out the #4 hitter who I believe, led the league in BA with RISP, that negates a lot of the advantage the Cardianls had on offense. Defense, pitching, baserunning, HR power – all advantage Pirates. I rate it a tossup only because Game 5 would be in St. Louis. If the Pirates had home field I think they would be favored in this series.