The moment was pregnant with opportunity.
The Cardinals had just recovered from their second deficit of the game, and finally – on an RBI double by Matt Carpenter – had taken their first lead of the afternoon in the seventh inning of their May 19 game against Philadelphia. It was now a 6-5 Cardinal lead. A groundball had pushed Carpenter to third. He was there with one out representing a critical insurance run. And to the plate came Marcell Ozuna. This would be his moment.
Phillie reliever Tommy Hunter could have put him on, but with Jedd Gyorko on deck, he decided to come right at Ozuna. Before the crowd could even get into the at bat, it was over. Marcell topped Hunter’s second pitch to short, and Carpenter was dead at the plate. More than 44,000 sat quietly as Gyorko ended the inning with a fly-ball.
True to form, Philadelphia scored two in the eighth off of struggling reliever Greg Holland. Ozuna never came to the plate again, and St Louis lost 6-7 (box score).
The ground ball capped another 0-for-4 night for Ozuna – stretching his hitless streak to twenty-two at bats going back more than five games. At this point Ozuna – a 37-home run man the season before when he slashed .312/.376/.548 – was skidding through his first season as a Cardinal. His line fell to .234/.275/.316 with only 3 home runs through 171 at bats.
Where – Cardinal Nation wondered – was the real Ozuna?
After sitting out the finale of the Philly series, Marcel was back in there on Monday, May 21 against Kansas City and Ian Kennedy. After drawing a walk his first time up, Marcell ended his hitless streak with a sharp grounder into right field. The hit drove in a run – Carpenter, as it turned out – and sent the Cards on their way to a 6-0 victory (box score). Marcell also singled his next time up.
He hasn’t stopped hitting since.
There were few Cardinal highlights in last night’s humbling 4-2 loss to San Diego (box score), but Ozuna was one of the few. He finished the night with two more hits – including the two-run home run that accounted for all of St Louis’ scoring. The hits pushed his current hitting streak to seven games – three of which have been multi-hit games. The home run was his third during the streak, and he has now driven in 8 runs over his last 7 games.
He has now also hit safely in 11 of his 12 June games – starting the month as a potential player of the month candidate. He is now 18 for 45 (.400) in June with 5 home runs and a triple – a .778 slugging percentage. He has 14 runs batted in in his 12 June games.
Stretching back to that game against Kansas City, Marcel has hits in 17 of his last 19 starts. He is 29 of his last 70 – a .414 batting average
Since this is the first time we’ve ever seen Ozuna really hot, I thought we might compare some of the “under the radar” numbers from his early season struggles against those same numbers now that things are going better for him. The attempt here is to try to get a kind of statistical signature for Marcell.
In his first 182 Cardinal plate appearances, Marcell appeared over-ready for that first pitch. While the entire team swings at the first pitch of an at bat just 28.1% of the time, Ozuna was cresting at an aggressive 38.5%. Beginning with the Kansas City series, Marcell has chased that first pitch a more normal 30.8% of the time. This little bit of discipline has given Ozuna a significant advantage in his recent at bats. Before, he was getting first-pitch strikes 65.4% of the time. Of late, though, only 51.3% of the first pitches thrown to him are strikes, putting him in early hitter’s counts more frequently.
The numbers also suggest that Ozuna is commanding the strike zone exponentially better as the season wears on. Since the Kansas City series, only 22.6% of the pitches that Ozuna has taken have been called strikes, while 44.1% of all pitches thrown him have been balls. The team-wide benchmark for those numbers are 32.8% of pitches taken called strikes and 37.3 % of all pitches thrown being balls. What this means, simply, is that Ozuna is not letting strikes go by, while not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.
Most remarkable, though, has been Marcell’s recent ability to put the ball in play. Through his first 182 plate appearances, he missed entirely on 25.3% of his swings, fouling off another 36.8% of his swings, and putting the ball in play just 37.9% of the time. The team averages are 23.8% missed, 37.8% fouled, and 38.3% put in play. Over his last 78 plate appearances, Ozuna has swung at 117 pitches. He has missed with only 19 swings (16.2%), while producing just 32 fouls (27.4%). This means that on 66 of those swings, Marcell has put the ball in play – an impressive 56.4%. By comparison, Jose Martinez leads the team, putting the ball in play 45.3% of the time that he swings.
This portrays Ozuna as an aggressive-in-the-strike-zone hitter, who infrequently chases balls and has excellent enough bat control that he puts the ball in play most of the time. And he can do this with power.
The down-the-line results of this approach include shorter at bats. Even though he more frequently takes the first pitch, his pitches per at bat have dropped from 3.82 early in the season to just 3.49 over his more recent at bats.
The other side-effect of this efficiency is fewer strikeouts in general, and fewer times caught looking. Marcell struck out 40 times in his first 182 plate appearances – with 13 of those coming on called third strikes. Over his last 78 trips to the plate, Marcell has just 5 strike outs – being called out just once.
It’s been an impressive run. Now, the question is how long we can keep him in this zone.
Little Help for Ozuna
While Ozuna kept up his heroics, he had few supporters. The team managed just 6 other hits (all singles) and no other runs. Over the first 12 games in June, the offense still shows no signs of sustaining anything. They are now scoring 3.67 runs per game this month, and hitting .244.
The team has, of course, missed the leadership of its captain Yadier Molina – who missed a chunk of time recovering from surgery. He hasn’t returned to the lineup as sharp as he left it. Hitless in three at bats last night, Molina has had 32 plate appearances this month. He’s managed 5 singles, 1 double, 1 walk, 6 strikeouts, one hit by pitch, and one sacrifice fly. This works out to a disappointing .207/.250/.241 batting line. Yadi’s is one of the bats that the Cards are hoping will get well soon.
Provider of a big lift to the offense when he first took over for the injured Paul DeJong, Yairo Munoz has hit the skids as the calendar has turned to June. He has been to the plate 41 times in 11 games so far this month, supplying 5 singles, 1 home run, 2 walks (1 intentional), 10 strikeouts, and 1 sacrifice fly – a .158/.195/.237 June batting line.
Yairo’s free-swinging ways served him fairly well earlier. Lately, though, not so much. He swung at 6 of the 11 pitches thrown him last night, missing on two of the swings. For the season, Munoz hacks at 56.9% of the pitches thrown to him (the highest ratio of anyone on the team with at least 90 plate appearances). He misses on 30.7% of those swings – second on the team only to DeJong among players with at least 70 plate appearances.
Hitless in three at bats, Kolten Wong’s season just cannot gain any kind of traction. Down to .182 for the season, Kolten is now at .192 (5 for 26) for the month and struggling to get chances in the lineup.
The numbers suggest that Wong is really pressing now. Last year, when he had it working, Kolten took pitches, worked counts, and didn’t swing and miss very often. Through the first two months of this season, Wong saw 3.78 pitches per plate appearances, and only missed on 17.4% of his swings. This month, he is missing 28.9% of the time when he swings, and is only seeing 3.47 pitches per appearance.
Luke Weaver suffered through his third shaky outing in his last four. He took the loss, lasting just 5.1 innings while giving all 4 runs on 9 hits. He hasn’t made it through six innings in any of those last four games, and has a 5.12 ERA and a .304 batting average against over the last 19.1 innings that he has pitched.
Clean innings have been few and far between for Mr. Weaver. Last night, of the six innings he started, only one was a three-up, three-down inning. Through his three starts this month, he is averaging 4.57 batters faced per nine innings, the most by any member of the staff that has pitched at least ten innings in June. This month he has been throwing 18.26 pitches per inning. This has raised his season average to 17.33 pitches per inning – the most by any pitcher on the staff with at least 19 innings pitched.
With the Cardinal offense already shut down for the day, all that was left for John Brebbia to do was to hold the game close. He did so with two perfect innings, striking out three. In a bullpen that has been struggling, Brebbia has to start getting noticed. Over his last 4.2 innings he has struck out 8. In his 6 June appearances, he has allowed no runs on just 2 hits over 6.2 innings, and he has now thrown 8 consecutive scoreless outings – totaling 8.1 innings. Twenty-one of the last 62 swings taken against him have missed – an impressive 33.9%.
John threw strikes with 16 of his 19 pitches last night (84.2%). He has now thrown strikes with 68.2% of his pitches this month. Of all pitchers with at least 5 innings pitched this month, only Miles Mikolas (71.9%) and Jordan Hicks (70.2%) are throwing more strikes.
The San Diego series was only the eighth of St Louis’ first 22 series that went to a rubber game. The Cards start the season just 3-5 in rubber games. They are also just 2-5-1 in series against teams that had won their previous series.
The Cardinals drew no walks over the last two games of the series.