Cardinal Hitters Grind Down Reds’ Young Hurlers

These are the names of the Cincinnati pitchers who worked in last night’s game: Rookie Davis, Keury Mella, Luke Farrell, Deck McGuire, and Alejandro Chacin.  I haven’t taken the time to check how many games/innings these pitchers have thrown in the major leagues, but I would guess that it’s pretty negligible – and this is understandable as Cincinnati is trying to evaluate these young pitchers for next year and beyond.

Not always – as I can think of many games this year where young pitchers with minimal experience have tied the Cards in knots – but most of the time the patient, veteran Cardinal hitters have taken advantage of inexperienced (and sometimes veteran) pitchers.  They did this last night.

For background, across all of baseball (according to baseball reference), pitchers generally prosper if they can avoid getting that first pitch swung at.  If the batter takes that first pitch – regardless of whether it’s a ball or a strike – their average drops to .249 with a .417 slugging percentage – and even lower if the first pitch they take is a strike (.223 and .357).

But last night Cardinal hitters – even with the pressure of their uphill push to the playoffs – hit comfortably after taking the first pitch from these young pitchers.

Thirty-three of the forty-four Cardinal batters watched the first pitch go by.  They went on to hit .321/.424/.714.  Even the 17 that took first pitch strikes went on to hit .313/.353/1.250.

This isn’t necessarily an isolated occurrence.  Again (according to baseball reference), the Cards rank fourth in all of baseball in team batting average (.262) after taking the first pitch, trailing only Houston (.272), Colorado (.271), and Washington (.263).  They lead all of baseball in on base percentage in those at bats (.359).  The Cubs are second at .357.  They trail only Houston in slugging percentage after taking the first pitch, .450-.443.

I think all along as we have followed this team, we have appreciated their ability to take pitches and work at bats.  Perhaps we didn’t realize that they are among the best in baseball at this.

On the other hand, last night St Louis was only 2 for 10 when they swung at the first pitch.  For the month of September, this team is only hitting .224 when they swing at that first pitch.  Over all of baseball, batters hit .270 in at bats when they swing at the first pitch thrown.

With 9 more runs, St Louis is still scoring 4.89 runs per game this month, and 5.03 runs per game in the season’s second half.

Tommy Pham

Having a breakthrough season, Tommy Pham looks like he will be finishing strong.  With 3 more hits last night, Tommy has 7 in his last 3 games.  Pham now has 250 plate appearances since the All-Star Break.  These have resulted in 42 singles, 13 doubles, 1 triple, 10 home runs, 36 walks, 5 hit-by-pitches, 1 sacrifice bunt, 1 sacrifice fly, and 10 stolen bases.  It all adds up to a convincing .319/.430/.536 batting line.  Tommy has scored 47 runs in 59 games in the season’s second half.

In both the fifth and sixth innings, Tommy took first pitch fast balls right down the middle for strikes, and came back to get hits on pitches later in the at bat that were not as good as the first one he took.  Tommy is kind of the poster child for the Cardinals proficiency in hitting after taking the first pitch.  Pham is a .328/.447/.569 hitter this season when he takes the first pitch, and only a .259/.292/.402 hitter when he comes out swinging.  He was 0 for 1 last night when he swung at the first pitch.

Kolten Wong

While Tommy Pham is finishing his breakthrough season strong, Kolten Wong is limping toward the finish line.  While it’s impossible to tell how much is his back problem and how much is just a slump, what is known is that Kolten is 0 for 15 over his last 6 games, 3 for 32 (.094) over his last 11 games, and 5 for 36 (.139) this month.

Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver, in winning his sixth straight start and seventh straight decision, only went 5 innings last night, leaving a 6-run lead to the bullpen. Since his return from Memphis on August 17, Luke has pitched in 7 games – 6 as a starter.  He is 6-0 with a 1.41 ERA and 50 strikeouts over 38.1 innings in those games.  In four September starts Luke is 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA and a .209/.227/.291 batting line against.  He has 29 strikeouts in 23.2 September innings.

It is clear that the Cardinals wouldn’t have the slim playoff hope that they have without the notable contribution of Mr. Weaver.

Of the 20 batters Luke faced last night, 15 took his first pitch.  Only 3 of those was called a strike.  Getting ahead 1-0, though, against Luke Weaver doesn’t necessarily ease your way.  None of the 12 walked, and only two managed hits (both singles).  For the season, batters who start out 1-0 against Luke are only hitting .230.

Luke will throw that first-pitch fastball temptingly off the corner and invite the hitter to chase it.  If not, Luke’s fastball has enough late life that even when the hitter is looking for it, it’s hard to barrel up.  Luke is increasingly able to throw his curve and changeup for strikes when behind in the count – making that running fastball all the more difficult to get a jump on.

Luke walked no one last night (no Cardinal pitcher issued a walk), and only went to three-balls on 3 batters.  Luke is armed with a fastball that runs up at about 96.  But he also has great poise and knows how to pitch.  He’s quite developed for a kid who just turned 24.

Hopeful News from the Bullpen

Bullpens don’t tend to get too much notice in a 9-2 blowout (box score) – and understandably so.  But Cincinnati can hit a bit, so shutting them out on 1 hit over the last 4 innings was no mean feat.  During the month of September, the evolving Cardinal bullpen has inched its ERA down to 3.16.  Its reason for hope, but let’s wait and see if they can hold it together against Chicago and Milwaukee.

NoteBook

Last night was the first time in seven games that the Cardinals didn’t trail at some point of the contest.

With the victory, the Cards are 10-12-3 in road series this year.  They are now 37-40 on the road this season.

Yadier Molina’s two-run double brings him to 80 runs batted in this season – tying his career high set in 2013.

Over Early

Unfortunately, a couple of the marquee matchups from Week Two of the NFL were over early.  The most surprising of these was the Dallas-Denver game.  After a 13-3 season last year, the Cowboys lost to the Packers by an eyelash in the Divisional round.  At 9-7, Denver had just missed the playoffs.  The Broncos were expected to be greatly challenged by the potent Dallas Cowboys and their elite running game.

Instead, when they looked up at halftime, the Cowboys found themselves trailing 21-10, having been outgained 246-97, out-rushed (surprisingly) 96-12, and losing the time of possession battle 18:36-11:24.  Things didn’t get any better in the second half, and Denver rolled on through to a 42-17 victory (game book).  Trevor Siemian commanded the offense, throwing the ball just 32 times, while Denver battered the Cowboy defense to the tune of 39 rushes for 178 yards.  The Bronco offense operated at peak efficiency.

For the Cowboys, the mystifying numbers were 40 yards rushing – 24 of them from quarterback Dak Prescott – and 1 lone rushing first down.

Yes, Denver stacked the box to take away the run.  Yes, when that happens it is incumbent on the passing game to take advantage of one-on-one matchups in the secondary.  (Of course, with 3 elite cornerbacks who stuck like glue to the Dallas receivers, there weren’t really any matchups to exploit).

But even granting that, the bottom line is that Dallas handed the ball to star running back Ezekiel Elliott just 4 times in the first half, and only 9 times in the entire game.

In what will be a recurring message in this edition of football notes – and may be a recurring theme this season.  You have to at least try.  Dallas conceded their most potent offensive weapon, and played – I think – right into the hands of the Broncos.

Less surprising – perhaps – was the New England Patriots 36-20 conquest of New Orleans (game book).  The Saints are still a bit of a work in progress – especially defensively – and New England was stinging from a beating they had taken in Week One.  This game was 20-3 after one quarter, and 30-13 at the half.  While most of their running came late – after the game was well in hand, New England did finish up very balanced – 39 passes, 31 runs.  Tom Brady finished his afternoon with 447 yards and 3 touchdown passes.

As for New Orleans, yes, I know the score was lopsided pretty quickly.  But still, as far as the running game goes, you have to at least try.  After carrying the ball just 6 times for 18 yards in New Orleans’ first game, former Minnesota star Adrian Peterson carried just 8 times for 26 yards.  I can’t imagine this was the plan when he came to the Saints.

Over Early – Well, Maybe Not

Headed in that same direction were the Green Bay Packers, who looked up to find themselves down 24-7 at the half in Atlanta.  Green Bay, however, didn’t roll over.

With quarterback Aaron Rodgers chucking the ball 32 times in the second half – and throwing for 258 yards and a couple of touchdowns, the Packers threatened to make a game of it, ending up on the downside of a 34-23 score (game book).  The Packers were 3 for 3 on fourth down.

Green Bay has some work to do to narrow the gap between them and the Falcons.  One aspect that doesn’t help is their running game.  With Ty Montgomery enthroned as the “feature” back, the Pack finished the game with 59 rushing yards on 15 carries – 10 of them by Montgomery – while Rodgers threw the ball 50 times.  Again, Green Bay was in comeback mode – I get that.  But my concern is that this is about what Green Bay will always get from their running game.  I just don’t see Ty Montgomery carrying the ball 20 times a game and still being healthy through Week 8.

The Packers seem to be one-dimensional by design.  And even though Rodgers is a truly great quarterback, that puts enormous strain on that passing game – even when fully healthy.  And now with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb banged up a little, the sledding will get even rougher.

Tine to File a Missing Person’s Report?

In the moments following his team’s 27-20 loss in Kansas City (game book), Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson lamented his team’s inability to get their running game going.

Well, hmm.  Let’s see.  Quarterback Carson Wentz handed the ball off all of 8 times in the first half and 13 times all day.  This in a game that Philadelphia never trailed in by more than one score until the last two minutes.

You know what, Doug, you have to at least try to run the ball.  Last week I mentioned that a lack of a running game would eventually catch up to Wentz and the Eagle offense.  So this week, Wentz accounted for 55 of Philadelphia’s 107 running yards and was sacked six times.

During all of this, LeGarrette Blount – he of the 1100 yards for New England last year – has completely vanished.  After getting 14 carries in Week One, he got zero on Sunday.  His only touch of the day was one pass thrown in his direction – which he caught for 0 yards.

If you are missing for two weeks, isn’t that the legal threshold for filing a missing person’s report?

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