Less than two months ago, as the defending NL Central champs opened camp, the spotlight shone intensely on handful of critical body parts. Yadi Molina’s thumb, Carlos Martinez’ shoulder, Jedd Gyorko’s glove and Jaime Garcia’s head dominated the news stories as Cardinal nation searched for reasons to be hopeful after an offseason that was regarded – by those outside the organization and clubhouse – as disappointing. Out of the spotlight and under the radar, rookies Jeremy Hazelbaker and Aledmys Diaz labored in relative obscurity, hoping for just an opportunity to make the club.
Yesterday, as the Cardinal’s opened their home season, these two mostly unheralded rookies combined to go 7 for 9, with 3 doubles and a triple (12 total bases), 3 runs scored and 2 runs batted in to lead the charge in a 10-1 victory over Milwaukee. The outburst gives the team three straight games in double figures for runs and 41 runs over the last four games that have been mostly dominated by Hazelbaker and Diaz.
OK, so let’s breathe here for a minute. Diaz won’t hit .533 with a 1.067 slugging percentage for the season – just as Hazelbaker won’t finish at .526 and 1.053. The league will make adjustments on them, and their futures as contributing big league players will depend on their ability to adjust – just as with every other player who manages to endure as a productive major league player. That being said, there is no reason to assume that these players are merely April mirages. Both have pedigree enough to suggest that this early success is more than just coincident hot streaks. Diaz, of course, was a highly regarded veteran of the Cuban professional league when the Cards signed him two years ago, and Hazelbaker is a former fourth round draft pick who has always shown good power and great ability to steal bases in the minors, who hit .333 with a .594 slugging percentage in 200 AAA at bats last year.
There’s no reason to believe that these guys are not players.
Four games is an exceedingly small sample size. As the season develops, the story will become more complete. But, since the recent onslaught has been as unexpected as it’s been enjoyable, let’s take a peek inside these numbers and see what’s inside.
Jeremy Hazelbaker certainly had an opening day to remember, going 4-4 in the midst of a 19-hit attack. Jeremy has only started 3 of the last 4 games, but now has hits in 8 of his last 14 at bats (.571) with 4 runs batted in.
Jeremy’s early numbers speak of an aggressive hitter. In his last 18 plate appearances he has swung at the first pitch 10 times (56%). This includes 3 of his 5 plate appearances yesterday. He is 4 for 5 when putting that first pitch in play. The team as a whole only swung at the first pitch 29.5% yesterday ((13/44), and just 33% (61/185) over the last four games. While the rest of the team has swung at slightly less than half the pitches thrown them, Jeremy has offered at 60.3% (38/63), an even higher percentage than Matt Holiday’s 56.3%.
After his 3 for 5 day, Aledmys Diaz – who the baseball gods demanded would get a shot this April – is on a 7 for 12 streak (.583) that began with his pivotal pinch homer in Atlanta and now includes 3 doubles and a triple. Even though he has only started 2 of these last 4 games, he is still second on the team in RBI’s during the winning streak with 5.
In the early moments of his career, Diaz has also showed a surprising capability at hitting with two strikes. He was 2 for 4 yesterday with 2-strikes on him. Over his last 13 plate appearances, Diaz has hit with two strikes in seven of them, responding with 2 singles, 2 doubles and 2 runs batted in. All of Diaz’ five plate appearances yesterday lasted at least three pitches, with three of them lasting five or more. Beginning in Atlanta, Aledmys has seen at least three pitches in 10 of 13 plate appearances and at least 5 pitches 7 times. When the announcers talk about Diaz’ veteran presence at the plate, this is the kind of this they are referring to.
Aledmys in the very early going also seems to have a very controlled swing. In his five plate appearances, he swung the bat 11 times, putting the ball in play with five of those swings, fouling the pitch off five other times, and only missing entirely once. This has been about what he’s done since he’s started playing regularly. In his last 13 plate appearances, Diaz has swung at 24 pitches, resulting in 11 fouls, 11 balls in play, and only two swings and misses. A couple thoughts on this. 1) Five of his seven hits have been for extra bases. For a high-contact guy, he puts a charge into the ball. 2) This combination of taking pitches and putting the bat on the ball – if he can sustain it – would make Aledmys an ideal one or two hitter in the lineup.
In general, Milwaukee struggled to put the Cardinals away once they got two strikes on them. The Cards responded with 9 hits (6 for extra bases) in 22 at bats with two strikes on them (.409).
Behind the slugging rookies, the rest of the team is starting to put Pittsburgh behind them and join in the fun. One of the most prominent is the resurgence of Matt Carpenter. Leaving Pittsburgh 1 for 11, Matt has feasted on Atlanta and Milwaukee. With his 2 for 4 yesterday, Carpenter is now 6 for his last 16 (.375), with half of his hits going for extra-bases and 6 RBIs during the winning streak. He’s also walked twice and been hit by two pitches, so Matt’s on base percentage is .500 over his last 20 plate appearances.
Carpenter’s hits yesterday came in his only opportunities with runners in scoring position. Since leaving Pittsburgh, Matt is 4 for 6 with RISP – a single, a double, a triple and a home run.
Steven Piscotty has also left his season-opening 2 for 11 series at Pittsburgh behind. He had two hits in the opener (both doubles), and has gone 7 for 18 (.389) with a home run, 4 RBIs, a .667 slugging percentage and a .500 on base percentage (courtesy of 4 walks) over these last four games.
Also having some fun yesterday was Yadier Molina, who went 3 for 4 with a double, a stolen base, a run scored and 2 RBI during the onslaught. Yadi’s night featured going 2 for 3 with runners in scoring position. He is now 3 for his last 6 in those situations.
Randall Grichuk, who’s early season struggles have cost his some at bats to Hazelbaker, looked more confident at the plate, contributing a single, double, 2 more walks, 2 runs scored and his first RBI of the young season.
About those walks. Grichuk had 5 plate appearances yesterday. Once he hit the first pitch (for a single). His other plate appearances lasted 5 pitches, 6 pitches (twice) and 9 pitches. He now has 5 walks, none of them intentional, in his last 13 times up
Kolten Wong did add a sacrifice fly for his first RBI of the season, but his is the only bat that hasn’t joined in the fun of late. Zero for 4 yesterday, Kolten is hitting just .222 during the streak (4 for 18) with 3 of those hits coming in one game. Kolten is still looking for his first extra-base hit of the season. Zero for 3 yesterday with runners in scoring position, he is also looking for his first hit in that situation. He is 0 for 10 with RISP for the early part of the season. Wong, in fact, is hitless in 15 at bats with any runner on base this year. He is 6 for 12 with the bases empty.
With 19 hits yesterday, the team is now hitting .351 since leaving Pittsburgh. A team whose offense was very much in question has responded with 23 extra base hits (6 of them home runs) and a .597 team slugging percentage over the last four games. The run has been fueled by team-wide success with runners in scoring position. They were 8 for 20 in those situations yesterday (with five of the hits being for extra bases), and 22 for 58 (.379) during the winning streak. (9 of the hits have been for extra-bases and the Cards are slugging .621 during that span in RISP situations.
Six of St. Louis’ hits yesterday came in 13 at bats with two outs (.462). During the winning streak, the Cardinals are hitting .370 (20/54) with two outs in the inning. With 3 more yesterday, the team has 15 2-out RBIs over the last four games. St Louis has also excelled in opening up innings. Yesterday, they put the leadoff man on 5 times in the eight innings. Two of them scored. St Louis has successfully reached 17 of their last 35 leadoff hitters (.486) and scored 13 of them (76%).
A final efficiency note. St Louis was 5 for 6 delivering the runner from third with less than two outs (and very efficient moving the runner to third with less than two outs). This was frequently an area of difficulty when the offense struggled last year. Since leaving Pittsburgh, they are 11 for 18 in bringing in that run with less than two outs.