Within five pitches. That’s how the game account of the Cardinal’s damaging 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh read (box score). One-time closer Seung-hwan Oh had entered the fifth inning of a 1-1 tie. The first batter he faced – Christopher Bostick – singled on an 0-2 pitch. Starling Marte followed by unloading on Oh’s 0-1 pitch. Five pitches, five strikes, two runs. And a loss.
All pitchers make mistakes, but mistakes early in the at bat are almost always more damaging. There is a simple dynamic at play here. Batters (most of them) are more aggressive early in the count, looking for something they can drive. Across all of baseball (according to baseball reference) when batters hit one of the first two pitches thrown them, they hit .340 with a .573 slugging percentage. If the pitcher survives those first two pitches, his average against tumbles to .222 with a .369 slugging percentage. Overall, batters hit one of the first two pitches 26% of the time. Yesterday, Cardinal pitchers – including veterans Oh and Brett Cecil – saw 11 of the 35 batters who faced them hit one of the first two pitches (31.4%). The damage was predictable: 6 for 11, including both home runs and a triple.
In a final twist from the first game of the series, when the Cards were jumping on the first strike thrown to them, St Louis was only 1 for 9 when they hit one of the first two pitches thrown.
The hot team – apparently – hits one of the first two pitches.
There is little left to say about the season that Oh is having. The numbers do tell the story. The last 4 times he has come into a game that was either tied or one run either way, Oh has managed just 2.1 innings, serving 3 runs on 5 hits (including 2 home runs) – this all leading to a loss, a blown save, a .455 batting average against, and a 1.000 slugging percentage against.
Over his last 13 games, Oh’s ERA is 8.31, and in 18.2 innings since the All-Star Break, Seung-hwan carries a 5.30 ERA, and a batting line against of .303/.333/.500.
I’m not sure where Mike Matheny’s continued confidence in him comes from.
Cecil is another depended-upon reliever whose season is fading to a close. He has now allowed runs in two of his last three games, while his ERA rises to 4.79 with a .304 batting average against since the All-Star break.
“Early mistakes” is one of the trends that has helped define Brett’s disappointing season. Fully 31.2% of the batters he has faced this season have gotten to him in the first two pitches (including Pittsburgh’s Jordan Luplow who homered off the first pitch he saw from Cecil last night). Overall, batters who hit one of Brett’s first two pitches are hitting .420 and slugging .642. When he survives to pitch 3, the batting line against him drops to .199/.257/.325.
John Brebbia added another good inning. He threw the seventh, giving a hit, but no runs with 2 strike outs. This makes six straight scoreless outings for John, and leaves him with just 2 runs allowed in 9 innings this month. Brebbia carries a 2.48 ERA in the season’s second half with 35 strikeouts in 29 innings.
Tyler Lyons kept Pittsburgh off the board in the eighth. Lyons’ great season continues. He struck out two batters last night, and has fanned 7 of the last 11 to face him. He has 37 strikeouts in 27 innings since the break (12.33 per 9 innings) and holds a 1.00 ERA during that stretch.
Lyons has faced 100 batters in the second half. Only 15 have hit his first or second pitch. For the season, just 20.5% hit those pitches against Tyler. None of the 4 he faced last night managed a quick at bat against him.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals See a Lot of Pitches
When operating at peak efficiency, the Cardinals do a great job of walking that line between aggression and taking grinding at bats. As September wears on, though, they are becoming – by degrees – more grinders than hitters. Last night, 19 of their 36 batters (52.8%) were up there for more than 4 pitches – leading to 5 walks and a .368 on base percentage in those PAs. For the month, 40.3% of Cardinal hitters are seeing at least 5 pitches per plate appearance – leading to 77 walks and a .391 on base percentage in those PAs.
But with all of this on base, the actual hits are starting to be few and far between. The Cards only had 4 hits all game yesterday, and the batters who were grinding at bats were only 2 for 14. For the month, the 40% of batters who are seeing at least 5 pitches are hitting just .202 in those at bats. For the month overall, St Louis carries a .245 team batting average.
Among the carnage last night was the end of Tommy Pham’s latest hitting streak, a modest six-gamer during which Pham hit .444 (12 for 27) and slugged .667 (3 doubles and 1 home run). Tommy scored 5 runs and drove in 5 other during the streak.
Bouncing back into the lineup after an extended absence is hard enough. Without a few minor league games to warm up in, it’s even more difficult. Jedd Gyorko – who was enduring a struggling second half anyway – has experienced further difficulty after returning from his hamstring injury. Over his last 7 games, he is 2 for 15 (.133) and in the second half his average is down to .204 (29 for 142).
Jedd pushed all of his plate appearances last night past 4 pitches, and 9 of the 16 that he has had since his return. Since the All-Star Break, 44.4% of his plate appearances have lasted at least 5 pitches.
But, again, Jedd was 0 for 2 last night. He is also 1 for 8 this month and 12 for 54 (.222) since the break in at bats that last more than 4 pitches.
Also still struggling to regain his earlier form is Kolten Wong. Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, Wong is down to .180 (9 for 50) this month.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In spite of everything, St Louis makes it to the final homestand still moderately relevant. A good homestand (meaning 5-2 or better) could very well eke this team into the playoffs.
That, of course, would mean that they would have to win games against Chicago and Milwaukee – tasks that they have found difficult to achieve with any consistency. It they do sneak in, they will have done it the hard way.
Sunday’s game was the final road game of the season for the Cardinals. The final road tally is: 39 wins, 42 losses, 402 runs scored, 374 runs allowed, 3:04.3 average game time, 2,537,288 total attendance (an average of 31,324.5 per game), 77.1 degrees of average temperature, 10 series won, 13 series lost, 3 series split, 4 series swept in 7 opportunities, while they were the victims of 5 sweeps in 6 opportunities. They finished 2-7 in rubber games on the road.
The Pirate series was the twenty-fifth series this season that St Louis won the first game of the series. With the loss, they are 16-5-4 in those series, with a 53-25 record (just 28-25 after that first game).
St Louis is now, also, 11-10-2 in series against teams that had lost their previous series. They have been consistently unable to take advantage of teams that had been playing poorly. They are just 37-36 in the games of those series, including just 4-5 in rubber games.