It was the bottom of first inning of last night’s game – still scoreless. Matt Carpenter had reached on an infield hit, and had advanced himself to third on a wild pitch and a groundout. Now Jose Martinez was up. Pittsburgh starter Ivan Nova buried a fastball down and in – well off the plate. It’s the kind of pitch that a pitcher hopes the batter will swing at. The kind of pitch that will usually tie up a batter, resulting in weak contact – if, indeed, the batter even makes contact.
In that regard, I suppose you could say that Nova got his wish. Jose did swing at the pitch. The result, though, was somewhat less than Ivan might have hoped for, as Martinez sent the pitch soaring into the Pirate bullpen just beyond the left-field wall. Up quickly 2-0, the Cardinals were on their way to a 5-2 victory (box score). The win was their fourth in a row, their twentieth in 25 August games, their twenty-third in the last 30 games, and their twenty-sixth in 38 second half games.
The Cardinals are playing hot baseball – with no one hotter than Jose Martinez.
With two more hits last night, Martinez has now hit safely in 15 of his last 17 games, and it hasn’t been a quiet hitting streak.
Jose is hitting .400 (26 for 65) in those games, getting multiple hits in 8 of them. The hits include 4 doubles and 3 home runs. He has driven in 12 runs over his last 17 games, while slugging .600.
This hot streak has carried him to the top of the team’s batting chart for the month – and for the second half. Martinez is now hitting .372 (32 for 86) in August and .342 (39 for 114) since the All-Star Break.
What a lucky thing he is still in the lineup.
Back in the beginning, the plan was that Jose would be the everyday first baseman. While his offense was pretty much all that they had hoped for (Jose is hitting .309 overall on the season), his defense – and, remember, Martinez was learning to play first at the major league level – was untenable.
This put then-manager Mike Matheny in quite a bind. One of his most potent offensive players couldn’t play his position. Being a National League team, Matheny didn’t have a designated hitter option available (at least not on a regular basis), so Jose spent some games coming off the bench and sometimes working into right-field in place of the struggling Dexter Fowler.
This led to consistent chatter regarding a trade of Martinez to an American League team. This picked up steam after Mike Shildt replaced Matheny as manager. Although Fowler was scuffling along with a batting average in the .170s, Shildt committed the team to giving him everyday at bats as the right fielder. This worked out about as well as it had all season. Fowler played in all of the first 17 games of the Shildt regime – starting 15. Dexter hit .204 in those games, and the team went 9-8.
Fowler might still be in right field, except that his seventeenth game under Shildt would be his last for awhile – he was sidelined after breaking his foot. It opened an outfield spot for Jose, who hasn’t stopped hitting since. And the team hasn’t stopped winning.
The future is still a little murky for one of the Cardinals’ driving offensive forces. At some point – probably before the 2019 season starts – a decision is going to have to be made about the future of Fowler. In Dexter’s defense, his career suggests that he is a much better player than he has shown this year. Furthermore, I always remind people that at the end of last year – in those important September games – Fowler was one of the few Cardinals still getting big hits in high-leverage situations.
Still, the thought of St Louis parting ways with Martinez (whose outfield defense is more than passable) in favor of Fowler doesn’t sit terribly well with me.
With his first-inning home run, Jose drove in Carpenter who had reached third with less than two outs. Martinez has now delivered that runner (runner on third with less than two outs) in 4 of 5 opportunities this month, in 6 of 8 such chances in the second half, and, now, 63% of the time this year (15 of 24).
Jose did strikeout last night – his seventy-fifth strikeout of the season. Of course, he went down swinging. Martinez has only taken a called third strike 12 times this season. With just 16% of his strikeouts being called third strikes, Martinez has the lowest such percentage of any Cardinal with at least 100 plate appearances.
Of the seven swings he took last night, that strikeout was his only miss. For a guy whose swing is quite healthy – and produces notable power – Martinez rarely swings and misses. While the entire team is missing on 22.3% of their swings this month, Martinez is missing on just 16.5%. For the season, the team as a whole is missing on 23.7% of their swings, while Jose misses just 18.8% of the time.
Jose was the only Cardinal hitter last night that didn’t take at least one called strike during the course of the game.
More Good Offense
A battling overall offense, that ended the game fouling off 30 pitches and forcing 152 pitches (4.11 per plate appearance) from the Pirate staff ended up with 5 more runs on 10 hits. They have now scored at least 5 runs in 16 of their 25 games this month – averaging 5.24 runs per game – while hitting .275 as a team in August.
On the heels of his 4 double game in Colorado, Matt Carpenter added two more hits last night. Carpenter is hitting .299 (43 for 144) in the second half.
When Matt came to the plate in the third after Jack Flaherty led off the inning with a single, it was the seventy-fifth time this season that Carpenter was up in a double play situation. He has yet to ground into one – Carpenter lined out to center.
As always, Matt is very discriminating in the batter’s box. Of the 24 pitches he saw last night, he took 10 of them for balls. So far this month, 42.9% of the pitches thrown to Carpenter have been taken for balls. His season percentage of 41.7% balls leads all Cardinal regulars. Fowler is next at 40.4%.
This patience allows Carpenter to see more pitches than any other Cardinal. With 24 pitches in 5 plate appearances last night, Matt is up to a team-leading 4.21 per plate appearance. Young Harrison Bader is actually right behind at 4.20.
Amid the team’s offensive resurgence, Paul DeJong is still stuck in neutral. He went hitless in three at bats last night – with two strikeouts. Over his last 7 games, Paul is just 3 for 27 (.111) with 15 strikeouts. In the season’s second half, DeJong is hitting just .196 (27 for 138).
Along with the decrease in his average, Paul has experienced an increase in his foul balls. He fouled the ball off on 3 of his 6 swings last night. Throughout the season’s first half, DeJong only hit foul balls with 32.9% of his swings. Since the break, 43.0% of his swings have resulted in fouls.
The obvious tangent to this is fewer balls hit into play. From his 6 swings last night, DeJong only managed 1 ball put into play. Over the last 30 games, Paul is getting the ball into play with only 31.4% of his swings.
His recent struggles seem to be more of a timing issue.
While it is commonly thought that Matt Carpenter is the Cardinal least likely to swing at the first pitch of an at bat, that is actually no longer true. Paul DeJong has taken that title from him. Paul took all four first pitches thrown to him last night, and for the season is swinging at that pitch only 15.6% of the time. Carpenter swings at the first pitch 18% of the time. Perhaps this is too much passivity, as 3 of those 4 first pitches he took last night were strikes.
If tentative to swing at the first pitch, Paul shows little inhibition toward swinging at the last pitch. On both of his strikeouts, he went down swinging.
Over the last 30 team games, Paul has struck out 34 times – 28 of them swinging. Previous to that, 19 of his first 60 strikeouts (31.7%) had come on called third strikes.
With each start, Jack Flaherty solidifies his place in this rotation now and for years to come. With 7 terrific innings last night – during which he allowed just 1 run on 4 hits (3 singles and a double) and no walks, Jack wrapped up a dominating month.
Entering the month not having thrown a quality start in any of his previous 7 starts – during which he lasted as many as 6 innings only once – Jack exploded through August. He tossed 5 consecutive quality starts, finishing 4-0 with a 1.13 ERA over 32 innings. He allowed only 14 hits in those innings, and only 5 of those for extra-bases (2 home runs and 3 doubles). His batting average against for the month was a microscopic .136 and his slugging percentage against just .223.
Not too many pitchers of any age and experience cobbled together a better month than that.
As part of this new-found dominance, opposing teams have lost the ability to create complicated innings against Jack. Through the season’s first four months, Jack pitched to 4.13 batters per inning. After facing just 23 batters in his seven innings last night, Flaherty finished the month facing just 3.56 batters per inning. No one else in the rotation faced fewer than Miles Mikolas’ 4.07 batters per inning.
Jack has also enjoyed enviable run support recently. His 5 runs of support last night reduced his second-half average to just 6.27 runs per 9 innings.
Rotation Still Flying High
With the outing, Flaherty sustained the recent run of excellent starting pitching. The rotation’s August ERA is now down to 2.79, and since the break, opposing hitters are batting just .237 in over 200 innings against the Cardinal starters.
Overall, the team ERA for the month is an enviable 2.80, with a .227 batting average against.
Control Issues from the Pen
So solid for most of the month, the bullpen flinched a little last night, allowing a run in a complicated eighth. As per usual, when the bullpen leaks a bit there are control issues behind it. Last night, Cardinal relievers walked 2 and hit another batter in just two innings. In 83.1 innings this month, Cardinal relievers have walked 43 batters. Even though 2 of those walks were intentional, that still makes 4.43 unintentional walks for every 9 innings.
There are an awful lot of very young relievers out there, so this might just take some time.
On the other hand, while the bullpen has allowed walks, extra-base hits have been exceedingly rare against this group. After allowing none last night, the Cardinal bullpen has been touched for just 5 home runs and 12 doubles over their 83.1 August innings – a .299 slugging percentage.
In the middle of the one ugly inning the bullpen endured last night was outstanding rookie Jordan Hicks. Throwing his sixty-sixth inning of the year already (at this pace the 22-year-old will pitch 81 innings this year) Jordan gave the run on 2 hits and 2 walks, leaving a 2-on, 2-out situation to Dakota Hudson. Over his last 5 appearances, Jordan has made it through just 4.2 innings, walking 7 and giving 7 hits.
The walks have been a recurring issue with Jordan, but the hits are unusual. The last 27 batters he has faced are hitting .350 against him, with a .519 on base percentage. He has thrown 111 pitches over those 4.2 innings – with only 57% of them going for strikes. After throwing just 6 strikes last night, Hicks is down to 59.2% strikes for the second half.
The workload for Jordan may be a concern.
As the season reaches August, Jordan’s innings are becoming increasingly complicated. Through his first 54.2 innings this year, he faced an average of 4.19 batters per inning – not bad considering he has always had a propensity for walks. In his 11.1 August innings, he is facing a very high 4.85 batters per inning. His pitches per inning have also risen from 15.2 throughout the season’s first 4 months to 18.79 in August. His two-thirds of an inning last night cost him 15 pitches.
Still, for all of this, Hicks almost never gives up an extra base hit. He has allowed just 7 all season, and none since serving up a triple to the White Sox’ Yoan Moncada back on July 11 – 95 batters ago.
Always a predominant ground-ball pitcher, Jordan got groundball from all 3 batters who put the ball in play against him. In the season’s second half, he gets that groundball 64.8% of the time.
Presented with a dangerous situation in the eighth, Hudson diffused the inning, getting Adam Frazier to ground out to end it. Over his brief 14.2 inning career, the first 60 batters to face him are hitting just .173 and slugging only .212. He has allowed just 2 doubles to those batters.
Dakota has also been a little bit of a good-luck charm for the offense. When they scored in the bottom of the eighth for him, it was Hudson’s ninth support run in 12.2 innings this month – one reason why the rookie already has 4 relief wins.
Hudson may be the only pitcher on the staff more ground oriented than Hicks. After getting Frazier to ground out, Dakota is getting 72.5% of the batters who have hit the ball against him this month to hit it on the ground.
That ground ball came on Hudson’s fourth and final pitch. One thing about groundball pitchers – they keep their pitch count low. In spite of the fact that he walks a few batters, too, Hudson is throwing just 14.45 pitches per inning. Since he got here, that is the lowest figure on the staff.
Continuing to get the job done, Bud Norris closed things out in the ninth for his sixth consecutive save.
Good all year, Norris may be in the midst of his best stretch of the season. He is unscored on over his last 6 games (6 IP), allowing just 2 hits and 1 walk. Over his last 15 games (13.2 IP), Bud has saved 10 of 11 with a 1.32 ERA, a .170 batting average against, and a .191 slugging percentage against. This has reduced his second-half ERA to 2.35.
In search of their tenth straight series victory, St Louis has won the opening game of their sixth consecutive series. That’s a good first step.