“Our hard-hit contact rate improved [in May] and our results decreased. And I felt like we said, ‘You know what? We’ve got to do something different because we’re not getting the reward.’ We got away from the damage we were doing coming out of Spring Training. We did without reward and lost our way a little bit. We’ve gotten back to doing what we need to do, and that’s putting some damage out there.”
The speaker here was Cardinal manager Mike Shildt, quoted in Anne Rogers game story for MLB.com (full article).
The gist – as I understand it – is that the Cardinal hitters tried to be too selective at the plate. Earlier in that same article, Dexter Fowler explained it this way: “See the ball in the zone and take that hack at it. Guys sit there thinking, ‘Oh, he’s going to throw me this, so I want it in this spot.’ If it’s in the zone, hit it.”
June, of course, was a disastrous offensive month for the Holy Cardinal Franchise. They managed just 3.54 runs per game and finished dead last in the entire major leagues in team batting average (.223), on base percentage (.286) and slugging percentage (.357).
The Seattle series did show a significant uptick. In three games in the Pacific Northwest, the formerly inept Cardinal batsmen hit .275 (28 for 102), with 12 of the hits going for extra-bases (6 doubles and 6 home runs). They slugged .510 in Seattle.
So, how much of the expressed philosophical issue and the described resolution are truly responsible for the woes of June? And how compelling is the evidence that things have turned around? Let’s play a little fact or fiction.
There actually is a statistical footprint that supports the “too passive” theory. The usual statistical breakout of the average major league at bat is that slightly more than half of them get to the point where the hitter gets two strikes on him. At that point, the numbers shift drastically to the pitcher. Up to that point, major league batters hit over .300. The other 50% of at bats are generally divided pretty evenly between batters hitting the first and second strike. According to baseball reference, batters hitting the first strike thrown to them are hitting .354/.414/.636. Once the batter gets two strikes on him, his numbers drop to .173/.247/.285.
St Louis’ numbers from June show that the first strike was hit only 17.5% of the time (suggesting a reluctance to take an aggressive approach). Moreover, when that pitch was hits, the results – the “damage” if you will – sat well below the major league average. Cardinals hitting the first strike in June hit .279/.357/.517.
Meanwhile, they ended up in two-strike counts an uncomfortable 57.3% of the time – with predictable results (.165/.225/.256).
For all of the talk, though, they didn’t hit that first strike any more frequently in this series. Of the 109 batters who came to the plate in Seattle, 18 hit the first strike (just 16.5% – this number including two batters who walked before seeing strike one).
They did, however, hit that first pitch much better when they did hit it – going 9 for 16 (.562) with 2 doubles and a home run (.875 slugging percentage).
Of the 109 batters sent to the plate, 62 (56.9%) still ended up in two strike counts – higher than average. These batters, though, also performed better. The batting average was somewhat higher at .190 (11 for 58). But 6 of the 11 two-strike hits went for extra-bases (3 doubles and all 3 home runs hit over the last two games). Tommy Edman’s seventh-inning, game-winning single in the Thursday game (box score) also came on a two-strike pitch, culminating a 9-pitch at bat.
It could be argued from this, that the team isn’t any less selective than they were in June, but that when they do decide to swing, they are doing so with more abandon – that the swings, themselves, are more aggressive.
On the Other Hand
So, if there is some evidence of a new and more productive offensive philosophy in place, here are a couple of caveats to keep in mind.
First of all, the sample size is exceedingly small. We are looking here at 109 plate appearances in contrast to 964 in June alone, and 3226 for the season. Three games can suggest a possible turn-around, but proves nothing.
Second, of course, this was Seattle. The Mariners are having a fairly dreary season, having lost more than fifty games, already. There have been a lot of teams that have taken similar advantage of the Seattle pitching staff. This becomes more credible when (if) they can perform similarly against a more established pitching staff.
Finally, this re-discovered damage happened on the road. The question that hangs over this offense is – aggressive or not – can they do sustained damage in their spacious ballpark, where big flies tend to die on the track?
Don’t get me wrong, it was a relief to see some hits coming off the bats of some struggling hitters. But there is still much to be proved.
Perhaps the change in philosophy affected no one more than Harrison Bader. He had fallen completely into that pattern throughout the month of June. Harrison hit that first strike just 19% of the time, and went just 3 for 12 when he did. He ended with two-strikes on him 61.9% of the time, batting just .087 (4 for 46) when that happened.
Harrison had 7 plate appearances in the last two games of the Seattle series, and he hit the first strike in 3 of them – getting singles all three times.
Paul Goldschmidt finished the Seattle series with 3 hits over the last two games – a single and two doubles. Two of the three hits came with two strikes on him – which was encouraging. But again, Goldschmidt faced two-strike counts in 6 of his last 8 plate appearances. Paul, who is, perhaps, more selective than he needs to be, has gotten to two strikes in 62.8% of his plate appearances.
Jose Martinez finished the Seattle series with a single and a double yesterday afternoon. Jose has now strung together a nice six-game hitting streak. He is hitting .333 during the streak (8 for 24), with half the hits going for extra-bases (2 doubles, 2 home runs). Since being returned to the lineup 13 games ago, Jose is hitting .314 (16 for 51), and slugging .529 with 3 home runs.
Fowler also has a little hitting streak going, having at least one hit in each of the last 7 games he’s had an official at bat in. He walked as a pinch-hitter in the last game against San Diego. Counting that walk, over his last 25 plate appearances, Fowler has contributed 5 singles, 1 double, 1 home run and 5 walks – a .350/.480/.550 batting line.
Fowler – like Goldschmidt – is a taker of pitches. For all his talk about aggression, he never did hit the first strike thrown him at any point in the series, working with two strikes on him in 9 of the 11 plate appearances he had where they actually pitched to him (he was intentionally walked his last time up).
All three of his hits in the series came with two strikes on him.
While most of the Cardinals’ struggling hitters found some measure of success in Seattle, things are still not falling in for Yadier Molina. Yadi is 0-for-10 with a sacrifice fly in his last 11 plate appearances, but three of those outs (including the sac fly) have been line drives. In 20 games since he’s returned from injury, Yadi is carrying a .239/.257/.282 batting line.
After allowing just 3 runs over 13 innings of his previous two starts, inconsistency found Michael Wacha yesterday afternoon, and he was driven from the mound before he could get through the fourth inning.
Wacha has labored to a 5.89 ERA since he returned from the injured list.
Carlos Martinez’ season began on the injured list, and his first several appearances out of the pen were less than sharp. That has resolved itself over his last 7 appearances (10.1 innings) in which he has given just 1 run on 7 hits (0.87 ERA). Over that span, Carlos has walked just 2, given no extra-base hits, and struck out 11.
Of the last 24 batters to put the ball in play against him, exactly two-third have hit the ball on the ground.
Like Martinez, it took Andrew Miller a little while to get the feel of his slider. The recent results indicate it is about back to its former level of filthiness. He has struck out all of the last five batters he’s put into two strike counts, and 9 of the last 11.
Jose Martinez grounded into two double plays last night. He has already bounced into 11 this season. His career high are the 15 he hit into last year in 152 games and 534 at bats.
Last night’s victory gave St Louis a series win on the road. This was their fourteenth road series of the season, and only the fifth of them that they have won, losing 8 and splitting 1. Even with the win, they are 19-24 on the road this season.
Even though they eventually won the game, St Louis trailed after six innings for the ninth game in a row.