On Home Run Dependency and the Mossification of Major League Baseball

Brandon Moss was a utility firstbaseman/outfielder who played one season and a part of another (2015-16) for the Cardinals.  I remember in an interview he gave he recalled a conversation with a minor league hitting coach, who asked him to identify the best part of his game.  Brandon identified himself as a power hitter, and began tailoring his game to that specific.  Abandoned were all attempts to hit to the other field, or to reduce his swing with two strikes on him.  Brandon Moss played 1016 major league games, all as an unapologetic flyball hitter.  He hit some home runs (160 over the course of his career) and struck out a lot (968 times), and ended his career as a .237 lifetime hitter.

At the time of the interview, I wondered how different Brandon’s career might have been if he had taken a more balanced approach – a concept in which he may have hit fewer home runs, but might have hit .275 or .280.  He may have had more opportunities to start, and might have had a longer and fuller career.

As the 2019 season has come to a close, I started rifling through some end-of-season stats and matching up some trends.  In so doing, I learned that Brandon was not short-sighted.  He was prophetic.  Over the years – and changing rapidly over the last handful of seasons – the entire league is becoming Brandon Moss.

The sharpest and most profound trends over the last four years or so are dramatic increases in home runs (the majors set a record this year) and strikeouts.  And almost a free fall decline in hits and batting average.  Where once most hitters were a bit embarrassed if their average sunk below .250, now the entire major leagues is hitting just .252.

The Cardinals hit just .245 as a team this year, and had 5 of their 8 regulars hit below .250 – four of them below .240.

But in an OPS world, batting average is a kind of relic.  You can, baseball has found out, score a lot easier with a walk and a homer than you can by putting three singles together.  Commonly, St Louis would end a game this year with 6 or 7 hits.  Whether they would score anything on those hits would depend on how many of them would leave the park.

In the notebook section (below) I have detailed the extent of some of the more prominent trends and given them a historical context.  But with the Mossification of major league baseball in general – and the Cardinals in particular – the question of home run dependency returns.

Going back just as far as 2012, one can see how St Louis’ offense has rapidly become home run dependent.  In 2012, 33.5% of the Cardinal offense came from home runs.  That percentage dropped to 26.2% in 2013, and rose only slightly to 27.9% in 2014.  But beginning in 2015 (the year Moss came to St Louis from Cleveland) the percentage of offense from the home run has been 34.9%, 44.9%, 39.3% and 41.4% in 2018.

During the just concluded 2019 season, 335 of St Louis’ 764 runs came from the home run – 43.8%.

The thing is, this is not an abnormal number.  In fact, in the new MLB, St Louis is one of the more diversified offenses.  All of baseball (numbers cobbled from baseball reference) depended on the home run for 45.2% of every run scored this season.  The New York Yankees led all of baseball with 943 runs.  Their home run dependency was 45.8% (432 of their runs).

The purist in me is nettled a bit by this development, but the convergence of these trends is fairly serendipitous for the marketing wing of America’s National Pastime.  Everyone likes offense (and run scoring is way up).  Everyone likes home runs.  And, in between home runs, everyone likes strikeouts.  So, in general, all these trends sit well with the populace.

In the interim, the Cardinals will journey to Atlanta to begin their playoff series on Thursday – hoping they will be the team reaching the fences more often than the Braves.

Tommy Edman

Ironically, in the only game St Louis won over the weekend – the 9-0 blowout – Tommy Edman went 0-for-4 and saw his 10-game hitting streak come to a close.  Edman was 20 for 42 (.476) during the streak, getting multiple hits in 9 of the 10, including the last seven in a row.  Seven of the 20 hits were for extra-bases – 2 of them home runs – as Tommy slugged .810 during his streak.

Tommy thus wrapped up a sensational September that saw him hit .350 (36 for 103) with 6 doubles, 4 triples and 6 home runs – a .660 slugging percentage.  Edman hit .308 (84 for 273) with 8 home runs in the season’s second half.

Jack Flaherty

Jack Flaherty wrapped up his second half the way he pitched throughout most of it, as he dominated the Cubs.  Jack gave no runs and 2 hits over 7 innings.  Jack earned his second consecutive pitcher of the month award with six September starts – all quality starts – that led to a 3-1 record and a 0.82 ERA.  He struck out 53 in 44 innings.  Over 15 second half starts, Jack was 7-2 with a 0.91 ERA and a .142 batting average against.  He fanned 124 batters over his 99.1 second half innings – 11.23 per nine innings.

Dakota Hudson

Dakota Hudson began the Chicago series with 5 scoreless innings of his own, although they cost him 97 pitches as he walked 5 and struck out 10.  Hudson also enters the playoffs on a roll.  Over his last 10 starts, Dak is 6-1 with a 2.04 ERA.

Andrew Miller

At the time of the year when they have most needed his magic, Andrew Miller has sprung a leak.  Again.  After serving up a ninth-inning home run in Arizona to cause the 19-inning marathon, Andrew was batted around by the Cubs.  He gave 4 runs on 3 hits, a walk and a hit batsman in his only inning.  He also allowed both inherited runners to score.

Over his last 14 games, Andrew has managed 10.1 innings while being savaged for 11 runs (10 earned) on 13 hits (2 of them home runs) and 4 walks.  He holds an 8.71 ERA and a .302 batting average against in those games.  He has also seen 6 of his last 11 inherited runners come home to roost.

Andrew finished the second half with a 5.13 ERA over 26.1 innings – during which he walked 15 batters and hit 3 others.

This is a considerable concern, as manager Mike Shildt has pretty much decided that Miller is his guy to pitch high leverage innings late in games.  At this moment, I consider it very likely that Andrew will be on the mound if the Thursday game is tight in the eighth inning.

Miller almost single-handedly pushed us out of the division lead.  He could easily single-handedly cost this team the series in Atlanta.

Recent Scoring Changes

Sadly – and surprisingly – Randy Arozarena’s steal of home against Arizona on September 25 has been taken away by a scoring change.  Randy is now officially safe at home on an error by the first baseman on the pickoff play.

Also in that game, a run charged to Genesis Cabrera has been changed from earned to un-earned.  Originally, the run that Nick Ahmed scored from third base on Tim Locastro’s fielder’s choice to second was earned.  On re-consideration, the scorer decided that if the error that had opened the inning hadn’t been made, there would have been two outs when Locastro bounced to second, and the throw would not have come home.  Also, the additional run scored by Domingo Leyba when the throw home got away has been credited as a team un-earned run.

NoteBook

St Louis finished the regular season with 1337 hits – the fewest hits they’ve amassed since the strike-shortened 1995 season (1182).  The only Cardinal team to finish with fewer hits in a full season since baseball went to the 162-game schedule was the 1986 team.  They finished with 1270.

That 1986 team finished with a .236 team batting average (which was the last time this franchise hit lower than the .245 that they hit this season).

Similarly, the 246 doubles hit this year were the fewest full season total since 1991 (239).

On the other hand, the 116 bases stolen by the 2019 Cards are the most this franchise has swiped since 1999 (134).

Cardinal batters averaged 28.8 years of age – the oldest collection of hitters since the 2012 team checked in at 29.2 years.

For the fourth straight season, the Cardinals broke their franchise record for strikeouts in a season – that mark is now 1420.

In a happier franchise mark, this year’s team committed just 66 errors while posting a .989 fielding percentage – both figures breaking the franchise marks set in 2013.

The pitching staff was asked for just 1444 innings this year, the fewest pitched since the 2009 team threw just 1440.2.

There were only 1284 hits logged against the Cardinal pitching staff this year.  Since baseball went to the 162-game schedule only one Cardinal team has allowed fewer hits – the 1968 team allowed 1282.

The 2019 Cardinals ended up surrendering 191 home runs.  Only 144 were hit against them last year.  The 191 were the most this franchise has given up since the 2006 team saw 193 hit against them.

The pitching staff also re-set the franchise record for strikeouts, their 1399 this year surpassing the 1351 amassed by the 2017 team.  After never achieving this in their history, St Louis has now averaged over 8 strikeouts per nine innings for the fourth consecutive year.

After allowing both of his inherited runners to score in the Friday game, Ryan Helsley allowed 8 of the 13 he inherited on the season to trot home – 61.5%.

The Saturday start from Adam Wainwright was his thirty-first of the year.  He had made 31 starts the previous two years combined.

For almost the entire season, Waino was the one Cardinal starter not on pace to match or exceed his career-high home run total.  Then he served up 4 in his last start, to end the year with 22 – tying his career high from 2016.

Paul Goldschmidt’s RBI single began the Sunday onslaught.  The game-winning RBI was his fifteenth of the season as he broke a tie with Marcell Ozuna on the season’s final day.

When the Cards swept the Cubs in Chicago, the pitchers allowed the Cubs just 15 runs through that whole four-game series.  Chicago scored 16 in the first two games in St Louis.

On Sunday, the Cards faced a series sweep for just the fifth time at home in 2019.  In avoiding the broom, St Louis finished the season being swept at home just once.  The Oakland Athletics did the honors, sweeping a two-game series here on June 25-26.

The Cubs were also just the fifth team this season that had lost its previous series to almost sweep the Cards.  St Louis salvaged all five of those series by winning the final game.

After St Louis fell behind 8-1 on Friday, their seven-run deficit was the largest they have faced since they lost to the Dodgers in Los Angeles 8-0 on August 5.

St Louis had lead at some point in 9 straight games before the Saturday loss.  The last time they had not held a lead was a 6-2 loss to Washington on September 17.

The final day’s attendance of 47,212 was the largest crowd the Cards played to since August 7 – the last game in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.  48,994 attended that game.  The last home game that drew a larger crowd was Albert Pujols’ homecoming on June 19, with 48,423 making the trek out to Busch.

Summer, itself, made a comeback for the Sunday afternoon game, as the regular season finale at home reached 91 degrees at first pitch.  It was the warmest Cardinal game since August 19, when St Louis took down the Brewers 3-0 in 92 degree heat.  St Louis was 9-2 when game time temperature was 90 degrees or higher – including 3-2 on the road.

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