It was the second inning of Game One of the Division Series last Thursday, and Marcell Ozuna was leading off.
Through seven major league seasons and 931 regular season games, Marcell had never had a whiff of the playoffs before. But now, here he was, standing in against Atlanta lefty Dallas Keuchel. The very first playoff pitch he would see would be Keuchel’s signature sinker. Ozuna cut loose and took a hack at it – and tapped it easily back to Dallas for the first out of the inning.
Over the five games of the series, Marcell would come to the plate 22 more times. He would never again swing at the first pitch. Brave pitchers would tempt him with all manner of sliders and breaking balls, hoping that he would chase. But Marcell is seeing the ball very well out of the hand these days.
After that initial groundout, Marcell went on to punish Atlanta the rest of the series, going 9 for his last 20, with 3 doubles and 2 home runs. He drove in 5 runs in the five games – including the winning run twice.
Watching Marcell at the plate, one would guess that he would be one of the team’s more aggressive hitters. The menacing way that he waves the bat at the plate, resembling a serpent looking for his first opportunity to strike. And, certainly, when he does jump at a pitch, the swing itself is nothing less that pure aggression unleashed. But, in spite of the visual evidence to the contrary, Marcell doesn’t chase the first pitch thrown to him any more than an average hitter – and profits significantly when he is taking that first pitch.
During the season’s second half, Marcell took the first pitch thrown him 73.1% of the time (163 of 223). He hit .252/.380/.481 with 8 of his 9 second half home runs in those plate appearances. He was just a .140/.183/.246 hitter when he did chase the first pitch. His season numbers (.256/.361/.503 in 382 PAs when taking the first pitch and .217/.257/.414 in 167 PAs when he swung at the first offering) followed a similar arc.
In watching Marcell over the last two seasons, I’ve come to see this as a barometer of his comfort at the plate. When Marcell is taking, he is dialed in.
I don’t think that, during his uneven regular season, we got to see the real Paul Goldschmidt – the Goldschmidt who was a constant thorn in the side of the Braves. During 680 regular season plate appearances, Paul only took the first pitch 473 times – a 69.6% that was right about at the team average of 69.9%. He hit .300 in at bats in which he chased the first pitch, and only .241 when taking.
Atlanta was subjected to a different Goldy. In 23 playoff plate appearances, Paul watched that first pitch go by 18 times (78.3%). He went on to go 8 for 16 in those at bats (.500) with all of his extra-base hits (4 doubles and 2 home runs – a 1.125 slugging percentage). He had one single in 5 at bats when he swung at the first pitch.
As with Ozuna, Paul appears his most comfortable the more selective he is.
But DeJong Not So Much
The other everyday Paul in the lineup – Paul DeJong, on the oter hand, is at his best when he goes up swinging at the first pitch. In fact, he hit .500 during the series when he swung at the first pitch. Unfortunately, he only swung at 6 of his 20 first pitches. For the season, Paul hit .277 when he swung at the first pitch, but did so only 21.7% of the time – about 10% lower than average.
DeJong likes that fastball early in the count, and (as the season has progressed) pitchers have learned that challenging DeJong early in the count doesn’t usually work out for them.
The 14 times DeJong didn’t swing at the first pitch during the series, he managed 1 single in 12 at bats (with 2 intentional walks) and 8 strikeouts.
The Washington pitching staff will present its own challenges – especially when they face Patrick Corbin and that elusive slider. But several of the hitters in the meat part of the Cardinal order are seeing the ball very well right now. We are looking forward to an interesting series.
The Trading Deadline Revisited
On Monday April 29 – when these two teams first met in Washington – few would probably have predicted that St Louis and Washington would be the last two teams standing in the National League. The Cards were in the midst of their hot start, and carried a record of 17-10 into the series. They currently held a 2.5 game lead over the Cubs. But even though their record was second best to the Dodgers (LA was 19-11 at that point), St Louis had missed the playoffs during each of the previous three seasons, and the Cubs and Brewers were still expected to be the teams fighting it out for the playoff spots in this division.
Washington, on the other hand, had just seen superstar outfielder Bryce Harper join their division rivals in Philadelphia over the offseason. Washington entered play that night just 12-14 and 3 early games behind the Phillies. About 10% of the way through the season, most experts might have predicted that the Dodgers and Cubs would be preparing to do battle this evening. But the baseball season is always full of surprises, and the Cards and National are two of the more pleasant surprises for 2019.
As St Louis takes its place tonight among the last four teams standing, I think it’s worthwhile to revisit the July 31 trade deadline. Famously, the Cards stood pat, adding nothing to their roster in spite of the trading fury all around them. From most corners of the baseball world, their inactivity drew a kind of quiet raspberry. As with a shrug, the experts more or less concluded that the Cards didn’t really care about making the playoffs.
Clearly, the front office had a high level of belief in the team they had. More than that, though, during the final moments of the insanity, the office stated publicly that they were unwilling to part with the promising parts of their future for a temporary fix.
In recent years, I haven’t been exceedingly complimentary of the management team in place. In many ways, they have consistently misunderstood the real issues that faced their team – and all too often have seemed unconcerned about parting with pieces of their future for the immediate gratification of an “impact bat.” For the rest of their careers, I think I will cringe every time I see Sandy Alcantara or Zac Gallen appear in playoff games or All Star games as I remember that both of these prime prospects (and more) were surrendered for what will probably be just two years of Marcell Ozuna.
So, to hear from them last July that these intriguing players that represent a fairly compelling future for this franchise are at least somewhat off-limits, is greatly relieving.
We’ll see if they can keep their hands off them over the long off season.