Down in the count 3-1 to San Diego’s Victor Caratini, Cardinal starter Adam Wainwright – unwilling to give in to him – tried to get him to chase the cutter. At just 84.8 mph, the pitch was tempting, but inside by about four inches, about waist high. Caratini did Waino a favor and fouled the pitch off.
In the long run, it wouldn’t matter. Adam tried to get him to chase a curveball on the next pitch. And when he didn’t, the Padres had runners at first and second with one out in the third inning of last Saturday’s game. Waino would wiggle out of trouble with no further damage – but enough damage had already been done. A three-run homer earlier in the inning had padded San Diego’s lead to 6-0 – on their way to a 13-3 victory (box score).
We’ve talked about chasing pitches before. As Statcast breaks down the battle between pitcher and batter, they have subdivided the area over and around the plate into various “zones.” The middle part of the plate is the heart. Usually pitches that end up here are mistakes made by the pitcher and likely to bring damage in their wake.
Just outside of the heart is the “shadow” zone. This is the boarder of the actual strike zone and maybe an inch or two just outside the zone. These are usually pitchers pitches (regarded as “too close to take” if you have two strikes on you), but pitches that a batter can do some damage with if he is looking for them.
Beyond this is the “chase” zone – usually around two-to-four inches around the perimeter of the plate. Most at bats, I think, are decided in this zone. These pitches are balls (once in a blue moon one will get called a strike) but are close enough that batters will offer at them. This is especially true if they have two strikes on them and know they have to protect the plate.
Overall, these pitches get swung at 24% of the time – rising to about a third of the time in two-strike counts. And that percentage is enough. It’s enough to keep most pitchers out of deep counts most of the time, and it’s enough for pitchers to put away most hitters once they have them in two-strike counts.
Veteran pitchers like Wainwright depend on batters expanding their strike zone to chase these pitches. Coming into his Saturday start against San Diego, batters were swinging at Adam’s chase pitches 24.5% of the time, and 34.6% of the time with two strikes – especially when he throws that tantalizing curve.
On Saturday in San Diego, Waino’s outing lasted 4 innings and 92 pitches. Twenty of those pitches trailed into the chase zone (19 of those when a position player was at the plate). Of those 19 “chase-me” pitches, the cutter to Caratini was the only one that was chased. That included 6 two-strike pitches – pitches most batters have difficulty laying off of.
By the end of his outing, Adam had thrown only 52 of his 92 pitches for strikes, and had walked 3 in his 4 innings. But Adam’s outing wasn’t an outlier this weekend by any means. In 24 agonizing innings in San Diego, Cardinal pitchers managed strikes on only 51.9% of their pitches (287 out of 553) on their way to walking 26 Padre batters (and hitting 4 others). St Louis pitched to an exhausting average of 5.21 batters per inning, and threw 4.42 pitches to each of them. Their season-long averages are 4.32 batters per inning, and 3.99 pitches to each batter. San Diego’s three-game sweep of the Cards was highlighted by a .464 on base percentage.
For the series, Padre position players were tempted with 133 pitches in the chase zone. The disciplined San Diego batters offered at just 16 of them (12.0%).
The Cardinals like to imagine themselves as this kind of offense. Manager Mike Schildt will frequently talk about tough, professional at bats up and down the lineup – and in their very best moments, the Cardinals will do a fair approximation of this. But this weekend, they were treated to a clinic. A San Diego team minus a handful of stars (Fernando Tatis Jr., Eric Hosmer and Jurickson Profar all missed the series due to COVID concerns) nevertheless ground its way through a series of very good pitchers through the difficult discipline of forcing them to throw strikes.
This was one of the things that impressed me so much in the brief playoff series between these teams last year. Even when they were behind in a critical game, there was never any panic in the Padre at bats. They took close pitches, and they took their walks – resisting the urge to expand their zone in the interest of being the hero. They understood that eventually the pitcher would have to come to somebody – and they had complete trust that whoever was at the plate at the time would come through with the big hit.
St Louis has a lot of hitters with intriguing potential. I hope they were paying attention this weekend, because the San Diego hitters showed them just how this thing is done.
Much has been made of the run support that Jack Flaherty has gotten this season (10.46 per nine innings while he’s the pitcher of record). Complicating Adam’s season is that Jack is getting all of his runs. The Cards backed Wainwright with one lonely run in San Diego – and that was just the thirteenth support run that Waino has been blessed with all season. His average is a much more modest 2.51 support runs per nine innings.
Tyler Webb still has never recovered from his nine-days of inactivity earlier in the year. Tyler pitched in the first two games of the San Diego series, giving a run in each. He has now been scored on in 6 of his last 7 games. Sixteen of the last 32 batters to face him have reached – 10 of them on walks.
Even in the sweep, Nolan Arenado’s bat has stayed scorching hot. He was 6 for 12 against the Padres with 4 extra-base hits – three of them home runs. Arenado has pushed his average to .379 for the month (22-for-58) and his slugging percentage to .759 for May (5 doubles, 1 triple and 5 home runs). He has driven in 13 runs in the 15 games this month. Going back to the last game in April, Nolan has hits in 14 of his last 16 games – good for a .381 batting average (24-for-63) and a .762 slugging percentage (7 doubles to go along with the triple and 5 homers). He has just 3 strikeouts over the course of those games.
Quietly, Harrison Bader has muffled his tendency to strike out – and his batting average (now .283) has profited. Harrison has struck out just 8 times so far in 2021. Over his last 5 games, Bader has put the ball in play on 15 of his 29 swings (51.7%). He now leads all regulars, putting the ball in play with 46.5% of his swings (46 of 99). The team average is just 36.6%.
Tommy Edman has hit his first rough patch of the season. The Cardinal leadoff man and igniter was just 2 for 15 (.133) with no walks in San Diego. Tommy has hit safely in just 3 of his last 7 games, batting .125 (4-for-32) with just 1 walk – a .152 on base percentage. It has been 11 games since his last extra-base hit, and 18 games since his last run batted in.
Pitchers have been noticeably more aggressive with Tommy recently. He has seen 18 first-pitch strikes in his last 24 plate appearances (75%). The team-wide average is 59.4% first-pitch strikes.
In the Friday game, Tommy hit into his first double-play of the season. He has been up in 23 double-play opportunities. His 4.3% is the lowest double-play percentage among Cardinal regulars.
Forty-one games and 184 plate appearances into the season, and Edman has yet to have an opportunity to drive in a runner from third with less than two outs.
Edman is still the hardest Cardinal to throw the ball past. He missed on only 3 of the 34 swings he took in San Diego (8.8%). For the season, Tommy is missing on just 12.3% of his swings – the lowest percentage among regulars.
Given a start in San Diego to “get his bat in the lineup,” Matt Carpenter went 0-for-6 against the Padres with 3 strikeouts. I have already discussed Carpenter’s issues, so I won’t go into more detail here. I will just point out that Matt is now hitting .095 (2-for-21) this month with no extra-base hits and 7 strikeouts.
Matt put the ball in play just 3 times in his 13 swings this weekend (23.1%). For the season, he is putting the ball in play only 29.2% of the times that he swings, the lowest ratio of any Cardinal with at least 50 plate appearances.
All three games of the series drew “COVID capacity” crowds of 15,250. All of those games are tied for the highest attendance at a Cardinal game so far this season, and the series average of 15,250 (of course) is also the highest. The previous attendance high was the 13,435 that showed up at Busch to see Colorado on May 7. At an average of 13,401.7, that Colorado series was also the highest for average crowd.
Friday’s game – at 4:08 – was St Louis’ first game this season to top four hours. The closest they had previously gotten was the 3:55 it took them to beat Milwaukee 6-1 (in 11 innings) on May 11.
The average time of the series’ games was 3:43.7, the longest lasting series of the year so far. The previous series against Milwaukee (which had taken an average of 3:31 to play) had been the longest.
When the Padres scored 5 runs in the first game, it equaled the total number of runs that Milwaukee had scored against St Louis in their entire series. San Diego’s total of 23 runs for the series were the second most St Louis has allowed this season. Cincinnati scored 27 against them in the season opening series.
Bader drew his fifth intentional walk on Friday – already a career high. At some point, Shildt should probably think of moving him out of the eighth slot in the order.
The Saturday game was only the second time St Louis has lost a game by at least ten runs this season. They were beaten by Cincinnati 12-1 on April 4.
My Designated Hitter Rant
Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter. Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH. While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it. So, I have re-written it here. The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks. I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.