It’s the kind of game plan that usually gets pitchers in trouble, and should have come with some kind of warning for those watching at home: Warning, this is a trained professional – Do Not Try This At Home.
As young pitchers graduate from the minors and get set to face major leaguers for the first time, almost always their pitching coaches give then counsel similar to this:
“Go get ‘em kid. Go right after them, and trust your stuff. It’s what got you here. Whatever you do, don’t nibble”.
On what turned out to be St Louis’ last game before the All-Star Break, Kwang Hyun Kim gave the fading Cardinals a much needed dominant effort. He muffled the Cubs with no runs on just 5 hits (all singles) and 1 walk through the first 6 innings of Saturday night’s 6-0 conquest of the Northsiders (box score). He struck out 7 along the way.
That win – coupled with a couple of Cincinnati wins over Milwaukee – served to keep the Cardinals just barely on the periphery of the pennant race. They hit the All-Star Break at 44-46, and 8 games behind with 72 left to play. They are 13 games out of the final wild card spot, so it looks right now like it’s the division title or bust.
But as effective as Kim was on Saturday night – and as important as the win was – I almost hope that all of the Cardinals’ young pitchers weren’t watching, because trying to duplicate what Kwang Hyun did will most likely lead to trouble for them.
You see, in navigating past that dangerous first strike, Kim nibbled. From the very first pitch of the game, Kwang Hyun populated the outside shell of the strike zone with a variety of soft tosses.
The night before, a similar game plan resulted mostly in disaster. Forty six Cubs came to the plate on Friday night, and only 9 of them found a first pitch to their liking. As 8 Cardinal pitchers struggled to throw a strike – but not too good a strike – the Chicago team drew 7 walks and 3 hit batsmen to go along with 12 hits. It all lead to a 10-5 victory that was easier than the score suggests (box sore).
But in the hands of Kwang Hyun Kim – Professional Nibbler – the concept took a whole different shape. Only 5 of the 23 batters that Kwang Hyun faced could be tempted to chase after his first pitch, and of the 18 that took Kwang Hyun’s first pitch, only 8 started off the at bat 0-1.
But, of the 10 batters that started off 1-0 against Kim, only 2 reached 2-0 against him (Javier Baez in the first and Kris Bryant in the sixth). He came back to retire both – Baez on a double-play grounder and Bryant on a fly ball. He didn’t fall behind anyone 3-0, and only reached ball three on two of the 23 batters he faced.
It took him 35 pitches to throw the first strike to the 23 batters he faced, and his surprising weapon of choice was his four-seam fastball. Of those 35 pitches, 21 were fastballs. They averaged just 89.05 miles-per-hour, with none faster than 91.1. Obviously, it wasn’t a fastball to challenge the Cub hitters with. It was a frustrating fastball that Kwang Hyun chose for command purposes. Soft as it was, it was a fastball he could repeatedly spot either on the edge of the strike zone, or close enough that it would tempt a swing.
Along the way, Kwang Hyun floated three more curveballs and a slider in at less than 70 miles per hour. In so doing, Kim stretched his lead over Adam Wainwright to 71-11 in pitches thrown at less than 70 miles per hour this year. Wainwright, though, has still thrown the softest pitch (64.1 on June 20 to Freddie Freeman) and softest strike (65.1 to Mike Yastrzemski on July 6). Kim’s softest pitch is close at 64.5 (to Nick Ahmed on June 30). His softest strike of the season was thrown in the second inning Saturday night to Patrick Wisdom – a curve at 66.8 mph.
Once Kwan Hyun pushed the Cubs into two-strike counts (and 14 of the 23 batters to face him ended up in two strike counts) the mixture changed. He threw 31 two-strike pitches: 1 curve, 6 change-ups, 10 fastballs, and 14 sliders. The slider ended up getting 4 of the 7 strikeouts (the change got 2 others and Nico Hoerner struck out on a fastball that was so far inside he ended up on first). Batters in two-strike counts rarely prosper – and these 14 didn’t. In addition to the 7 strikeouts, they managed 1 walk and 2 infield singles.
But getting to two strikes is always the challenge. The Cardinal pitching staff is blessed with a number of flame-throwers who can smoke their way to two strike counts. In Kim, they also have one who can nibble his way there.
Kwang Hyun goes into the Break with his stock definitely on the rise. He is unscored on in 13 innings over his last 2 starts, and holds a 3-1 record, 3 quality starts, and a 1.95 ERA over his last 6 games. Over his last 32.1 innings, Kim has given 1 home run, gotten ground balls on 53% of the in-play contact against him, and held the last 130 batters to face him to a .209 batting average and a .243 slugging percentage.
One of the three trusted arms at the back of the bullpen, Genesis Cabrera has stumbled profoundly during the early days of July. The Friday game – which was a 3-2 game when Genesis entered – really got out of hand on his watch. Three of the four batters he faced reached base (2 walks and a hit batsman) and all scored. That’s now 7 runs on 6 hits (including a home run) and 5 walks in just 3.2 innings this month. The 23 batters that have faced him this month carry a .353/.522/.647 batting line.
Genesis did come back to toss a scoreless inning on Saturday, but still served up a double to Hoerner on a 1-0 pitch. Cabrera struggles as much as anyone on the staff to get past strike one. Batters hitting the first strike against Genesis this year are now 11 for 24, the hits including 5 doubles and a home run. He has also issued 6 four-pitch walks (1 intentional) and hit two other batters who were still waiting for strike one, so the total batting line against him this year in zero-strike counts is .458/.594/.792 through 36 plate appearances.
Over their last two series, the Cardinals have shown faint signs of offensive life. They have scored 24 runs in those games, while hitting .271 against San Francisco and Chicago.
None of these stirrings is more encouraging than the recent noise coming from the long-dormant bat of Paul DeJong. He went 3-for-5 in the Cub series with 2 home runs (yes, one was in garbage time in the first game), and heads into the Break 4 for his last 12 (.333) with 3 of the hits going for extra bases (he’s also had a double). Paul is slugging .917 over his last 5 games.
Paul Goldschmidt’s revival is under full steam. It’s almost a shame that the All-Star Break has to interrupt it. With two hits in both games against the Cubs, Goldy’s hitting streak has reached 10 games, with Paul getting multiple hits in 5 of them. He is hitting .400 for the streak (16 for 40) and slugging .625 (3 doubles and 2 home runs) during those games. He is hitting .371 and slugging .571 during the early part of July.
Friday’s game took 3:57, the longest Cardinal game since the May 14 affair in San Diego took 4:08 to conclude (that was just a 9-inning, 5-4 game).
The entire series (both games of it) averaged 3:44.5 – the highest of the season. The San Diego series (a 3-game set) averaged 3:43.7 per game.
The Friday loss was the first five-run defeat administered to the Cards since they were beaten 7-2 by Pittsburgh on June 27. That was a home game. They hadn’t been beaten that badly on the road since Detroit pounded them 8-2 on June 22. The 8 run deficit they faced going into the ninth inning was the furthest they’d been behind in a game since they were beaten by Atlanta 9-1 on June 18.
Conversely, on Saturday they took a six-run lead into the seventh inning, their biggest lead at that point of a game since they beat Atlanta 9-1 in the first game of the June 20 double-header.
For the only time in my memory, the Cardinals’ average road attendance (19,286) has surpassed the average home attendance (18,757.5).
Although they didn’t know it at the time, on Saturday the Cards were facing a sweep at the hands of the Cubs. It’s the fifth road series this season that St Louis went into the final game in danger of being swept. They have now avoided that sweep twice.
Over the weekend, Luis Garcia became the newest member of the Cardinal bullpen. (He hit the first batter he faced in the head, proving that he will fit right in). He becomes the third member of the Cardinal bullpen (joining Cabrera and Junior Fernandez) to hail from Santo Doming in the Dominican Republic.
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.