The pitch was anything but scorched.
It was the first inning of last night’s game in Cleveland (the last time the Cards will ever play the Indians). With one on and one out, Nolan Arenado came to the plate, and Zach Plesac – Cleveland’s starting pitcher – offered him a gift. A fastball, 93.7 miles per hour, right down the middle of the plate.
But Nolan couldn’t square it up, and flared the ball into short right field – with an exit velocity of just 75.3 mph. Fortunately for Arenado, the ball tailed away from the center-fielder and second baseman who were in pursuit, and dropped at the feet of right-fielder Franmil Reyes for a single – a bloop hit that put Dylan Carlson at second, where he would score the game’s first run on a soft ground single off the bat of Yadier Molina.
Not only was Arenado’s single St Louis’ softest safe hit of the day, it was nearly their softest hit ball of the entire contest. On the last at bat of the game, Paul DeJong rolled a dribbler to third at 67 mph off the bat. But Nolan’s hit gets spotlighted here for two other distinctions.
First, of course, because it was a critical element in one of only two runs the Cards scored during a 7-2 loss (box score). More to the point, though, Nolan’s first-inning flare was the only time all afternoon that a Cardinal put the first pitch thrown to him in play. The fact that it was poorly struck is not an isolated incident.
Across all of baseball, the first pitch thrown to a batter is typically the most dangerous pitch of the at bat. In the National League, batters who hit that first pitch are slashing .337/.351/.560. Of the 1971 first-pitch hits that National Leaguers have achieved, 701 of them (35.6%) have gone for extra-bases – including 285 home runs.
It’s a challenging tight-rope the pitcher walks – and it comes up frequently in our discussions. He needs to throw first pitch strikes, but he can’t throw them too good. In general, pitchers who consistently do what Plesac did – thrown 93.7 mph fastballs right down the heart of the plate – will quickly come to regret it.
Unless, of course, he’s pitching against the Cardinals.
Is it the strain of trying to fight their way out of a team-wide batting slump? Have they become too selective and passive about that first pitch? Are opposing pitchers throwing un-expected offerings to them on the first pitch? Is it a combination of these or something else entirely? I can’t say. But this much is certain. For the moment, the St Louis Cardinal hitters have lost the ability to turn on that first pitch – even when the pitcher lays it right over the heart of the plate.
During the nearly completed month of July, 803 St Louis batsmen have managed to put the first pitch in play 81 times. Six of those were sacrifice hits. Of the other 75 first pitches hit into play, 22 have resulted in hits. At .293, St Louis’ batting average this month on the first pitch is disappointing. But that isn’t even half of the story.
Of the 22 first-pitch hits the Cards have managed this month, Arenado’s single was the twenty-first single of the group. It would be an awfully obscure piece of research, and I don’t know who would do it, but with two games left to play in the month St Louis has achieved one single extra base hit off the first pitch thrown to them.
I struggle to imagine that this has ever happened in baseball’s long history.
For the record, that one hit came last Sunday in Cincinnati. In the fourth inning, Harrison Bader jumped a first-pitch sinker from Sonny Gray and lifted it 415 feet over the left-center field wall for a three-run home run.
Everything else this month has been singles at best. And during this span, the Cards can’t even boast much loud contact.
Removing the sacrifice bunts and just dealing with the other 75 first pitches put into play, St Louis is hitting those pitches with an average exit velocity of just 87.14 – about the league average on all pitches. Statcast divides all batted balls into six categories of contact quality. One is weak contact; two is “topped”, and three is its opposite, “under”. Arenado’s single fell into the “under” category.
Level four “flare/burner” is still not a batting event likely to result in a hit, but some flares will fall in and some burners will make their way through the infield. Only the top two categories – 5 “solid contact” and 6 “barrel” are hit with a proficiency that makes a hit likely.
Of the 75 batted first pitches by Cardinal batters this month, only 3 were “barreled.” In addition to Bader’s home run, Tyler O’Neill launched two baseballs at over 107 miles per hour. The two had a combined hit expectancy of 1.09, but both were caught. Only 2 other baseballs had “solid contact.” That’s a total of 5 well struck balls.
The rest of the breakdown showed 28 flare/burners; 19 Unders; 16 Topped; and 7 weak contacts – more than the combined total of the top two groups.
The Statcast numbers are even more concerning against pitches down the heart of the plate. Thirteen times this month (not counting a sacrifice hit) Cardinal batters have attempted to exploit a first pitch mistake over the heart of the plate. Nolan’s single was just the third hit – all of them singles – on those pitches. And at that, there was an element of luck in play. Arenado’s single had an expected batting average of .137. All thirteen of these hits together had an expected batting average of just .151. Combined, they carried an average exit velocity of 86.46 mph and should have totaled to just 1.965 hits.
Again, applying the Statcast categories, only one of these pitches was barreled (one of O’Neill’s flyouts) and one other made the ”solid contact” grade. There were no category 4 hits among these hits, 6 Unders, 4 Topped and 1 weak contact (on a bunt by Jose Rondon that I included in the totals because he was bunting for a hit instead of just trying to advance a runner).
As surprising as is the fact that they are doing worse on these pitches than they are against tougher pitches, is the fact that this underperforming on the first pitch hasn’t notably damaged the offense this month. In spite of what I suspect is historic struggling against the first pitch, the Cardinal offense has been visibly better this month. They are scoring a solid 4.29 runs per game, while hitting .257/.322/.436 as a team with 30 home runs.
It is just another twist in what has been an unpredictable season in St Louis.
Statistically speaking, the longer an at bats goes, the more the outcome favors the pitcher. Dylan Carlson – who tries to see a lot of pitches during an at bat – has become one of the team’s very best at battling deep in the count. St Louis’ second run of the game came on Carlson’s eleventh home run of the year, following a six pitch at bat. For the team as a whole, only 35.6% of their plate appearances last as many as five pitches, and batters hitting a sixth pitch in an at bat are only hitting .178.
Carlson – who had 2 six-pitch at bats yesterday – is seeing at least five pitches 42% of the time, and is hitting .276/.400/.603 on the sixth pitch of a plate appearance. He now has 5 home runs on that sixth pitch this season. The entire team has 13. Counting 2 home runs on the fourth pitch of an at bat, and another home run on the seventh pitch, Dylan has hit 8 of his 11 home runs after the third pitch of his at bat. He has only one first-pitch home run.
Tyler’s struggles have continued. Hitless in 4 more at bats yesterday, O’Neill went 0-for-Cleveland, and is now just 3 for 23 (.130) over his last 6 games. Tyler has been the (more-or-less) regular fourth-hitter for about his last 25 games (23 starts). He is hitting .247 (22 for 89) during that stretch, with just 2 home runs and only 6 runs batted in.
After a brief hot spell (7 hits over a 15 at bat span), Matt Carpenter is scuffling again. He was 0-for-4 in the finale in Cleveland, and is now 1 for his last 15. He struck out 3 times yesterday, and has 9 in his last 15 at bats.
Even while struggling, Matt can still grind a pitcher. Yesterday, Carpenter had 2 five-pitch at bats, a six-pitch at bat, and a nine-pitch contest. For the season, 50.3% of his plate appearances last five pitches or more.
So good for so much of the month, Kwang Hyun Kim stubbed his toe yesterday in Cleveland. He didn’t make it out of the third inning, and saw the end of his five-game winning streak. As a group, the starters have probably over-performed for most of the month (considering the injuries that they have had to deal with). The last time through the rotation, though, the starting pitching has sagged notably. They are now 1-2 with a 6.26 ERA in 23 innings over the last 5 games, with an opponents’ batting line of .309/.393/.606.
If you are casting about for a reason why John Gant hasn’t been a consideration to re-join the rotation, you can look no further than his performance now that he has been returned to the pen. The puzzling walks continue – and after walking 2 yesterday, John has walked 8 in 11.2 bullpen innings (covering 11 outings), but has allowed just 2 runs (a 1.54 ERA) on 7 hits – none of them home runs. John, you’ll remember, allowed no home runs as a full-time reliever last year. Still, only 109 of his 204 pitches (53%) have been strikes.
His inability to consistently throw strikes has invited some long at bats against him. Yesterday, Gant faced 5 batters – two requiring 4 pitches, two others absorbing five pitches, and one at bat that lasted six pitches. Gant throws at least five pitches to 44.9% of the batters he’s faced this season.
Recent Scoring Changes – (for those of you keeping score at home)
Remember the fourth inning of the July 19 game against the Cubs? The Cubs made three errors in the inning (two of them by El Mago) as St Louis scored four unearned runs on its way to an 8-3 win (box score). Well, the official scorers have re-thought the inning and taken one of the errors away from Javier Baez. It’s good news for Paul DeJong, as he gets a hit added to his account.
On the play, DeJong topped the ball off the plate. It short-hopped Baez just after Yadier Molina (running from second) flashed in front of him. The ball kicked out of Javier’s glove and rolled back to the mound. I kind of liked the ruling of error, as it is the kind of play you should expect a major league shortstop to make. DeJong, I’m sure, is grateful.
Because of the two other errors in the inning, all of the runs are still unearned.
The 5-run loss was St Louis’ first since another 7-2 loss – this one to the Giants on July 16.
In spite of the loss, St Louis has scored first in six straight games.
While he performed designated hitter duties yesterday, Paul Goldschmidt didn’t start at first base for the first time in 27 games. It had been the longest current streak of consecutive starts by any Cardinal at the same position. That mantle now falls to Harrison Bader, who has made 21 consecutive starts in center field.
The two games averaged 2:59.5, making this the quickest series by average time since four games in Atlanta from June 17-20 averaged 2:29.8. Two of those games lasted just seven innings.
Yesterday was St Louis’ tenth opportunity to sweep a series this year. It was the fifth time they’ve had that opportunity on the road, and the fifth time they had a chance to sweep a team that had lost its previous series. They didn’t complete the sweep for only the third time this season, and only the second time against a team coming off a losing series.
All three times they have failed to convert the sweep have occurred on the road.
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.