For all the bluster, the Cardinals remain in good shape

It’s been a topsy-turvy first couple months of the season for the St. Louis Cardinals, a team picked by many to reach their third World Series in four years during Spring Training. Some of the issues I referred to in my first post on this site have in fact given Cardinal Manager Mike Matheny reason for consternation. The team’s youth and inexperience has led to inconsistent play; Kolten Wong was sent to Triple-A affiliate Memphis before being recalled, and Peter Bourjos has struggled to stay in the lineup. The team is not hitting like they were with runners in scoring position, something that nearly everyone anticipated. As a result, compounded by the fact that the team isn’t hitting for power, the Cardinals are not scoring runs at anything approaching the rate of last season. A year ago, no NL team came within 70 of the Cardinals 783 total runs scored. This season, the Cardinals rate just 10th in the NL in runs scored. 

And yet, the Cardinals sit just 1.5 games behind the cooling Milwaukee Brewers and are five games above .500. Allen Craig is starting to hit and Matt Holliday and Matt Adams are likely to see a spike in their power numbers. Despite being in the midst of a long homestand, St. Louis enters their series with the Reds having played five more games on the road than at home. Several players admitted the demanding road schedule to start the season didn’t do the team any favors. But if they aren’t scoring, and are still playing solid baseball, it stands to reason that the pitching has been pretty darn good. And that is exactly the case. 

Grantland’s Jonah Keri gave a fascinating account this week of how Cardinals pitchers have been ahead of the curve in terms of how they approach hitters for several years now. It’s worth a read in full, but here is a good snapshot: 

One of his main missions was to change the way Cardinals pitchers attacked hitters with runners in scoring position. Major league hitters, like all human beings, are motivated by incentives, so when they come to the plate with runners in scoring position, they’re flooded with team incentives (a chance to put runs on the board and help produce a win), individual incentives (a chance to feel the rush of driving in a run), and financial incentives (even amid the advanced stats movement, RBIs still = $$$). Logically, then, the natural tendency in this case is for a hitter to swing the bat. The numbers confirm it: According to ESPN’s TruMedia system, hitters have swung away on the first pitch with runners in scoring position 31.6 percent of the time this year, compared to swinging at 26.8 percent of first pitches in non-RISP situations. If the first pitch is a fastball, that gap becomes even more pronounced, at 34.6 percent versus 27.9 percent. And that aggressive approach bears fruit; when hitters swing at first pitches with RISP, they have produced a .391 average and .620 slugging mark this season.

Duncan recognized those aggressive tendencies early and sought to exploit them. Working with talented and sharp All-Star catcher Yadier Molina, Duncan urged his pitchers to throw soft stuff on first pitches with runners in scoring position.

 

I am relatively biased, but I found this pretty fascinating. For years it’s been pretty common knowledge that Dave Duncan fanatically embraced pitchers throwing lower in the strike zone as ways to encourage ground balls and limit extra base hits. This is a wrinkle I hadn’t seen before. The notion of “The Cardinal Way” gets scoffed at by those of us outside of St. Louis (and rightfully so, generally), but matching this philosophy with talents like Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Shelby Miller has led to positive outcomes. 

Only Atlanta is allowing fewer runs per game than the Cardinals. The Cardinals have an ERA+, which adjusts traditional ERA to different ballparks, of 114, much better than the league average of 102. The rotation is of course anchored by Adam Wainwright, who will in all likelihood be in the conversation for the NL’s Cy Young award once again. He is coming off a complete game shutout in which he gave up one hit and didn’t walk a soul. It improved his record to 7-2 and his ERA to 1.85. His ERA+? A ridiculous 197. The way I feel about watching him pitch is probably pretty similar to how many of you feel about Johnny Cueto. Watching a pitcher in complete command of three or more plus pitches never gets old. His starts are appointment television. 

Michael Wacha, and, to a lesser extent, Shelby Miller, have continued to progress. Wacha is just 3-3 in 10 starts but is a victim of the team’s inability to score runs. His ERA of 2.54 is a bit more indicative of the quality of pitching he’s provided the Redbirds. Miller, on the other hand, has a record of 6-2 with an ERA of 2.79. He could not really have looked worse while putting up great statistics. He works slow, he shakes off Yadier Molina more than any pitcher I have seen in St. Louis in the last decade, and there have been times when Molina and Matheny are visibly exasperated with the young pitcher. Still, he’s just 23 years old, has great stuff, and does appear open to coaching. It’s an interesting story to keep an eye on, though. 

On the back end of things, Jason Motte is finally back and healthy after missing all of last season. Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal have been uneven, but it hasn’t necessarily come back to hurt the team just yet. Seth Maness and Pat Neshek have been phenomenal. Hopefully as they regress a bit Martinez and Rosenthal can pitch up to the level of their stuff. 

The Cardinals are in pretty good shape. They won’t be an offensive juggernaut, but with a solid approach to pitching and more than enough talent to execute the gameplan in the rotation and bullpen, it’s unlikely teams are going to have a ton of success scoring against them. I don’t think they are a shoe in to reach another NLCS, but I didn’t feel that way before the season either. They remain one of several teams with a great shot. It should be a fun summer.