Doesn’t Marcell Ozuna belong on the D.L.?

Image result for marcell ozuna cardinals

In 2003, Cards’ star Albert Pujols was having a lot of trouble throwing the ball and, as a result, Jim Edmonds and Edgar Renteria had to go deeper into left field to help Pujols get the ball back into the infield whenever he had to throw the ball. The team decided that since Pujols was such a great hitter they needed him in the lineup and the only way to “fix” Pujols during the season was for him to undergo surgery that would remove him from the lineup for several months. They basically played with 8 defenders in order to get Pujols’ bat in the lineup everyday. Ben Godar over at Viva El Birdos did a great write-up on this a couple of years ago. Pujols ended up being a win player despite the defensive limitations.

Yesterday during the Cards’ 6-2 loss to the Mets, a fly ball was hit to left fielder Marcell Ozuna with a runner on 3rd base. Since there was an impending throw home, Tommy Pham ran all the way from center field, cut Ozuna off to catch the ball, and threw the ball toward the plate. This was clearly a ball that should have been played by a left fielder who could get behind the ball and make a strong, accurate throw home and yet Pham kept Ozuna from making that throw.

Here’s the field view of the Mets’ outs yesterday.

20180401_105152

The second red dot from the left is the fly ball in question. On twitter yesterday, here’s what Derrick Goold had to say:

Goold’s article this morning repeated that quote from Pham.

This wasn’t the only instance where Ozuna’s ability to throw was limited, however, as VanHickslestein pointed out on Twitter during yesterday’s game.

Notice how far Paul DeJong goes out to left field to catch Ozuna’s cutoff throw to the plate. Needless to say, DeJong’s relay was very late which shouldn’t be a surprise since he could probably flag down a cab at LaGuardia from where he’s positioned when he catches Ozuna’s throw.

So it’s clear that this is a pre-ordained plan for Ozuna at least for the time-being, as both Pham and DeJong are in on the strategy, much as it was in ’03 when Pujols was relying on Edmonds and Renteria. When asked whether or not Ozuna should be on the D.L., here was Goold’s response:

It’s true that outfielders just aren’t asked to make all that many really important throws. Ozuna was brought to St. Louis to bat in the middle of the order and, though he hasn’t had any hits in the first two games, he is batting 4th and it is just 2 games. Maybe it would be different if he was a shortstop. Still, it’s also true that the team has a left fielder who can’t right now even make the most rudimentary throws. It’s also true that the Cardinal organization is deepest in pitchers and outfielders. Finally, it’s also true that the team has an outfielder playing 1st base and he’s missed 2 pretty fundamental plays at 1st base in the first 2 games of the season. This just isn’t like in 2003 when the gap between Pujols and everyone else was much greater.

There are, as far as I can figure, 3 possible reasons why the team hasn’t DL’d Ozuna.

  1. The team wants the new, young star on the roster and in the lineup for the home opener on Thursday. This is stupid. I can’t believe this could possibly be the reason.
  2. As Goold says, his arm is getting better and he is one of the team’s best hitters and he just doesn’t have to make that many throws from left field. The team can still have his bat in the lineup while his arm heals.
  3. His “sore” arm isn’t going to heal during the season without surgery and the team needs and wants his bat in the lineup and is willing to make some concessions defensively in order to make it happen. This is the Albert Pujols treatment and is easily the worst-case scenario.

We have to be hoping for scenario 2 above. His arm just needs some time to heal and then he can be a fully functioning left fielder as well as the impact hitter in the middle of the Cardinals order that the team traded for over the winter. Still, 10 days on the D.L. isn’t that long to be without Ozuna and the team can put Martinez in the outfield and Gyorko and Yairo Munoz in the infield and not be that much worse over those 8 or 9 games. The team would surely call up Harrison Bader who is ready anyway and the offensive drop off would be very small while giving the team a left fielder who can throw the ball.

Considering the fact that the team is extremely well-positioned to deal with a short D.L. stint by Ozuna, it raises the question as to why he hasn’t been placed on the D.L. given his current limitation. If it is just going to take a little time for the sore arm to heal, why make any throws at all, especially since the team has the depth to handle a short-term loss? Is the answer really that his sore arm isn’t going to heal on its own at all and that the only solution — as it was in 2003 — is surgery and a very lengthy D.L. stint? Given the questionable history of the team’s medical staff, it’s reasonable to wonder how bad Ozuna’s arm really is right now.

Thanks for reading.

Hey Mike, I’ll make you a deal!

Since we’re sitting here on opening day eve and I know we’re both preparing mentally and emotionally for the Twitter avalanche with millions of little snowballs of criticisms of your managing. I’m willing to make you a deal. Everyone knows how you love to put Yadi in the 5-hole, no matter how much we both know he shouldn’t be there. He does project, after all, the team’s 8th best hitter pretty much no matter who is in the lineup. Regardless, you like him in the 5-hole. Cards’ Twitter is going to go ballistic when the lineup comes out before the game, during the game, and every time Yadi makes an out. Here is my offer, though, Mike…I promise to not say 1 word about it. We all know that, while batting order matters, it really doesn’t matter all that much and we’re all human and make mistakes and I’ll let this one be yours. My offer is to not say 1 word about where you bat Yadi this season — all season long — regardless of where you bat him in the order. Like him 5th? Bat him 5th? Cleanup? I say, go for it. 3rd? Have at it! What about leadoff? Not leadoff? I can’t keep quiet if you lead him off? Wanna bet? Do it, Mike. Do it and enjoy yourself! Go with God!

I do, however, have some conditions:

  1. You have to allow Jose Martinez to get at least 450 PA’s. Move Carpenter and Gyorko around. Get Martinez to the plate early and often so that he can do what he can do.
  2. You have to give Yadi a day off every now and then. I’m asking for once every 5 games. That gives him a minimum of 32 games off. I know Yadi wants to play 365 games this season but you still have the boss’ job. Do it, Mike. Tell Yadi how things gonna be!
  3. Let Jose Oquendo do his thing. He was brought back to the team for a reason. Get out of his way and let him do his job. If he wants infielders to take some infield, let him do it. (By the way, this helps you, too. The team will be better and you’ll be more likely to keep your job. Shut up and get out of the way.)
  4. While we’re on the subject of getting out of people’s way, let Mike Maddux do his job. If he tells you it’s time to pull your starter, do it. I know you’re not going to want to. People often say “trust your instincts” or “go with your gut.” Don’t do it, Mike. Don’t trust your instincts. Don’t go with your gut. Your gut’s a moron, Mike. You know it. I know it. Mo knows it and, if he doesn’t know it already, Mike Maddux will soon know it.
  5. When a starting pitcher is struggling, for the love of all that is good in the world, please Mike DO NOT LEAVE YOUR STARTING PITCHER IN THROUGH THE 5TH INNING JUST TO GET THE WIN!!! Al Hrabosky will forgive you in time! There’s a reason this roster is going to open the season with 23 relievers! Use them!
  6. While we’re on the subject of relievers…use them! Do not just rely on Leone and Lyons and Bowman (we’ll be back to him soon) to get outs. This is shaping up to be possibly the deepest bullpen the Cardinals have ever had. When the team has a 3 or 4 run lead or is down 1 in the 6th, it’s ok to use a reliever who isn’t considered one of the best. The team has other guys who can get outs also! Use them.
  7. Ok, Mike, admit it. You knew it was coming so here it is. Go right now, pick up the bullpen phone and tell Matt Bowman to stop throwing. He doesn’t need to be warming up right now. We’re still a good 15 or 16 hours away from possibly needing Matt Bowman. I know you’re big into individual records but Matt Bowman doesn’t need to set the single-season record for number of times warmed up and the number of relief appearances. He probably doesn’t want that record anyway. Look at him, Mike. His arm is literally being held together with duct tape and rubber cement! Give him a day off! (And I hate to break this to you, Mike, but there’s a fairly decent chance that he’ll actually be the Cards’ worst reliever this year. This is the guy you should use when the team’s down 7 in the 5th inning, not the one you should use in a tie game in the 7th.)
  8. Michael Wacha was great last year and you’ve probably already got him penciled in for game 2 of the playoff series. But deep down you and I both know — and we know that Mike Maddux knows — that he struggles MIGHTILY the 3rd time through the order. If the game is close, please use one of our 23 relievers to get outs in the 6th. Pinch hit for him in a close game if the middle of the other team’s order is coming up in the next inning. Please, Mike. Pretty please with sugar on top.
  9. Ryan Sherriff is a LOOGY. He can’t get righties out. Please use him only against lefties. I know you consider platoon splits to be some sort of character flaw — a sign of weakness that’s beneath a man of your stature. That’s ok. Consider him weak and let him only pitch to lefties. You’ll be a better man for it.
  10. Listen to Mike Shildt. He’s a smart guy, well-versed in analytics. You, too, are very smart in your own right. (I’m not sure where your genius lies but I have every confidence that you’re a genius about something. It’s not about how to open birthday presents but no one knows everything about everything.) Anyway, Shildt is smart. He’s going to help you position the fielders, select pinch hitters, and lots of other in-game management stuff. Your leadership qualities are beyond reproach (except when they suck, of course) but you need Shildt to help you with the in-game stuff. The best part of relying on him is that YOU’RE THE ONE WHO’LL LOOK LIKE A GENIUS WHEN IT WORKS! It’s foolproof!
  11. Mike, please do not call out your players in public. Remember how that worked out last year with Yadi? Not good, Mike. Not good. Mike, though it will annoy fans everywhere, you do not have to be honest with fans. It’s ok to tell us that Wainwright looks better than ever when we all know that’s not true because it’s important that you have the players’ backs. Everyone knows that Joe Maddon is as dishonest as the day is long but he’s got this public persona thing figured out. He doesn’t care whether fans or the media believe his unrelenting B.S. It’s his players that need to believe that he has their backs. The same is true for you. So, tell us how strong Yadi is even when he’s bringing his cane out to the dish with him every inning. Tell us how youthful Wainwright is looking and feeling when (I’ll stop here so I don’t get blocked on Twitter.) Tell us lies, Mike. Tell us lies but only lies that tell us how great, strong, healthy, whatever the team’s players are.
  12. Mike, shut up about Carlos Martinez’s discipline or flamboyance or “focus” or any of the other B.S. that you and others sometimes spew about the team’s best pitcher. He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball and he’s our ace. If he wants to have purple hair, have fun with Matt Carpenter’s batting stance, and pump his fists and scream when he does something tremendous, just shut the (7 second FCC interruption) up. Thank you.
  13. Be willing to consider anyone other than Luke Gregerson in the closer’s role when he returns. Again, this goes back to listening to Maddux.
  14. Let Tommy be Tommy. You and I both know what I mean.
  15. Take advantage of Jedd Gyorko’s versatility. This will help you get Jose Martinez to 450 PA’s. Let him move all around the infield so that Carp can, too, and Martinez can get in the lineup.
  16. Finally, Mike…and you knew this was coming, but it’s about our favorite all-time Cardinal pitcher, Adam Wainwright. I love the guy. You love the guy. I remember how it felt like he singularly brought us a World Championship in 2006. I have friends who are Mets’ fans who were at that game in ’06 and every time we’re together I mention Yadi’s homer and those 3 pitches Waino threw to future Hall-of-Famer Carlos Beltran. He’s an icon, a Cardinal legend, not just for what he’s done on the field but because of who he is and has been in the clubhouse, the community, and the world. But Mike, sometimes it’s a cold freaking world and there may be no world colder than the frozen tundra of professional sports. Hopefully this doesn’t happen. But if (when?) it becomes obvious to everyone that Waino just isn’t getting it done — either he’s injured and fighting it or his velocity is way down or whatever it is; if teams are just teeing off on him and his walk rate is way up and his K rate is way down — please Mike stop sending him out there. The team has options. There’s a deep farm system with many really good pitching prospects just waiting their turn. All the fans and, let’s be honest, the other players deserve the best players on the field as often as possible. When it becomes obvious that Wainwright shouldn’t be out there — if that means the 5th inning or the next start — please make the right call. This will be so difficult. You played with this guy and he’s a Cardinal icon. He’ll be in the Cardinal Hall of Fame and will wear one of those great red sportscoats and ride in on the back of a convertible when he’s finished. But this is what you signed up for when you took the job. You’ll get all the plaudits when the team wins and that means that you have to have that conversation with Waino when that time comes. Thank you, Mike. Thank you in advance for making this very tough call.

If you can/will do all these very tough but very necessary things — things that John Mozeliak has probably already mentioned to you and things that, deep down, you already know you need to do — then I promise not to say 1 critical word all season about where you bat Yadi. He can hit 5th. He can hit cleanup. He can bat 3rd or you can even put him in the leadoff spot. Mike, I promise you won’t hear 1 word from me about it. Deep down we both want the same thing — the Cardinals to win as many games as possible (and, preferably, the Central division title) and to advance as far in the playoffs as they can. Batting Yadi 5th won’t help, but deep down it won’t hurt all that much either — certainly not as much as doing one of these other things will. These are my terms and I hope that you accept them. You’ll still get a lot of flak about where Yadi’s hitting but what you’ll notice the most is the lack of complaints about all the other stuff.

Thank you, Mike, for considering my offer. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Mike Matheny is in the best shape of his life

Spring is here, and though the baseball season is fast approaching, we’ve been inundated with various versions of the “_______________ is in the best shape of his life” stories. You’ve seen them:

“Tommy Pham has been working out all offseason and has dropped his body fat to -3%”

“Adam Wainwright looks like he’s 10 years younger and just hit 90 on the radar!”

“Dexter Fowler’s is ready to be the best defensive right fielder in baseball! Jason Heyward, he’s coming for you.”

Even the dreaded Cubbies have gotten in on the act with their “Kyle Schwarber has dropped 100 pounds and is headed for a 50 SB season.” “He’ll probably be a Gold Glove left fielder!” As an aside, the way in which Cubs’ fans talk about Schwarber makes you wonder how many Schwarber family members actually live in Wrigleyville. Here’s a video showing Cubs’ fans’ reaction to his injury in 2016.

Well, Mike Matheny is also in the best shape of his life. This post is meant to play “Devil’s Advocate” to all the “Matheny should be fired” tweets that have filled the Twittersphere this offseason. (God knows, I’ll tweet something similar to that probably 50 times between now and when the team’s season ends so we may as well start the season with a positive attitude.)

Matheny has never been better equipped to have a good season than he is right now. Over the offseason, the front office made several changes specifically designed to help Matheny be a better manager. Matheny has been criticized by Cardinals’ fans and the St. Louis media for several things throughout his tenure — and rightly so. His handling of the bullpen has been questionable, at best, and he has too often left starters in far too long which has led to the starter losing the game before the pen can even be summoned. He has become over-reliant on specific relievers that he trusts (ahem…Matt Bowman) while he becomes unwilling to risk going to others he’s less certain of. He has been over-reliant on “proven veterans” while leaving younger, often better players (like Tommy Pham) sitting on the bench or playing in Memphis. At times, John Mozeliak had to send younger guys like Pham, Randall Grichuk, and Kolten Wong to the minors just to get them some playing time because Mike Matheny refused to play them.

The front office didn’t exactly buy Matheny a copy of “Managing for Dummies” and quiz him on it over the offseason (or maybe they did; I don’t really know) but they did give him a front office version of Spark Notes to help him get better at the stuff that he needs to improve on. Step 1 was replacing his pitching coach (Derek Lilliquist) with a new one — pitching guru Mike Maddux. The important quote from Mozeliak in the article discussing the fact that Lilliquist wouldn’t return to the Cardinals is this one: “Mozeliak said that they want to rethink the strategy of pitching use and have a pitching coach that is open to the data available and some modern views of how pitchers should be deployed.” That tells me the front office wants to modernize the team’s use of data on their pitchers, their pitch selection, and how their pitchers are deployed. The article from Jenifer Langosch about the hiring of Maddux had the following to say in explaining the change:

Before he started interviewing candidates for the open position, Mozeliak stressed that he was seeking a pitching coach willing to utilize advanced metrics, as well as the ability to “understand modern strategy, modern analytics and how we can leverage that to optimize our staff.”

The intent was to bring in someone who could have a louder voice alongside Matheny, who will be returning for his seventh season as manager. Maddux’s experience and coaching resume offers that sort of instant credibility.

“A louder voice alongside Matheny”…to me, this means that Maddux will have more of a say in pitching changes — when they should occur and which pitchers should be used — than Lilliquist did. Matheny has to recognize that the hiring of such a well-respected pitching coach wrests some control from Matheny.

Two other additions to the coaching staff should help give Matheny the tools he needs to be as successful as he can be. GM John Mozeliak specifically went to Florida to encourage fan and player favorite Jose Oquendo to return to the staff as 3rd base coach. Most everyone recognizes that the team was better fundamentally and defensively when Oquendo was manning the 3rd base coaching box and, since he’s often been mentioned as a potential manager, Matheny has to feel a little pressure from the front office to get things right.

While the change that brought Oquendo back to the team also brought in Willie McGee to the coaching staff, the other truly noteworthy change to the staff was moving Mike Shildt to the bench coach’s role. Shildt is basically the team’s data guy who’ll help Matheny with defensive shifting and in making other baseball decisions during the game. He was management’s addition to the coaching staff a couple of years ago and is being moved into this position by the front office to insure that Matheny hears the voice of the front office during the game.

The front office elected not to replace batting coach and Matheny buddy John Mabry but the other changes in the coaching staff have to send a message to both Matheny and Mabry that the offense needs to improve in 2018. For one thing, Matheny surely knows by now that Pham needs to be in the lineup every day and in center field. Mozeliak went to Las Vegas over the winter to meet with Dexter Fowler to talk to him about playing right field rather than center. There’s another decision taken out of Matheny’s hands.

With the addition of Marcell Ozuna, the emergence of Pham, and the movement of Fowler to right, the outfield is a lot more settled than it was at this time last season. Wong showed last season that he was a solid, league-average second baseman and one who can be in the lineup against lefties, if necessary. Shildt is on staff to help Matheny figure out when and how to deploy Matt Carpenter so that Jose Martinez gets maximum PA’s  and Maddux is on staff to help Matheny with the pitching changes. Oquendo is there to help the team with defense and fundamentals and McGee is around to help improve the team’s base running. So Matheny has never had as many good tools at his disposal to help him make good decisions during the course of the season. Now it’s incumbent on him to utilize those tools to help get all those Cardinals’ fans off his back.

But who am I trying to fool? I’m going to go nuts the first time he insists on leaving Michael Wacha in to face the top of the Cubs’ order for the 3rd time in a tie game.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Matt Carpenter wants to hit FEWER HR’s?

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds

Well…sort of…

A couple of days ago I read this article from Derrick Goold where Matt Carpenter was quoted as saying that “he’s done selling his soul for home runs.” I found the article especially strange because in the article Carpenter talks about completely changing his approach at the plate…AGAIN! It was just a couple of years ago when Carp turned himself into a home run hitter by changing his swing and approach at the plate.

This is especially unusual because so many hitters have become well-known for improving their careers by doing exactly what Carpenter did a couple of years ago. Players like Daniel Murphy, Josh Donaldson, and Justin Turner have become stars by trying to hit more home runs and have encouraged many others to attempt the same thing. And now Carpenter wants to do the opposite?

Well, not exactly. With Carpenter’s homers have also come an increase in his strike outs. In 2013 and 2014, Carpenter’s K rate averaged 14.7 %. From 2015-2017, his K rate has averaged 20.7%. Over a 600 PA season, that an increase in 36 strikeouts per season. Now, the sabermetric community has developed many a hand cramp telling people that strikeouts usually aren’t that much worse than every other type of out and, in fact, are actually better than double plays. Nevertheless, 36 additional strikeouts means 36 additional balls NOT in play some of which would inevitably end up in time Carpenter would have reached base.

Carpenter is particularly upset about his .241 batting average last season — look at all the good it’s done that the sabermetric community has begun convincing people that batting average is way overrated! — and wants to increase his batting average and reduce his strikeouts and doing those 2 things would mean sacrificing some homers. The question is then, do we really want Carpenter trading home runs for a higher batting average?

At first, I thought the question was pretty stupid but now I’m starting to come around the idea that the answer is yes.

In the article, Carpenter is quoted as saying that he would be content to hit 15 home runs and 50 doubles instead of the 23 home runs and 31 doubles he had last season, if it also meant reducing the strikeouts. Now, 50 doubles is really difficult to get and would pretty obviously make him a better hitter since it would increase his number of extra base hits while also reducing the strikeouts. What if he gives up those 8 home runs, though, and only gets more singles? How many singles would he have to gain in order to make it worth giving  up the 8 home runs?

Last year, Carpenter had a .361 wOBA so, clearly, for this experiment to be worthwhile, he’s going to have to end up with at least the same wOBA this season. Let’s say that this season Carpenter had the same number of everything as last season except for home runs, outs, and singles. He would lose the 8 home run by dropping from 23 to 15 and, in order to keep a .361 wOBA would need to go from 64 singles to 78. He would only need to trade his 8 home runs for 14 singles in order to just break even.

How hard would that be? Last season he had 622 PA’s so if he lowers his K rate by 6% that would reduce his number of strikeouts by 37. Take away those 8 home runs and that’s an additional 45 balls in play. Last year his BABIP was just .274 but a different approach that isn’t so fly ball heavy might increase it to the league average of ~.300 so let’s assume a BABIP around .300. A .300 BABIP on an additional 45 balls in play means an additional 13.5 hits. How about that! Even if we assume all 13 – 14 of those additional hits are singles then his wOBA would exactly be equal this year to what it was last season.

This obviously assumes he can reduce the strikeouts by a lot so that he’s back at his pre-2015 K rate. I don’t honestly know if that’s reasonable. Can he do it simply by changing his approach over the offseason? I don’t know that either but I think that we’ve shown that it’s conceivable that he could trade homers for balls in play and end up at least as good an offensive player as he was in 2017.

Obviously that means that if he turns some of those homers into doubles, presumably his wOBA could actually increase. Carp’s best season came in 2013 when he had 11 HR’s, 55 2B’s, and a 13.7% K rate. His BB rate that year was 10% and last year his walk rate was 17.5% so a lot of those assumptions rely on the fact that this increase in the number of balls in play doesn’t force him to sacrifice any walks.

It’s rare that we hear any baseball player, coach, or analytics guy suggesting a player should try to hit fewer home runs so my first inclination when hearing what Carp wanted to do was to think this had no chance of actually making him a better hitter. But maybe I was wrong. Hopefully I was. The numbers, I think, show that this is doable IF he can actually lower the K rate to his 2013 levels.

Thanks for reading.

The Cardinals should bunt more often

I thought that might get your attention.

Image result for matt carpenter bunt

Ever since teams started shifting against left-handed hitters, crowds of eminently knowledgeable baseball fans have been screaming for those lefty hitters to bunt against the shift. As Mr. Baseball Genius Extraordinaire sees the second baseman pulled into shallow right field, the shortstop looking lost on the wrong side of the bag, and the third baseman pulled a furlong and a half away from the 3rd base line, I can hear him screaming at the TV, “Just bunt the damn ball right down the line! Even Matt Carpenter could run for days!” “He should bunt every time to beat the shift!” Eventually someone like Matt Adams would try to bunt to beat the shift and said baseball genius would scream out “Finally!” as the bunt trickles foul along the 3rd base line. “I don’t understand why he doesn’t always do that!”

Defensive shifts are changing the way in which the game is played and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for left-handed hitters because those shifts are taking away a lot of what used to be hits and turning then into routine ground outs. Even a hard hit ball to right field often ends up in nothing more than a 4-3 ground out as the 2nd baseman is positioned in short right field specifically to take away those base hits. This leaves the 3rd base line open but left-handed hitters don’t often hit the ball down the 3rd base line.

Below you’ll find a diagram of all of Carpenter’s batted balls for the 2017 season. The green dots are his ground balls. It’s pretty clear by looking at the diagram that his fly balls tend to go to left-center field and left field more than right but his line drives and ground balls are predominantly to the right side. Knowing that, how would you position your fielders if you were defending Carpenter?

chart

Carpenter is, therefore, a perfect candidate to lay down some bunts in order to reach base more often but there are 2 primary reasons why lefty batters don’t “do that every time!!!!” The first is that homers and doubles are much more valuable than bunt singles. It may surprise you to learn that bunts rarely, if ever, turn into home runs. It’s extremely rare. (I actually went looking on baseball-reference to find the number of bunt home runs in MLB history but there was no way to look for one in the play index. A google search came up with videos of Brian Dozier and Steven Souza hitting bunt homers but they’re both actually bunt singles with errors that turned them into “Little League Home Runs.”)

The 2nd reason players don’t bunt that often against the shift is that bunting major league pitching, especially when the hitter is trying to surprise the defense, is really freaking hard. Fans sit at home crushing a bag of Funyuns thinking that bunting against Aroldis Chapman is something anyone can do anytime they try but it just isn’t that easy. Nevertheless, neither is hitting against the shift.

Bunting against the shift is easier for a lefty hitter to pull off than a right-handed hitter because the 3rd base line is exploitable. First basemen don’t leave the 1st base line open against righties because they have to get to 1st base to catch the throws from whoever fields the ball. The Cardinals basically only have 3 left-handed hitters — Carpenter, Kolten Wong, and Dexter Fowler (switch-hitter). I’m not going to worry about Greg Garcia for purposes of this discussion because, you know…Greg Garcia.

The table below shows the 3 hitters’ wOBA against the shift in 2017 and their wOBA on ground balls in 2017 (per fangraphs).

Player wOBA vs shift wOBA on grounders
Carpenter .298 .230
Fowler .291 .178
Wong .349 .254

 

So Wong actually performed better against the shift last season than he did overall but Carpenter and Fowler were dramatically worse and all 3 hitters were much worse on ground balls than they were overall (not a shocking result, to be sure).

So in order for us to suggest that they bunt more often, they would have to be able to do better when bunting the ball than they performed when they weren’t bunting. In 2017, both Wong and Carpenter performed very well when bunting for a hit. Wong had 4 hits in 9 attempts when bunting for a base hit and Carpenter had 4 hits in 7 attempts. Fowler, on the other hand, had no bunt hits in 2017 even though he is the fastest of the 3. Of course, even a guy like Carpenter who’s (ahem!) a bit challenged on the bases can get bunt hits because of where the 3rd baseman is positioned. Even though Fowler has no bunt hits last season, he was 2 for 5 in 2016, 3 for 8 in 2015, and 3 for 5 in 2014 so he clearly knows how to bunt.

Now, obviously, all these bunt hits are going to be singles so a batting average of, say, .400 is going to end up with a slugging percentage of .400 also an OPS of .800. Guys like Fowler and Carpenter who can hit the ball out of the park with some regularity should be judicious about how often they bunt but I think it’s fair to say they should be bunting more often than they are, especially considering how most hitters perform against the shift.

Still, these 3 guys have all had a high degree of success when bunting for base hits in the past. There’s no reason that can’t continue in 2018. If they could, between them, bunt for a .400 or higher average, then how many times should they attempt to bunt for a hit? The answer is, first of all, that they should clearly bunt for a hit more often against lefties than righties, at least for Wong and Carpenter. For Fowler, that’s more difficult to determine because, even though he was much better vs. righties last season, he’s been much better vs. lefties over the course of his career.

So against the shift, the 3 should bunt more often — possibly a lot more often — until teams change the way they set their defense. It’s a classic game theory situation, with the Cards’ hitters all being quite good bunters and the defense — to this point — allowing those 3 to bunt so as to better defend ground balls and line drives that are pulled to the right side. In my mind, it wouldn’t be too many if they each decided to bunt 15-20 times this season as long as teams allow them to do it and they can do so successfully.

Teams are sacrificing a lot less often as they’ve come to realize how valuable outs are and that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to give them up for a small gain. But bunting for hits can and probably should be used more frequently because of the frequency with which teams are deploying defensive shifts. Fortunately, the Cardinals have 3 guys who can use their ability to bunt to take advantage of these shifts, thus putting more bodies on the bases and giving the team more scoring opportunities.

Thanks for reading.

The D.L could end up being the rotation’s best friend.

Of primary interest to Cards’ fans as the team approaches spring training is what the team plans to do with Alex Reyes. Clearly, the team plans to try to limit his innings, and rightly so, since he is just coming off Tommy John surgery. Add to that the fact that Reyes has never thrown more than 111.1 innings in a season and you don’t have to squint too hard to see that Reyes probably isn’t a strong candidate for a 200 inning season.

The team’s goals surely have to be to play as deep into October as possible which means that any starting pitcher who throws 180 innings in the regular season could be in for another 30-40 in the postseason. The team has indicated that Reyes probably won’t pitch in a game until May so that will limit his innings some but the question is how to get the most out of Reyes because he can be so dominant while still reasonably limiting his innings.

If Reyes is in the rotation it’s conceivable that he could be the team’s #2 starter in the postseason. I’d probably have more confidence in him than I would Michael Wacha in game 2 of a series (or game 1 if the Cards have to play in the Wild Card game). On the other hand, Reyes could be a dominant reliever or even closer who could really help the team shorten games in October. I tend to think that he’ll end up in the pen this year because that would give him a chance to dominate in high-leverage situations while still managing his innings. Leaving him in the pen, however, would only give the team maybe half the innings from Reyes that it would get from him in the rotation.

What if the team found a way to get Reyes in the rotation while still limiting his innings by using some kind of modified 6-man rotation? (Pause while I read Craig Edwards’ Fangraphs piece on the Angels and their 6-man rotation. Great minds and all…)

It’s become common knowledge ever since the Angels signed Shohei Ohtani that they were going to go to a 6 man rotation. The logic behind this is two-fold. First, Ohtani is accustomed to pitching in every 6th day in Japan and they want to make the transition as smooth as possible. Second, he’s also going to be DH-ing some and they’re going to want to probably give him the day off immediately before and after pitching so this would give him the days off as well as a couple days to hit in between his starts on the mound.

The Cards’ rotation faces some of the same issues the Angels’ rotation faces. First, not only will the team want to limit Reyes’s innings, but the team has to be concerned about the ability of Luke Weaver, Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha to throw 220-230 innings between the regular season and the postseason. Weaver has never thrown more than 138 innings in a season. Mikolas is coming to the Cards from pitching every 6th day in Japan. Wacha’s innings maximum for a season is about 186 and that was in 2015 and every Cards’ fan is aware of the problems Wacha had in the 6th and 7th innings of games last season. Finally, I think every Cards’ fan would be damned-near ecstatic to get about 120 league-average innings from Wainwright. It seems reasonable to think that the team would be better off trying to get about 150 innings from these guys than trying to get 180 innings from any of them.

Carlos Martinez, of course, is pretty close to being an ace and the team is going to need him to go every 5th day but that doesn’t mean that the team can’t use the 10-day disabled list in much the same way as the Dodgers used it last year. In 2017, the Dodgers bounced 6 or 7 (or sometimes more than 7) starters between the 25 man roster and the disabled list in order to keep their rotation fresh for the postseason. So, assuming no major injuries, the team could call up Reyes in early May and put, say, Wainwright on the DL for a couple weeks in order to give him some rest and allow those aches to quit, you know, aching. When the team calls up Wainwright maybe then they give Weaver or Mikolas a rest. If Martinez needs a break at some point, they can disable him for a couple weeks and the team does the same thing over and over throughout the season. If something happens such that any starter needs a much longer stint on the D.L., surely Jack Flaherty will be ready to step in.

Last season the team got 919 innings from starting pitchers and Fangraphs has them projected for 948 in 2018. That includes 142 from Wainwright (which seems a bit high from me but I’ll certainly take it) and 94 from Reyes. If the team used the Dodgers’ DL strategy and got ~200 IP from Martinez, that would leave ~720 or so from everyone else. So maybe the team could get 180 from Wacha, 120 from Wainwright (hopefully), maybe 300-320 from Mikolas and Weaver, 100 or so from Reyes and then 40-50 from Flaherty and others. That adds up to about 750 so if the team only gets 40-50 from Wainwright then it can get maybe more from Flaherty or Reyes (and, perhaps, be better off for it).

This strategy would allow the starters to be (relatively) fresh for any postseason run and would still allow the team to limit Reyes’s innings in his first season since his TJ surgery. Now, how good would the rotation be? It’s clearly behind the Dodgers, Nationals, and Cubs in the NL but Fangraphs still has the Cards for 15.3 WAR from the rotation — 5th in the NL. It would actually be higher if the team got a few more innings from Weaver, Mikolas, Reyes, and even Flaherty and fewer innings from Wainwright.

The team would be using a 6-man rotation starting every 5th day by using the DL creatively the way the Dodgers did last season. This would enable the team to get the most from the young/new guys like Weaver, Mikolas, and Reyes while still keeping them relatively fresh for the postseason.

Thanks for reading.

 

I’m starting to like what I see

It’s not profound to declare that the Cardinals had some issues with their bullpen in 2017. In fact, the team made it clear that shoring up the end of the pen was one of its most important priorities this offseason. And yet, as fall turned to winter and we headed toward the day pitchers and catchers report, we all were forced to sit and watch as reliever after reliever was kicked off of free agent island and shipped to their new destinations. Relief pitcher is seemingly the only position where free agents have actually signed, and yet only the estimable Luke Gregerson was signed for the Cards’ roster.

And fans fretted…

The 2017 pen actually wasn’t as bad as it seemed to be. It was 7th in baseball in ERA and 8th in FIP. It was 12th in reliever WAR but the problems the team had with its closer position in particular made it seem like the pen was much worse than that. That’s probably because the team had the 4th most meltdowns in the game. According to Fangraphs, a meltdown “is when a reliever’s WPA is less than or equal to -0.06 in any individual game.” Cards’ relievers did this 90 times in 2017. Combine all this together and we see that, basically, the relievers pitched fairly well but when they didn’t they really blew up.

As we would expect given the team’s concerns about its closers, Seung Hwan Oh and Trevor Rosenthal had a bunch of those meltdowns (11 each) and Matt Bowman had 14. No Cardinal exemplified this meltdown problem better than Brett Cecil, however, who had the 2nd most meltdowns in baseball with 17. (As it turns out, Cecil’s given name is Brett Aarion Cecil, not Brett Fucking Cecil as Cards’ Twitter had led me to believe.)

Cecil actually had a pretty good year in 2017. His K:BB ratio was 4:1 and his FIP was 3.26. The problem was that he got A-bombed 3 times, giving up 4 runs against the Cubs in April, the Reds in June, and the Braves in August. Cecil also projects to be quite good in 2018 as ZIPS loves him.

Tyler Lyons really emerged in relief in 2017 with a FIP below 3.00 and a 31% K rate. He could be a poor man’s Andrew Miller, going more than 1 inning to set up the closer or possibly even becoming the closer, if needed. I think he would be more valuable, however, in that Andrew Miller role.

Last month the team traded for Dominic Leone from the Blue Jays. This guy was deadly in 2017 — another guy with a FIP under 3.00 and a K rate over 30%. He’s a hard fastball, cutter guy who just carved up opponents last season. While he was fantastic against righties, he also pitched extremely well (3.58 FIP) vs lefties leaving open the possibility that he could emerge as a closer.

Gregerson has always been a fastball-slider guy who’s been outstanding against righties but when Mozeliak proclaimed him the team’s closer as of now, I was taken aback. Unlike Leone, he’s never been all that good against lefties due to his arm slot and repertoire. He’s really closer to being a ROOGY than someone who you’d want in the closer role simply because he has a difficult time matching up against lefties. So despite my concerns about Gregerson in the 9th, I’ve always felt reasonably confident about his ability to get righties out in the 6th through 8th innings. Still, Zach Gifford raised some legitimate concerns about what’s happening with his slider but the bullpen’s depth should allow the team to avoid using him in high leverage situations if it turns out he can’t handle them.

Today the team added Bud Norris to the pen, an addition I think could help a lot. His stuff really plays up in relief as he’s added a 90 mph cutter to his mid-90’s fastball which got the K rate to nearly 28% in 2017. He did go through some knee inflammation last year that led to a pretty bad couple of months but he was dominant in the first half and in September for the Angels. Read Jeff Sullivan’s take on this signing to get a sense of high this could really be a coup for the team.

So right now, this pen’s top 5 looks like Lyons and Cecil from the left side and Gregerson, Leone, and Norris from the right side. These aren’t really well-known guys but they’re guys who could be really good.

To that 5 we add Bowman, the ground ball specialist (and Matheny man-crush) who, despite a relatively low K rate, does have a high GB% and had a 3.65 FIP in 2017. If he’s the pen’s 6th best guy, this pen is really good.

John Brebbia was great in 2017 and can definitely contribute if he continues with his 4.5:1 K:BB rate. Because he’s a fly ball pitcher, he’s prone to giving up homers but he showed that he has some promise as well.

Sam Tuivailala might have the best stuff of anyone in the bullpen but so far in the big leagues it really hasn’t translated into the strikeouts that we’ve hoped for. Still, we’re talking about a guy with a good, hard fastball (probably the hardest in the bullpen), a hard slider, and a good curveball. If he can put it together, he could have the kind of season for the Cards that Leone had for the Blue Jays last season. And he’s out of minor league options so he’s going to get every chance to make it.

There’s 8 guys who could pitch for damned near anyone. There may not be another team in the National League with 8 guys in their pen who are this good. There’s no Kenley Jansen or Craig Kimbrel but there’s a lot of depth, some with the ability to emerge as elite bullpen guys.

Maybe the best part is that we still haven’t mentioned the 4 young guys who all have great stuff and could emerge as dominant guys. Ryan Helsley and Jordan Hicks have the ability to dial up triple digits and Dakota Hudson could be that 7th or 8th inning guy who comes in and destroys hitters with that wipeout slider. And then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room, Alex Reyes. I don’t have any idea what the team plans to do with him when he starts game action in May — he could be a tremendous boost to the starting rotation — but if the team decides to utilize him in the pen to better control his innings coming off of Tommy John surgery, he could add one hell of an ICBM to the bullpen’s arsenal. Imagine Matheny being able to turn to Reyes in the 8th or even him emerging as a dominant closer in June or July.

It’s reasonable to be concerned about the team’s starting rotation. Indeed, I’ve been as vocal as anyone in begging Mozeliak to trade for Chris Archer to boost the rotation. But I can envision a scenario where the team only needs all the starters not named Martinez to get 15-18 outs and then turning the game over to the bullpen. If the team needs a starter, then they could trade for one in July.

The trend in baseball is clearly toward expecting less from starting rotations and expecting more from the relievers. It looks like Mozeliak is doing just that. Now, some Cards’ fans will rightly point out that this plan (if I’m correct in identifying it) is predicated on Matheny’s ability and commitment to getting the starters out early and selecting the right relievers to use later on. That’s a big if but that’s also part of why the team added Mike Maddux as its pitching coach.

All that considered, I see the makings of a really good bullpen, one that could help the team shorten the game both in the regular season and in the postseason. It’s short on big names, but long on ability and there’s a good chance that Cards’ fans will take notice of how good some of these guys really are in 2018.

Thanks for reading.