I thought that might get your attention.
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?
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|
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.
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.
Like other Cards’ fans, I’ve spent a good chunk of the last couple of days thinking about what might have been with this season. In so many ways it was such a great season — 100 wins, 1st place in the toughest division in baseball — and, yet, I’ve found myself wondering how the season would have played out if things had finished a little bit differently. As Cards’ fans, we’re tremendously spoiled. This is the first year in the last 5, for example, that the Cardinals haven’t made it to the NLCS. We’re in it every year. Not many teams can say that. If I was a fan of the Astros, Rangers or even Yankees, I could imagine that I would be able to look back on this season and realize how much my team accomplished. For all of these fans, their teams ended up pretty close to their best case scenarios. It’s disappointing for the season to end, to be sure — especially with the Astros’ collapse in game 4 of their series and the 7th inning meltdown by the Rangers’ defense in game 5 of theirs — but almost everyone has to acknowledge how great those teams’ seasons were. And the Cardinals won 100 games and it just doesn’t feel like a great season. Some of that is because we’re spoiled. And some is because it seems as though we could have accomplished much more. For example:
- What if Wainwright hadn’t gotten injured? Would the NLDS against the Cubs have turned out differently if Wainwright could’ve started game 1? We could’ve pushed Lackey to game 2 against Hendricks and then Garcia starts game 3 when he’s probably rested and not nursing a stomach virus. It’s a whole different series.
- What if Matt Holliday was healthy? He just wasn’t himself down the stretch or in the postseason. Our #3 hitter really couldn’t hit, at least not like a #3 hitter, and we were playing shorthanded as a result.
- What if Carlos Martinez hadn’t gotten hurt? Put him and Wainwright in the rotation and it’s deadly. Now, Martinez pitches game 3 and Garcia goes in 4. There’s a good argument to be made that we just didn’t have our 2 best starting pitchers in the postseason.
- What if Matt Adams was healthy? I’m not the biggest Adams fan in the world but he can certainly mash against righties and he wasn’t healthy enough to even beat out Brandon Moss or Jon Jay for the postseason roster. (Maybe it could’ve prevented Mozeliak from shipping Rob Kaminsky to Cleveland in exchange for Moss.)
- What if Randall Grichuk hadn’t kept getting hurt? Not only would he have been in contention for the Rookie of the Year, but he would have been a deadly hitter in the middle of the lineup in October. For a team that struggled to score so often this season — and again in the postseason — how much would we have been helped with a healthy Holliday, Adams, and Grichuk avaialble?
- What if Jordan Walden had been healthy? Matheny wore out Siegrist, and maybe Maness and Rosenthal, and part of the reason was that we were counting on Walden to pitch the 8th inning and get the game to Rosenthal. We certainly could have used him rather than Broxton and Cishek down the stretch and could have saved some wear-and-tear on Siegrist.
That’s a lot of what-ifs. This was a very good team that could have been an historically outstanding team and it fell short in October — when it counted most — largely due to injuries. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Instead, however, I want to look at a different set of what-ifs. Most teams, if they had to deal with all those setbacks, would not have won 100 games or finished above the Pirates and Cubs. How in the heck did that happen?
- What if Randall Grichuk, for all his injuries, hadn’t emerged as a tremendous power hitter who could play center field? Grichuk was in the Rookie of the Year race until his second injury (remember, he missed the beginning of the season with an injury as well). Grichuk had a higher ISO this year than Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz and Paul Goldschmidt and hit the ball as hard as Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber. Did I mention that he can play center field? I don’t really know if he can stay healthy for 600+ plate appearances but, if he can, he might be a star.
- What if Stephen Piscotty hadn’t emerged as a no-doubt offensive impact player for the Cardinals? This is a guy who was always thought of as a pretty good prospect, but prospect analysts were always waiting on his power to emerge. Prior to this season, he never hit more than 9 HR in the minor leagues. He hit 11 in his first 87 games at Memphis this year but we’re still talking about the Pacific Coast League. He was a good AAA hitter, but not a great one. And then he was called up and very soon thereafter became a star. He hit 7 HR and 15 doubles in just 63 games. Granted, it was just half a season, but his wRC+ was 133. So was Carlos Correa’s. Manny Machado, who hit 35 HR this year, had a 134 wRC+. He performed better offensively in his 256 PA than Curtis Granderson and Schwarber did this year. And he showed he could play both outfield corners and first base. One of our biggest concerns going in to last season is what to do about 1B when facing a lefty, considering Matt Adams’s profound issues facing lefties (one HR vs. Kershaw notwithstanding). Those concerns have vanished.
- What if Carlos Martinez hadn’t emerged as an outstanding starter? There were many who were concerned that he’d never be anything more than a reliever.Those concerns aren’t there any more.
- What if Jaime Garcia’s career had been ended by injuries? I didn’t expect anything from Garcia this season or, honestly, ever. Pitchers just rarely come back from multiple shoulder injuries. And yet Garcia did, and emerged as one of the team’s best starters this year. He’s gone from a guy who almost certainly would not have had his option for 2016 picked up, to a guy whose option will definitely be picked up.
- What if Kevin Siegrist hadn’t re-emerged as a shutdown reliever? Granted, his season didn’t end too well but he inarguably had a tremendous season. He was injured most of 2014 and the team had to be unsure of whether or how much they could count on Siegrist for 2015 and he ended up becoming Matheny’s go-to guy out of the pen.
- What if Tommy Pham hadn’t emerged as a legitimate contributor? This is a guy the team always thought a lot of but he just couldn’t stay healthy. When Grichuk got hurt, they called him up just to see what would happen and he showed himself to be fearless, to be a guy who can play center field, and to be a guy who can hit the ball hard. His average exit velocity was basically the same as Goldschmidt’s.
The bottom line is that, though this season ended disappointingly, there’s a lot to look forward to next year and down the road. What do all those guys in that last segment have in common? Pham is the oldest, and he’s just 27 years old. Is there any wonder why, after the game 4 loss to the Cubs, Adam Wainwright had this to say?
The season was an unquestioned success, though we would have all liked to have finished stronger. And all signs point to the probability that next year will be even better.