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.
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.