In the third inning on Tuesday night, Marcell Ozuna hit a monstrous, record-setting blast to put the St. Louis Cardinals up 4-0 in their contest with the Milwaukee Brewers. Teams with a 4-0 lead at that point in the game win 84.1% of the time. They carried a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth, where teams win 90.7% of the time. The Cardinals lost.
With a two lefties due up in the Brewers half of the eighth inning and another waiting to hit fourth in the inning, oft-maligned manager Mike Matheny opted for Tyler Lyons to start the frame. This was a good decision – Lyons had previously made two scoreless appearances and has held lefties to a .231 wOBA in his relief career. Lyons then made a good decision look like a bad one by failing to retire any of the three lefties he faced. One run scored while Lyons was on the mound and another runner attributed to Lyons came around after he was replaced by Dominic Leone.
We know how Leone’s outing went. He was asked to get five outs, and he got four. At risk of making this a game recap – you can read Stew Stiles’ rundown here and relive the misery – one comment: Leone was very good last year, had made 5+ out appearances multiples times last year, and is projected to be very good this year. Another good decision, bad result. Was there a better decision available? Maybe! But I can’t criticize Matheny for using two of his best relief arms down the stretch.
Now, finally, getting back to my titular topic. Take a look at this poorly cropped version of the Baseball Savant game feed during the last two critical half-innings for the Brewers:
Four line drives (10-25 degree launch angle), three barreled balls (Braun and Yelich x2), two cans of corn and a 95 miles-per-hour ground ball single. We’ve heard a lot over the last two years about the value of a ball in the air. The average launch angle on these eight batted balls was 22.4 degrees.
That got me thinking. For years under Dave Duncan, the St. Louis Cardinals modus operandi was a ground-ball-inducing pitching staff. From 1996 to 2011, the Cardinals ranked 2nd in the MLB with a 46.5% ground ball rate, trailing only the Atlanta Braves. And while Derek Lilliquist continued the trend for a few years post-Duncan, things have recently taken a turn:
Over the last couple years, ground ball rates across the MLB have decreased a little. Over the last couple years, ground ball rates induced by St. Louis pitchers have decreased a lot. From 2012 to 2016, only the Pirates induced ground balls at a higher rate. In 2018, only four teams induce grounders at a lower rate.
As hitters fight to intentionally get the ball airborne, it’s become increasingly important for pitchers to keep the ball on the ground and in the yard. Last year, hitters produced a wOBA of .496 on fly balls and line drives compared to .219 on ground balls. Per 100 of each contact type, that’s a difference somewhere between 25 and 30 runs.
Extrapolating out the batted ball numbers from this first handful of games to a full season, the Cardinals pitching staff looks about 150 runs worse just on the basis of inducing less ground balls. That’s about a run per game. Last year, the Cardinals ERA ended up at 4.01; so far this year, the team ERA sits at 5.06.
Put another way: for years, the Cardinals did a fantastic job of suppressing their opponents quality of contact. Even in 2017, the Cardinals allowed the tenth lowest wOBA and the ninth lowest xwOBA according to Baseball Savant. In 2018, however, they've allowed the third and fourth highest values, respectively. The sample so far is small, but it's concerning.
When the Cardinals brought on Mike Maddux, I openly questioned their strategy to utilize more high fastballs given the low spin rate profile of the overall staff. Through the first five games of 2018, the early returns are far from promising.