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Cardinals and First Pitches

JMart punishing a first pitch fastball

Like I assume most of you do, I try to consume as much St. Louis Cardinals information as is humanly possible given work and home schedules. One such piece that I got to recently was in particular interest to me, and as oft I do I wanted to expound upon research done by somebody else to better explain what's going on. Those of you who followed me over here from my Facebook page will see this as quite typical except now I get cool art along with it.

In Bernie Miklasz's Redbird Reset ($) over at The Athletic, he talked a lot about in depth reasons why the Cardinals offense is struggling. One of his main points is shown in this excerpt below:

Prior to reading the remainder of this article, I want to let you know that I will be using the term wOBA a lot. Please click this link if you need a refresher on what wOBA quantifies. In fact, also be warned this is a very stat-heavy post in general as the original idea by Bernie was already very stat heavy.

I wanted to look more deeply into this using Statcast search data from Baseball Savant. I started by looking at first pitches vs Cardinals hitters. I found that Cardinals batters have seen 2,917 pitches with a 0-0 count entering play on June 25, 2019. That number represents 25.82% of all pitches seen this year for Cardinals batters. The percentage shown is the 12th highest in MLB. On those pitches, Cardinals batters have a .388 wOBA, which is just 23rd in MLB. So the Cardinals (as Mr. Miklasz points out) are not hitting well against pitches in a 0-0 count, as compared to the rest of the league. In fact, league average is a .410 wOBA on pitches with a 0-0 count.

Above you should see two .gifs (thanks Nick Childress!). On the left, we have the Cardinals' Paul DeJong hitting a grounder (out) with a .383 xwOBA and on the right we see the Cardinals' Dominic Leone giving up a grounder (double) with a .412 xwOBA - those numbers were as close as I could find to the averages referenced above.

The second thing that I looked at was how many first pitches the Cardinals hitters have seen this year have been in the strike zone. 1,503 of the first pitches seen have been thrown in the zone. Those 51.53% of first pitches in the K zone are 13th highest in baseball. Opposing pitchers probably figure that they can throw a strike more often than not due to the Cardinals hitters having a .396 wOBA on those pitches. That seems very high until you consider that number is only 20th in the league and that league average in those situations is a .419 wOBA. Again, the Cardinals are well behind league average when it comes to even hitting 0-0 pitches thrown for strikes.

That got me thinking that maybe the opposition has challenged Cardinals hitters more by throwing the 0-0 pitch in the "shadow" of K zone vs. Cardinals hitters more often than they have against the other teams in the league. The Cardinals are actually dead last in baseball at % of pitches seen in the shadow of the zone on a 0-0 count. They have seen 1,187 pitches in a 0-0 count (just 40.69% of their pitches in 0-0 counts) in the "shadow" of the zone. Cardinals hitters have just the 29th best (out of 30) wOBA in MLB on those pitches at just .263. League average wOBA on 0-0 "shadow" pitches is .343! They're completely bombing out on those pitches! Just doing terribly! Yet other pitchers don't seem to think they need to (or just haven't been able to) attack those portions of the zone against Cardinals batters? Why would they not need to do that?

Above you should see two .gifs again. On the left, we have the Cardinals' Paul Goldschmidt (article earlier in the year) hitting a pop fly (out) with a .264 xwOBA and on the right we see the Cardinals' Miles Mikolas (featured in my article last week) giving up a grounder (single) with a .348 xwOBA - again, with those numbers being as close as I could find to the averages referenced above.

In order to answer that question, I had to look at how Cardinals hitters did in the "heart" of the plate on 0-0 counts. Cardinals hitters have seen 831 pitches in the "heart" of the plate on a 0-0 count. It makes sense with so few "shadow" pitches that the Cardinals have seen the 9th highest percentage of 0-0 "heart" pitches in all of MLB. Good for the Cardinals! Those pitches are the best hitters pitches to swing at. These are the ones that are obvious strikes nearly the entire way. So how have they done? They have a wOBA of .458 on those pitches! That's great! Except, that's only 14th best in all of baseball. That's middling. League average is .454 for those situations. So despite being in the top half of baseball, their wOBA is just .004 better than league average.

So maybe the Cardinals are just absolutely swinging at crap? In order to figure that out, I had to look at the first pitch swing % of Cardinals hitters. They actually have just the 19th highest swing percentage on 0-0 counts this season, swinging at just 28.59% of 0-0 pitches. Well, that makes a little bit of sense as to why they might be struggling. They're seeing the 9th highest percentage of "heart" pitches and the 2nd lowest percentage of "shadow" pitches on 0-0 counts, but they aren't swinging a ton. So they're missing a lot of 0-0 opportunities! When they do take those opportunities, they have a .384 wOBA, which is only 22nd in all of baseball. League average is a .403 wOBA.

Even when they are swinging at the first pitches, which is less often than average, the previous paragraph shows that they are not producing as much as the rest of the league. One of the reasons for that is that the Cardinals actually miss out on that opportunity by swinging through pitches more than league average as well. The Cardinals first pitch swing and miss % is 8.43%. League average is 7.77% for that scenario. The Cardinals have the 9th highest swing and miss rate on 0-0 counts in all of baseball. What makes that even worse is that league average wOBA on 0-1 counts (which the Cardinals get to on swings and misses at 0-0 the 9th most often in the league) is just .364. Compare that to league average wOBA for 0-0 counts (again, that's .410) or league average wOBA for 1-0 counts (.417) and you see quite a disturbing trend for Cardinals batters this year on first pitches.

One thing left unsaid to this point is that the Cardinals have been a very heavy hitting team this year against fastball whereas against breaking balls and offspeed pitches they have really struggled hard. The Cardinals have faced fastballs on 58.1% of their 0-0 pitches. They have seen fastballs in the zone on 32.5% of their 0-0 pitches; and in fact, they have faced fastballs over the heart of the plate in 18.0% of their 0-0 pitches.

Having a one in three chance of getting a fastball in the zone and a two in nine chance of getting a really good fastball to hit has to be something to consider looking for and going after as often as you see it. After all, Cardinals hitters have a .500 wOBA on heart fastballs on 0-0 counts on the season. Here's one example of a hit like that by Jose Martinez - see cover art and the .gif below:

Update: Last night's game saw the Cardinals come to the plate 42 times. Of those 42 "first pitches" on 0-0 counts, the Cardinals took 11 of them for balls and 22 of them for called strikes. That means they only took the opportunity to swing at 9 of 42 pitches. Of those 9 pitches, they swung through 3 of those pitches and fouled 4 more off. That means they only put 2 of 42 pitches in a 0-0 count into play. One of those two went for a hit. They hit .500 on a 0-0 count on the night and had an on base percentage of .225 in all other counts. To make matters worse, they saw only 1 curveball and 3 change ups out of those 42 pitches. 38 of the 42 pitches (90.5%) were first pitch fastballs and the Cardinals did not hunt fastballs at all. They lost. 7-3. They had 10 hits and 5 BB and scored 3 runs and this was one of their BETTER offensive games in the past 45 or so.


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