I was in attendance for the 11-8 Cardinals win at Nationals Park last night. With balls flying out of the park (likely aided by the awful humidity) and game time coming in around four hours, it was a fun, long, mess of a game. The type Rob Manfred would want to both showcase and hide if he were trying to convince the uninitiated to give baseball a try. Listening to the Nationals local radio on the way home, I expected them to lament on another unsightly Nationals loss but instead they went in more on the Cardinals and the fact that their pitchers have walked 21 batters during the first two games of this series all while striking a "How is this team winning games?" sort of tone.
It's a fair question. And though the last two games have resulted in an inordinate amount of walks, they've highlighted something that is an issue. Cardinals pitchers have the fourth worst walk rate (9.4 percent) in the National League behind the Cubs (who are still feeling the Tyler Chatwood-effect, although their bullpen leads the NL in walk rate, too), Marlins, and Braves, and are falling well-behind the 8.6 percent NL average. The bullpen, which was revamped shortly after Mike Matheny was fired, probably gets a bulk of the blame here with a collective 10.3 percent walk rate (again, 4th worst in the NL), although the starters have also walked 8.7 percent of batters faced, which is also below the NL average (8.1 percent) for starting pitchers.
That on it's face is an issue, but it's not a disaster and alone is probably not worth a column. Luckily, we have FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards which allows us to take a closer look at these walks. And to cut right down to it, if you anecdotally thought that Cardinals pitchers were walking a lot of batters after being ahead in the count then you would be correct.
With an 0-2 count, Cardinals pitchers go on to walk more batters (4.0 percent) than any other staff in the NL, where the average sits at 3.0 percent. Last night was not a mirage, this can squarely be put on the bullpen, which has walked 5.0 percent of batters after getting ahead 0-2, easily the worst in all of baseball (the Nationals are second worst in the NL at 3.8 percent) and almost double the league average (2.9 percent).
On a 1-2 count, same thing. Cardinals pitchers have a 6.6 walk rate in these situations, the third worst in the NL behind the Reds and Padres and well above the 5.6 percent NL average. Reduce the search to only bullpens and the Cardinals again fall to dead last (7.5 percent) in the NL.
By now you get the idea, but to drive the point home, with a 2-2 count Cardinals pitchers are walking 14.3 percent of batters, which is the worst in the NL where the league average sits at 12.1 percent. Once the starter leaves the game, Cardinals relievers are walking an atrocious 16.5 percent of batters with a 2-2 count, head and shoulders above (below?) the second worst team in the NL, the Mets, who come in at 13.5 percent.
Even after modest signs of improvement after the bullpen was restructured, there were signs that all was still not well. Chuck Brownson pointed this out barely over a week ago, and Joe Sheehan was also beating this drum on Twitter, and here's what he wrote a week or two ago in his newsletter:
Jordan Hicks will look impressive at times, and he has a much lower ERA under Shildt (1.96, versus 3.45 under Matheny), but it comes with a lower strikeout rate and a terrible 14/9 K/BB. Mike Mayers hasn’t pitched any better since the change. The change here is in the personnel and the outcomes, not the usage or the underlying performance. In fact, Cardinals relievers have a miserable 18.6% strikeout rate and 7.3% K-BB% in the second half (under Shildt, essentially).
I don't have to tell you that this has been incredibly frustrating too watch. Relievers are often brought in to the game with runners already aboard so these walks are only adding to the damage. It's also another reminder that Mike Matheny made an awful decision back on April 9, 2018, to intentionally walk the bases loaded while Greg Holland was pitching and could not find the plate in Milwaukee (he walked the next batter, giving the Brewers the winning run), and Mike Shildt's decision to do the same last night while using an ineffective and wild Tyler Webb was equally bad. If you need a reminder or just missed it entirely, with no place to put Juan Soto, Webb walked him anyway because that's what can happen in high leverage situations with relief pitchers who don't have a command of the zone. Stop intentionally walking a batter to load the bases, Cardinals. Especially when there are two outs as there were last night and the double-play is not, well, in play.
I'm not qualified to explain how to fix this walk problem. There's obviously been too much nibbling when ahead in the count. I don't think it's entirely unfair to direct criticism toward Mike Maddux, this is his job after all, or maybe even at Yadier Molina, since this is something he would absolutely get credit for if the numbers painted a glowing picture. Or maybe the bullpen outside of Jordan Hicks right now just isn't very good. Who really knows.
What I can say is that if this team makes the postseason where bullpens are invaluable, this problem needs to be fixed or there will likely be more winnable games that are abruptly and unnecessarily lost with the result being no tomorrow.
Credit to FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards for the stats in this post.