Since the first game this season, Cards’ Twitter has been all a-twitter over the outlandish number of times Cardinal batters have struck out. In the first game of the season the team struck out 15 times and it’s been a main topic of conversation ever since. Yesterday, in the Cards’ 5-3 win over Zack Greinke and the D’backs, the team struck out 9 times in 8 innings and LOWERED its strikeout rate. Presently the team has the 3rd highest K rate in the majors, having struck out in 27.1% of its plate appearances. If the strikeout percentage is greater than the number of games between starts by the Cards’ backup catcher, it’s too high.
In looking at individual performances, several players have started with extremely high strikeout rates, even if they’re still performing pretty well at the dish. Three Cardinal regulars have strikeout rates greater than 30% (Ozuna, Pham, and DeJong) and DeJong’s strikeout rate is greater than 40% (43.8). Kolten Wong has struck out 26.3% of the time and he has no extra base hits. Even Cardinal subs Yairo Munoz and Greg Garcia have combined to strike out a whopping 8 times in 13 PA’s. What in the name of Ted Simmons is going on?
Cards’ fans who are less concerned with all the K’s have correctly noted that the team has faced some of the NL’s best strikeout pitchers in half of its first 8 games, having faced Noah Syndegaard, Jacob DeGrom, Robbie Ray, and Greinke early in the season. Maybe the strikeout rate isn’t that far out of the ordinary.
The question then becomes what kind of strikeout rate should we expect from the first 8 games of the season and what does it forecast about the rest of the season? Is this something the team should be worried about or is it just what we should expect given the competition after only 8 games? Let’s look at how the team’s K rate in the 1st 8 games compares with the projections for the starting pitchers the team has faced. (Even though I prefer K% I used K/9 as a comparison tool because the projections systems use K/9. Thanks to Fangraphs, Steamer, and ZIPS for the data.)
Yes, you’re reading that table correctly. Every starter the Cardinals have faced this year has struck out more Cardinals than he would have been projected to strike out. Maybe it’s just the starters; the team gets better against relievers. A little. The team’s K rate against starters is 28.9% and 24.5% against relievers.
So we are talking about a small sample of just 8 games, just about 5% of the season. Still, it is 265 plate appearances (think half a season for 1 player) and the team has already struck out 72 times. What are some possible explanations for this early season trend?
Strikeouts are up throughout baseball. There’s some truth here. To be sure, this has been the pattern over the last several years. Still last year’s K rate was 21.6% and this year’s K rate is 22.3%. So strikeouts are up, but the Cardinals are still about 5% higher than the rest of the league. Last year the team’s K rate was right at the league average.
It’s April. It’s early. The weather’s cold. Pitchers are always ahead of hitters early in the season, right? Last year’s K rate in April was 21.6%, equal to the K rate for the entire season. There’s no reason to expect then that strikeouts would be 4-5% higher in April than they are the rest of the season.
The Cardinals have changed their approach to try and hit more homers and are willing to accept more K’s in order to do it. Maybe. TBD. The team is tied for 3rd in baseball with 13 HR’s through the first week-plus of the season.
The team just isn’t hitting well to start the season and will hit its stride. Maybe. TBD.
The team has faced an inordinately high number of strikeout pitchers in the first 8 games. I think the table above shows that this is not the (only) explanation.
This is a trend that will continue and could be a bad omen for the 2018 season.
Clearly the team has struck out too many times to begin the season. DeJong, to name just one, has struck out in 7 of his last 8 plate appearances. I’m betting he gets a day off today. Marcell Ozuna, another guy who’s hitting the ball pretty well right now, has 11 K’s and no walks. Pham’s also hitting well but has struck out 10 times already. Looking down the roster, only Molina and Jose Martinez (there’s that guy again) have K rates below 20% (6.1% and 9.1%, respectively). The Cardinals’ fortunes this season may depend on whether this is just a blip in the radar or a sign of things to come.
Thanks for reading. (and thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference for the data.)