The first baseball season I remember following wire-to-wire was 1987. The Cardinals were good, that helped keep my attention. Just as important though, Jack Clark and Andre Dawson engaged in a home run battle that consumed a decent chunk of the season and was something that I could track in the my tiny hometown paper, the Lincoln Courier. At the 110 game mark, Clark had 32 home runs while Dawson was just ahead at 35. Clark would soon get hurt and Dawson would run away with it, finishing with a league-high 49, and that was that. I grew up in Cards/Cubs country so my Cubs neighbors and friends who were following along with me won that round.
Two years later I followed closely while Pedro Guerrero made a run at leading the league in RBIs before coming up short to Kevin Mitchell. The next season in 1990, I paid close attention to Willie McGee's .335 batting average which was frozen in Carbonite after he was traded to the American League but he had the requisite plate appearances in the National League and the .335 outlasted everyone. To put it another way, McGee won the NL batting title while taking hacks for the Athletics in the AL. In 1991, Ozzie Smith hovered near the top of the league in on-base percentage but eventually finished sixth. Obviously, we all remember Sosa and McGwire.
This stuff, these mini races within a season are important and help baseball cultivate fans, and I fear it has slightly gone away. This is not an indictment of advanced stats, the game and all of us are better for those stats. And they are better stats, too. DRC+ tells us more about a hitter than batting average or (especially) RBIs. But the great DRC+ chase just doesn't quite roll off the tongue, and it can't be tracked in real time by the naked eye. Whether that has potentially turned away younger fans, who knows.
But, and I made note of this on the latest Chirps podcast with Tara Wellman, this all came to me a few days ago when I saw that Paul DeJong was in the thick of the NL batting title (I mean, sort of, it's still early and Cody Bellinger is not going to bat.400). And while in past years I've made an effort to get into Sonic Youth or the English Premiere League (neither really stuck), I vow this summer to return to my roots and become fully invested in the NL batting title. Again, a batting title doesn't mean everything (although it's not meaningless either), but this stuff is fun. And not everything in this game has to mean, well, everything.
I'll return to this at the 10.5 and probably keep Chirps listeners updated as well - so come with me won't you and follow along? - but this is where we currently stand on the NL batting race for those with enough plate appearances to qualify (which is why José Martínez isn't found below even though he is hitting .346).
1. Cody Bellinger - .396
2. Jeff McNeil -. 356
3. Christian Yelich - . 356
4. Melky Cabrera - .337
5. Paul DeJong - .329
Go, Paul, go.
Days of the week
You don't need the information I'm about to give you. It's not important. Skip ahead to the next bold line if you are pressed for time.
Okay, because absolutely no one asked, and after the Cardinals' 17-4 win over Pittsburgh last night, here is their record on each day of the week so far in this young season.
Why? I have no idea.
3-ball counts and walking the bases loaded
Cardinals pitchers are nibblers. At least anecdotally it feels that way and it's probably valid. According to FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards, Cardinals pitchers have faced the second most batters in the NL with a three-ball count. Only Milwaukee has faced more. We care about this because bad things happen on hitter's counts. Three-ball counts lead to hits, walks, crowded bases, and as such the NL wRC+ in these situations is 181.
And that brings me to something Joe Sheehan wrote in a recent newsletter concerning Mike Shildt and his managing during Saturday's loss to the Cubs. It's a long excerpt but it's worth reading.
Shildt, with a four-run lead in the fourth inning on Saturday, ordered an intentional walk to Schwarber. Most intentional walks are bad, but this one was particularly so. It brought the tying run to the plate. It added baserunners in a situation where a big inning was at risk. It took away Wacha’s margin for error; managers are incredibly bad at seeing the difference between a pitcher getting to pitch with a base open and having to pitch with the bases loaded. For the last completed season, hitters batted .257 with a .408 SLG with second and third, and .265 with a .449 SLG with the bases loaded. They had a higher strikeout rate in the former situation as well, and remember that an unintentional walk in the former spot leaves you none the worse for wear. Unless there’s a significant gain in matchup or the runner on third is the ballgame, the second-and-third intentional walk is a bad idea.
Mostly, though, the decision substituted Schwarber’s highlight reel for what he actually is. Schwarber is a career .237/.344/.497 hitter against righties. (Those numbers are a small sample .208/.279/.364 this year.) Take out the intentional walks, and you have a 2/3 chance of getting him out, against about a 25% chance he gets a hit. In the worst-case scenario, he hits a homer -- maybe a 4-5% chance on Saturday at Wrigley -- and you’re still leading 5-4. He’s simply not a good enough hitter to be intentionally walked in a spot where you’re trying to avoid a big inning. This doesn’t even get into Schwarber’s abysmal career numbers in similar situations -- .180/.322/.363 with RISP, .150/.471/.400 with second and third. Coming up to the plate Saturday, he had nearly as many intentional walks in the latter situation (nine) as career hits (12). I don’t think Schwarber lacks intestinal fortitude, has some deficit of character. I think he can be pitched to effectively in high-leverage spots.
Even if you like the Michael Wacha/Taylor Davis matchup, there was just one out, and the Cubs were obviously going to pinch-hit for Darvish, the next batter. Unless Davis hit into a double play, the inning wouldn’t end with Davis, but with Jason Heyward facing Wacha in a high-leverage spot. Shildt chose Heyward with the bases loaded (probably) instead of Schwarber with a base open, and that just makes no sense at all given the players and the value of having the open base when it comes to attacking the hitter. Wacha had no room to mess around with Davis, and the first-pitch cutter he threw middle-in is still circling the Chicagoland area waiting for clearance to land at Midway.
I think reasonable minds can differ here, and I think most people were fine with Shildt's decision, it was just the outcome that was bad which happens every day in baseball. And I think Sheehan has been overly harsh on the Shildt era up to this point, downplaying what I think are Shildt's obvious strengths while amplifying supposed weaknesses.
That said, I agree with Sheehan. I hate walking the bases loaded on principle. I hate it because it gives the pitcher no room for error in an era when the walk rate is at an all-time high. I especially hate it with a pitcher like Michael Wacha, who is walking nearly 15 percent of batters in 2019. And I hate it because the ball might very well be juiced (again), and, as Sheehan noted, this brought the tying run to the plate.
It was bad strategy and I don't feel that way solely because the Cardinals paid for it. It was bad strategy even knowing that the Wacha/Schwarber matchup is probably not ideal even when Schwarber is batting through a tough season. I also seem to be in the minority here, so maybe it was just some bad luck.
The Mussina (and the Gibson)
Based on a topic batted around on a recent episode of the Effectively Wild podcast, Matt Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus coined what he called the Mussina in his latest newsletter, Penning Bull. A Mussina is when a pitcher throws a complete game shutout (of at least nine-innings) with zero walks, zero hit batters, and at least nine strikeouts. Helpfully, Mike Mussina has the most Mussinas with six.
Using Baseball Reference's Play Index, here are the Mussinas that have been thrown by Cardinals as sorted by date.
As Trueblood noted, these types of games in MLB are as rare or almost as rare as no-hitters. Although the Cardinals only have nine no-hitters for their history so that is not the case here. Still, it's a fun list.
And increase the strikeout limit to 11 and you can rename this the Gibson as Bob Gibson leads MLB (along with Roger Clemens) in such games with five. Three of these games not surprisingly occurred during a three-month stretch in 1968 when Gibson got a total of five runs of support from his offense. I'm glad the 1968 season exists. I'm glad we'll always have 1.12, but I think I'm also glad that baseball is no longer like that.
And speaking of Gibson, watch this video created by SB Nation's Jon Bois. Start near the 25-minute mark and just go from there. We should be thankful every day that Bob Gibson is such a big part of this organization.
Normally this is the part of the 10.5 where I close out with a few baseball articles that I found worth sharing, but this has already gone long enough and I'm tired so we are going to end it here. I do want to recommend this piece by Marilyn Green from the Cardinals Nation website mostly because it recaps a game from 2005 when the Cardinals stormed back from a 9-3 deficit in the 9th to beat the Reds. I was living in Dayton, Ohio, at the time so I was actually lucky enough to be watching this game on the Reds broadcast. It was a glorious mix of clutch hits, luck, and Reds incompetence. And from what I remember, the Reds' broadcast crew wasn't too thrilled as the whole thing unfolded.
Have a great weekend, everyone, and go Cards.