The Cardinals aren't taking advantage of hitter's counts



During Tuesday night's game, in what I believe was his second plate appearance, Marcell Ozuna quickly found himself in an 0-2 count against Twins pitcher José Berríos. In sort of one of those anecdotal light bulb moments, it dawned on me that Ozuna sure seems to have to work out of a hole in a lot of his at-bats, which, since I had already written on his inability to draw a walk in the first few weeks of the season, perhaps should not have been a big revelation.


But is it actually true? Does Ozuna have a lot of 0-2 counts? Well, yes. As of Wednesday morning, 24 percent of Ozuna's plate appearances have resulted in an 0-2 count, which is a decent (though not quite offensive) deviation from the National League average, which sits at 21 percent. Interestingly enough, it hasn't really impacted his production. I probably don't need to tell you that Ozuna is off to a slow start this season with a 77 wRC+ in 164 plate appearances, but his wRC+ when he starts a count 0-2 is basically the same at 76. For perspective, the NL average in these situations is 16. Obviously, there's a reason why pitchers work for an 0-2 count and hitters strive to avoid them.


As a team, the Cardinals have stayed pretty close to league average with 22 percent of their plate appearances on the season having started with an 0-2 count. Aided by the Ozuna-effect, however, they also have a 35 wRC+ in these situations, which is fourth best in the NL.


Curious, I wanted to also look at the other end of the spectrum and see not only how often the Cardinals were working with a hitter's count, but also how well they were doing in these situations. I don't know if there is a strict definition of "hitter's count," but for this column I am looking at any situation in which the count is 3-0, 3-1, or full. Basically any instance in which there is pressure on the pitcher to throw the ball over the plate or suffer the consequence of a possible free base.


Here is what I learned.


Cardinals hitters are very good at reaching a hitter's count


So far in 2018 (and all stats in this post are as of Wednesday evening), the Cardinals have had 365 plate appearances with either a 3-0, 3-1, or full count (or all three) and that is the most in the NL. That accounts for 24 percent of the team's total plate appearance whereas the NL average sits at 21 percent. And that is a good thing. These counts lead to walks as evidenced by the Cardinals' 9.8 percent walk rate, which is the third highest in the NL behind the Nationals and the Phillies.


So bravo to the Cardinals. Getting to a hitter's count is an accomplishment in and of itself because a good way to score a run is to first get a runner on base and we already saw that the Cardinals are good at drawing walks. Here's the thing though...


Cardinals hitters are producing well below league average in hitter's counts


For 3-0, 3-1, and full counts combined, the NL averages a 188 wRC+. When the Cardinals are in these situations, meaning those 365 plate appearances I referenced above, they have a 173 wRC+, which is 13th in the NL.


Here's how it breaks down for the Cardinals in each count, and where they rank in the NL.


3-0

78 PAs (8th)

213 wRC+ (last); NL AVG: 264


3-1

165 PAs (1st)

195 wRC+ (11th); NL AVG: 209


3-2

252 PAs (2nd)

135 wRC+ (10th); NL AVG: 143


*If you're curious why the total plate appearances exceed the 365 number from above, remember that sometimes a 3-0 count can turn into 3-1 or full all in the same plate appearance.


Across the board the Cardinals are producing well below league average when they have an advantage over the pitcher in the count. (A full count isn't the best situation for a hitter either because of the two strikes, but the league average above tells us that it still clearly favors the hitter.)


In high leverage situations, same thing. (It's pretty self-explanatory, and if you're a reader of this blog you likely already know this information, but FanGraphs has a very good description of a high-leverage situation, but a simple definition is basically a pivotal moment in a game which has potential to impact the outcome.) So far in 2018, the Cardinals have the second most plate appearances (44) in the NL with a hitter's count during a high-leverage situation. Again, that's good. That's stress on the opposing pitcher. However, their 147 wRC+ in these plate appearances ranks 13th in the NL, where the league average is 199.


So what is going on?


Perhaps nothing. This is likely just the product of an offense which ranks in the bottom half of the NL and slightly below league average by wRC+.


But their overall wRC+ is much closer to league average versus when they have a hitter's count, so there might be something else. I'm not building rockets here so chances are you thought of it, too. The Cardinals maybe need to swing more. FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards is a wonderful resource and what I predominantly used for this post, but it does not allow a search for plate discipline stats in these situations. Meaning we might learn a lot more about the numbers above if we have stats showing us that the Cardinals swing the bat well below league average when they have a hitter's count. Perhaps the follow-up to this post will be determining exactly that through the data on Baseball Savant.


Until then, I suspect that is the case. Overall, the Cardinals swing at the second fewest pitches in the NL. That helps them get to so many hitter's counts and surely carries over once they are in those situations. There's also their noted high walk rate, Matt Carpenter being way too patient, etc. So again, walks are good, but maybe the Cardinals' offense would benefit by swinging the bat more when the opposing pitcher is likely trying to throw a pitch near the plate.