It's early. Let's get that out of the way right now. Okay, moving on. The 2019 league-wide strikeout rate (23.3%) has dramatically increased from last season (22.3%), and if that trend continues this would mark the twelfth season in a row in which that number has gone up. That's pretty remarkable in it's own right, and it's changed the way we perceive the game.
For instance, having the bases loaded and no outs or one out doesn't really mean as much as it used to. With fewer players putting the bat on the ball it's much easier to record a couple of outs without a single runner advancing. Way back when, if a pitcher loaded the bases with no outs and escaped unharmed that meant getting out of a major jam. Today, when I see it happen, it feels like just another day at the ballpark.
Cardinals hitters are far from immune. We saw it in last night's loss to the Mets. In the bottom of the 5th inning, the Cardinals had runners on first and third with no outs. Two of the next three batters struck out and they didn't score. In the bottom of the 8th, after Yadier Molina had scored earlier in the inning on an error, the Cardinals had runners on first and third and one out but the threat was quickly vanquished although not as a result of strikeouts. In related news, the Cardinals lost the game by a single run.
Again, we're still more than a week away from May, and one game does not decide a season. The Cardinals don't have "losing one-run games" problem - they're 3-3. And, on the list of grievances in the early going for the 2019 Cardinals, the offense is pretty far down the list. If anything, this team has starting pitching issues, which has put a larger burden on the offense (and bullpen), and that offense has left some runners on the board.
Call it situational hitting or whatever you want, so far the Cardinals haven't been great at it. Using FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards, here's how the Cardinals compare to the rest of the National League in certain situations when measuring by strikeout rate and wRC+.
Runners in scoring position with zero or one out:
So far, the Cardinals have the fourth most plate appearances (109) in the NL in this situation and have the worst strikeout rate in the league, the sixth lowest wRC+, lagging behind the league average in both categories. This isn't a perfect science, but failing to put the bat on the ball in nearly 30 percent of these opportunities has likely thwarted a big inning or two and anecdotally has been pretty frustrating to watch.
Runners in scoring position with two outs
The Cardinals have 91 plate appearances in this situation (sixth most in the NL), and their numbers are not as egregious, but not great either. We probably don't care about the strikeout rate as much since most outs when there are already two on the board have the same result whereas a recorded out when there are only one or no outs can result in a run.
High leverage situations
(Leverage is a measure of how important a particular situation is to the outcome of the game and takes into account the inning, score, outs, and number of runners on base. Here, "high leverage" should be rather self-explanatory.)
With 93 plate appearances in high leverage situations (4th most in the NL), we see an improvement but it could be better if the Cardinals could lower that strikeout rate to be more in line with league average. That's not necessarily wishful thinking as their overall strikeout rate (24.4 percent) doesn't deviate that far from the rest of the NL (23.9 percent).
I would categorize all of this under early observations rather than any sort of significant diagnosis. The Cardinals offense looks to be fine. They have the third most home runs (32) in the NL this season which, of course, is a good thing. Home runs are the most efficient way to get a runner home. But that brings us to the number of runs the Cardinals are actually scoring and in that category their NL rank falls to eighth (99).
In this era, we're just going to have to get used to watching hitters strikeout when simple contact could result in a run. Pitchers are better than ever and thereby making contact is as hard as it has ever been. Still, if the Cardinals could get the bat on the ball more in line with league average when the possibility of a big inning is developing, that would probably help even out their home runs-to-runs ratio and improve a lot of our early-morning moods. Since we're still in April, this is something we'll have to return to in a month or so to see if that has happened.
Credit to FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards for a lot of the stats in this post.