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Bird Bytes: Mike Leake’s Biting Cutter, Aledmys Diaz’ Collapsing Plate Discipline, Jose Martinez, Greg Garcia + More

For the second night in a row, it was Cardinals 2, Pirates 1 …

It’s a winning streak! The first of the season for the Cards.

Leake allowed seven hits and one run in 6.1 innings in Tuesday’s Cardinals win.

Progress? Starting pitching yes. In the two wins over the Pirates, Lance Lynn and Mike Leake combined to allow the visitors one run in 13.1 innings … and that will win you many ballgames.

As for progress elsewhere … not so much.

How about some Bird Bytes this morning?

All statistics courtesy of STATS LLC or FanGraphs unless otherwise noted…

1. Another fab outing from Mike Leake, who has allowed two earned runs in 21.1 innings in his three starts. There are a few keys to Leake’s dramatic upturn … 

— Command: He’s faced 79 batters and walked one. He’s thrown strikes 52 percent of the time, up six points from 2016. His first-strike rate, 67 percent, is up by five points.

— Ground balls: His GB rate is 57.1 percent one of the highest in the majors and up three points from ’16. This is a factor in Leake’s drop in hard-contact rate; it’s only 17.6% so far this season … and that hard-contact rate was 30.6% in ’16.

— The luck factor is working in Leake’s favor early on; opponents have a .270 batting average in balls in play. Last year, that BIP average against Leake was a fat .321. Unfortunately, that .270 will rise. So keep that in mind when ground balls find spaces, with Leake having more runners on base. It won’t mean that Leake suddenly stinks. It means that a .270 average on balls in play is unsustainable over an entire season.

— Along the same lines: Leake’s strand rate is 89% so far … and that won’t last either. The MLB average Left On Base rate for starting pitchers is around 73 percent. Before you jump to a wrong conclusion here, let me say this: I’ve come here to praise Mike Leake, not nitpick him. But Leake is not a swing-and-miss pitcher; as we know he puts the ball in play. (In fact, his swing-miss rate is down a bit so far this season. Which means the contact rate against is up slightly from 2016.) Last season Leake’s critics ignored the impact of batted-ball randomness in evaluating Leake’s performance. Well, that ignorance can work both ways. Last season I frequently defended Leake and cited batted-ball luck that went against him. This year, the batted-ball luck is Leake’s buddy, at least so far, and that randomness also applies when a pitcher is benefiting from a positive roll and bounce of the baseball. That’s just the reality. Leake’s strand rate was 65.6 percent last season. It’s up by nearly 23 percentage points in his first three starts. That’s awesome … but it’s also unsustainable.

— Leake is muffling LH batters. Last season they had a .761 OPS against him. This season: .507 OPS. The batted-ball stuff also applies here, but Leake is getting better results.

— Leake’s cutter is more of a weapon now. I’ll spare you of my entire log of stats on this. Bottom line? Leake is throwing his cutter more frequently this season … and in all situations whether it be first pitch, behind in the count, ahead in the count, two strikes, or with runners in scoring position. It’s been a very effective pitch for him; opponents are hitting .083 against Leake in at-bat that ends with the cutter.

2. Michael Wacha starts today, and the Cardinals need to keep the quality-start machine clicking.

When the Cardinals have received a quality start this month, they’re 5-2. Without a quality start, they’re 0-7. History shows that teams benefiting from a quality start win those games at a rate of 70 percent. The Cardinals’ starters have a 1.13 ERA in those QS games. In the seven non-QS, the starter ERA is 6.29.

3. John Mozeliak may think that the Matt Adams in LF thing has been filed away in history, but let’s wait a while on that. 

It is a mistake to count Matheny out. We can never count him out. Let us remember the lessons of the past. Mike has a hard time giving up on an idea. See: Kolten Wong in the outfield, a faded Allen Craig in the middle of the lineup, playing Jon Jay with a damaged wrist over more viable hitters, refusing to use his closer in a tie game on the road. That’s just a short list.

Diaz is batting .214 with a .214 OBP in 56 plate appearances.

4. After a terrific rookie season, Aledmys Diaz has developed some bad early-season habits at the plate.

Diaz was a marvel with the bat in 2016, noisily arriving to bat .300 with a .369 onbase percentage, .510 slugging percentage and one of the top OPS figures (.879) by a rookie in franchise history. Diaz drew walks, did a good job of limiting strikeouts, and hit for power … swatting 28 doubles and 17 homers in 460 plate appearances. His plate discipline was sound. But in the launch phase of 2017, Diaz is getting himself out way too often.

The plate discipline has deteriorated. Obviously, he can adjust and get back to taking quality at bats, and I don’t expect him to flail away to the extent that we’ve seen so far. Through Tuesday Diaz was batting .214 and hasn’t walked. Some power is there, sure. But overall, the Diaz hitting profile is messy.

Here’s a snapshot look at Diaz’ hitting habits, comparing 2016 to the early part of 2017:

–1st-pitch swinging:  26.2% last year … 44.6% now

–Pitches taken:  55% last year … 40% now

–Chasing pitches out of the strike zone: 26.3% last year … 44.5% now

— Swinging strike rate:  7% last year … 14% now

–Strike zone contact rate:  91.6% last year … 84.8%  now

— Overall contact rate:  83.4% last year … 75.8% now

— Walk rate: 9% (40 walks) last year … no walks in 2017

— Pitches per plate appearance: 3.79 last year … 2.93 now.

These trends are glaring.

And in a bad way.

In terms of weighted runs created plus (wRC+), Diaz was 32 percent above league average offensively last season. This season he’s 29 percent below the league average. That’s awful — but fixable.

Diaz has to take a few deep breaths, regroup and curb his impatience. He’s pressing. Trying to do too much. The same is true of other Cardinals, including Dexter Fowler. We know Diaz is a talented hitter. We know the production will come. But right now, Diaz is doing opposing pitchers a favor by being such an easy mark.

5. Better late than never: hello Jose Martinez, hello Greg Garcia. 

Matheny was a little slow to get them in the lineup, and without Matt Carpenter’s minor finger inury Martinez may still be sitting. But the Cardinals’ offense is among the worst in the majors so far in the essential job of getting on base; their .283 team OBP ranks 28th among the 30 teams. That isn’t an issue for Garcia and Martinez. They’ll work counts and take walks. They get hits. They get on base. In 43 combined plate appearances Martinez and Garcia have reached base 20 times; that’s a .465 OBP. The rest of the team has a .265 OBP. Ugh.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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