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The 2018 Cardinals Hit Homers, But Shoot Too Many Blanks

Don’t be distracted by the occasional fireworks, with the home-run bombs bursting through air. The Cardinals’ offense continues to disappoint in many ways.

We can probably expect some improvement.– The Cardinals are due for better batted-ball luck.

— I say that because the Cardinals actually have the highest hard-contact rate (39.9%) in the National League. That also ranks second in the majors. It’s a positive sign.

— Their injured shortstop, Paul DeJong, will be returning late this month or early July.

— I have to think Tommy Pham will swing his way out of an extensive slump.

— Marcell Ozuna is trending favorably: in 116 plate appearances since May 10,  Ozuna has gotten closer to his 2017 form by batting .300 with a .405 onbase percentage and slugging .505. He has five home runs over that time. More homers to come?

— Manager Mike Matheny is doing a good job of giving more at-bats to deserving hitters. Example: Harrison Bader, starting more regularly in the outfield, and fewer starts for Dexter Fowler.

OK, let’s dig into some of the areas of concern, and all of the statistics used here are through Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Padres at Busch Stadium:

1. Since April 27, the Cardinals are 15-16 against teams that had a losing record as of Wednesday morning. And their offense warrants much of the blame for the inability to get much done against some of the worst pitching staffs in the majors. Here’s where the losing-record opponents rank among the 30 MLB teams in ERA:

Minnesota, 18th, 4.16 ERA

San Diego, 19th,  4.20 ERA

Pittsburgh, 21st,  4.33 ERA

Chicago White Sox,  24th, 4.69 ERA

Miami,  25th, 4.83 ERA.

Cincinnati,  29th, 4.94 ERA

Kansas City,  30th, 5.28

Since April 27, those seven pitching staffs combined for a 3.89 ERA in 31 games against the Cardinals. The 32nd game, with the Padres wrapping up a three-game series at Busch Stadium, is Wednesday night.

Here’s the problem: Over the same time frame, those seven pitching staffs have a combined 5.28 ERA in games played against opponents other than the Cardinals.

There’s no excuse for the Cardinals’ lineup to be suppressed so often by pitching staffs that are routinely blasted by other MLB lineups blast.

2. Remember when the Cardinals were going to have the league’s best outfield?  Yeah, me too. And there were legitimate reasons for the optimism.

Ozuna slugged .548, smoked 37 homers and drove in 124 runs last season for Miami and finished 42 percent above league average offensively in park adjusted runs created (wRC+.)

In 2017, Pham became the only hitter in STL franchise history to bat over .300, have an OBP over .400,  slug over .500, homer 20+ times and steal 20+ bases in a season. Pham was 48 percent above league average offensively in wRC+.

And Fowler was coming off the best power-hitting season of his career, slugging .488 with 18 homers, 64 RBIs and getting on base on more than 38% of his plate appearances. Fowler was 21 percent above league average offensively in wRC+

Last season the three outfielders combined for 13.5 Wins Above Replacement: Pham with 6.1 WAR, Ozuna with 4.9, and Fowler with 2.5. So far this season, the trio has combined for only 1.6 WAR.

Stuck in the worst hitting slump of his career, Pham has dropped to 1.6 WAR.  Ozuna  is moving up some, and had 1.0 WAR. Fowler, who is a liability offensively has a minus 1.0 WAR. (He’s a win below the replacement level.)

As of now all of the Cards’ outfielders have combined for 2.8 WAR, which ranks 8th in the NL. And as a group they are two percent below league average offensively in wRC+.

3. The Cardinals are 28th in the majors, and 14th in the NL, in extra-base hits. Sure, they hit homers, ranking 11th in the majors with 80. But to update a stat we’ve cited before, the Cardinals are a pitiful 3-17 when they fail to homer in a game. They just don’t come up with other ways to score runs on a regular basis. And that’s understandable considering that they have the fewest doubles (85) and triples (3) in the majors.

If anything, the shortfall is becoming more severe; according to Inside Edge only 26% of the Cardinals hits against starting pitchers over the last 30 days have gone for extra bases. That’s the lowest percentage in the majors and 10.4% below league average. And with runners in scoring position over the past month, the Cardinals worst extra-base hit percentage (23.5%) in the majors, and that’s well under the league average of 36.2% over that time.

Going into Wednesday’s game against the Padres, the Cardinals haven’t hit anything other than a single or homer since Greg Garcia led off the 6th inning of Sunday’s game at Cincinnati with a double. That’s 79 consecutive at bats with no double or triple, and 17 straight hits that went for a single or homer.

To update my fave stat of the season for the Cardinals offense: 83.5% of their hits in 2018 have been a homer or single. It’s just bizarre.

4. Timely hitting is a big problem. And that’s another reason why the Cardinals home-run dependency is so acute. The oor performance with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals are 13th in the NL in batting average (.231) and 15th in OPS (.662) with RISP.  The Cards also have the NL’s worst OPS (.618) with runners in scoring position and two out. No Cardinals team has been this ineffective with runners in scoring position since the 1990 Cardinals and their .661 OPS with RISP.

5. The two-strike hitting is, in a word, awful. And perhaps even historically woeful. On two-strike counts this season the Cardinals rank 14th in the NL in batting average (.160) and 14th in OPS (.474.) By the way, that .474 OPS with two strikes would be the worst by a group of Cardinals hitters in a season in at least 30 years. The data I have on this stat only goes back to 1988. And the current .474 OPS with two strikes is indeed the worst from 1988-2018.

6. The Cardinals continue to struggle against relievers. To their credit, the Cards have one of the better home-run rates against opposing bullpens, but as we know it’s dicey to rely on home runs to get runs. So there’s been too many empty innings against opposing team bullpens. The Cards’ .221 batting average and .302 OBP against relief pitchers is the worst in the majors. Moreover, only two MLB teams have a higher ground ball rate against relievers than the Cards’ GB rate of 47.5%. And in high-leverage, late-innings situations against opposing-team bullpens, Cardinals hitters have a 40% strikeout rate.

7. Cardinals hitters have banged 18 homers against lefty pitchers this season, and that ranks 9th in the NL. Their home-run rate against LH pitchers is actually second best in the league. So why is this a negative? It isn’t. I’m just reinforcing the point about the inconsistency … the all-or-nothing tendencies. And, frankly, I think the home-run count against lefties is misleading. First of all, 13 of the 18 homers were launched against starting pitchers… many of them being lesser starting pitchers. For instance, 9 of the 13 homers victimized the likes of Eric Lauer (6.64 ERA this season), Brandon Finnegan (7.40 ERA), Brent Suter (4.61) and Steven Brault (4.56).

But when the Cardinals (hitters from both sides) have confronted lefty relievers in the late innings this season they’ve batted .164 with a .562 OPS. Both figures are the worst in the majors against LH relievers. Right-handed hitters from the Cardinals have hit all five late-inning homers against lefty relievers in 97 plate appearances, and that’s positive. But the RH bats have also hit only .193 with a 32% strikeout rate against LH relievers late in games. That said, the five home runs is still one of the more productive HR totals out there. But that whole splurging-or-starving thing is frustrating.

A few other nuggets from Inside Edge that shows how Cardinals hitters have been confounded by LH pitchers much of the time this season:

  • Cardinals hitters have put just 22.5% of their swings in play on breaking pitches against LHP this season — lowest in MLB; league average 34%.
  • Cardinals hitters have swung and missed on 51% of breaking pitches against LHP this season — worst in MLB; league average 33%.
  • The Cards are batting just .152 on breaking pitches against LHP this season; 3rd worst in MLB; league average .211.
  • Cards have an overall swing-miss rate of 26.6% against all LHP; 5th worst in MLB; league average 24.5%.
  • Cardinals hitters have a 34.4% swing and miss rate against LH relievers; worst in MLB; league average 26.3.
  • Cardinals hitters have a ground ball rate of 57.5% against left-handed relievers this season; highest in MLB; league average 45.3%
  • STL hitters are slugging  .296 against LH relievers; worst in MLB; league average .384.

8.  Finally, the Cardinals take too many called strikes. According to Baseball Savant the Cardinals’ called-strike rate of 18.1% this season is the 7th highest in the majors and 4th highest in the NL. Here’s the peculiar thing that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, at least on the surface: The Cardinals are watching strikes go by in hitters’ counts. And that’s the time to be aggressive.

  • The Cards have taken 559 called strikes this season when ahead in the count, tied for third-highest in the NL and sixth-highest in the majors.
  • On 2-0 counts, ideal for a hitter, the Cardinals have taken 113 called strikes, the most in the majors.
  • And on 3-1 counts, another classic opportunity for hitters, the Cardinals have taken 52 called strikes, tied for the most in MLB.

Maybe swing at some of those in-zone 2-0 pitches and shoot the gap for doubles?

Just a thought.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie

More: Matheny Has Right Message on Injury Honesty, but He’s the Wrong Messenger