Saturday, June 08, 2013

Cardinals making the most of their base runners

After watching the Yankees most of the season (nearly every game), it was eye-opening watching the St. Louis Cardinals dismantle the Reds yesterday in the Reds' backyard. And what had me drooling with envy was the approach the Cardinals had with runners on base. As I have written this week for It's About the Money, Stupid, the Yankees are so pull happy that they often fail with runners on base and in scoring position because pitchers can take advantage of that proclivity. But not the Cardinals. They are more than happy to take that outside pitch up the middle or to the opposite field, particularly their right-hand hitting bats. The numbers are pretty astounding.

Obviously, the Cardinals are really doing everything well except for their relief pitching. The starting rotation has been fabulous with a bunch of home grown talent supporting Adam Wainwright. As a team, the Cardinals have the best ERA in the National League, give up the fewest homers and give up the second fewest amount of walks. As scary for the rest of the league as that is, the Cardinals also have the best batting average and on-base percentage in the National League. If you are the best pitching staff and the best offense, you are going to win some games. It is no secret why they are the first Major League team to forty victories.

But their offense has some secrets that are pretty amazing to discover. For example: As a team, the Cardinals have a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .381 with runners on base. The league average is .303. With runners in scoring position, the Cardinals have a BABIP of .401 compared to the league average of .300. That is pretty astounding. While that kind of pace would seem to be impossible to maintain, there is a reason the Cardinals are so successful--they hit the ball up the middle and the other way.

While the Cardinals do lead the NL in batting average and on-base percentage, the numbers are not that staggering. Other teams in history have hit much higher. And their slugging percentage is only five points higher than the league average. What makes them special right now is that when runners are on base, they make the most of those opportunities.

Here are some numbers to back up what I am talking about. In all of baseball, when batters hit line drives good things happen. In the majors as a whole, when the batter hits a line drive, a run will score at least 23.9 percent of the time as a result of that batted ball. With the Cardinals, that number jumps to 25.6 percent of the time. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

When all batters in baseball hit the ball to the opposite field, the percentage of runs batted in per batted ball is 13.4 percent. With the Cardinals, opposite field batted balls result in runs batted in 16.6 percent of the time.  That is impressive.

Some of this shows up in their ground ball stats. While the Cardinals OPS on ground balls is 26 points higher than the entire Major League average (.520 versus .494), the ground balls score more runs for the Cardinals than the rest of the league. When the league hits a ground ball, those lead to runs batted in only 6.7 percent of the time. When the Cardinals hit ground balls, those lead to runs batted in 9.8 percent of the time.

While some of this is accounted for by having more runners on base than anyone else (highest OBP, right?), a good part of it is the willingness and ability to hit the ball where it is pitched. And this is almost strictly a right-handed batting phenomenon for the Cardinals.

Cardinals' left-handed batters actually pull the ball more than league average and have a lower percentage of batted balls up the middle and opposite field than the rest of baseball. But the right-handed bats more than make up for it.

The league average (and when I say, "League" here, I mean all of baseball) for the percentage of pulled batted balls by right-handed batters is 26.7 percent. The Cardinals' right-handed batters pull the ball only 23.8 percent of the time. The MLB average for right-handed bats going up the middle is 55.8 percent. The Cardinals' right-handed bats go up the middle 57.3 percent of the time leaving their percentage of pulling the ball 1.6 percentage points lower than the league average.

It is this ability to be dynamic and use all fields that allows the Cardinals to develop rallies and keep them going.

Allen Craig, the Cardinals' most prolific RBI guy leads the way. He hits the ball to the opposite field 24.8 percent of the time. That beats the league average by 7.5 percentage points. He is batting .381 with men on base and a .412 batting average with men in scoring position. And 29 of his 43 runs batted in have been either up the middle or to the opposite field.

Matt Holliday has hit 32.4 percent of his batted balls to the opposite field! That almost doubles the league average. As a result, 24 of his 33 runs batted in have been up the middle or to the opposite field. He is batting .354 with men on base and .346 with runners in scoring position.

Yadier Molina came up as a great fielding and throwing catcher. He has become a great hitter by going the other way. Of his batted balls, 30.7 percent of them go to the opposite field and 22 of his 30 runs batted in have gone up the middle or to the opposite field. He is hitting .410 with runners on base and .377 with men in scoring position.

Among their star hitters, only Carlos Beltran is a pull hitter, especially from the right side of the plate. But he is their legitimate home run threat and is batting an incredible .478 with runners in scoring position.

The thing about this approach at the plate is that it is more slump proof than a pull-happy approach. Pitchers have to be honest and cannot simply live on the outside part of the plate with the Cardinals. I do not know how the Cardinals will hold up as the season progresses. But as of right now, they have the most versatile and resilient offense in baseball.

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