Side notes to the dismissal of manager Mike Matheny were the subtractions of hitting coaches John Mabry and Bill Mueller. While the change in leadership — and in-game strategy — was of the most importance, a different message for an inconsistent lineup ranked right behind it. The immediate returns in the first few weeks with Mark Budaska and George Greer have been good. While the offense is not suddenly lighting the world on fire, there have been tangible, and drastic, differences. I can’t say exactly what message the coaches are giving or what adjustments have been made, but I can present the results that provide evidence of improvement.
Because the change took place with only one game remaining in the 1st half — and I highly doubt we can credit any changes after just a few hours on the job — we can make a convenient split at the All-Star break. So, 1st Half = Mabry/Mueller, 2nd Half = Budaska/Greer.
First the chart and then explanation.
For all charts in this article, I will show the value of the statistic followed by the MLB rank in parenthesis.)
|Stat||1st Half||2nd Half|
|AVG||.244 (17)||.271 (7)|
|OBP||.315 (21)||.350 (6)|
|SLG||.399 (19)||.418 (17)|
|wOBA||.310 (20)||.332 (11)|
|wRC+||94 (17)||110 (10)|
|K%||22.7% (17)||17.6% (4)|
|BB%||8.4% (17)||10.0% (5)|
|BABIP||.290 (22)||.310 (6)|
Across the board, the Cardinals offense has gone from ranking in the bottom half of the league to being a Top 10 (or close) offense in most major categories. They have improved their walk rate and dramatically decreased the strikeout rate.
Also worth mentioning, the Cardinals have managed to improve their GB/FB ratio in the 2nd half. Thus far, they have decreased it from 1.32 to 1.18, meaning they are hitting less ground balls and more fly balls (about +/- 2% on each). They have maintained a 22% line drive percentage. All that to say, their batted ball profile has been more conducive to success. Hitting less ground balls improves your odds of getting a hit (see: luck), and would be a contributing factor in the 20-point jump in BABIP.
The Cardinals are also putting themselves in more run scoring opportunities. Under Mabry/Mueller, their 844 PA’s with RISP ranked 25th in MLB, averageing 9.08 PA per game. Since the change, their 227 PA w/ RISP ranks 1st in MLB, averaging 11.35 PA per game. That’s at least 2 more scoring chances every game.
This was an area of concern throughout the first half, so here is a look at how some aspects have changed.
(Quick explanation for those new to the stats, O-Swing is how often you swing at pitches Outside the strike zone, O-Contact is how often you make contact on those swings. Z-Swing and Z-Contact is the same concept, but for pitches within the strike zone, and swinging strikes are self-explanatory.)
|Cards Plate Discipline|
|Category||1st Half||2nd Half|
|O-Swing%||29.3 (8)||28.9 (3)|
|O-Contact%||60.1 (27)||65.7 (8)|
|Z-Swing%||64.4 (28)||67.2 (18)|
|Z-Contact%||85.9 (12)||88.8 (4)|
|Swing-Strk%||10.6 (14)||8.9 (6)|
As you can see, relative to the league, there has been improvement across the board. They were always pretty good at not chasing — which I know, it didn’t seem that way — but have improved slightly on that. A really big jump is that when they do go outside of the zone, they are making significantly more contact, which tells me that their pitch recognition may have improved and they know what pitches to expand the zone on, more so than in the 1st half. Additionally, they have been more aggressive on attacking pitches in the zone, shown by the near 3% increase. Correlating to that is a near 3% jump in zone contact — something that they were already okay at — which again tells me that they are doing a better job of knowing what pitches they can handle and attacking when they get it. They have also done a nice job cutting down on swings and misses, which just ties into the improvements in other areas.
This is the area where the most dramatic differences can be found, and more than likely, is the driver behind much of the overall improvement in the 2nd half. Here’s what that looks like. (Keep in mind, all numbers with 2-strikes look bad, but its relative, which is why league rank is important here.)
|Cardinals w/ 2-Strikes|
|Stat||1st Half||2nd Half|
|AVG||.175 (20)||.237 (1)|
|OPS||.505 (24)||.666 (3)|
|wOBA||.228 (24)||.293 (3)|
|wRC+||40 (23)||83 (3)|
|K%||42.2 (18)||33.8 (2)|
Do you see what I see? The Cardinals were among the worst teams in the league across the board in hitting with 2-strikes in the 1st half. So far in the 2nd half, they are a Top 3 team in 2-strike situations. I mentioned the 5% drop in K% as a part of the overall numbers, but it goes even further than that. They aren’t just cutting down on strikeouts, they are now also having relative success when they put a 2-strike pitch in play. This is Game 6 style Cardinals baseball where you don’t feel like the at-bat is over as soon it reaches 2 strikes.
Like I said earlier, I don’t know the specific details of how they have improved the 2-Strike approach, but the results say that they most certainly have. I will note that in the 1st half, with 2 strikes, Cardinals batters pulled the ball 40% of the time, and that has increased to 47% in the 2nd half. Perhaps a deeper dive would reveal something more in the numbers in regards to this. Most players are just more successful when pulling the ball, so perhaps they are simplifying and just hitting to their strengths.
All-in-all, the early indications are that the change in message has made a difference for the offense. The improvements haven’t always led to gaudy run totals, but the process is significantly better than it was before, and there have been greater run scoring opportunities.
Now that the offensive approach and bullpen have been addressed, the Cardinals are in a good position to play their best baseball of the season.
Thanks for reading!
Follow me on Twitter for more Cards talk: Follow @hes_verygood
Or Follow the Bird Law Podcast / Blog: Follow @birdlawpod
Thanks to Fangraphs for the numbers!