Prior to last night’s non-tender deadline, the St. Louis Cardinals announced that they have reached an agreement on a 1 year, $900,000 deal with left handed pitcher Chasen Shreve to avoid arbitration, and likely a non-tender, and also tendered contracts to the remaining players on the team’s 40 man roster, including their three remaining arbitration eligible players outfielder Marcell Ozuna and right handed pitchers Michael Wacha and Dominic Leone.
Shreve, 28, was acquired from the New York Yankees last season at the trade deadline, along with right handed pitcher Giovanny Gallegos for first baseman Luke Voit. At the time there was some hope that, given Shreve’s home and road numbers (discussed here by Rusty Groppel) that he would be able to capitalize on moving away from Yankee Stadium. His 3.07 ERA over 14.2 innings with St. Louis appear solid, but combined with a 1.57 WHIP, 1.8 HR/9, and 5.5 BB/9, that ERA is looking more like luck than anything else. Lefties hit .303 off of him.
The Cardinals are pretty thin when it comes to qualify left handed pitchers in their bullpen. So thin that they were the worst team, lefty on lefty in baseball last season while all of their regular lefties, Shreve, Brett Cecil, and Tyler Lyons sported reverse splits where they were better against right handed batters than lefties.
The question is why. Cecil was a solid reliever before he arrived in St. Louis. Lyons had one impressive year. And there was really no reason for Shreve to get worse against left handed batters in St. Louis.
I have a theory.
Last season Major League teams shifted 31,836 times according to Statcast and 70% of those defensive shifts were against left handed hitters.
The Houston Astros led the league with 2,191 shifts last season, shifting nearly 60% of the time a left handed batter was at the plate. The Tampa Bay Rays were in second place, shifting nearly 400 times less, but also leading the league in shifting with a right handed hitter at the plate nearly 25% of the time. Those are two teams who have a reputation for letting analytics guide their way, potentially more than most other teams. The Cardinals used to be one of those teams.
However, the Cardinals shifted just 272 times last season, that’s good for 29th of 30 teams. Their 213 times shifted against left handed batters (note that that’s in a division that features some noted left handed hitters in Joey Votto, Anthony Rizzo, Christian Yelich and more) was more than only the Angels. And 26 teams in baseball had more than twice as many.
In 2017, the Cardinals were at the bottom of runs saved via the shift. And the concern is that it doesn’t appear to be an analytics driven decision, but an old school one. Mike Matheny didn’t like them.
Matheny had been quoted in May of last season that he’d like to see a rule against defensive shifts and, as demonstrated by the numbers, has chosen not to employ them for his team. I believe I’ve heard one of the Bills DeWitt echo similar sentiments about the defensive shift as well. And those preferences have worked their way into the way the Cardinals play and places them at a disadvantage.
One of the arguments Matheny often used against using the shift is that the pitchers didn’t like them. On one hand, I understand this because it takes some options off the table as far as what you can throw, but on the other hand, pitchers should understand why shifts are good better than anyone else on the field because their whole game plan for facing a hitter is built to exploit the batter’s tendencies.
If you’re facing a batter and you know he has a tendency to swing hard on a two strike slider down and away, you’re going to throw one. If a batter has a tendency to pull ground balls, why wouldn’t you want to position defenders behind you to maximize your opportunity to field that ball?
The club should be making a change next season according to John Mozeliak. He told Derrick Goold in November that they were likely to use the shift more often in 2019 because new manager Mike Shildt is more open to using them.
But I digress.
All that to say that I don’t see Shreve’s 2018 numbers as completely indicative of how good he could be. I still believe in the potential we saw in Rusty’s post shortly after the trade. While Shreve never did pitch in St. Louis under Mike Matheny, a philosophy like that isn’t going to change overnight in a fundamentally different direction.
With planning and a reset under Mike Shildt for 2019, I’d very much like to see what kind of Chasen Shreve we get with more shifting behind him.