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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Is McGwire to Blame for Cardinals' Lack of Offensive? The Numbers Don't Suggest It

Posted By on Thu, May 13, 2010 at 8:26 AM

So a little over a month into the season, the Cardinals' pitching, particularly the starting pitching, has been absolutely exquisite, while the offense has been, um, let's see...what's the opposite of exquisite? Maybe not the opposite, actually; how about something that's well short of exquisite but not the polar opposite. Mildly craptastic, perhaps. Yeah, I like that. Mildly craptastic. 

click to enlarge mcgwire_mild.gif
​The thing is, this isn't at all what I think most of us expected this team to look like coming into the season. I thought this year's club would resemble, if anything, the 2003 edition, which scored runs in bunches but struggled to find enough pitching (especially of the bullpen variety), to actually win many games. So far, though, this team has been almost the exact opposite. 

One of the most intriguing storylines heading into this season was the presence of the Cardinals' new hitting coach, Mark McGwire. I personally was very excited to see Big Mac brought in as a coach, and I thought his approach would translate well into success for our boys in red. 

Well, we have a mildly craptastic offense to show for our new coach, so I'm curious to see what, if any, effect McGwire has actually had on the Cards' hitters. 

Everything McGwire said about his approach after he accepted the job was what those of us who love the newfangled baseball math wanted to hear. He preached patience. He preached on-base percentage. He preached, in short, the sort of healing salve one would need to ease the sting of Hal McRae's mantra of all aggressive, all the time. 

But what I want to know is whether Mac's rhetoric has produced any actual results or not. Certainly his two main pupils on this team, Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan, have both been just awful, but I don't think we can judge him on those two alone. Schumaker's numbers are bizarre, considering the components that go into his overall line, and I'm not sure I would want to judge anyone based on what they could do with Brendan Ryan's swing. (And I'm not trying to knock Brendan; he's great at what he does. But I've literally never seen anyone move their head and feet around as much as he does and be any kind of successful hitter.) 

So what do the numbers say? Has McGwire's talk of selective plate appearances and patience made any difference in the Cardinals' approach? 

First off, let's look at the number of pitches Cardinal hitters are seeing per plate appearance (P/PA). After all, it only makes sense that hitters taking more patient at-bats should see more pitches, right? 

In 2009, the Cardinals as a whole saw 3.66 P/PA, which was second-worst in the National League. Only the Giants saw fewer pitches than the Cardinals. Unsurprisingly, some of the best offensive teams in the NL top the list, with Colorado, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee all ranking well above the league-average mark. Oddly enough, Washington ranked very high in P/PA despite having a fairly weak offense overall, possibly single-handedly caused by Adam Dunn

So far in 2010, the Cards as a team are seeing 3.85 P/PA, which is a pretty remarkable difference. The standard small sample size caveats apply, of course; it's entirely possible that's just a blip on the radar. (Or the result of a different group of players; Joe Thurston and Rick Ankiel weren't exactly Kevin Youkilis in the taking pitches department, after all.) Still, that's a significant difference. More informative, though, might be to look at the players themselves. 


P/PA 2009

P/PA 2010

Skip Schumaker



Ryan Ludwick



Albert Pujols



Matt Holliday



Colby Rasmus



Yadier Molina



Brendan Ryan



*Note: I've left David Freese out of this, because the couple weeks worth of plate appearances he had in the majors last year just isn't really enough to draw any conclusions from, I don't believe. For the record, he's seeing 3.90 P/PA this season, up from 3.65 last year, but as I said, it's not enough PAs to be useful.

click to enlarge Sure, they look like douchebags. But they're PATIENT douchebags. - THEDIRTY.COM
  • Sure, they look like douchebags. But they're PATIENT douchebags.
​So what we can conclude from looking at this chart is that every single Cardinal player is seeing more pitches per plate appearance this season. The big gainer, of course, is Colby Rasmus, who went from being one of the least patient hitters on the team last year to the most patient on this year's squad, by far. (Also, is anyone else surprised Matt Holliday is that low? I had always thought of him as a very patient hitter, but he clearly isn't.) 

I have to say, I'm absolutely floored by how dramatic this difference is. I had expected to find a couple guys up, maybe one or two guys down, but most right in the same neighbourhood. Every single player being more patient, though? That I most definitely did not expect. 

So clearly this Cardinal team is at least attempting to be more selective at the plate. Of course, attempting to be selective isn't a guarantee of better results; how are the Cardinals faring in terms of base on balls?


BB% 2009

BB% 2010

Skip Schumaker



Ryan Ludwick



Albert Pujols



Matt Holliday



Colby Rasmus



Yadier Molina



Brendan Ryan



*Note: Again, I've left Freese out. His BB% right now is 10.5%, which is right in line or maybe even a little on the high side compared to his minor league numbers.

We have some really, really interesting numbers here. Colby is again the clear breakout gainer, increasing his walk rate by almost a full ten percent. Watching him, that's not at all surprising. What is surprising is to see Brendan Ryan nearly doubling his walk rate; his brutal batting average has completely obscured the fact he is doing a much, much better job on the whole of trying to work his way on base via the base on balls route. I did not see that one coming. Good to see Ludwick being a bit more patient, and that jibes pretty well with what I feel like I've seen out of him. 

The real anomaly here, of course, is Matt Holliday, who isn't getting on base like his normal self at all. We saw above he's seeing more pitches this year; unfortunately those extra pitches are largely translating into more swinging strikeouts, at least to my eye. Still, I'm not all that concerned with Holliday just yet. A dropoff that remarkable almost has to be a fluke. 

Something else interesting on the negative side is Albert's lower walk rate. That, too, correlates well with how he looks on the field; we're seeing Albert swing at pitches he never, ever swings at. What's worse, that 14.4% walk rate is being propped up significantly by intentional walks. Of his 21 walks this season, 11 have been of the intentional variety. (He always has lots of them, to be fair, but the point still stands.) Take those 11 away, and his BB% drops down to just 7.5%. Teams clearly still fear him (especially teams with Bobby Cox managing them), but when they're pitching to him, he isn't letting them put him on. 

Finally, I was curious what kind of contact the Cardinals are making. After all, if they're doing a better job of working counts and only swinging at pitches they should be swinging at, then they should be making better, harder contact as well. So let's look at their line drive percentage, shall we? 


LD% 2009

LD% 2010

Skip Schumaker



Ryan Ludwick



Albert Pujols



Matt Holliday



Colby Rasmus



Yadier Molina



Brendan Ryan



*Note: David Freese is at 23% this season. That's up from16% at both Memphis and St. Louis last season. 

Here again we have indications the Cardinals are, on the whole, actually hitting better this year than they did in 2009. Rasmus and Ryan are the only two Cardinal hitters who are hitting less line drives this year than last, and in Colby's case at least the difference is more than made up for by his better power and plate discipline numbers. 

So what we have is a team that, despite the frustrating lack of runs at times, actually appears to be hitting much better than their results show. The culprit has been a lack of situational hitting; the Cards rank very low in RISP numbers almost across the board. Still, I believe it's more likely those numbers normalize in a positive direction than the rest of the component numbers are simply wrong somehow. The only other real blemish here is a high number of strikeouts. The Cardinals as a team are striking out in bunches this season, to the tune of a 19.2% K rate. Rasmus is worst among the regulars, with a 27.7% strikeout rate. The strikeouts are a big part of the team's struggles in situational hitting, of course; plenty of times with men on base just simply making contact is the most important thing, and that has been one of the weaker facets of the Cards' offensive attack this season. 

I think we might just have a pretty good view now of what a Mark McGwire-coached team should look like on offense. He spoke of better patience and being more selective at the plate, and that seems to be the way the Cards are going. Every hitter on the team is seeing more pitches this season than they did last year. He spoke of working counts and taking walks, and for the most part that's been true of this offense as well. Four of the Cards' seven regulars with numbers from last season to compare have improved their walk rates. Molina's walk rate is right in line; only the Cards' two superstars are noticeably down in the walk department. And I hesitate to accuse McGwire of doing anything to Albert's approach at the plate; I can't imagine anyone is going to either help or harm Albert too much at this point in his career. 

I could post half a dozen more tables, but they all point in the same direction: the Cardinals are seeing lots of pitches, getting on base, and hitting the ball hard. Slugging is mostly up, extra base hit percentage is up, well, you get the idea. With the twin issues of poor situational hitting and an overall lack of contact at times, I think we can still say this offense is much, much better than they've looked for much of the season. 

Now, how much of these improvements is due to McGwire? I have no idea. Coaches always get too much credit and too much blame both, when it's the players who have to actually play the game. But considering the major change from 2009 to 2010 has been going from McRae to McGwire and we can see an across-the-board improvement in the way the Cardinals are approaching their plate appearances, I feel fairly justified in saying so far, it appears Big Mac is probably doing something right. Now perhaps all we need is just a little...

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