President Barack Obama warms up with St. Louis...

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Maybe during the government’s shutdown, President Obama can start pitching for opposing teams. The Cardinals may require this type of handicap if they’re going to put any runs on the board this season. What’s that you say? Oh yeah… he’s a southpaw. Nevermind.

All kidding aside, this team seems even less capable of scoring runs than last year. That observation is probably due to the short-term memory nature of sports, but this team was supposed to feature a roster infused with higher offensive potential and better quality of character. Maybe they’re having a blast in the clubhouse, and perhaps they respect the hell out of each other, but fans are unamused.

And you know what? It’s understandable that the fan base is growing restless. After the 2010 club was characterized as underachieving by its own GM, the 2011 version has limped out of the gate with a 2-5 record that already leaves them sitting three games back of the Reds. Yes, it’s too early to panic, but what is going on? The only redeeming factor of this team is that it has been playing real life games in front of a baseball-starved fan base, even if its offense has been of the station-to-station variety. Well, that and they’ve been pitching fairly well.

However, if baseball watching has been more boring than you remembered, it’s probably because the Cardinals have only had 9 extra base hits (2 HR, 1 3B, and 6 2B) in 268 plate appearances. Forget the NL Central, that’s the worst total in all of MLB. To make things worse, they’ve hit into 11 double plays, 5 of which were the fault of Albert Pujols. Again – worst in the league. Even when things have looked promising, runners have abruptly been plucked from the base paths leaving opportunities wasted and rallies killed. We all know how Tony LaRussa loves his crooked numbers, but he’s only enjoyed three frames in which the Cardinals have scored more than one run, and in each of those innings, it was the lowest possible crooked number – two.

Yes, this has been a remarkably terrible opening week for the Cardinals… and history isn’t on their side (as outlined by Pip at Fungoes) when it comes to other teams turning it around after similarly disappointing starts.

But are there any reasons for optimism?

Team Wins Losses Pyth O/U* BB% K% BB/K
Reds 5 2 2.0 9.6% 19.3% 0.57
Pirates 5 3 0.5 8.9 26.2 0.38
Cubs 4 3 0.0 8.6 17.2 0.56
Brewers 3 5 -0.5 8.0 23.2 0.38
Cardinals 2 5 -1.0 9.7 18.1 0.60
Astros 1 5 -2.0 5.4 25.1 0.24

*Does not include games from 4/8/11.

In case you’re wondering, Pyth O/U stands for Pythagorean Over/Under, available at Baseball Prospectus. In short, this stat tells us whether a team is over performing or under performing based on a team’s run differential. The division leading Reds benefit from a record two games better than it “should” be, while the Cardinals “should” have one more tally in their win column.

Things aren’t all bad. The Cardinals boast the highest divisional base-on-ball rate, and compared to other MLB teams, only three have been better at drawing walks. They’ve also limited their strikeouts (2nd best in NLC; 8th best in MLB). So not only have they been one of the best teams at taking free passes, they’ve also consistently put the ball in play.

Other than adding one percent to their walk rate (obviously, a welcome change – we’ll see if it lasts), these numbers aren’t much different than 2010. So what’s happening on these balls in play?

Team GB% LD% FB% HR/FB% BABIP
Reds 39 19.5 41.5 12.0 .354
Pirates 49.8 16.6 33.7 10.1 .302
Cubs 39.7 15.6 44.7 7.9 .302
Brewers 47.7 20.3 32.0 14.3 .286
Cardinals 53.1 16.0 30.9 3.3 .263
Astros 47.2 20.5 32.4 7.0 .289

The Cardinals just won’t keep hitting so many ground balls. It’s been six years since a team has hit 50% grounders (Twins in 2005; also had 49.9% in 2007). I guess the others (line drives and fly balls) are sustainable, but both would be unexpectedly low. We can be sure, however, that more of the Cardinals fly balls will leave the yard (league average is usually 10.6% HR/FB), and more of their balls in play will fall for hits (league average is usually ~.300 BABIP) . Assuming that the type of balls in play remains constant for the rest of the year (which they won’t), the Cardinals offense should improve thanks to the principle of regression alone. And if they loft  some more balls into the air (especially Pujols: 37.0% FB & 11.1% LD), there’s the potential for even more gains.

The bonus silver lining in all of this is that the Reds appear to be just as lucky as the Cardinals have been unfortunate. While their second highest BABIP in MLB momentarily plots them on the opposite end of the luck continuum, they’ll drift back towards the median at some point… and that’ll be a welcome change of narrative for St. Louis fans.

Sticking with the theme of offense, other positive developments:

  • Albert Pujols has never before given us a reason to believe he will produce like anyone other than Albert Pujols.
  • Supposedly, Matt Holliday’s appendectomy will not necessitate a trip to the DL.
  • Colby Rasmus has more walks (7) than strikeouts (4); he’s been playing against lefties.
  • Allen Craig has been given playing time.
  • Lance Berkman still has knees; David Freese still has ankles.
  • Theriot has walked 15.6% of the time. While his .240 BABIP is low, I’m assuming that’s partially due to a higher percentage of fly balls (40%) being generated by a guy with very little pop, no matter what April/May of 2009 tell you.

I’m reasonably comfortable asserting that things will improve for the Cardinals offensively. I’m less comfortable suggesting that said improvements will be drastic enough to offset the team’s sluggish beginning and overcome NL Central foes. But, hey, string a few wins together, and the landscape becomes much less ominous. Such is the beauty of early April amid a season that offers 155 more games.

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First of all, go read Fungoes’ excellent take on the Cardinals’ decision to replace Brendan Ryan with Ryan Theriot in 2011.

Having realized that each player had terrible offensive seasons in 2010, I wanted to take a look at which player was more likely to rebound in 2011 given batted ball data from FanGraphs.  As Joe Strauss pointed out in his most recent chat, exercises like this may prove futile in that the Cardinals’ decision to trade Brendan Ryan is rooted in far more than statistics.  About the Theriot acquisition and its implications for Ryan, Strauss wrote:

He IS an offensive upgrade over a guy who hit .223 last season and was twice benched by his manager for pouting. I’m a Ryan honk due to his spellbinding defense. But those who base their opinion on Ryan’s .292 average in 2009 are missing it. This isn’t solely a statistical issue. It’s also a clubhouse matter.

I’m averse to making personnel decisions based on team chemistry as I’m among those that believe team wins breed chemistry rather than vice versa.  Strauss is probably right in reporting that the decision was more of a, “clubhouse matter,” but that doesn’t mean Mozeliak is justified in his decision to replace Ryan with Theriot at shortstop.  He must believe that Ryan/Theriot would approximate equal value in order to consider Theriot’s character as the tipping point.  Theriot clearly isn’t going to eclipse Ryan’s value defensively, so Mozeliak must believe that Theriot’s offensive contributions will be significant enough to disregard Ryan’s defensive prowess.

Could the Cardinals be expecting too much out of Theriot?  After all, he generated a career-worst .286 wOBA in 2010 and has only posted above average offensive numbers once (2008) when given more than 500 AB’s; even in that season, he was only one percent greater than league average (101 wRC+).  Of course, Ryan’s .256 wOBA indicated even more pathetic offense.  The below table displays each player’s 2010 batted ball data with the numbers in parentheses representing career norms minus 2010 rates.  Let’s see if either player is due for upward regression given unlucky results.

2010 Batted Ball Data (Career – 2010)
Player BABIP BB K LD GB FB IFFB
Ryan .253 (.039) 6.8% (-0.2) 13.7% (0.1) 17.9% (0.7) 47.2% (2.2) 34.9% (-2.8) 12.2% (-0.1)
Theriot .305 (.011) 6.4% (1.9) 12.6% (0.04) 19.6% (1.5) 54.1% (-1.7) 26.3% (0.02) 4.6% (0.9)

Theriot’s career offensive season was largely predicated on a solid 11% walk rate and impressive 23.2 LD%.  The Cardinals can’t bank on Theriot being a very disciplined hitter since his walk rate was 2.6% above career norms in 2008.  Although his annually high LD% is encouraging, his BABIP didn’t really suffer in 2010 despite hitting 1.5% fewer line-drives.  Whereas hitting more ground balls isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a player with decent speed, grounders don’t result in hits as frequently as liners.  Theriot’s 2010 batted ball data doesn’t suggest unluckiness; rather, his numbers were more or less representative of his overall skill set.  For what it’s worth, Bill James does project Theriot to regain some patience at the plate in 2011 (8.3% BB), but I’m not so optimistic as Theriot has seen fewer pitches within the strike zone while walking less often every year since 2008.

Brendan Ryan, however, had a huge disparity in 2010′s BABIP, losing thirty-nine points from his career norm.  Some of this was undoubtedly due to hitting more balls in the air, not a positive development given Ryan’s lack of power.  But even after replacing more than two percent of ground-balls with fly-balls, 39 points is too big of a discrepancy to explain away his decrease in BABIP altogether.  I also wonder how much of Ryan’s struggles can be attributed to experimenting with various batting stances throughout the 2010 season.  Instead of vowing to return to his 2009 batting stance, Ryan continues to tinker with new ideas such as choking up on the handle, using a bigger bat, and following through with two hands for at least 1,000 swings.  Therefore, any team relying on him will have to accept his inconsistent approach at the plate or convince him otherwise.  Regardless, he’s due for some positive regression.

Offense be damned, Ryan was still worth 1.0 WAR in 2010 (according to FanGraphs) thanks to 11.5 fielding RAR while Theriot accumulated 0.0 WAR in time split between the Cubs and Dodgers.  Had Theriot spent more time at SS, he would have gained a couple of runs in the positions adjustment, but his overall value still would have fallen short of Ryan.  This gap would have been even larger had Ryan not hit into such poor luck in 2010.

Combine all of this with the reality that Ryan is three years younger and roughly $2 million cheaper, and I don’t see how replacing him with Theriot makes sense financially or competitively.  I’m trying to withhold judgment since other moves could still be made… but I’m haunted by a similar anticipation that was met by the acquisition of Pedro Feliz following the departure of Ryan Ludwick last July.

4 posts in 2 days. Look at PAH9 go. The following post is indirectly related to my Brendan Ryan post. You also should check out Andy’s pet peeve and my top 7 Cardinal prospects.

One of the common criticisms (especially among Cardinal fans) of DIPS pitching stats is that all batted balls are not created equal. Specifically, all GBs are not equal, all FBs are not equal etc. With that thought in mind I wanted to compare a couple of Cardinal pitchers to see if there was a discernable difference in their GBs. To level the playing field I only looked at RHB when Brendan Ryan was playing. I looked at Out+Error rate, making the assumption that the pitcher had no control over the error part. The following table summarizes the results across all hit angles (GBs only)

Out+Error Rate BIP
Carpenter 0.820 311
Wainwright 0.799 328
Lohse 0.731 186

And then across the SS area of responsibility (since that was who we held constant)

Out+Error Rate BIP
Carpenter 0.870 154
Wainwright 0.887 151
Lohse 0.818 88

And in chart form

So what can we attribute the differences to?

Ground ball quality – I would guess that harder hit ground balls would be more likely to make it up the middle (-7.5 in the chart) and through the hole (-27.5). The anecdotal evidence in the data above seems to agree. I’d guess that Lohse gives up the hardest hit balls of the 3.

Defense – Yes Brendan Ryan was in the field, but that isn’t to say that he played identically (both in reaction time and positioning) behind all 3 of these guys. As samples increase this effect would likely decrease.

Park effects – Infield speed isn’t constant across all parks (can adjust for these, but haven’t)

Stringer/Scorer Bias – Are these all groundballs? What is the difference between GBs and LDs? Is the hit location recorded accurately? Is there Hit/Error bias?

Luck – Bad hops, deflections etc.

The real question is what weight you put on each of those factors. I’m not sure we’ll get at the answer to that until we get Field F/X data (if we get field f/x data). For now I’d hesitate to weight the first one (which is what would be ideal to measure) as any more than 50% of the difference. There’s just too much other stuff that could be at play.

Research for this post began with full intentions to point out how ridiculous the Cardinals’ production from RF has been since Ryan Ludwick hit the DL.  My main objective was to dissuade fans from believing Al/Dan when they inevitably claim that the lineup should see a boost in production from his return to the lineup.  Then I looked at the numbers.  Clearly, I had forgotten how much of a stud Ludwick was in 2008.  First, let’s take a look at production from RF using Fangraphs’ sortable statistics and  last 30 days’ feature. Note that these numbers only reflect plate appearances that these players made while playing RF; the parenthesis following each players’ name reflects plate appearances made during sample size.  Ludwick’s line, however, is for the entire 2010 season.

You probably didn’t need this graph to realize that Jon Jay has been performing at an otherworldly level.  The rest of the players represented are clustered right around the same area in wOBA (with the exception of Nick Stavinoha).  The blue line entitled, “Cardinals,” represents a combination of all of the guys in the chart not named Ludwick.  Overall, this group of players (.387 wOBA) has outperformed  Ludwick in 2010 (.351 wOBA).

If Jay were to continue playing everyday, however, his performance would surely decline.  His only full season in AAA resulted in a roughly average wOBA (.328).  Furthermore, his BABIP over the past thirty days is a ridiculous .500, a number that doesn’t match up with a batted ball profile of 10% LDs, 50% GBs, 40% FBs, and 8.3% IFFBs.  Everyone else in MLB who puts the ball on the ground 50% of the time and have a BABIP of at least .330 generate at least 17% line drives with no more than 31.7% fly balls. And most of those guys (if not all) have a speed score of at least 5.0 while Jon Jay’s is 3.0 for the season.  I like Jay as a platoon with Craig once/if Cardinals decide they can’t pay Ludwick beyond 2011.  But would you blame them if they decided to sell high on the guy?  Seems doubtful that his trade value will ever be higher than now.

Can Ludwick be expected to step in and improve an offense from a position whose July numbers actually outperformed his season to date? Since the beginning of the 2009 season, Ludwick has had only one month that was better; he posted a .411 wOBA in July 2009. But go back a little further to his career year in 2008 and he had wOBA’s of .392 or higher every month besides June. Take a look at his 2008, 2009, and 2010 seasons by RAR.

If common belief that Ludwick’s true talent level is somewhere between 2008 and 2009, then he’s certainly providing affirmation in 2010.  With his improved defense, he’s actually generated more RAR halfway through 2010 (23.7) than he did in all of 2009 (19.7).  Though it’s doubtful that Ludwick matches 2008′s 5.4 Wins Above Replacement (roughly speaking, 10 RAR equals 1 WAR) even with improved defense, it actually does seem reasonable to expect him to be an upgrade over the motley crew that filled in during his absence.  Furthermore, he appears physically sound in that he stepped up to the plate nine times in his brief AAA rehab assignment and smacked 2 HRs.  He’ll be a welcome addition to a lineup that’s been blanked over its past twenty innings.

I wish I had a positive post this morning after last night’s debacle, but instead you’ll have to settle for one that’s mainly negative with a hint of optimism. I’ve done some pitch f/x analysis on 3 of the top hitters for the Cards (Holliday, Pujols, Rasmus), but have yet to really dive in on any of the “lesser” hitters. I’ll start today with Yadier Molina, who despite his All-Star status is sporting a meager 0.279 wOBA.

First, looking at horizontal pitch location slices

The glaring difference is on pitches middle away where he was successful last season and has been abysmal this year. The hidden positive to that is at first glance it appears he has been unlucky on this set of pitches. (As a good companion point here read Erik’s xBABIP post). If I compare batted ball types across the two seasons he has actually hit more LDs and FBs and less GBs on the pitches middle away this year. They just haven’t found holes. Just looking at LDs on these pitches: in 2009 he lined out on 6 of 26 (23%) and in 2010 he has lined out on 8 of 15 (53%). These numbers don’t reflect whether or not the ball was smoked or is a flare, but I do find 2010 to be a little fluky either way. Hopefully Yadi will have a little better luck in the 2nd half.

Something a little more disturbing, although likely fixable, comes to light when looking at his performance in vertical pitch location sliced. The 2009 to 2010 difference is minimal, so I aggregated into the following chart to get a larger overall sample size

The chart pretty clearly shows that Yadi is much better when he stays in the zone (as are most hitters) and he falls off of a cliff when he goes below the zone. So far that’s nothing out of the ordinary; however when we look at swing rate from this year to last year we see a potential problem.

Yadi has been swinging at many more pitches below the strike zone this year; pitches that he has proven unable to handle over the past two years. Eliminating those additional swings could go a long way towards improving his production in the second half.

Few players are having a tougher season at the plate than Brendan Ryan. The lovable and sometimes mustachioed shortstop is still making Wizard-like plays in the field, but he also is now the shameful owner of a .257 wOBA. That’s 12 runs below the average hitter and we’re only at the midpoint of the season. Ryan isn’t the only Cardinal hitting that’s experiencing a slump. Yadier Molina and Skip Schumaker both are hitting for a wOBA under .300. Just when we thought Yadi was over his all-glove, no-hit ways, we see him struggling this season, although that didn’t hinder him from being named to the All-Star team.

These hitters have enjoyed better days, to be sure. Is some sort of regression due? Can bad luck be blamed for their slumps, or are these struggles a genuine backsliding?

To find out, I tinkered around with The Hardball Times’ xBABIP calculator. Often times in sabermetric analysis we see writers cite a low or high batting average of balls in play as a reason player A will regress to the mean. If a player has a high BABIP (.330 or higher) then they’re expected to come back to earth. If a player has a low BABIP (.280 or below, usually, we’d call them unlucky. (See here for further explanation)

xBABIP takes it a step further by looking at batted ball times and other components in a regression model to give us a luck-neutral BABIP. In other words, this is what a player’s hit rate would be sans the flukiness. Sure enough, Ryan, Skip and Yadi have been the victims of some tough luck. Freese and Rasmus have particularly benefited from some good luck.

Player BABIP xBABIP xBABIP-BABIP
Brendan Ryan .230 .316 .086
Yadier Molina .249 .330 .081
Skip Schumaker .286 .340 .054
Felipe Lopez .322 .326 .004
Albert Pujols .296 .299 .003
Matt Holliday .326 .314 -.012
Ryan Ludwick .313 .296 -.017
David Freese .376 .341 -.035
Colby Rasmus .351 .310 -.041

As much as I think Tyler Greene could surprise some people, I wouldn’t write Boog off just yet. Teasing out the luck, and he should be hitting around .270,  not below the Mendoza line.

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