Being that we aren’t quite out of April, it’s a little early to read into most statistics but certain numbers become meaningful before others. Under the definition of ‘sample size’ in FanGraphs’ glossary, you’ll find a list of stats and the corresponding sample sizes needed before they achieve reliability. For offensive players, the first of those numbers is swing percentage, or how often a given hitter decides to swing the bat.

Theoretically, swinging less often is viewed positively since it suggests that the hitter could be cultivating a more disciplined approach. Selectivity is important for two reasons: (1) Hitters have a better chance to reach base via the walk if they resist swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, and (2) abstaining from pitches that would likely induce weak contact allows them to avoid making easy outs.

According to FanGraphs, swing percentage stabilizes after 50 plate appearances. Most of the Cardinals’ regulars have accumulated enough plate appearances for us to visit this stat and observe whether any obvious trends have emerged. It’s important to note that even though a trend is established after the stabilizing threshold (in this case, 50 PA) occurs, it does not mean that said player will continue to perform at the new rate, just that we can expect his performance to trend in that direction in the future.

The chart below portrays those Cardinals who have stepped to the plate at least 50 times this season and it pits their 2012 swing percentages (blue line) against their career swing percentages (red line). For the record, I’m using the PITCHf/x plate discipline numbers available at FanGraphs (as opposed to BIS data) for the reasons outlined by Colin Wyers in this Baseball Prospectus article. WARNING: I augment each individual player description with other statistics (strike out rate, line drive rate, walk rate, etc.) that have not yet stabilized, so while they are adequate descriptions of what has transpired thus far, they do not imply trends… yet.

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For the sake of efficiency, I’m abandoning the usual format of discussing each game’s “good, bad, and/or ugly/impressive” moment. Instead, I’ll just make some brief comments before the NLCS kicks off today.
Game Four

True to form, the Cardinals continue to trick me into writing them off. Before Edwin Jackson had even recorded an out, their win expectancy dropped to 27.9%. Thanks to a strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play, Jackson quickly escaped from the inning and proceeded to lead the pitching staff by adding 12.7% win probability while striking out four and only walking one batter – good for 2.19 FIP.

Some have likened Edwin Jackson’s role in 2011 to Jeff Weaver’s in 2006 (only have one link). Is that true? How do they compare as pitchers? Well, 28-year-old Jackson is probably better right now than Jeff Weaver was at any point in his career, though it was admittedly closer than I would have guessed. While their overall FIPs are comparable (Jackson – 4.34; Weaver – 4.41), Weaver peaked in his early years while Jackson has improved with age. At first glance, you’d probably think Weaver posted the best overall season in 2002 when he performed 16% better than league average (FIP- of 84), but he didn’t give up as many homeruns that year as he probably should have since pitcher’s have relatively little control over the amount of homeruns they surrender per fly ball allowed. Weaver was 25-years-old in 2002, and his performance steadily regressed thereafter. Considering his post season success, it’s easy for Saint Louis fans to forget that his performance was pretty terrible leading up to October (5.71/5.11 FIP/xFIP for Cardinals in 2006′s regular season). While he did pitch somewhat better in October (slightly improved K/BB ratio), his results were exceedingly improved, suggesting that there was probably some luck involved. Maybe the defense helped him out, but the Cardinals weren’t exactly a great defensive team that year. He also had an unsustainable strand rate (84.4%).

Point? While their overall numbers might not be too far off, the Cardinals acquired Jackson at a much more favorable point in his career. In contrast to Weaver, Jackson struggled as a young pitcher but has spent the last three years improving his strikeout to walk ratio and has started coaxing more ground balls. He has career best numbers to show for it (3.55 FIP in 2011).

28-year-old Edwin Jackson is not the same as 29-year-old Jeff Weaver. Edwin Jackson may not end up with better results than Jeff Weaver’s memorable October in 2006, but he is the better pitcher.

Take a look at the above graph and you’ll notice that two of the largest swings in win probability have little notes about the hometown hero, David Freese. His 2-run double in the 4th and 2-run homer in the 6th added 38.2% in win probability alone.

As the 2011 season has unfolded, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how strange Freese’s career has looked thus far. I’m not the only one who thinks so; see Dan Moore’s late-September post at VEB. After posting a .538 slugging percentage in more than 700 triple-A plate appearances, his power has dropped 100 points as a major-leaguer. You’d think that such a power drop-off would lead to less productivity, but that hasn’t really been the case as he’s still been well above average with the bat (.348 wOBA in 667 plate appearances). While his impressive line-drive rate might allow him to float above the usual .300 BABIP watermark, his career .356 BABIP just seems unreasonable. Having said that, statcorner’s wOBAr adjusts for batted ball rates and park effects… and Freese still looks pretty good (.332 in 2010 and .355 in 2011). Maybe I’ll take a more in-depth look at this in the future.

Game Five


When the green line hovers right around the 50% mark, you know you had yourself a pitcher’s duel. Sometimes, Chris Carpenter just looks like he makes a decision to throw a shut-out… and then does it.

Objectively, I’m not sure Carp really outpitched Roy Halladay. He certainly left more to chance as Halladay allowed fewer balls in play with 7 strikeouts (compared to Carpenter’s 3). At least two of those balls looked like serious trouble off of the bat, but instead of being game-changing home runs in late innings, they fell safely into the gloves of Lance Berkman and Jon Jay who each had to retreat to the warning track.

Overall, however, one might say that Carpenter’s balls in play were less dangerous since 66.7% of them stayed on the ground while Holliday only induced 40% grounders.

This all resulted in a fantastic pitchers duel and, for Cardinals fans, it was a special moment to behold.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 19: Roy Halladay ...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Well, the Cardinals league-leading offense trumped the Phillies league-leading pitching staff… and they still lost game 1 of the NLDS. After surrendering a 3-run blast to Lance Berkman in the first inning, Roy Halladay morphed into a better version of himself and finished eight innings while easily disposing of his final 21 batters.

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The Good: The Cardinals jumped Roy Halladay for an early lead on Berkman’s 3-run homer in the first inning. Berkman’s blast was good for .239 WPA (win probability added) and left the Cardinals with a 78% chance of winning the game before they’d even made their second out. He lead the team with an overall .225 WPA.

Rafael Furcal alleviated fears about his game being compromised by a hamstring injury when he singled and stole a base to lead off the game. Even with Punto’s solid play (when healthy) this season, his career wOBA (.296) suggests that even a decline phase Furcal is probably the better option (.323 wOBA in 200+ plate appearances with Cardinals).

There’s no shame in scoring three runs against Roy Halladay. And when he exited the game, the Cardinals immediately resumed hitting by posting a crooked number on the board in the ninth.

The Bad: TLR replaced David Freese with Daniel Descalso in the bottom of the 7th inning when they were only trailing by 3 runs. Why? I understand it was a double-switch hoping that Scrabble could pitch more than one inning, but the Cardinals were still within striking distance of a win and Freese’s bat (.348 wOBA) is clearly superior to Descalso (.296). If TLR was intent on making a double-switch, it would have made more sense to pull Skip Schumaker (who had made the last out of the previous inning) in favor of Nick Punto.

And while we’re addressing this issue, why has it become commonplace to replace Freese with Descalso at third base anyways? Does the eye test grade Descalso to be demonstrably better than Freese with his glove at the hot corner? The metrics don’t make this argument. UZR/150 has Descalso at -6.6 while Freese is +3.9 at 3B. Total Zone also considers Descalso to be inferior to Freese with the glove. So why do we keep seeing this happen in games?

The Ugly: When the bottom of the sixth inning started, the Cardinals still had a 76.8% chance of winning the game and Lohse seemed to be cruising pretty easily. Lohse’s disastrous sixth inning resulted in a 69.1% upswing in Win Probability for the Phillies. This game lacked in suspense. Once upon a time, the Cardinals had a three-run lead with good Kyle Lohse on the mound and then they suddenly trailed by three. The Cardinals squandered an opportunity to win game one and are now left relying on TLR’s desperation gamble to pitch Carpenter on short rest in game two.

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At FanGraphs, Steve Slowinski called attention to the fact that many players are now reaching significant thresholds in playing time. Thanks to research from Pizza Cutter (all links can be found here), we know that players’ skill sets tend to stabilize after a certain number of plate appearances or batters faced. Steve explained what is meant by this well:

When I say “stabilize”, I don’t mean that these rates won’t change at all over the remaining course of the season. Instead, all it means is that once a player approaches these sample sizes, you can consider that there’s something more than just random variation going on: there’s some underlying change in a player’s approach/skill level/process/etc. in play as well. Matt Garza isn’t guaranteed to finish the year with a 12 K/9 rate because his strikeout rate has “stabilized”, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if his final strikeout rate is higher than what it’s been in the past.

So this isn’t to say that players will continue performing at current levels, but we can infer an upwards/downwards trend in approach or skill, even at these relatively small sample sizes.

If you followed the link to the FanGraphs article, you know where I’m headed. Most batters have now accumulated enough plate appearances to tell us something about their swing rate (50 PA) and contact rate (100 PA), while most pitchers have now faced enough hitters to lend insight into their strikeout rate (150 BF) and groundball rate (150 BF). While Steve’s article takes a look at all players across MLB, I thought it’d be useful to narrow the scope to our team.

Below is a graph for the Cards’ position players who have amassed enough plate appearances to be included. You can see the MLB average at the top of the bar graph. Numbers for 2011 are represented by the darker tones while career numbers are found in the bars shaded more lightly. Since Daniel Descalso only had 38 PA before 2011, I only included numbers from this season.

Overall, most guys sit pretty close to their career norms… but let’s take a closer look at a few:

Pre-DL David Freese’s .356 AVG looks pretty suspicious when you compare his contact percentage (71.7%) against the average major-leaguer (80.8%). While he’s making less contact, he’s actually swinging at a higher percentage of pitches than he has in the past. You’d be correct if you guessed that his BABIP (.460) was out of control. Obviously, this cannot be sustained. But Freese is making hard contact when he does put the ball in play as more than 30% have resulted in line drives. That’s not a predictive number but it is a descriptive one.

While I look forward to Post-DL David Freese returning to the team in a couple of months (fingers crossed), I remain perplexed by his precipitous drop off in power. In 750+ PA combined between AA and AAA, his isolated slugging percentage never dipped below .200. Nevertheless, it sits at .115 ISO in 398 PA with the big club. In fact, his career “success” to date includes a .396 BABIP.

StatCorner calculates players’ wOBA adjusting for their park and batted ball profile (they use acronym wOBAr). Freese loses 15-pts from his 2010 wOBA and 27-pts from his 2011 wOBA. I’m not saying that his potential contributions are overstated, but his numbers to date don’t exactly reflect his minor league performance (where he displayed decent power), and it’s scary to depend on a supposed power-threat to continue getting on base when he’s mostly relying on hitting singles and striking out 24.9% of the time. If the coaching staff considers this problematic for Colby Rasmus (25.8% career K rate), then why isn’t the same true of David Freese?

While Matt Holliday has decreased his swing percentage by 5.3%, Lance Berkman has increased his offerings by 4.7%. It’s hard to get too worried about either of these players. Holliday has already been worth 2.5 fWAR and there isn’t anything crazy about his batted ball profile (.481 wOBAr – StatCorner’s adjustment for park and batted balls).

Berkman’s case is a little more curious. While he has certainly benefit from a HR/FB rate ~20% higher than league average (only 10% higher than his personal norm), his wOBA (.511) is somehow lower than it should be based on StatCorner’s adjustments (.520 wOBAr)! Playing in Busch Stadium has robbed him of a little offensive value. Despite being a negative in the field – but not as horrendous as expected – Berkman has already been worth 2.1 fWAR. In other words, he’s pretty much justified the $8 million contract he signed this winter. The health of his knees will remain a concern until the final out of 2011, but kudos to TLR for continuing to schedule regular days off despite Berkman’s convincing offensive rennaisance.

What’s next on the horizon? For hitters, strikeout rate, line drive rate, and pitches per plate appearance “stabilize” at 150 TPA; walk rate, groundball rate, GB/FB rate “stabilize” at 200 TPA. Expect me to visit those as the season progresses.

I’ll try to make some observations about our starting pitchers in the next few days since a few of their rates have also “stabilized”: GB%, LD, and strikeout rate.

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Hello offense!

Game 10

The Good: Kyle McClellan led the team with another strong outing (6.0 IP, 7 H, 4 BB, 4 SO, 1 R; .264 WPA). Despite not having his best stuff – as evidenced by worse control and fewer strikeouts – McClellan pitched two-thirds of the game and minimized damage. So far, he’s defied the odds of maintaining his unsustainable strand rate from last year (89.6% in 2010; 90.4% in 2011). Look for that to change.

Lance Berkman’s home runs didn’t offer much in the way of win probability (.037 WPA), but I think we were all a little relieved to see him poke a couple over the opposite field wall, and without the Crawford Boxes (damn you, Minute Maid Park) nonetheless!

The Bad: Albert Pujols did not join the offensive breakout. He was one of three starters who posted negative win probability… not to mention he grounded into another double play. See Steve’s post about Albert Pujols and small sample sizes from the other day; and Steve Slowinski posted another article at FanGraphs today on the matter (haven’t read that one yet). My analysis? Pujols will eventually be Pujols. There’s no reason to believe otherwise yet. Believe it or not, there really are some fans worried about this… I overheard a 70-ish year-old couple talking about it at dinner last night to prove it.

Game 11

The Good: David Freese had a solid game (2-4, 1 BB, 1 HR, and 2 RBIs; .202 WPA). His home run wasn’t cheap either as it cleared the elevated wall in CF. That was the second day in a row that Berkman hit back-to-back jacks; his wOBA creeped above the .390 mark.

The Bad: The pitching staff as a whole had a miserable performance, combining for -.751 WPA despite the offense’s best attempts to keep them in the game. And their pride wasn’t the only thing hurt since Augenstein and (probably) Tallet are expected to hit the DL. I’m happy for Salas’ promotion given his competence last year; he didn’t do anything wrong in Jupiter this spring either. I’m also excited to see Eduardo Sanchez get an opportunity; he’s struck people out at a pretty decent rate (2010: 9+ K/9 in AA and 10+ K/9 in AAA).

The Ugly: Chris Carpenter was alone responsible for -.495 WPA. I was going to take a look at his pitch f/x stuff compared to his first start to see if there was anything noteworthy, but my internet screwed up, and now I don’t have time. Let’s just chalk that forgettable performance up to a random blip and move on.

Hey, we’re still in Arizona! Maybe the offense will stick around for another night.

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Another loss, another eh performance by the offense.

 

The Good:

Berkman showed the solid on base skill that the Cards need from him over the long haul drawing two walks to add to his single.

Kyle Lohse got more swings and misses (7 according to Brooks Baseball) than I had anticipated.

 

The Bad:

Berkman made his first error of the year, to continue a trend of less than stellar defense out of the club.  We all knew the defense was going to be rough in some places, but hopefully things will improve some.

Theriot continues to struggle at the plate, as does the team in general.  Is it too early to panic?  Clearly not, but I’m not overly optimistic about Theriot turning it around.

The Ugly:

The 6 and 7 spots in the order (Freese and Molina) combined to go 0-8 and a combined -0.390 WPA.

 

Commentary:

The team seems to be pounding the ball into the ground so far this season, and this game was no exception, 19 of the 24 balls in play were ground balls, including 15 of 17 against Charlie Morton.  Coming into the day the Cards had hit over 51% of their balls in play on the ground, “good” for 5th in baseball.  Nothing to be alarmed about yet, but something worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.  I’m sure it’s something we’ll look at with pitch f/x if the trend continues.

I already kicked this dead horse once, but I finally got around to downloading the latest CAIRO projections, which come complete with platoon splits. I wish I would’ve known about that before I dinked around for a half hour or so getting splits for my lineup post. Anyway, the prognosis is rather negative for Cardinal hitters against southpaws.

Behold the ugly.

Player Vs L
Albert Pujols 0.453
Matt Holliday 0.396
Lance Berkman 0.348
Yadier Molina 0.332
David Freese 0.331
Allen Craig 0.325
Ryan Theriot 0.313
Colby Rasmus 0.307
Nick Punto 0.289
Gerald Laird 0.289
Daniel Descalso 0.287
Skip Schumaker 0.283
Bryan Anderson 0.277

Eno Sarris at Fangraphs already hit on how horrible the bottom of the Cardinals lineup is, but it just get so much worse against left-handed pitchers. For I’m afraid that after Albert and Holliday, things begin to unravel in a hurry. Berkman who is no guarantee to hit southpaws if the current trends continue, but I guess that more prone to believe this projection than just make a judgment based on last year’s splits. Molina and Freese are the only two players left that project to be league average.

Finally I will say that I’ll definitely take the over on Colby Rasmus here, but the larger point remains that after the Big 2, the Cardinals lineup against lefties ranges from league average to … well… poopy.

Minnesota Twins infielder Nick Punto during a ...
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In case you haven’t already heard, the Cardinals signed Nick Punto.  With a team that increasingly looks to be more and more dictated by the whims of a certain sunglassed manager, why didn’t we see this one coming? Nick Punto is a classic La Russa utility infielder – he can play all over the field, and his grit factor is off the charts. He emanates scrappiness from the depths of his being. Just look at him, for crying out loud.

On with my pithy analysis. Nick Punto has a career wOBA of .293. His career high was .324 (twice), and last season his wOBA was a lowly .280. He does draw walks at a decent clip. Assuming he doesn’t go any further south than where he already is batting-wise, he’d likely cost the Cardinals 15-20 runs if, for some reason, he ended up playing almost everyday. So that means that Punto is worthless, right?

Well, no, because hitting isn’t the only thing that matters in evaluating a player. (Get with the now, man!) Punto’s teammates nicknamed him the “Human Highlight Reel” for his web-gemmy goodness. From what I gather, Punto can pick it. According to UZR, Punto rates at +6 at 2B, +19 at 3B, and +17 runs at SS, per 150 games played at each position. DRS and Total Zone like him as well, albeit to a lesser extent. Let’s just say he’s worth +6-10 runs in the field. I think that’s conservative. Punto is also known for his heady baserunning, so that’s another feather in his cap. If you give him a full season of plate appearances, you’re looking at a 1.5 WAR player or so; maybe better.

While I’m not a real fan of Punto potentially blocking younger players like Tyler Greene or Daniel Descalso, for a one-year, $700,000 contract, Punto makes plenty of sense. He’s probably a fit as far as the all-important clubhouse chemistry goes, and for a team that is counting on Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot and a recovering David Freese to anchor the infield, he’s nice insurance. Yes, his bat is anemic, but look around the league. 7th and 8th place hitters in the NL averaged somewhere around a .300 wOBA. I, for one feel a little better having Punto around, but if you think about it, he’s basically Brendan Ryan in a different package.

This is, in a way, another type of lateral move, but I’ll take it. Improving even modestly in what is shaping to be a tight division could prove to be crucial. I’d rather have the goofy guy, but Punto is just fine.

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Yesterday, out of the blue, we learned that Troy Glaus underwent surgery to repair a torn muscle near his right shoulder and could miss 5 weeks or more of the season. That sucks and certainly calls into question “why now?”, but there’s not much that can be done about it now. So can the Cards weather this? I think so.

First of all, let me say there’s not a good enough reason to bring up Brett Wallace right now. If there were no other viable 3B options in house, then maybe, but there’s no reason to start the Walrus’s service time unless you plan on keeping him up in the big leagues for good. Let the big guy work on his defense in the minors where it doesn’t matter and then install him permanently as the regular 3B next season after Glaus walks. 

That brings us to David Freese. Why? Because he has little left to prove in AAA and will turn 26 early in the season. He’s an able defender and a decent hitter.  Freese’s CHONE projection calls for a .335 wOBA, a far cry from Glaus’ .372, but it’s respectable enough. I knocked down Glaus’ plate appearances to 500 and give 155 of them to Freese and it knocks the team off 3 runs. I also knocked Glaus’ projected .372 wOBA to .365, considering he may start slow coming back.  You can see the results here

The short of it is the Cardinals as they stood before this news had 88 win talent. Minus some Glaus, plus some Freese, the result is 87.4 wins. In other words, if Freese does play and plays as projected it costs the Cardinals only 6 runs. Not good, but certainly bearable. 

Now if La Russa mismanages the roster (and he very well could, knowing Tony) and plays a lot of Brendan Ryan at 3B, that could cost the Cardinals another 4-6 runs. Here’s hoping Freese has a strong showing in spring training and that he lives up to his prospect billing as a Cardinal rookie.

The bottom line is having Glaus out of the lineup for a month isn’t going to break the season. Barring a big move, the season right isn’t riding on Troy’s health so much as it is on Carpenter’s.

© 2011 Gas House Graphs Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha