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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If you told me the Cardinals would trail by two runs before Chris Carpenter even recorded an out, I’d be hard pressed to imagine a scenario in which the Cardinals were victorious. It certainly wouldn’t have looked like last night.

The Good: The offense continued hitting and ended up tying Cliff Lee’s previous career high in hits allowed (12). At Crashburn Alley,  Bill Baer argued that Lee had fallen prey to poor luck on balls in play. That is, the Cardinals twelve hits were a function of luck in that they did not seem particularly hard hit but just managed to find holes in the defense. There’s certainly some merit to this position. After all, Lee pitched well in some aspects. He was missing bats (9 K’s in 6 IP), throwing strikes (only 2 BB’s), and compiled a 1.03 FIP in the process. At one point, Bill tweeted:

The Cardinals have put 20 balls in play. Arguably two of them were well-struck.

Obviously, some of the hits were lucky (e.g. Pujols’s broken bat single, Berkman’s bloop to RF), but I can recall at least five that were hit very hard: Furcal’s triple to lead off the game, Theriot’s double down the left field line, Craig’s triple that was misjudged by Victorino, Pujols’s single to score Craig, and Berkman’s groundout that Polanco snagged and saved a run.

As a whole, the offense accounted for 23.7% of the win probability. Jon Jay lead the hitting group with a .300 WPA. In that respect, maybe the Cardinals were a little lucky since Jay’s 2 RBI’s both came on seeing eye singles that he grounded through the infield defense. So maybe a little luck was involved, but when isn’t that true of baseball?

The Bad: It seemed rather obvious that starting on three days rest did bother Chris Carpenter. He was uncharacteristically falling behind in the count and walked more batters (3) than he struck out (2). Per Joe Lefkowitz’s site, Carpenter’s velocity was down compared to the rest of 2011. I wonder if he threw fewer warm up pitches before the game in order to preserve his arm to compensate for going on short rest. He did have an efficient third inning of work and started throwing more strikes as the game progressed. Should this series reach a fifth game, I’ll look forward to seeing the real Carpenter take the mound. Unfortunately for us, he’ll probably oppose the real Roy Halladay.

The Impressive: The Cardinal bullpen only allowed one hit in six innings. The transformation of this unit has been remarkable. Azruavatar had a nice piece about it on VEB the other day. It’s no longer composed of “control” guys or “experience” guys, but players with discernible skills. Several of them can light up the radar gun and they’re missing bats in the process. Jason Motte (11.9%), Scrabble (11.7%), Fernando Salas (11.2%), and Dotel (13.4%) all induce above average swinging strike rates. Boggs has resurfaced after a baffling year of (non)use. Dotel has been incredible against right-handed batters (1.43 FIP). Add Eduardo Sanchez and Lance Lynn to this mix (possibly subtracting Dotel) and it’s easy to imagine the bullpen to mature into a veritable strength in 2012 and beyond.

As for last night, the bullpen was good for .59 WPA. Boggs entered the game at the most crucial moment, getting out of an inning that started with Scrabble hitting Utley with a pitch. The Cardinals were only leading by one run and Boggs got the first out of the inning when Pence grounded into a fielder’s choice. Motte accumulated the most win probability out of the bullpen (.235 WPA) by recording the final four outs.

And with that, the Cardinals won their first playoff game since finishing off the Tigers in the 2006 World Series. Let’s hope they make it a winning streak tomorrow night, eh?

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See what I did there? One of my favorite parts about having a blog is being able to choose titles. You’re welcome for today’s gem. Genius, I know. I thought I’d try something new today. Since Twitter lends itself to spontaneous baseball debates, I thought I’d use a conversation I had with @andrewdmoses regarding his suggestion that Andruw Jones would be a nice pickup for the Cardinals’ bench. You can follow our entire back-and-forth on the subject to the left. If it’s too small for you to read, you should be able to click the picture and access a larger image.
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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.

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