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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The other day I was perusing through the stat lines of the triple-A players in Memphis and noticed that quite a few of them were getting on base frequently via the walk.

One thing that has helped the Cardinals charge their way to a league best wOBA (.344) is their propensity for drawing walks and limiting strikeouts. Check out how they are fairing in these two categories:

The Cardinals rank second in the league in walks (tied with the Pirates at 9.6%) and fourth in limiting strikeouts (tied with Athletics at 17.9%). In comparison, their 2010 rankings were eleventh in BB% (tied with the Dodgers, Brewers, and Tigers at 8.7%) and fifth in K% (18.5%).

Their increased ability to coax walks can partly be explained by the acquisition of Lance Berkman (17.4%) and the career best rates of Matt Holliday (12.2%) and Colby Rasmus (13.9%).

Now check out Memphis:

The Memphis Redbirds’ BB% (11.1) is good for third in the Pacific Coast League, though they strike out a decent amount (only five teams had a worse K rate than 18.3%). Recently promoted Matt Carpenter lead the team with a 17.6 BB%, but others displayed impressive walk rates as well: Andrew Brown (15.5%), Adron Chambers (13.3%), James Rapoport (13.2%), and Mark Hamilton (19.6%).

I don’t have much else to add, but I do hope the trend continues throughout the season… and maybe even beyond.

 

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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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PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 12:  Lance Berkman #12 of ...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

The Cardinals now rank second in the league in team wOBA (.356). This is not a joke. Since I wrote that piece about their slow start offensively merely one week ago, they started scoring runs at a torrid pace. Their BABIP has jumped 61-pts (.324)! They have hit fewer ground balls (48.8%), more line drives (20.2%); their fly ball rate hasn’t changed much (31.0%), but they’ve cleared the fence at a more realistic rate (12.9%). While they’ve started walking a little less (7.9 BB%), they have the third lowest strikeout rate in the league (16.7 K%). Altogether, the Cardinals have transformed from an unlucky team to a surprisingly fortunate one in the span of seven days. Fans, let’s keep our cool. Much like we shouldn’t have panicked when the offense was seemingly MIA after one week, we shouldn’t be quick to anoint them league leaders either. Perspective, friends; you can either have it now or the long season will eventually force it upon you.

With that said, it has been a lot of fun watching Lance Berkman hit 6 home runs in the span of 5 games.

Let’s take a look at the past few games…

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According to a team press release, Matt Holliday is scheduled to under an appendectomy procedure that will sideline him anywhere from 2-6 weeks.  As a frame of reference, though, Matt Cassel underwent a similar procedure and returned in 11 days, and Andres Torres did the same and returned in 12 days.  Let’s be cautiously optimistic and say that Holliday will be out 15 days.

Now, the obvious candidate to replace him is Allen Craig, who has done nothing but mash in the minor leagues.  Jon Jay may find some playing time as well, but since the Cardinals seem to be going for an offense-first approach this season, let’s assume that Craig gets the bulk of the playing time.  The obvious question is: What is the marginal downgrade from Holliday to Craig, and what does it do for our playoff chances?

Let’s assume a couple of things:

  • Matt Holliday is a 6.0 WAR player over 162 games
  • Allen Craig is a 2.5 WAR player over the same amount of games and plate appearances
  • Holliday will only be out about 15 days

If these assumptions hold true, then Holliday is worth about .56 WAR over 15 games, while Craig is worth about .23 WAR.  According to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, the Cardinals are an 86 win-team (which would lead the National League Central).  If this injury bumps the Cardinals from an 86 win team to an 85.75 win team, then according to danmerqury at Athletics Nation, that would change the playoff probability (this is without context and empirical; an 86 win team in the NL Central in 2011 is much, much more likely to make the playoffs than his prediction accounts for.  BP’s contextual playoff odds are here) from about 16.8% to 15.4%.  For comparison, the Brewers are projected for 85 wins, which would have a 12% chance of making the playoffs, and the Reds are projected for 82 wins, which has a 4% chance of making the playoffs.

No matter what, this injury (assuming it’s not worse than it is. Which, given past Cardinals injuries, might be a stretch) has a marginal effect on our playoff odds, and given the high variance associated with 15 game sample sizes, might even improve our playoff odds.  It does make the margins slimmer and more uncomfortable; having 86 wins compared to the Brewers’ 85 are a lot more comfortable to 85.75.  Ultimately, though, the margins are the only thing that changes; we are still the favorites to win the NL Central

I must admit I only caught a little bit of the game between work and then chasing after the little guy, so I’m only going on numbers until I watch the DVR’ed copy later tonight.  First the WPa chart courtesy of Fangraphs

Link to page

A game the Cardinals seemed to dominate fell the other way, not the way you want to begin the season.

The Good:

Matt Holliday’s home run 0.305 WPA

Trever Miller getting Brad Hawpe to fly out 0.139 WPA

The Bad:

Albert Pujols grounding into a DP in the 10th -0.167 WPA

Matt Holliday’s caught stealing in the -0.124 WPA

The Ugly:

Brian Augenstein giving up the single to Maybin in the 11th and Theriot committing an error -0.407 WPA

Ryan Franklin giving up a home run to Maybin in the ninth -0.368 WPA

Albert Pujols’ combined WPA of -0.429

 

Commentary:

On the bright side, Albert Pujols will likely not have another game like that until he’s in the last year of the ten year deal some team is going to give him.  Interestingly we had the first Kyle McClellan bullpen outing and it went to Miguel Batista, not surprising given Tony’s love for the proven vet, but not a good sign of things to come either.  Franklin worries me independent of the results, but we’ll clearly give him a few more outings before we analyze anything there.

 

Pitch FX portion of the program

Carp’s fastball velocity was about right where it should be compared to last year given that it’s the first start of the year.  The following table summarizes

Year + 1 SD AVG - 1 SD
2010 92.7 91.5 90.2
2011 91.9 91.0 90.2

 
I’ll be trying to get as many of these game recaps up as I can throughout the season (maybe with the help of the rest of the guys). Clearly once we start to develop some sample sizes I’ll start to do more analysis.

 

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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.

Before the season, CHONE projected the Cardinals were on course to win 91 games and enjoy a cake walk in a relatively easy division.  Someone will run off with this and say, “see, this is why projections are worthless”.  But before you go off an anti-metrics rant, let’s remember what projections are. In a nutshell, among other things, projections  use regression to the mean, age adjustments and weighted averages to derive their results. Projections are “50th percentile” projections; there are always players who are exceptions to the rule due to good or bad luck, or some sort of overhaul to their swing mechanics (hello, Jose Bautista!) or injury. It’s not divination.

It’s common for a team to have several players under or overshoot their projection. It’s just that in the Cardinals case, the under achievers have been particularly damning to the team. For this post, let’s just take a look at the hitters. The cut off is 100 plate appearances. I took the players individual CHONE projections and then adjusted them for their plate appearances and not their projected PA’s. Then I did a little color scaling for your eyes, because I’m a nerd like that.

  • The infield trio of death of Brendan Ryan, Skip Schumaker and Felipe Lopez has really hurt this team. All three were not expected to be some sort of offensive force behind Pujols-Holliday-Rasmus, but neither were they expected to hit for sub-.300 wOBAs, either. (Schumaker is at .301, being fair). I thought Flip was a good Freese-insurance signing, and instead he pooped the bed. Ryan and Schumaker picked a bad time to do the same thing.
  • Molina and Pujols also both were one WAR apiece worse than projected. Molina’s bat backslid after two good seasons, and Pujols has been a little off from his normal numinous standard. And yet he’s still an MVP candidate.
  • The sheer waste of roster space of the likes of Feliz, Winn, Miles and Stavinoha has been pretty frustrating to watch.
  • The most pleasant surprise has been Matt Holliday, who is doing his best to show that he earned the ginormous contract he got this past winter.

All told, the Cardinal’s hitters are five wins worse than we would have expected. Combine that with losing Brad Penny for the year, and Kyle Lohse being hurt and then horrible, you have a recipe for a pretty disappointing year. It’s really not that hard to figure out.

I’ve seen a few things around twitter the last couple days that I found warranted a little discussion.  Most of these topics revolve around the idea of clutch hitting or hitting with RISP (I’ll use the two interchangeably although there are slight differences).  The general line of conversation goes something along the lines of:

Old school guy:  Holliday (or Rasmus) is a horrible clutch hitter. Look at his numbers with RISP (insert one year sample here)

Saberist nerd:  Shut up old man.  Clutch is a myth, it doesn’t exist.  Holliday has a 0.385 wOBA and Rasmus’ is 0.360 they’re the 2nd and 3rd best hitters on the team

Old school guy:  Having a good wOBA (whatever that is) doesn’t matter if they aren’t helping to produce runs

I have a couple of comments on this general line of discussion.  First when the saberist speaks of clutch not existing he does not mean that clutch performance doesn’t exist.  Clearly Holliday has been sub-par with RISP this year.  It happened and is factual (luck factors in here, but you get my drift).  The saberist is talking about clutch skill when he says clutch is a myth.  By skill I’m referring to something that is repeatable and predictable.  The statistical evidence points to this skill being either non-existent or too small to measure (read too small to care about).  The basic experiment in The Book concluded that the player’s generic wOBA (i.e. generic hitting skill) is more predictive of future RISP performance than a player’s past RISP performance is of future RISP performance, so basically good hitters project to hit well in the clutch and bad hitters project to hit poorly.  Holliday and Rasmus both qualify as good hitters, and are therefore pretty likely to be good in the clutch going forward.

There’s been some concerns raised about the Cardinals’ plate discipline, most notably about Pujols swinging at a lot more pitches out of the zone than usual. The problem isn’t just limited to Albert. Holliday, Schumaker and others have all been a little more hacky than usual. On the flip side, Colby Rasmus has really raised his game in the on-base percentage department. He’s taken a much more disciplined approach overall, but his strikeout rate has raised some concerns.

The problem with even bothering looking at batter’s walk and strikeout rates this early in the season is we’re talking about small samples. Studies have shown that it takes about 150 plate appearances for a player’s strikeout rate to become something we can draw conclusions from, and 200 plate appearances for his walk rate. But Swing% and Contact %’s become a safer guide as early as 50 PA’s and 100 PA’s respectively. These stats give us a better idea of a batter’s plate discipline than K% and BB% this early in the season.

Jeff Zimmerman has found a way to use plate discipline stats such as these to estimate a player’s future walk and strikeout rates. Armed with this knowledge, we can get a good idea of what to expect in the plate discipline department from the Cards going forward.  The stats are from FanGraphs, batters must have a minimum of 50 PA.

Name Est. K% Est. BB% Actual K% Actual BB%
Colby Rasmus 25.4% 13.3% 35.6% 17.7%
David Freese 23.8% 10.4% 23.2% 8.8%
Brendan Ryan 20.9% 9.3% 24.7% 10.7%
Ryan Ludwick 25.1% 10.3% 27.2% 10.7%
Yadier Molina 17.8% 9.1% 12.1% 8.9%
Matt Holliday 18.2% 8.8% 18.3% 4.8%
Albert Pujols 15.5% 13.3% 16.9% 13.2%
Skip Schumaker 10.8% 4.5% 14.8% 10.1%

Intentional walks are taken into account, and some of the Cardinal batters have some gaudy IBB totals. Colby Rasmus has five intentional passes! So instead of factoring in the batter’s current IBB%, I used their Marcel projected IBB%.

Some observations:

  • Colby Rasmus really has shown a better eye, and should be counted on for walks going forward. This isn’t a big surprise judging by his minor league history, but his pitiful walk rate last year was a little worrisome. Colby should cut down the K%.
  • If David Freese really walks 10.4% of his plate appearances, I will be thrilled. He’s made me a believer with his performance to date.
  • Matt Holliday should revert back to normal when the dust clears.
  • Now the bad news. Skip Schumaker’s walk rate looks good now, but he could be on his way to a terrible walk rate unless something changes.
  • Albert is on his way to his highest strikeout rate since he was a rookie, and his lowest walk rate since 2004. He’ll still be really, really good, but just not the Albert we’re used to. The thing about Pujols is when he has a flaw, he seems to be able to correct it in short order.
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