The World Series Will Pit the Patience of the Red Sox Against the Aggression of the Cardinals

Dilip Vishwanat

The two pennant-winners take very different approaches at the plate.

Doug MIttler wrote an interesting article for the August 13, 2013 edition of ESPN the Magazine. Entitled "Impatience Is a Virtue," the piece looked at the approach MLB clubs have taken at the plate using Pitches Per Plate Appearance (P/PA). In the article, MIttler noted that one of the "central tenants" of Moneyball (in all its incarnations) "demands that batters take plenty of pitches, tire out the starter and get deep into the bullpen." Mittler's article looked at "a secondary trend, running the other way," in which clubs "are swinging free and loving the result."

Mittler discusses why some teams are experiencing success swinging more aggressively. Because his article was written with several weeks left in the season, he writes about pace using numbers from mid-August. I've updated the numbers as appropriate. Everything Mittler writes about in the August article as a potential outcome has come to fruition as we look back at the 2013 regular season.

What changed? In a word, strikes. Pitchers are dominating baseball by throwing more of them. Not only are K's near an all-time high, but walks per nine innings are down to [3.02], the lowest figure since 1968--when pitchers were so good that the mound had to be lowested. That leaves the strikeout-to-walk ratio at 2.52, the highest in the modern era. And first-pitch-strike percentage, at 60.3%, [rose] for a fourth straight season. In a league of nasty strike throwers, a high P/PA can just as easily indicate a team constantly behind in the count.

One of the clubs Mittler focuses in on as exemplifying the success that can come with an impatient batting approach is the St. Louis Cardinals. MLB batters average 3.83 P/PA. The Cardinals as a team averaged 3.76 P/PA, which ranked 27th in baseball. That means the Redbirds saw the fourth-fewest pitches in the game behind the White Sox (3.75), Rockies (3.72), and Brewers (3.71).

When asked about facing Clayton Kershaw in NLCS Game 6, shortstop Pete Kozma described his team's approach as "selectively aggressive." Kozma may have just as easily been talking about the club's offensive approach during the entire season. The Cardinals have swung more often than average in 2013 and far more often than their World Series opponents.

If the Cardinals exemplify the virtue of impatience at the place, the Red Sox are the embodiment of the philosophy Mittler ascribes to Moneyball. Whereas the Cardinals rank near the bottom in P/PA, the Red Sox rank second overall. The Twins' 4.02 P/PA was the only P/PA to rate higher than that of the Red Sox. Slugger Mike Napoli leads the way in this patient approach with a 4.59 P/PA that easily leads all of baseball.

The following table has data from Baseball Reference for: Pitchers Per Plate Appearance (P/PA); Strike Percentage (Str%), which reflects the share of strikes seen out of total pitchers; First Pitch Swing Percentage (1stSw%), which measures the share of first pitches a team swings at; Looking Strikes Percentage (L/Str%), which shows the share of called strikes a team took; Swung At Strike Percentage (AS/Str%), which reflects the share of pitches in the strikes zone swung at; Swing Percentage (Swing%), which shows the percentage of pitches swung at; and, Contact Percentage (Con%), which measures the percentage of foul balls and in-play strikes out of total pitches seen in the strike zone.


P/PA

Str%

1st Sw%

L/Str%

AS/Str

Swing%

Con%

STL

3.76

63%

28%

28%

72%

46%

80%

MLB

3.83

64%

27%

28%

72%

46%

78%

BOS

4.01

63%

20%

31%

69%

43%

78%


The Cardinals have had 12.54% of their PAs end on the first pitch this year. In 2013, MLB batters swung and made contact on the first pitch in 11.09% of their PAs. MLB hitters have batted .336/.341/.540/.882 on the first pitch compared to .253/.318/.396/.714 overall. St. Louis batters hit .360/.368/.537/.905 on the first pitch this season. That's good for a 107 sOPS+, so the Cards hit 7% better than the league overall when hacking on the first pitch. The Cardinals swing more often and did so more successfully than the league as a whole.

The Red Sox also experienced success when they hacked at the opposing pitcher's first offering. Boston batted .361/.370/.595/.965 on the first pitch. Their 119 sOPS+ was far better than the Cardinals. However, where the Cards had 778 such PAs, the Sox had just 514. Boston had just 8.05% of their PAs end after the first pitch. That's nearly 4.5 percentage points fewer than the Redbirds.

The Cardinals prefer to attack an offering early in the count. This is their selective aggression. The Red Sox, on the other hand, would prefer to work deeply into the count. The following chart shows by count how many PAs each team had the ended on a ball in play, swing and miss, or called ball four.


Split

STL PAs

%Share

BOS PAs

%Share

First Pitch

778

12.54%

514

8.05%

1-0

484

7.80%

368

5.77%

2-0

167

2.69%

141

2.21%

3-0

130

2.10%

150

2.35%

0-1

555

8.95%

584

9.15%

1-1

568

9.16%

556

8.71%

2-1

306

4.93%

330

5.17%

3-1

259

4.18%

352

5.52%

0-2

482

7.77%

573

8.98%

1-2

862

13.90%

982

15.39%

2-2

846

13.64%

927

14.53%

3-2

765

12.33%

905

14.18%


The Cardinals had a large share of their PAs end on 0-0 or 1-0, at 20.34%. The Red Sox, on the other hand, only had 13.82% of their PAs end on a 0-0 or 1-0 count. Predictably, the Red Sox had a larger share of PAs end in a two-strike count: 53.08% to the Cards' 47.64%. Given these numbers, it is not surprising that the Cardinals are much more likely to end a PA when the count is even. Likewise, Boston batters are more likely to end a PA in a pitcher's count

Split

STL PAs

%Share

BOS PAs

%Share

Even Count

2,192

35.34%

1,997

31.29%

Batter Ahead

2,111

34.04%

2,246

35.19%

Pitcher Ahead

1,899

30.62%

2,139

33.52%

The different approaches by the teams' batters will prove interesting. Will Boston's patience be tried by St. Louis strike-pumpers Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha? Will Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly struggle against the selectivity of the Red Sox batters? Will Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran be able to ding the Boston staff early in the count? The distinct batting approaches will add another layer of intrigue to a series that is already a fascinating matchup.

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