Skill, mechanics, approach, or luck: A look at the Cardinals' 2013 RISP & bases-empty batting splits

Eileen Blass-USA TODAY

The flip side of the Cardinals' 2013 success with runners in scoring position is how poorly the club hit with the bases empty.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an article by Derrick Goold over the weekend on Allen Craig's plate approach and how it relates to his drop in power and success with runners in scoring position. It's a good article with interesting quotes from Craig, manager Mike Matheny, and hitting coach John Mabry that shed light on the club's hitting philosophy as a whole as much as Craig's. While the focus on the excellent results when batting with RISP for Craig in particular and the Cards generally is nothing new, Goold's piece delves into an area that has perhaps gone under-explored in coverage of the subject: approach. This was right up my alley. I find player quotes on approach fascinating.

I use the following formula when considering batting or pitching results:

Skill + Mechanics + Approach + (Mis)Fortune = Results

  • Skill: To me, "skill" is the player's physical ability. This includes eyesight, strength, quickness, reflexes, and body-eye coordination.
  • Mechanics: We are all familiar with mechanics. No two swings are alike. Neither are any two deliveries. But there are commonalities found in successful players' swings and deliveries. And the slightest component part of these acts—from timing to placement—can create problems for even the most skilled player. Changes in mechanics can have an impact on a player's results, both good and bad.
  • Approach: "Approach" addresses the mental part of a player's game. If a plate appearance is a chess match, does the player force enough checkmates to be considered successful? This also involves what a player is trying to do when hitting or pitching. Is a pitcher throwing more sinkers in an attempt to generate more grounders? Is a batter purposely trying to hit more line drives or grounders? Approach is probably the most difficult facet of the results formula to assess because it exists only in the player's mind. So we can only go by what he states publicly, which is often not much. Making it all the more difficult is the tendency for players to talk in vague or generic terms about their approach.
  • (Mis)Fortune: I'm not a big fan of the way "luck," "lucky," "bad luck," and "unlucky" are thrown around when discussing baseball today. (Jeff Sullivan had a great post on this at Fangraphs last year, but I couldn't find it using search engines.) Even though I don't like cavalierly throwing the term around, there's no denying that (mis)fortune plays a role in a player and team's results. It can be as simple as how a ball bounces or the timing of a hit (or multiple hits).
  • Results: Results are reflected in the stats that we all know and love: hits, strikeouts, walks, line drives, groundballs, homers, etc.

This formula is what made Goold's article on Craig so interesting. There were several tidbits on approach, some in the form of Goold seemingly paraphrasing and others straight from the mouths of player, hitting coach, and manager. The frame is power-hitting, but success with runners in scoring position is also a topic. The result is a somewhat muddled collection of quotes.

Goold:

The approach Mabry encourages as McGwire did before him is one that is selectively aggressive. The Cardinals hitters look for a pitch in the area of the strike zone they can drive, and that area expands based on the count and situation. Last spring, the Cardinals introduced games during batting practice to encourage better situational hitting. They did the same this spring as hitters counted the runs they drove in as coaches shouted out the situation. Runner at third less than two outs, and they had to get the ball in the air for a sacrifice fly. There are times to let rip.

The team wants something different from slugger Matt Adams to erupt a rally than it does from speedster Peter Bourjos to spark one.

Craig:

"In a perfect world everybody would like to hit a lot of home runs," Craig said. "It’s fun, right? Last year, I found an approach that really worked for me, and it was kind of an approach that our team adopted, took a lot of pride in. It’s one of those things when you have something working for you. … We were winning a lot of games. It’s not something where I was going to focus on getting my home-run numbers and try to hit for more power because I felt that would be foolish. It was something that I rolled with last year."

Mabry:

"They’ve got to know themselves as hitters," Mabry said.

Power "cures a lot of things," Mabry said. "At the same time, you’ve got to get two guys on to a hit three-run home run. They’ve got to come from somewhere. You need hits, a walk, an error. It’s basically having traffic out there all the time."

"That creates opportunity to score. Margin for error is margin for error. If there’s a runner in scoring position, it’s a skill to safely hit the ball in play."

Matheny:

"I don’t care if he doesn’t hit any home runs," Matheny stated. "I’ll take his RBIs any day. If he’s driving as many runs in as he did last year and if he is as effective as he has been with men in scoring position, I’ll take that."

"If our team was the last team in offense and scoring runs, I’d say there is something there to check out," Matheny said. "But the approach our guys had is extremely good. I’ll say it again for the people who missed it the first 100 times — (previous hitting coach) Mark McGwire was never preaching home runs. (Hitting coach) John Mabry is never preaching slap softly the ball somewhere where they are not. We’re all trying to drive the ball, get in good counts."

First, let me say that I agree with Matheny and Mabry. You want to get into hitter's counts and drive the ball. Getting men on base is the most important thing to do when attempting to score runs. It's considerably more difficult to bat in a run with the bases empty. This is what makes on-base percentage so important. You need baserunners to score runs.

The quotes also make clear that nobody in the Cardinals clubhouse—least of all the manager and hitting coach—have a problem with Craig's power drop-off from 2012 to 2013. They're willing to sacrifice power for consistency in getting men on and driving them home. And they point to the success of a year ago as evidence that hitting with less power works. To them, the success Craig and the team had in RBI situations evinces the effectiveness of their selectively aggressive approach. And last year's results for team and player were certainly impressive.

Allen Craig 2013

Overall

PA

HR

RBI

K%

BB%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

563

13

97

17.8

7.1

.368

.315

.373

.457

.830

.142

.363

135

RISP

PA

HR

RBI

K%

BB%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

152

4

83

9.9

8.6

.474

.454

.500

.638

1.138

.185

.482

218

St. Louis Cardinals 2013

Overall

PA

HR

R

K%

BB%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

6202

125

783

17.9

7.8

.314

.269

.332

.401

.733

.133

.322

106

RISP

PA

HR

R

K%

BB%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

1621

25

25

15.8

10.6

.377

.330

.402

.463

.865

.133

.370

138

The Cardinals led the league in many offensive categories, including runs scored. But what this belies is where the team struggled and Craig fared far less well than with RISP: batting with the bases empty. Craig is still a solid hitter with no one on, but worse than his overall line which is propped up by his otherworldly numbers with men in scoring position. The Cardinals as a team, though, were atrocious with no one on the bases. By wOBA and BA alike, the Cardinals led the league in batting with RISP and were second-to-last in MLB with the bases empty (behind only the Marlins).

Craig with Bases Empty

PA

R

RBI

K%

BB%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

299

7

7

21.4

6.4

.319

.262

.321

.393

.714

.131

.317

103

Cardinals with Bases Empty

PA

HR

R

K%

BB%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

3457

65

65

19.3

6.9

.280

.236

.297

.356

.653

.119

.292

85

Let's look at the yawning gap in results using our formula from above. By and large, the same players were batting, which eliminates most of the potential difference in skill. (Having Matt Carpenter lead off and bat after the pitcher is going to limit the number of times one of the league's best batsmen digs in with RISP, but that probably cuts against the team's overall numbers with the bases empty being so poor.) The similar player pool also likely eliminates a large portion of any potential mechanical differences. This leads us to the third factor of approach.

The Cardinals' philosophy is to get into hitter's counts and drive the ball. There also is apparently an inclination to sacrifice power for more opportunities with men on, as Mabry suggests. These philosophies come off as universal to me in the quotes, meaning that they aren't necessarily specific to any single hitting situation. And there's no reason to believe that such an approach wouldn't be equally applicable to batting with the bases empty as doing so with RISP. Get into hitter's counts, drive the ball, and get on base to generate traffic on the base paths—those are sound goals no matter the situation.

The Redbirds' huge split gap makes me wonder if we've been framing their 2013 batting performance correctly. Instead of asking whether the Cardinals can duplicate their 2013 success with RISP or examining how they experienced that success, we should be considering why the Redbirds' collective batting approach was so horrible with the bases empty. Or, better still, we should be attempting to reconcile the yawning gap the club exhibited last year between batting with RISP and no one on. And any attempt to answer that inquiry will lead us to the last factor of our results formula: (mis)fortune. Specifically, timing. If I were a betting man, I'd wager the Cards will have more hits fall with no one this year than a year ago and fewer with runners in scoring position.

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