After the Cardinals' incredible hitting with runners in scoring position last season, much has been made of their situational hitting. Situational hitting can mean many different things. Often, it refers to batting with runners on in different out states. For example, having a runner on third and less than two outs, many players will try to hit a fly ball to get a sacrifice fly or simply make contact to avoid a strikeout. If there is a runner on second and no outs, some believe the situation calls for a bunt or a groundball to the right side of the infield. The effectiveness of those practices is debatable, but the most likely game situation where situational hitting is potentially called upon is when the count reaches two strikes.
Some players ignore the number of strikes and approach every pitch the same. This approach might lead to more strikeouts, but the tradeoff could be more damage done when a pitch is hit because the player is less likely to swing at a pitch he cannot handle. The alternate approach is to cover the plate and swing if the ball is close to the strike zone so as to avoid the strikeout. There is merit in this approach as well. Putting the ball in play means getting a hit close to thirty percent of the time. Last season, all hitters had a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .297. In two-strike counts, BABIP was still a healthy .293. Even in the most disadvantageous count for hitters, 0-2, BABIP was still .287. There is value in simply getting the bat on the ball and hoping good things happen.
Major league hitters last season hit .253/.318/.396 according to Baseball-Reference (unless otherwise linked, the remaining statistics come from Baseball-Reference). The Cardinals were an above-average team last season, hitting .269/.332./.401 for an OPS+ of 106. The Cardinals were in the middle tier in the National League in 2013 in terms of BB% at 7.8%. That lines up fairly well with their somewhat aggressive approach at the beginning of counts. They had 12.5% of their plate appearances end on the first pitch and 29.2% of plate appearances end within the first two pitches compared to the major league average of 11.1% and 27.1%, respectively.
When the Cardinals were ahead in the count, they performed at roughly league average or below. Baseball-Reference has a split OPS+ statistic on it's website. The sOPS+ statistic is the OPS+ relative to the league average of a certain split. For example, last season the Cardinals sOPS+ against right-handers was 111. The league average against right-handers is set to 100 so the Cardinals performance against right-handers is better than league average. When Cardinals' batters were ahead in the count last season, their sOPS+ was 100, performing right in line with the rest of the league. Using sOPS+, it is possible to measure the Cardinals' performance when they are behind in the count compared to the rest of baseball in that situation.
Nobody performs well in an 0-2 count. The league average slash line in 2013 was .152/.161/.215. The Cardinals were better, hitting .170/.179/.251 in 482 plate appearances which translated to an sOPS+ of 128. A couple factors played to the Cardinals favor. First, they were able to avoid having to hit in an 0-2 count. Cardinals hitters made it to a 1-2 count 59.4% of the time compared to the league average of 55.5%. Second, the Cardinals had a lower strikeout rate at 43.8% compared to league average of 49%, although this was not limited to 0-2 counts as the Cardinals 17.9% overall strikeout rate was second-best in the National League. The Cardinals performed at league average in 1-2 counts, putting up .159/.172/.241 in 862 plate appearances. In 49.7% of 1-2 counts the Cardinals were able to make it to a 2-2 count compared to the league average of 47.6%. While the percentage differences are small, getting to a less advantageous count for the pitcher makes a big difference in the result.
Relative to the rest of baseball, the Cardinals performed very well in 2-2 counts, hitting .201/.206/.303 which was good for a sOPS+ of 120. The Cardinals were around average at getting to a full count at 39.4% of the time compared to the average of 39.2%. In all two-strike counts, the Cardinals sOPS+ was 114. While some of the Cardinals situational hitting last year has been attributed to BABIP luck, the same does not hold true for the Cardinals ability to hit with two strikes. The Cardinals BABIP on two-strike counts was .311 in 2013 compared to .314 overall. This lines up fairly well with the difference in the league BABIP of .297 and BABIP with two strikes of .293.
The poster boy for the Cardinals is Matt Carpenter, who hit .290/.306/.464 last season when the pitcher was ahead in the count. His sOPS+ was a staggering 204 in 232 plate appearances. It might be easy to write last season off as a fluke, except it was the fifth straight year the Cardinals had an sOPS+ with the pitcher ahead in the count that was higher than the team's OPS+. Whether the Cardinals have taken a different approach to hitting with two-strikes, or the team happens to have a collection of hitters whose skillsets serve them better with two strikes, the Cardinals are able to gain small advantages on the rest of the league when they are behind in the count.