Have the St. Louis Cardinals Changed Their Pitching Approach Under Mike Matheny & Derek Lillquist

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

"Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic." - Crash Davis, Bull Durham

After the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2011 World Series, manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan stepped down. The Cardinals replaced the Hall-of-Fame tandem with Mike Matheny as manager and Derek Lilliquist as pitching coach. Have Matheny and Lilliquist brought a change in pitching philosophy to the Redbirds?

There are many tenets of Duncanism. Throw first-pitch strikes. Don't walk opposing batters. Pitch to contact. Keep the ball down. Induce ground balls. The pitching-to-groundball-contact mantra has perhaps become most famous. To be a Duncanite is to be a pitching democrat, in the Crash Davis School of Baseball Philosophy sense.

Matheny, long praised for the way he handled pitching staffs during his playing days as a catcher, and Lilliquist, a former pitcher, have presided over a smooth transition for the Cardinals that has seen the organization graduate many young arms from the farm system to St. Louis.

Sports Illustrated touched on the subject during the 2013 season in a cover story authored by Ben Reiter. The article included quotes from Duncan himself. Adam Wainwright also provided insight into how Duncan's philosophy regarding pitchers with fastballs in the 90-92 range helped him as a player.

Upon arriving in Jupiter, Fla., for spring training in 2004, Wainwright began working with Dave Duncan, a former big league catcher who had been the pitching coach on teams managed by Tony La Russa since 1983: the White Sox, the A's and then, since '96, the Cardinals. Duncan had come to believe that in a game gone power crazy—the eight homer-heaviest seasons in league history were played between '98 and 2006—most pitchers only stood a chance by keeping their offerings down in the strike zone to induce grounders. "When a guy hits a ground ball, where does he have to hit it to get an extra-base hit?" the 67-year-old Duncan asks, as he has during hundreds of coaching sessions. "Down the first base line, down the third base line. However, if the ball is hit in the air, you have all kinds of opportunities to get extra-base hits."

Baseball's latest construction boom fed Duncan's philosophy too. "They began building all these new ballparks over the last 25 years, and they were bandboxes," says Duncan. "At the same time, we went through this period when it seemed like just about everybody could hit a home run." (Read: the steroid era.) "All of a sudden, you have 160-pound second basemen hitting opposite-field home runs, and you go, Oh, wait a minute, we gotta do something about this."

The problem was that almost every pitcher was reaching the major leagues by virtue of his four-seam fastball. "It's really a comfortable pitch to throw, the grip feels good, the release feels good, everything about it feels good," Duncan says. But most of those offerings were no longer good enough. "The majority of the pitchers that you came across fit into the category of average velocity, 90- to 92-mile-an-hour fastballs, straight as a string. And 90- to 92-mile-an-hour fastballs that had no movement on them were basically a hitter's delight."

Duncan's genius did not lie in his realization that his pitchers should minimize, and sometimes abandon, their four-seamers for two-seamers—either a cutter, gripped slightly on the outside of the baseball, or a sinker, gripped slightly on the inside—which impart a downward movement, thereby yielding more grounders. His genius lay in his ability to persuade pitchers to try it, and to help each get the hang of it in his own way. "They gotta tinker," he says. "That's the only thing that works."

Wainwright, his career stalling, was up for tinkering. "What did I have to lose?" he says. Three seasons after he was traded to the Cardinals, Wainwright closed out the final game of the 2006 World Series against the Tigers. He did so behind a rotation that included no starter whose fastball averaged more than 92 mph and which ranked 26th in the majors in strikeouts but third in ground ball percentage.

After reading this story, I wrote in my handy, dandy notebook that I should compare the Cardinals pitching staff profiles from the Duncan era and the two years of the Matheny-Lilliquist regime. Unfortunately, Fangraphs only has batted-ball profiles dating back to 2002 (as opposed to 1996, La Russa and Duncan's first in St. Louis). But the information on Cardinals pitching staff batted ball, strikeout, and walks still gives us ten years of Duncanism to compare to two post-Duncan years.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS TEAM PITCHING STATS (2002-13)

Year

K%

Rank

BB%

Rank

LD%

Rank

FB%

Rank

GB%

Rank

2002

16.5%

17

8.9%

15

21.3%

17

35.0%

18

43.6%

14

2003

15.2%

22

8.0%

23

22.4%

16

36.5%

7

41.1%

24

2004

17.1%

13

7.2%

26

18.7%

20

33.1%

29

48.2%

1

2005

16.1%

15

7.3%

24

19.6%

26

29.7%

30

50.7%

1

2006

15.7%

24

8.1%

17

19.5%

20

34.2%

26

46.3%

4

2007

15.0%

29

8.1%

19

19.0%

8

37.6%

17

43.5%

16

2008

15.3%

27

7.9%

23

20.8%

8

33.9%

25

45.3%

8

2009

17.2%

20

7.6%

29

18.2%

28

32.0%

30

49.8%

1

2010

17.8%

19

7.8%

27

17.7%

23

32.8%

29

49.5%

2

2011

17.7%

22

7.2%

28

19.8%

11

32.5%

29

47.7%

1

2012

19.8%

15

7.1%

26

21.7%

6

29.8%

30

48.5%

1

2013

20.5%

10

7.4%

23

20.1%

29

31.4%

27

48.5%

2

A quick note on the "Ranks" columns. These show where the Cardinals ranked among the MLB teams in each category, with the highest percentage ranking first and the lowest ranking 30th. Sometimes ranking highly is good, like in strikeout rate (K%). Other times, it's bad. Like in the case of walk rate (BB%).

The numbers on this chart make the Cardinals' pitching philosophy seem pretty clear. It's just as Lilliquist told SI, which Reiter dubbed a "hybrid." The Redbirds want to continue to attack down in the zone, but recognize that some of their pitchers have the stuff to also attack up in the zone. To put it another way: Induce grounders down, but don't be afraid to attack up for the swinging strike. The Matheny-Lilliquist staffs appear to have rejected pitching democracy or fascism as a false choice. They're happy to be both, as indicated by the continued high groundball rates and the rising strikeout rates.

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