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Did anyone honestly anticipate this?

Let’s put some perspective on Ryan Ludwick’s first quarter of the season. After yesterday’s 2 homer, 3 RBI performance, he’s batting .336 w/ 10 HR’s and 28 RBI. That’ first on the team in homers and tied for 2nd in RBI – 1 behind Pujols. Not too shabby. However, he has only 116 AB’s and only 131 PA’s so far. Despite playing a quarter of the season and having as many homers as Derrek Lee and Ryan Braun, he doesn’t even have enough PA’s to qualify for the batting title.

 

Ludwick right now is 15th in baseball in VORP and 7th in baseball in VORP rate – VORP per plate appearance. Right now he’s averaging 10.59 runs created per 27 outs – 7th in baseball if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. Actually, that’s a lie. He was at 10.59 before his 2 homer, 1 walk performance yesterday afternoon. It’s certainly gone up after yesterday’s feats. He’s slugging .679 – 4th in baseball and his EQA is .348 – also 4th in the game. Though his OBP is a paltry .398, his OPS+ is 178. His OPS is 1.077. His isolated power is .348 – 3rd highest in baseball. By any measurable statistic, Ryan Ludwick has had a spectacular first 6 weeks.

Making his numbers even more spectacular is the fact that his raw numbers are so high (homers, RBI) and yet he doesn’t even have enough PA’s to qualify for the batting title. Of the top 30 hitters in baseball in terms of VORP, only 1 fails to qualify – Ryan Ludwick. In fact, Ludwick has taken only 7.3% of the team’s PA’s. This is the lowest percentage of team PA’s of any hitter among the top 138 hitters in baseball, as measured by VORP. (Kaz Matsui and Alfonso Soriano, 80th and 101st, respectively, have also taken only 7.3% of their team’s PA’s but they both have been injured and have served time on the DL this year.)

My point here isn’t to beat Tony up about Ludwick having so few PA’s, but rather to illustrate just how tremendous Ludwick has been so far this season. Imagine what his numbers would be like if he had Ankiel’s or Schumaker’s 151 AB’s rather than the 112 he had entering yesterday’s game. Still, at what point does Ludwick become an everyday player? If not now, when?

The Cardinals have had 1 day off this month – on the first day of the month. Since May 2, the Cards have played every day. In those 15 games, Ludwick has started 11 and subbed in the other 4. Even so, starting 11 out of 15 games is a pace to start fewer than 120 games during the course of the season. The way Ludwick is smacking the ball around, he should be option #1 in the outfield and yet he seems to be option #3. He has the 3rd most PA’s among the outfielders, behind Ankiel and Schumaker. The idea appears to be that they have to be written into the lineup ahead of Ludwick b/c they fill particular niches in our lineup. Ankiel is the CF and Schumaker is the leadoff man and b/c they seem, in Tony’s mind, to be the best fits for those roles, they are written in the lineup ahead of time and then Tony figures out who the 3rd OF will be. Ludwick’s performance to date strikes me as someone worthy of being an automatic inclusion into the OF and then they can choose from among the other 4 OF’s for the last 2 spots. Remember, he’s not just hitting well, he’s in Pujols company in almost every measure.

I wish I could say I saw this coming but I can’t. In fact, none of the preseason projections were even close to anticipating this kind of performance. Even the always astute LB, who in the offseason authored a favorable post about Ludwick didn’t seem to see this coming. Yes, I realize that it is a fairly small sample – 131 PA’s – but we are talking about a quarter of the season. It’s small but it’s not so small that we can’t look upon it and say, "Jesus Marimba, he’s having a hell of a good year so far!!!" It’s more predictive than Jayson Werth’s 3 homer, 8 RBI day , for example.

So why has Ludwick been so good this year. Is he more patient at the plate? No, not really. He’s seeing 4.0 pitches per plate appearance as opposed to 3.9 last year and 4.1 in his other big league appearances. He’s making better contact and striking out less, right? Nope, not so much. He’s striking out an astounding 30.4% of the time he comes to the plate – higher than the 23.8% he posted last year and the 27.4% he’s posted for his career.

It seems to me that he’s seeing the ball really well right now. Despite the fact that his # of pitches seen per plate appearance is the same as it’s been throughout his career, his walk rate is up slightly – to 11.1%. Last year it was 7.9% and for his career it’s 8.3%. His line drive rate is a whopping 35% and his infield fly rate is just 8.3%. Those rates are probably unsustainable throughout the season. Right now, the highest LD rate in baseball among hitters qualifying for the batting title is 29.8%. Last year, for the season, baseball’s highest line drive rate was 27.2%. 35% is huge. It’s not all luck as the ability to square up a ball the way Ludwick is right now is a skill. However, with the ebbs and flows of the baseball season, he likely won’t be able to continue spraying liners at his current pace all season long.

His BABIP is an unsustainably high .414 right now. There’s no way that can continue all season. Of course, it’s probably so high b/c he’s hitting so many line drives all over the yard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not attributing Ludwick’s play so far this season to luck. Quite the contrary, there seems to be a distinct improvement in his skills at the plate. As LB pointed out in the post I referenced above, Ludwick was, at one time, a top prospect – one considered by scouts to have the potential to turn into a very good player. It’s rare that it happens when a player is 29, but Ludwick seems to have emerged as an above-average outfielder relatively late in his professional career.

A couple of weeks ago, I was excoriated by many here for having the audacity to suggest that the Cards would leave fewer runners on base if they had more power in the lineup. In making that bold and brash statement, I suggested playing Ludwick more often, possibly at the expense of Schumaker. Needless to say, I won’t dare make such an absurd suggestion again. I do bring it up, however, to make 1 more plea to see more of Ludwick. He should now be considered an everyday player. The Cards have 3 others – Pujols, Glaus, and Molina. They should play everyday, or just about everyday and Ludwick should now be among them. I realize that it may mean fewer PA’s for Skip, Rick, and Dunc but the bottom line is that, right now, Ludwick is our best outfielder (offensively) and, so far, has been one of baseball’s best hitters.

That last point needs to be underscored. Ludwick hasn’t just been "better than we expected" so far this year. As all the numbers at the beginning of this post imply, Ludwick has been one of BASEBALL’S best hitters for the 1st quarter of the season. Yes, there are still about 3 quarters of the season left and yes, his OPS+ is higher than he’s ever had, even considering the minors. Yes, his line drive rate and BABIP are probably unsustainable and his K rate is too high. I doubt that he’ll finish the year w/ an OPS of nearly 1.100 or an OPS+ of 178. But 30 homers isn’t unreasonable, IMO. The improvement in his walk rate demonstrates, along w/ the high LD rate and relatively high % of HR/FB, that his strike zone recognition has improved as has his ability to square up the ball. There is, in my opinion, a measurable improvement in his skills that, though he’ll level off some, could enable him to become a very good major league outfielder but he’s going to have to be on the field for that to happen.

In the past, he’s always struggled w/ lefties and though he’s still been better vs. righties than lefties this year, he has hit 5 HR in 57 PA’s off lefties so far in ’08. And he’s gotta be better than Duncan vs. lefties. As we begin to fill out those All-Star ballots, you don’t have to be too much of a homer to punch Ryan Ludwick’s square.