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Making Contact

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One of the best features of the Cards’ offense last season was its ability to put the ball in play. Their NL-leading .281 batting average was at least partly due to their relatively low, 17.5% K rate – also best in the NL. There’s a lot, of course, that goes into that – pitch recognition, the discipline to take pitches out of the strike zone, and the ability to make contact w/ pitches they do swing at. If you make contact often enough, some of those balls will find holes. The table below illustrates the O-swing % (% of pitches outside the strike zone that a player swings at), the Z-swing % (% of pitches inside the strike zone a player swings at), contact % (% of balls swung at with which the batter made contact), and K rate for the major contributors to the ’08 team.

O-swing % Z-swing % Contact % K %
Glaus 15 63.3 78.4 19.1
Duncan 21 69.8 77.1 23.4
Albert 21.6 63.8 90.1 10.3
Izturis 23.3 65.1 92.6 6.3
Ludwick 24.2 68.2 74.8 27.1
Schumaker 27.2 65.4 88.4 11.1
Kennedy 28.5 72.1 83.5 12.7
Miles 29.6 66.4 90.9 9.8
Mather 30.2 67.8 74.7 24.1
Ankiel 30.4 78.7 74.0 24.2
Molina 31.4 74.9 90.6 6.5

I’m stunned to see that Yadi swung at so many pitches out of the strike zone; it’s just that he made contact w/ damned near everything. That’s why his K rate was so low and his BA so high. You’ll notice that a lot of those high contact, low K guys are no longer w/ the team – Kennedy, Miles, Izturis. None of them offered much in the way of pop w/ the bat and they’ll largely be replaced by players who offer more power, but will yield some in terms of strikeouts as well.

Kennedy’s and Miles’s PAs will be replaced by Rasmus and Duncan – w/ Skip moving to 2nd – and though both have good batting eyes and won’t swing at many pitches out of the zone, they will swing and miss much more frequently than Kennedy and Miles. We’ll likely give up some BA in order to get more SLG…hopefully. Glaus will miss a month or so and be replaced by Mather (or Mather and Freese). Either way, the number of swings outside the zone figures to rise as does the K rate.

Then there’s SS. A lot can be said, and a lot has been said, about Izturis but he hardly ever struck out. That was about his only offensive virtue. The rest of his offense was just offensive. How else can you describe a guy whose dreadfully low OBP (.319) was still higher than his SLG (.309)? But … he never struck out. I don’t know which Khalil Greene is going to show up this season – the ’07 Greene that slugged .468 or the ’08 Greene that "slugged" .339 (both had OBPs less than .300, btw) – but I do know that he’s going to strike out more frequently than Izturis did. If he hits more like ’07, that’ll be ok. We’ll make up for the Ks w/ extra base hits. If he hits more like ’08, that’ll be huge hole in our lineup.

Greene’s K rates for his 5 full seasons in the big leagues are 19.4, 21.3, 21.1, 20.9, and 25.7 so expect him to strike out about as frequently as Glaus or Duncan. Last year he swung at an astounding 34.8% of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone. Only 13 major leaguers w/ 400 or more PAs swung at a higher % of pitches outside the zone. It was 29.2% in ’07 and has increased each year since 2005. Hopefully, he’ll catch whatever our other hitters have and will get that back around 20-25%. His contact rate last season was 75.5% -- lowest of his career – but not that far out of line w/ his numbers from other years. His contact rate’s fallen each of the last 3 years as well.

The big problem w/ Greene’s offense the last couple of years is his declining walk rate – it reached just 5.4% last season. This would have been the lowest among Cardinal regulars last season. Miles, Kennedy, and Izturis walked 5.7%, 5.8%, and 6.5% of the time, respectively. In any case, he’ll need to improve his pitch recognition this season and be more patient at the plate for him to return to being a productive offensive player. For what it’s worth, Greene has 4 BB and 2 K in 49 spring PAs. I don’t put much stock into spring stats – small samples, you don’t know the quality of pitcher their facing, etc. – but his approach seems to be much improved over the last couple of years.

Regardless, the Cards should probably strike out more frequently this season – if only b/c they’re replacing high contact, low K singles hitters w/ guys who have more power. If we’re able to add power despite the increased Ks, the offense will be better in ’09 than it was in ’08.