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The 2014 Cardinals: A less interesting contender

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One preseason preview called the Cardinals "the most interesting contender" because of a unique batted ball profile. So did they live up to that billing? (Hint: No.)

Harry How

Just before Opening Day, Tony Blengino at Fangraphs wrote a preview of the 2014 Cardinals that caught my eye, calling the team "the most interesting contender."

Every team seemingly has multiple high-K, low-BB, go-for-the-pump pull hitters in its lineup... There is, contrary to popular belief, more than one way to build a productive offense, and the Cards have done so by minimizing negative events like K's, popups and weak grounders, while maximizing relatively unsexy positive events like line drives.

Blengino went on to note that the Cardinals hit to all fields, pulling the ball less than the league average (especially from the right side). They hit the most line drives of any team in the NL, and were second in all of baseball to only the Tigers, who, because of a bizarre rule change, don't require their pitcher to bat. While Blengino acknowledged an alarmingly high ground ball rate in 2013, he argued that the Cardinals propensity to hit to all fields meant a relatively lower percentage of those were weakly rolled-over grounders.

What really stuck with me was the idea that this wasn't just some statistical blip, but that the team was actively seeking out players with a certain undervalued hitting profile, in the same way that circa 2000 Billy Beane actively sought fat guys and Parks & Rec co-stars. As more traditional mashers like Pujols and Edmonds had given way to guys like Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig, the notion seemed to jibe with what I was seeing on the field. It also lines up with the general perception of John Mabry's philosophy as a hitting coach.

So after watching the team struggle to score runs all season, I thought I'd look back at how their 2014 performance matched up with that unique profile Blengino touted before the season.

Pull Ratio

The ratio of balls hit to each field is the same. Exactly the same. I was going to produce matching side-by-side pie charts, but trust me, the 2014 Cardinals hit the same proportion of balls - pulled, opposite field and up the middle - as they did in 2013. So just as Blengino noted, they hit the ball to all fields better than most teams... but there was a problem.

While the pull ratios were the same, the batting average on those balls was not. For lefties, the averages were fairly close, and in fact the batting average for lefties on pulled balls was exactly the same. Right handers were a different story.

Batting Average by Trajectory for Right Handed Hitters


2013

2014

Pulled

.363

.339

Up the Middle

.320

.293

Opposite Field

.305

.305

While they went to the opposite field at the same rate and with the same success, the 2014 Cardinals right handed batters were far less successful when they pulled the ball or went up the middle. So while the team was still knocking balls to all fields, the results were markedly worse. So what was the quality of that contact?

Blengino pegged the Cardinals as a team whose quality line drive contact (coupled with a low strikeout rate) made up for less ideal ground ball and fly ball rates. But in 2013, those rates moved in the wrong direction.

Contact Rates


2013

2014

Ground ball

45%

47%

Line drive

23%

21%

Fly ball

32%

32%

HR/FB

8.7

7.6

2% of those line drives the team hit in 2013 became ground balls. In counting terms, the team hit 100 more balls on the ground in 2014. This wasn't a bad lineup in terms of line drive contact. They dropped from first in the NL only down to 3rd. Unfortunately, they also dropped to 7th in terms of ground ball percentage, and while they hit exactly the same percentage of fly balls in 2014, their HR/FB rate dropped by more than a point, making it the worst in the National League.

***

To what extent this hitting profile is a conscious approach the team is pursuing or simply the lot they've been dealt is open for debate. If we accept that this is a conscious approach, 2013 would seem to be evidence it can work. But the margin of error is slim. When a few of the hard hit line drives turn into soft grounders, coupled with a decrease in the already low home run production, the team is burning the candle at both ends.