There's a convention in blogging where the writer poses a question in the headline and then answers that question in the article. I just want to be upfront and let you know that I will not be presenting a definitive answer to this question.
But some recent comments by Kolten Wong did suggest a possible reason.
First, let me take a moment to state the obvious: The Cardinals are straight-crushing balls out of the ballpark. They have long since blown past their home run totals from any time during the John Mabry era. They are just three homers away from DOUBLING their home run output from the 2014 season. Their isolated power has jumped from .142 in 2015 to .191 in 2016.
Yes, a portion of this can be explained by the fact that power is up EVERYWHERE. If you've read Ben Lindbergh's work on the topic, it seems pretty definitive that the balls are juiced. A league-wide power spike began immediately after the 2015 All-Star game and has continued since.
Whether you buy the juiced-balls theory or not, the power spike is real - but that still doesn't explain the Cardinals. Again, the Cardinals ISO has jumped to .191 from .142 last season, and .116 in 2014, the last full-year before the spike. That's a 40% increase. The league-wide jump in ISO - while still very significant - is just 17% during that same period.
The Cardinals are neck-and-neck with the Orioles for the lead league in ISO. Last season, St. Louis ranked 24th. The rest of the Top 5 is largely unchanged, with noted mashers the Blue Jays, Orioles and Rockies among that group in both 2015 and 2016.
As we all wrung out hands about in the offseason, it's not like the Cardinals added any big bats during the Hot Stove. (Well, they did, we just didn't realize it was Jedd Gyorko.) And their spike is not the result of just a couple guys having career years - it is absolutely across the board.
Here is a list of Cardinals players who have matched or (in almost all cases) exceeded their preseason ZIPS projection for Home Runs as of today, Sept. 14: Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Aledmys Diaz, Jedd Gyorko, Brandon Moss, Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Tommy Pham.
That's basically the whole damn team. Even guys who missed significant time with injuries or in the minors are blowing past what they were expected to do in the preseason.
So in short: Power is up everywhere, but the Cardinals power relative to the rest of the league is absolutely skyrocketing. And that power spike has radiated through the entire team.
This brings us to that Kolten Wong interview.
About two weeks ago, Rob Rains published the most raw and illuminating interview I've seen with a Cardinals player in some time. Wong opened up about his frustration in riding the bench and not knowing his role on the team. Since the interview, Matheny has unburied Wong, and he's reminded everyone what a spark he can provide with his bat and especially his glove.
But one comment from Wong in that interview especially caught my eye:
From how I’ve played in the Cardinal system until this year, it’s a big change. We’ve kind of went more toward a power perspective which I fully understand but that’s not my game. It’s never been my game to be a guy who is going to hit 20 plus homers.
That makes it pretty clear that the Cardinals have changed their organizational approach to hitting, and that new approach puts a premium on the long ball. So how does that square with what we know of the Cardinals/Mabry approach to hitting in the recent past?
In 2014, when fans noticed the offensive decline after The Great RISP Run of 2013, Mabry told Derrick Goold "We read the stuff you guys say. We’re not against home runs. You just can’t go up there and swing from your bottom and expect to drive balls out of the ballpark with any consistency."
In 2013, the club reportedly introduced a series of drills in batting practice to emphasize situational hitting, with coaches calling out the base runner situation and hitters expected to change their approach to putting the ball in play accordingly.
Anecdotally, probably the greatest example of this "situational hitting" philosophy was the ongoing saga of Matt Adams trying to slap the ball the other way to "beat the shift."
So, if we accept that the Cardinals had favored a more situational hitting approach, can we see any evidence that has changed this year?
One number that jumps out to me is frequency with which the team is pulling the ball. During the Mabry era, their Pull % has fluctuated only from 36.2% to 37.8%. This year, it has jumped to 41.7%. That almost exactly mirrors their jump in ISO, that has moved the Cardinals from 25th in Pull % last season to the Top 5.
The Cardinals have jumped from 22nd in Fly Ball % to 4th, from 25th in HRs per Fly Ball to 5th. They lead the league in fly balls longer than 325 feet.
The change in the profile of the balls the Cardinals are hitting as a team is very real. Kolten Wong's comments suggest that change was in-line with a change in coaching philosophy. But is that enough to explain this unprecedented surge?
Personally, I'm always a little skeptic about the extent to which a change in approach can effect a player's production. Often, these stories of changes in approach feel like narrative-casting, which tell a nice story that lines up with a short-term shift, but don't hold up over time.
Ben Humphrey wrote a piece a couple years back which I think nicely sums up the elements that go into a player's production as: Skill, mechanics, approach and (mis)fortune. Skill is pretty much fixed, and there's nothing to be done short of sacrificing a live chicken about (mis)fortune. That leaves only mechanics and approach.
Aside from the stray Stephen Piscotty leg-kick, it's not like there's been a major overhaul in the mechanics of Cardinals hitters. That leaves only approach: The philosophy and mental attitude that a player takes with them into the box.
Perhaps the team has been collectively swayed by the preaching of Brandon Moss, who has been very vocal about how a shift in focus to his power game transformed his career. Early in his career, Moss felt pressure to put the ball in play, move runners along, etc. What he learned was that he provided more value to his team through his power game.
Stay back, look for a pitch to drive even with two strikes, rather than just trying to slap something into play... these are mantras a player can take into the box with them, and they can move the needle of their performance. But can they move it this much?