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Patience a Virtue for Gyorko, Cardinals

Patience at the plate gives us hope that Gyorko’s fantastic start to 2018 stabilizes.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Friday night was a landmark moment for the contingent of Cardinal fans supporting the case of Jedd Gyorko playing everyday. It was the first time the 29-year-old started three consecutive games this year, the product of numerous factors, including the perplexing batted-ball results of Matt Carpenter’s season, but also one narrative nearly impossible to resist.

After a 3-for-5 game in which multiple Cardinals, including Gyorko, went yard against southpaw Eric Lauer, Goold’s tweet hit the internet. Unfortunately, Saturday and Sunday for Gyorko were less exciting, as the former Padre went 1-for-10 with a single, pouring some cold water on the never-ending “revenge” series that started in 2016 when Gyorko hit six home runs in 25 at-bats versus his former club.

Unconventional storylines aside, Gyorko’s start to 2018 has been good enough for the small contingent to grow into a legitimate movement, easily supported when realizing the mediocrity of Kolten Wong on top of Carpenter. But is there anything askew about Gyorko in 2018 that answers the big question: why is this year any different?

Fangraphs Steamer projection doesn’t think so, pegging Gyorko for less than 100 games for the first time in his career, with a home run total south of 20, even though his pace would suggest a new career high.

Contrary to Fangraphs’ pessimism, the pro-Gyroko case starts with how much his walk rate has jumped this season, nearly double his career average to just below 18 percent. This feat is likely a product of the near six percent drop in overall swing rate Gyorko is showcasing, the lowest of his career.

One can consider swing rate variation as a product of a hitter’s adjustment, a pitcher’s adjustment, or more often than not, a combination of both. For Gyorko, a combination likely applies, but the components of that combination are interesting.

While he’s still seeing the majority of his breaking balls off the plate, pitchers seem to be targeting Gyorko at the top of the strike zone and slightly inside, a trend I’ve detailed in two of my past columns for a variety of pitchers across baseball (Wacha, Weaver).

All fastballs against Gyorko 2017 to 2018. Data via BaseballSavant; concentration of black higher in zone is 2018, center concentration is 2017.

Gyorko, however, doesn’t seem to be offering at these pitches, especially when looking at his concentration of fastballs swung at via BrooksBaseball. This could be one of the reasons for his increase in walk rate: maintaining consistency in approach when others have adjusted.

But it might not only be pitches up in the zone that Gyorko is laying off. A more blanket philosophy might be showing its stripes, working wonders for his effectiveness against breaking balls.

My affinity for creating gifs of heat maps over periods of time is sometimes to visualize small points of interest (like pitchers elevating against Gyorko above), but often to show more eye-opening changes, like Gyorko’s improved discipline in another part of the zone, this time against breaking balls.

Swings and misses against curveballs and sliders 2017 to 2018. Data via BaseballSavant. Concentration on outer-third is 2017, concentration on inner-third is 2018.

He’s laying off breaking balls on the outer-third of the plate early in 2018, a deficiency for numerous other right-handed hitters, as the natural break of pitches from a right handers arm makes the endpoint of an offering the exact point Gyorko was missing in 2017. This patience has resulted in Gyorko’s overall improvement versus both sliders and curveballs when they are in the zone, according to a popular pitch value metric for hitters that sums production versus different types of pitches.

I will qualify a lot of this by saying we are working with a small sample of games and pitches for Gyorko. While walk rate is finicky below a 100 plate appearance sample - Gyorko was at 62 prior to Tuesday night - a hitter’s swing rate becomes partially representative of the long term picture after about 250 pitches (source: Fangraphs stabilization tool). This suggests we might have minor stability in Gyorko’s ability to lay off pitches outside of the zone, but the other components on the pitcher front can still do their part to neutralize the early advantage Gyorko has.

If pitcher adjustment occurs against the former Padre, I would expect some targeting low and inside to Gyorko. According to our second heat map gif above, this is the one part of the zone he’s swinging through early against breaking balls this year, and also when looking in the prior year, was still a hole in his swing.

Our very own STLCardsFan4 wrote about Gyorko’s proficiency against left-handed pitchers, a consistent point across his entire career. As the natural break of curveballs and sliders from lefties results in pitches targeted at Gyorko’s back foot, this down-and-in hole could be another target for the handedness of pitcher rocked by Gyorko early. The theory with pounding a hitter inside is limiting the extension of his hands, preventing the ability to drive pitches unless utilizing one’s hands in an exceptionally quick manner (like Kris Bryant did on this home run versus the Cardinals). But the issue with targeting low and in is running the risk of command failing and missing out over the plate.

Pitching is a game of chess with hitters, Gyorko is set up well to inspire hope of prolonged success, but it’s currently the league’s turn to adjust back to a hitter that many think should be playing every day.

I’ll leave you this week with an interesting continuation of the point discussed regarding Gyorko above, unearthed as I was sifting through Gyorko’s 2018 data, particularly on the point of patience at the plate.

Five Cardinals sit inside the top 25 percent of baseball in terms of taking pitches, Gyorko would be sixth if he was considered a qualified hitter (117+ plate appearances). A top the leaderboard is hitter Jack Flaherty neutralized well in his start Tuesday night, Joe Mauer.

Data via Fangraphs

There was rumors during Spring Training that Mike Maddux wanted his starters to elevate more, spurring my interest in whether pitchers, even with their uniqueness, can still embrace over-arching trends. That same wonder can apply to Cardinals in the early part of 2018, especially considering only Pham and Carpenter sat inside the 75th percentile of the league among qualified hitters for swing percentage.

While the league trends towards three true outcomes, the Cardinals seem to be embracing the component of patience that leads to a strong amount of walks, as the team possess the fourth largest discrepancy between team average and team OBP (the only team of the top 10 on this discrepancy with a team average below .240).

Gyorko is doing his part to maintain this philosophy.

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