It’s not easy to feel encouraged with the way the Cardinals offense is hitting this year. To extremely badly paraphrase Biggie Smalls, if it ain’t one thing, it’s another (something) other. Tommy Pham starts out hot? The other outfielders can’t hit. Matt Carpenter recovers? Paul DeJong breaks his thumb. Ozuna’s back? Now Pham’s terrible! At this point I’m ready to try anything*. There’s one thing the Cardinals are doing consistently, though. It’s a thing that I think they should do more as a team, and it’s also something that gives me an excuse for a Craig Edwards headline callback. The Cardinals are not messing around when it comes to hitting high fastballs.
*: Except hitting Yadi third
Let’s speak in generalities first. The Cardinals have hit for the second-best wOBA in baseball on high fastballs, whether in or out of the zone. They’re behind only the Astros, who might be the best hitting team in the last 25 years. This also includes pitchers hitting- if you strip out those at-bats from both teams, they’re basically tied. You could trot out a lineup of eight hitters who are above-average against them, like so:
Cardinals vs. High Fastballs, 2018
There’s an aspect of flukiness to this performance, for sure. Molina and DeJong didn’t do nearly as well against high heat last year, and we don’t exactly have much data on Bader. That said, I mostly buy it. The Cardinals aren’t full of uppercut hitters trying to feast on low fastballs. If anything, they are a collection of old-school swings, with pretty level paths to the ball overall. Even Carpenter, who has had a high-profile flirtation with trying to hit for more loft, isn’t exactly golfing out there. This is a skill that’s becoming more important in baseball recently. Even as pitchers across the league throw less fastballs and more breaking pitches, the share of high fastballs among all pitches has been increasing. As recently as 2016, about 22% of all pitches thrown were fastballs up. We’re up above 24% this season, as word has gotten out about the air ball revolution and the new lively ball. Pitchers are avoiding fastballs low, and the result is excellent for the Cardinals’ stable of high ball hitters. It was excellent for them last year, albeit not to the same extent, but they’ve hit a new gear this year.
What can the Cardinals do with this information? Well, they can start hunting high fastballs more. It certainly can’t hurt to try- they do a ton of damage at these pitches while swinging at a league-average rate on pitches up in the zone, so why not take a few more hacks? This is especially important because teams are starting to throw the Cardinals fewer of these pitches. 22.5% of the pitches they’ve seen this year have been elevated fastballs, below league average and below last year’s rate. In addition, the NL Central is a great place to try this strategy. The Brewers, Cubs, and Pirates all throw an above-average amount of these pitches, and the Reds are barely below average.
Okay, so the Cardinals should try to hit more of these pitches. They’re good at that. What does that do for you, the reader? Not much, really. So let’s get into what these pitches look like, and how to identify where the hot zones are and what kind of swings to look for. First, here’s the location of all these pitches so far this year:
Okay, that’s straightforward enough. There’s no particular zone where pitchers have attacked more- it’s just the generic upper third of the strike zone. What kind of swings are best against that? Well, this:
Both of these swings have the head of the bat on the ball, both have a flat enough swing that they’re not missing under it, and DeJong especially is hitting the ball right on the plane of his swing. In case you were curious, DeJong hit a homer and Carpenter a fly ball that went for a double on those two swings.
There’s a dark side to this analysis. It’s not contained in those images above, or in the chart of how well all the Cards do against high fastballs. It’s more of a case of what’s not there. The Cardinals are basically the best in baseball at hitting high fastballs. Their offense also basically sucks. It shouldn’t take much imagination to wonder how they do against low fastballs, and as you might guess, they’re terrible. They’re the worst in baseball by a good margin, actually. This is one trend the league has definitely picked up on- the Cardinals are facing more low fastballs than any other team in baseball. To some extent, this is just how baseball works. Teams have groups of advance scouts who figure out what their opponents are good and bad at. As much as they can, they try to make them do more of the things they’re bad at and less of the things they’re good at. Some of this also comes from the tendencies of the teams the Cardinals face. I mentioned that the NL Central throws a lot of high fastballs. Let’s clarify slightly- the NL Central throws a ton of fastballs, period. The four non-Cardinal teams from the Central place 1-4 in frequency of low fastballs out of all pitches thrown this year. Last year wasn’t quite as extreme; but the Cubs, Brewers, and Pirates were all in the top six leaguewide.
There’s hope. There’s hope in all baseball, of course. It’s an inherent part of the game. In this particular instance, though, there’s even more reason for hope. Namely, this hasn’t always been a weakness. I’m not even completely sure how much of a weakness to expect it to be going forward. If you synthesize the Cards’ dominance of high fastballs and weakness against low ones, they’ve been 22nd in baseball in wOBA against all varieties of heat this year. That’s basically what’s been dragging them down- they’re somehow 16th in team batting per Fangraphs’ wRC+ leaderboard, which means they’ve hit breaking and offspeed pitches at least somewhat well. They just aren’t getting the results they need on the most common pitch in the game. There are hints, though, that some of this has been luck. First, they’re not missing a crazy amount of them. They’ve run a swinging strike rate (percentage of pitches that result in a swing and a miss) of 7.8% in this sample, below the leaguewide average of 9%. The exit velocity of their hits when they do make contact is above league average. They’ve hit the fewest popups off of fastballs despite seeing more of them than any other team. All of these are pretty good indicators that they aren’t doing anything catastrophically wrong.
The final thing to look at in situations like this is xwOBA. I’ve described it in these electronic pages a few times, but for a quick refresher, let’s quote the Baseball Savant definition: “Every batted ball has been given a single, double, triple and home run probability based on the results of comparable batted balls -- in terms of exit velocity and launch angle -- since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015.” Well, if you look at how the Cardinals should be hitting based on xwOBA, rather than how they are hitting, things look much better. Their xwOBA against fastballs is 8th in baseball, ahead of powerhouse offenses like the Astros and Cubs. This doesn’t account for the shift, and that has been a real anchor on several Cardinals. Still, though, it’s encouraging. Does this say anything about the future? Not really. Starting tomorrow, the Cardinals might be awful against fastballs, or they might be great. The futility they’ve put on the board, as it were, in their lackadaisical first two and a half months of baseball is reflected in their record. Still, though, it would be a stretch to say they’ve been awful. They’ve gotten pretty bad results, and teams seem to be attacking their weaknesses. Their expected results, however, haven’t been as bad as I’d expect for a team struggling so much on offense. Here’s to mean reversion, and more high fastballs, for the rest of the year.