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Pitch Types and Offensive Under-Performance

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More breaking and offspeed pitches meant more problems for the Cardinals offense.

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game Five Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I posted an article that dug deep into the offensives struggles Harrison Bader experienced in 2019. Bader saw his 3.6 WAR dip in half and his 107 wRC+ plummet to a paltry 81. If you missed that article, you can dig it out of Bader’s “virtual trashcan” and give it a read because the research included there inspired what I am presenting today.

Harrison Bader was not the only bat in the Cardinals lineup who struggled lastyear. Almost the entire lineup, with the exception of Kolten Wong, finished at or below expectations, a fact that Mozeliak himself opined at the recent offseason media day.

If the offense performed below expectations in 2019, there are three questions that must be asked: why did that happen, who is to blame, and what can be done about it?

When considering why a player or a team produced at a certain level at the plate, offensive stats are an essential part of the equation. A low BABIP can help explain why a player’s batting average dipped unexpectedly. Line drive % explains why a player’s BABIP was low. wOBA can take all of the offensive events from a batter and assign a weighted value to them. WAR contextualizes batting stats with other skills demanded of position players – defense and baserunning. If you want a complete picture of what an offensive player actually did during the season, rest assured there is a stat for that.

The problem with those stats is that hitting does not occur in the clean vacuum of spreadsheets. It happens in the dirt of the batter’s box. Pitchers have a lot to say about an offensive player’s performance. If offensive stats can provide a detailed explanation of what happened on the field over the course of a season, the type of pitches a batter sees helps explain why it happened.

In any single game, the pitcher on the mound is going to lean toward his strengths. Opponents facing Adam Wainwright know they are going to see a very high percentage of curveballs – 37%, second highest among starters in the game. If they are facing former Cardinals Lance Lynn, batters know they will see fastballs 70-75% of the time, the highest percentage of fastballs thrown among starters. This specialization tends to even out over the course of a season. A batter will face hundreds of pitchers, all with different offerings, and see thousands of pitches of all types. The ratios of pitches thrown normalize into predictable patterns. A typical major league hitter will see about 60% fastballs, 30% breaking balls, and 10% offspeed pitches over a season’s worth of plate appearances, give or take several percentage points.

Just as there are pitchers who throw specific types of pitches, so are there hitters who have extreme strengths or weaknesses. These outliers will see pitches in different ratios than the norm. If a hitter is strong against fastballs but weak against breaking pitches, what do you think opposing pitchers are going to throw? This was the case with Harrison Bader. Bader’s wOBA against fastballs in ’19 was near .400. This is exceptional production. Against breaking pitches, however, Bader’s wOBA plummeted to .164. Knowing Bader’s kryptonite, pitchers just kept throwing breaking pitches. The centerfielder ended up seeing 37% breaking pitches on the season, among the highest rates in the league. This represented a 6.1% increase in breaking balls over 2018, all at the expense of fastballs. His offense tanked. Breaking balls are the reason why.

Armed with this information about Bader, several readers asked the inevitable follow-up question: is the same thing true for other Cardinals batters? Can changes in pitch type explain Matt Carpenter’s decline or Kolten Wong’s surge?

Intrigued by the question, I went full nerd, spending the week in the basement, downing Mountain Dew and binging on Cheese Puffs and Statcast data. I looked at Cardinals hitters who have played at least 2 seasons in the majors and earned a minimum of 350 PA’s this season. That included the obvious candidates in my sample: Wong, Fowler, Goldschmidt, Martinez, Ozuna, DeJong, Bader, Molina, and Carpenter.

With the exception of Goldschmidt and Molina, each of these hitters saw a significant change in pitch types from 2018 to 2019 and those changes had a direct impact on their offensive performance. For all but Wong, that impact was negative.

See, here’s a chart that proves it:

This core group saw a collective 5% drop in fastballs. This corresponded to a 3% rise in breaking pitches and a 2% rise in offspeed. Within this sample, the numbers vary in extremity. Bader’s dramatic change in fastball percentage is detailed above, but his delta was not the most pronounced on the club. Matt Carpenter’s fastball rate dropped by 7%. Dexter Fowler’s fell by 6.7%.

The steepest rise in breaking pitches came against Bader (+6.1%), Ozuna (+5.4%), and DeJong (+5.3%). Every player except Goldschmidt saw at least a marginal increase in breaking pitches.

Changes in offspeed deliveries were not so pronounced. The largest rise came against Carpenter (4.3%), Fowler (3.4%), and Wong (2.6%).

wOBA figures for this collective group are all over the map, which makes for a messy looking chart. So, I’ve included only the averages. Collectively, this group of core Cardinal hitters improved against fastballs over 2018 – climbing from .367 to .375 wOBA. Wong improved against fastballs by nearly 50 points – at least partially explaining his offensive bump. Fowler’s resurgence can be attributed to a nearly 100 point swing in wOBA against fastballs. Likewise, Goldschmidt’s decline is tied to a 65 point drop against the hard stuff.

Breaking and offspeed pitches were the team’s bane: collectively dropping from .285 to .270 wOBA against breaking and .275 to .254 wOBA against offspeed. While Wong, Goldschmidt and Fowler all improved their wOBA against breaking pitches, the rest of the core did not fare so well. Ozuna dropped .051 points against breaking pitches. DeJong fell by .075 and Bader by .076.

Several players experienced significant changes in wOBA against offspeed pitches. The most notable came for Carpenter, who had a 4.3% increase in offspeed pitches but an unfathomable .146 drop in wOBA against changups, the most extreme drop of the group against any pitch type over 2018.

Massive quantities of stats aside, the point here is quite simple: the Cardinals saw fewer fastballs in 2019 because they hit fastballs well: a .375 wOBA. Those fastballs became breaking and offspeed pitches and they did not hit those so well: .270 and .254 wOBA. The most extreme outliers in production by players on the roster – Wong on the plus side and Bader and Carpenter on the negative side – can be traced to significant changes in and performances against pitch types.

Maybe that’s an answer (though not the only answer) to why so many Cardinals hitters performed below expectations.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images

Who is to blame for the struggles against breaking and offspeed pitches? Many fans have asked if the Cardinals offensive struggles can be pinned on hitting coach Jeff Albert. It’s a stretch to suggest that a hitting coach, in a few short months, can significantly alter habits and tendencies that have been built into these players for years. At the same time, hitting coaches are responsible for preparing players for what they will likely face and developing strategies that maximize individual strengths. The data (and eye-test) suggests that Cardinal hitters were prepared for fastballs, perhaps expecting to see those pitches at the typical rates. If that had happened, the overall offensive performance would have been significantly better.

Unfortunately, it did not happen. Opposing pitching coaches, who can easily track this data in real-time, were able to effectively counter the Cardinals hitters by feeding them a steady diet of whatever pitch they were currently struggling against. Matt Carpenter, for example, hit offspeed pitches at an acceptable .307 rate in ’18. As his production against changeups began to drop in ’19, pitching coaches recognized this and they adjusted faster than Carpenter could. If Albert offered solutions to Carpenter, they proved ineffective. This has to improve.

Lastly, what can be done to make sure that this decline in offense caused by adapting pitch ratios doesn’t happen again in 2020?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

At the year-end press conference, John Mozeliak made a passing comment about the increase in breaking balls thrown league wide. If Mo is aware of this, then the analytics department and coaches are also aware of it. What are they doing about it?

Mozeliak acknowledged the club’s offensive under-performance and that they, as an organization, are struggling with how to correct this. While seeking outside help – through free agent or trade acquisitions – is possible, the club expects its own players to perform at their optimal level. Missed projections is a problem the club believes it has to fix regardless of how it builds the final roster.

“[This] offseason is no different than last year’s,” Mozeliak said. “We’re going to be very intentional on what players need to be working on, what they should be focused on. Clearly from an offensive standpoint we’ve put together a curriculum that we hope will help each of those hitters get to that next level.”

Cards fans should expect that curriculum to include a renewed focus on non-fastballs. Somehow Albert and his staff have to maintain the core’s ability to hit fastballs while also improving their recognition of breaking and offspeed pitchers. Oh, and the players have to actually buy into this curriculum. This seems like a tall task. That said, no single acquisition, however large, can affect this club’s offensive future more than its core players hitting or exceeding their offensive expectations.