The difference between the 2019 edition of the Cardinals and the 2020 version will hinge on quite a few factors. Continued excellence in the bullpen, on the bases, and in the field will obviously play a part. The health of the starting rotation and their ability to paper over any injuries is going to be a factor. More than any other facet, the easiest way to gain ground is with the offense. As we saw last month, the offense made some strides in subtle ways. For instance, they improved their league-wide standing in contact percentage, swinging strike percentage, and walk percentage. They were one of the best fastball hitting teams in baseball. Small steps were made. Unfortunately, they were undermined by too many strikeouts and power that ranked in the bottom ten in baseball. If they’re going to improve the offense in 2020 without any significant upgrades, the players in place must hit with more authority. How can they do that?
Allow me to introduce you to some data. Here are batted ball types by direction for the league in 2019:
wOBA by Batted Ball Type and Direction
With all due respect to the glorious production of line drives, pulled fly balls are a full 200 points of wOBA better than any other batted ball type in any specific direction. Production is in the air if you can get out in front of pitches. Here’s how the Cardinals looked in 2019, including their total fly balls, percentage of pulled fly balls, and how they fared compared to the league average fly ball percentage. It’s the traditional plus stat for pulled fly ball percentage.
Cardinal Pulled Fly Ball Quantities
The top five in ISO (min. 100 PA) this year were Marcell Ozuna, Matt Wieters, Paul Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong, and Tommy Edman. In other words, the five players who hit the highest percentage of pulled fly balls also hit for the most power. In the meantime, Matt Carpenter (-.100), Tyler O’Neill (-.097), and Yadier Molina (-.045) each experienced dramatic drops in ISO from 2018. Their PullFB% dropped 14.97%, 20.45%, and 13.08% respectively in 2019. The relationship between PullFB% gains and ISO gains is dodgy at best, but it’s hard not to think there’s a relationship there for at least these specific cases.
If pulled fly balls lead to the best batted ball outcome, generating more pulled fly balls seems like an obvious way to increase a hitter’s damage. Why not target pitches in the zones where you hit the highest percentage of pulled fly balls? That’s a topic Travis Sawchik covered for FiveThirtyEight last year.
The overall swing rates for Lindor and Ramirez have dropped. They have concentrated their swings in certain zones. They have better avoided getting out in front and rolling over off-speed pitches for ground balls or making weak contact at out-of-zone pitches. They are now two of the best fastball hitters in the game. They hunt fastballs and crush them.
How does that look for the 2019 Cardinals? Even combining both 2018 and 2019 data leaves us with incredibly small sample sizes for batted balls hit in specific gameday sections of the strike zone, but we can instead divvy up the strike zone into five areas: up, down, in, away, and center cut. Then we’ll divide their pulled fly balls by their total balls in play by each zone, against fastballs (four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter). Here’s a heat map with all Cardinal hitters over 100 PA, minus Yairo Muñoz (who I forgot until all of this was 99% done). When you see “center”, that’s the horizontal middle of the plate.
Again, the samples are small, particularly for someone like Edman or O’Neill. All of this has to be taken with a grain of salt. There are some fun nuggets in that graph. Kolten Wong, apparently, crushes pitches in from righties, and isn’t too shabby on pitches away either. Yadier Molina does a fine job of pulling fly balls against lefties, but only accomplishes the feat against righties on the inner third. Jose Martinez has struggled mightily for a few years now in pulling fly balls against righties. In theory, focusing on the hotter zones could help several Cardinals find more power in the air.
There are a few problems, though. First, the fastballs in that heat map weren’t the team’s problem in 2019. They had the fifth best xwOBA in baseball in 2019 on fastballs, and seventh best if we include 2018. Doing more damage on fastballs is always welcome but the larger issue was with breaking balls and change-ups. It seems they’re already doing what Sawchik referenced- hunting fastballs and maximizing contact on them. What they need to find is a way to adjust, effectively, if they don’t get the queso they want. In that case, they’ve completed phase one of improving their production, but now desperately need to achieve phase two.
The second problem is that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Zeroing in on certain parts of the zone will work for some hitters, but others will develop new weaknesses in their approach. Major League pitchers will exploit those weaknesses. It’s probably a signficant part of why the Cardinals struggled so much with anything other than fastballs in 2019. Players with less discipline shouldn’t compound their deficiencies by going all-in on specific zones of the plate.
On the other hand, players with better plate coverage and more discipline would be best served with this kind of selectivity. Fortunately for the Cardinals, three of the hitters who would benefit most from a PullFB% increase also happen to be hitters with great plate coverage- Carpenter, Molina, and José Martinez. Getting that trio to pull more in the air would be a big step toward improving the offense in 2020. Even generating 20 more pulled fly balls across the roster over the season could be worth a win or two. Using simple linear weights and the average results on pulled fly balls in 2019 yields 13 runs for 20 more pulled fly balls. Imagine infusing 10 to 15 additional runs into your run differential over the course of a season just from a few more fly balls from the right hitters. It won’t be easy, but there’s enhanced production to be gained with the roster in place.