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3-2-1 Contact

The Cardinals hired a hitting coach this offseason to try and improve their ability to make contact. How is it going so far?

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

The 2019 season is exactly one-sixth over. So yeah, things are still early, but we’re also starting to get to the point where, if you haven’t done something you wanted to do, or something has gone wrong, it’s no longer as easy to ignore or write off.

It is also, though, easier to take the good stuff seriously, which is encouraging when your favourite team appears to be pretty damned good. Which, by the way, the Cardinals just happen to appear to be this year. They currently have a 17-10 record through 27 games, which translates to a 102-win pace over the course of a full season. Their Pythagorean record is just one win off their real record, and it was exactly even before Friday’s 12-1 Cincy disaster. We may be getting far enough into the season to start enjoying the results rather than completely hedging everything, but we are still early enough one really ugly game that gets out of hand can still throw your run differential way off.

Now, do I think the Cardinals are really a 100 win team again this year? No, not really. The pitching isn’t good enough, I don’t think, and while the positional side may, in fact, be good enough to support that kind of win total, there are still too many outfield at-bats going to suboptimal choices. Even if this is more of a 93ish win team, though, like I felt they were to begin the season, they’ve already banked a sixth of the season at a .630 winning percentage, which certainly helps their postseason odds.

Since we are now getting far enough into the season that some of this stuff starts to actually matter, and actually have some meaning, I was curious about one of the club’s primary offseason goals. Specifically, I have been watching, quite closely, the team’s attempts to improve their contact rate. Contact was one of the chief themes of the offseason; we saw the organisation bring in Jeff Albert, the contact guru who helped turn the Astros from an historic strikeout factory to one of the best contact hitting clubs in the game. The messaging was all pointed in that direction as well, with multiple people within and surrounding the organisation pushing the narrative that a big part of the club’s failures over the past few years had to do with a lack of contact. Too many automatic outs, not enough opportunity to move runners around the bases, not enough baserunners period because when you strike out you don’t even allow for the possibility of something good happening.

Now, I’m always a bit skeptical of putting too much credit on the shoulders of a coach or coaching staff. These are major league players, and they got where they are by being the very best in the world. It’s not easy to make changes at that level, and not necessarily even desirable much of the time. That being said, when the whole of the organisation is trying to pull in a certain direction, and the hirings and firings are geared toward a single goal, I think you can affect things. And as for how much difference a coach makes, maybe a single one doesn’t change that much, but if he’s part of a greater directional shift, and happens to be a specialist at the thing you’re trying to do? Well, there’s potentially something there.

So how have the Cardinals fared in trying to decrease their strikeout rate this year, and up the contact? The answer is actually pretty impressive.

Let’s look at a couple of the plate discipline component stats first. In 2018, the Cardinals, as a team, had an out of zone swing percentage (O-Swing%), of 29.9%. Swinging at pitches outside the strike is generally undesirable, both because you’re making the pitcher’s job easier, and even if you make contact those are generally pitches you aren’t going to do much damage on. So a lower number here is, generally speaking, better.

In 2019, the club’s O-Swing% is 28.2%. Overall, the team is chasing pitches outside the zone less often. So we have a positive indicator here.

In 2018, the Cardinals’ team Z-Swing% (that’s swing percentage inside the zone), was 65.6%. That number may not make a ton of sense without context, so I’ll add that the Redbirds were, by this measure, 25th of 30 clubs in baseball. Now, swinging at strikes isn’t automatically a good thing; there are still plenty of pitches you want to let go even if they’re called a strike. So this isn’t a purely this is better than that sort of metric. But, generally speaking, you don’t want to be watching a bunch of pitches in the strike zone go by. In 2018, the Cardinals were one of the most passive teams in baseball when it came to strikes.

In 2019, the club’s Z-Swing% is 68.1%. That may not seem like a huge difference, but it’s pretty sizable. It is worth pointing out that the Reds and their horrible offense are the most aggressive team in baseball this year in swinging at strikes, so again, this is not a guarantee of quality. However, if you swing at fewer balls and more strikes, good things are probably going to happen.

Perhaps a better illustration of the magnitude of change would be the club’s ranking. As I said, in 2018 the Cards were 25 of 30 in terms of aggression inside the zone. This year? Twelfth. In terms of how they relate to the overall baseball landscape, the Cardinals of 2019 are swinging at strikes more often than their 2018 counterparts.

Interestingly, the club’s overall contact rate hasn’t really changed much at all. The 2018 club had an overall Contact% of 76.8%, while this year’s team sits at 77.1%. So the overall change has been minor, even talking about a big number of at-bats and swings, where a small shift is still potentially a decently large number of occurrences.

There is an interesting little wrinkle to that aspect of things, though. The overall contact percentage may not have changed much, but the distribution of that contact has. In 2018, the Cardinals made contact on 61.4% of their swings outside the zone, and 86% of their swings on strikes. In 2019, the club is actually making more contact on pitches outside the zone, with the fifth-highest O-Contact% in baseball at 63.8%. The strange thing is that hitters are actually making less contact inside the zone, with a Z-Contact% of 84.2%.

This is a bit strange. The team is making better decisions, it seems, in terms of swinging at pitches in the zone and taking those outside it. They’re making more contact on balls, which generally speaking is probably a good thing, because contact doesn’t only mean balls in play; it’s just not swings and misses, essentially. If you’re making contact, you aren’t striking out. That means you either have a chance at something good happening, or you’re fouling a pitch off and getting another shot. But the lower contact on pitches in the zone is a tough one for me to square. It’s possible that we’re just talking about early-season noise, and this is one of those weird things that happens sometimes. It’s possible there are a couple players swinging and missing more often in the zone and it’s enough to skew the results. It’s also possible that the club’s hitting philosophy in general is trending toward more aggressive, damage-inducing swings at balls in the zone, and last year’s club was more defensive, in which case perhaps there’s less contact inside the strike zone, but the quality of swings being taken is better. I’m sure there are ways to try and tease that out, but I’m not sure of the best method to try and do so. Also, I’m not trying to go too much deeper into the weeds here than we’ve already traveled, so let’s just chalk this one up to, “We’ll have to wait and see how the season develops,” and move on.

So how has this all translated into a club trying to cut down on its strikeout rate? I mean, the contact percentage breakdowns are really interesting and all, but the bottom line is that the club wants fewer strikeouts, because they have determined that there is a real benefit to putting the ball in play, rather than taking the automatic out. Not to the exclusion of other factors, obviously; power and patience are still hugely important. But not striking out is better than striking out, is the current line of thinking, so that’s where we’re trying to go.

The 2018 Cardinals (I’m using non-pitcher stats for all this, by the way. Probably should have pointed that out earlier, but including pitchers just muddies the water unnecessarily, I think, because of how little importance is placed on them batting across the league.), finished the season with a strikeout rate of 21.5%. That was thirteenth-lowest across baseball, meaning the club was basically right in the average range. They were not a great contact team like the Indians or Astros, but neither were they a strikeout factory like the Phillies or Padres. There were eleven clubs whose strikeout rate fell between 20.9% and 22.1%, and the Cardinals were right smack dab in the midst of that group.

In 2019, the Redbirds are currently running a strikeout rate of 20.7%. It was actually better than that, 20.1%, before yesterday’s game against the Reds, in which Jedd Gyorko struck out twice and Paul Goldschmidt was rung up twice looking, which has been a bit of theme for him in the early going, but also feels like he’s getting a bit screwed. So there was a slight spike yesterday, and we are early enough that even one game of eight Ks instead of five can move the percentages around, but just know that the Cards were nearing 20% prior to yesterday’s game.

They currently have the seventh-lowest K rate in baseball, and before yesterday’s game it was fourth-lowest. There’s also an added bit of context necessary, in that we should remember the Cards actually got off to an absolutely terrible start in terms of hitting this year, and after the first week and a half or so they were striking out almost 28% of the time. The turnaround since then has been startling, Since the 10th of April, the Cards are running a strikeout rate of just 18.3%. That’s the second-lowest in baseball over that time, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers.

There’s one final component to this, which is that the 2018 Cardinals ran a non-pitcher walk rate of 8.8%. That put them fourteenth in baseball, just behind the Oakland A’s. The 2019 club, while cutting down their strikeout rate substantially, has upped the walk rate to 10.2%. It’s also worth noting that the Cardinals have raised their collective isolated slugging percentage from .164 in 2018 to .200 this season, again while decreasing the strikeouts, raising the walk rate, and just generally seeming to make better decisions about how to manage and attack the strike zone.

Obviously it’s still early, and these numbers can move around quite a bit still. There’s also an obvious caveat here in that the 2019 Cardinals are not giving at-bats to the exact same players, with Paul Goldschmidt representing an obvious positive and Marcell Ozuna doing a ton by himself to pull up the overall power production. We’re not so early, though, that it isn’t worth looking and trying to see how the club is doing in meeting one of its primary offseason goals. And on the subject of making more contact — as well as better contact, and being more patient, etc., but I digress — I think we can say so far, so good.