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How do the Cardinals Approach Two-Strike Counts?

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The two strike approach shines a light that perhaps their most work needs to be done elsewhere

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

We’re now down to twelve regular season games for the Cardinals in this odd, truncated season. If I told you in February that the Cardinals and Orioles would have the same number of wins on September 17th, you would have seen this season as a massive disappointment. And it has been, albeit not entirely for the reasons you’d expect. That comparison isn’t totally fair- the Cardinals have played six fewer games than the O’s, the O’s have had a surprisingly less craptastic team this year, the Cardinals had a Covid outbreak that cost them lots of production, and the season is going to have 60 games or less. C’est la vie. Baseball marches on. Today, I want to address something that came up in the comments of my Paul Goldschmidt article last week. In the comments, the Red Baron and a few others were postulating that the Cardinals are hitting more flares with two strikes, indicating a change in two strike approach. Anecdotally at least, I know Dexter Fowler’s rebound last year was driven a little by an increase in flares. Let’s dig into that a little deeper. How have the Cardinals approached two strike situations compared to the league since the beginning of 2019? And have they changed organizationally since Jeff Albert took the reins as hitting coach?

First, we have to collect two sets of data to see how Cardinal hitters change with two strikes. This can be easily done using Statcast’s search function. The first set includes how each team performs on two-strike counts. I’ve omitted full counts because 3-2 is very different from 0-2, 1-2, and 2-2. The second set includes everything else- again, omitting a full count. That would be the first pitch of a plate appearance along with 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 0-1, 1-1, 2-1, and 3-1.

We also need to define the ways they might be different. Data collected and shown here will include the following for both two-strike counts and all others:

  • ISO
  • wOBA
  • Exit velocity and launch angle
  • Swing percentage (how often do they swing) and whiff percentage (how much do they miss when they swing)
  • Batted ball types (GB%, LD%, FB%, and popup%, presented as a percentage of batted balls)
  • Quality of contact, per Statcast’s definitions. That means barrels, solid contact, flares, poorly topped, poorly under, and poorly weak.

I’ve calculated the difference between two-strikes and non-two-strikes in each of those categories for each team since 2019. Theoretically, each team has a different set of players this year compared to last. Obviously that’s going to create some bumps in the road here. On the other hand, we’re looking for general organizational philosophy, and we’re using the performance of the same players in two different situations. Plus, most teams will have a sizable amount of plate appearances going to returning players. In other words, it’s not perfect, but it’ll work as long as we’re honest about what’s being collected here. Also, in the sake of honesty, I couldn’t find a way to omit pitchers hitting from 2019, at least not without adding about nine extra steps. It’s a small disadvantage in these numbers for NL teams.

Finally, I’ve ranked each team’s difference in each of the categories. In a lot of cases, the lower a rank, the more the team changes in that category with two strikes relative to the rest of the league. The higher the rank, the more a team likely takes the same approach- and/or has the same results- as they do in non-two-strike counts.

Here’s how the Cardinals rank in the various categories.

Cardinal Ranks: Two Strike vs. Non-Two Strike Differential

Category Rank
Category Rank
woba 4
xwoba 9
EV 25
LA 24
Whiff% 19
Swing% 3
FB% 18
LD% 10
GB% 15
IFFB% 27
Barrel 3
Solid 30
Flare 8
PoorUnd 26
PoorTop 13
Weak 10
Barrel + Solid 24

Every team sees a major decrease in ISO, wOBA, and xwOBA with two strikes (duh). However, the Cardinals are one of the best teams- top five- in minimizing that decrease. Their swing percentage goes way up with two strikes. Their 18.4% increase in swing% is the third highest in baseball. Yet their whiff% is almost completely identical to non-two-strike situations, coming in .14% higher. In other words, they’re one of the most aggressive swinging two-strike teams in baseball but they whiff about the same rate.

Every team gets fewer barrels on two strikes (again, duh), but the Cardinals have the third smallest gap. The fact that the Orioles, Tigers, and Royals are also in the top five indicates that having a small gap here isn’t automatically a good thing, though Cleveland’s appearance at #5 helps allay some fears. The teams with the five biggest gaps in Barrel% since 2019, in order, are the Dodgers, Red Sox, Nats, Blue Jays, and Mets.

On the other hand, their percentage of solid contact collapses the most in baseball (down 2.9%). Combined with the barrels, their amount of solid contact and barrels drops the seventh most in baseball with two strikes. Some of that is mitigated by an increase in flares- the eighth biggest flare increase.

Their infield flyball/pop-up difference is fourth largest in the league, albeit in a good way. They hit about 1% fewer pop-ups with two strikes. The rest of their batted ball profile is fairly similar to non-two-strike counts.

To answer last week’s question, the Cardinals do seem to change their approach with two strikes. They swing more without sacrificing contact, they hit a few more flares, they pop up less frequently, and they get a few more barrels... although they get less solid contact. Add it all up and they’re one of the better teams in the league at minimizing the two-strike penalty in isolated power and overall production (wOBA).

This does not mean that they’re a good hitting team with two strikes. I feel like that needs to be in big bold letters. What it means is that their production with two strikes is closer to their non-two-strike production than most teams. If anything, it’s an indictment of their production before they get two strikes. Their wOBA in non-two-strike counts is 26th worst and their ISO is 25th worst. Those improve to 11th and 14th, respectively, with two strikes.

Now... is that different from before they hired Jeff Albert and overhauled a lot of their hitting instruction organization-wide over the last two seasons? We can compare their ranks league-wide in all of these categories from 2019-present to their ranks from 2017-2018. Here’s how that looks:

Two-Strike Approach Differences: 2017-2018 vs 2019-2020

Category 2019-2020 Rank 2017-2018 Rank
Category 2019-2020 Rank 2017-2018 Rank
ISO 2 14
woba 4 16
xwoba 9 28
EV 25 10
LA 24 10
Whiff% 19 13
Swing% 3 18
FB% 18 12
LD% 10 30
GB% 15 6
IFFB% 27 3
Barrel 3 25
Solid 30 1
Flare 8 26
PoorUnd 26 8
PoorTop 13 16
Weak 10 15
Barrel + Solid 24 6

There’s quite a different approach in the Albert years compared to the previous two seasons. The 2017-2018 teams swung less with two strikes and whiffed less compared to the 2019-20 squads. However, they hit more groundballs, popped the ball up more, and hit far fewer flares. Their exit velocity and launch angle were better with two strikes but their line drive percentage cratered. Their gap in overall production from two strikes compared to non-two strikes, via both ISO and wOBA, was about league average.

Pre-Albert, they took more of an all-or-nothing approach. When they made contact, they did very well, with lots of solid contact, flyballs, and good exit velocities. But the trade-off was more pop-ups and groundballs, and fewer line drives.

On the other hand, their non-two-strike production during 2017-2018 was much better. The 2017-2018 teams did a better job before there were two strikes, whereas the Albert teams do a better job of reclaiming value once they’ve put themselves in a two-strike hole.