Heading into the 2018 season, the Cardinals front office knew that were behind the curve.
The team was coming off an 83-78 season and there was palpable downward momentum in both talent and performance. More organizations were embracing advanced analytics, not only in their player evaluation and acquisition departments but in major league dugouts. As a draft and development-oriented team, Mozeliak and team executives knew they needed to get more from the players they had if they were going to return to contention. They looked to modern analytics as one solution.
That winter, Mike Maddux, a veteran pitching coach with a history of success with the Rangers and Nationals, among other teams, became available. Maddux had a reputation for innovation with modern analytical tools – from video analysis to the emerging Statcast-style pitching data.
The Cardinals, who had a long-established trend of promoting from within, jumped on the chance to add the highly experienced and progressive pitching coach from outside the organization to Mike Matheny’s staff.
It was a risky move. While part of the justification for hiring Matheny was the young manager’s teachability, he had not responded positively to the front office’s increased reliance on sabermetrics. As the front office was moving increasingly progressive, Matheny became more regressive. Mozeliak hoped that filling Matheny’s staff with respected veterans who had a sharp mind for modern analytics (Maddux and bench coach Mike Shildt), Matheny would begin to embrace the modern game, whether he wanted to or not.
Narrator: He did not.
2018 was a managing disaster. Matheny was removed. Shildt was promoted to replace him, with Maddux alongside.
How has Maddux done in the role of pitching coach?
Evaluating a pitching coach is a difficult thing to do. There seem to be two approaches. One is to simply look at a club’s “pitching rank” from season to season to see if the overall staff has improved. Make a chart of team ERA rank in the league by season. If it’s better each year, then Maddux is good. If it’s not, Maddux is bad.
That’s not going to work for me.
A second approach requires looking at a variety of different factors – pitch types, pitch locations, arm slots, mechanical consistencies, spin rates, etc. – to see what has changed for individual pitchers working under a pitching coach. Those changes can then be collected to get a better picture of the coach’s organizational approach. That’s a much better way to do this. It’s also a ton of work.
Fortunately, the greater Cardinals community has writers who are willing to do that work and share it with the rest of us! Ben Cerutti over at Birds on the Black did a tremendous job on this subject back in June. He even updated it a little for us once he and I started chatting about this article. (See here.)
Go read Ben’s stuff. I’m going to assume you did and then build off of it in a more generalized way.
That brings me back to a piece I did at the end of the season. In this piece – Quantifying the Impact of COVID on the Cardinals – I evaluated actual team performance versus projected performance to try to determine the impact of COVID. What I noticed was that despite the extreme situation that COVID created, the pitching staff dramatically outperformed their projected stats.
That’s crazy, right? Even under the most extreme situation that a pitching staff has faced in decades, Mike Maddux somehow coached his arms to beat their projections.
So, let’s expand the study. Let’s take the top 10 Cardinals pitchers by IP over the last three years and compare their actual performance to their ZiPS projections. This should reveal the impact that Maddux is having and identify larger philosophical trends.
Let’s go to the data. We’ll start with 2018, Maddux’s first season, half of which was coaching alongside the regressive Mike Matheny.
2018: A Glimpse at What’s to Come
This chart is designed to be a visual. The colors matter more than the numbers. Here we compare K and BB rates, ERA, and FIP to ZiPS. The “Diff” category is the percentage of variance. Red shading is bad and shows a pitcher has underperformed projections. The darker the red, the worse the pitcher was. Blue is good, indicating a pitcher has overperformed. The darker the blue, the better the pitcher was.
In 2018, Maddux only had one offseason to install his program and he was working with a manager who was somewhat hostile to using advanced analytics. Still, they begin to reveal Maddux’s impact.
His staff consistently K’ed less than expected. That rate of change for most pitchers wasn’t large – most of those that declined, did so by less than 10%. On the other hand, the walks are extreme. Maddux’s staff walked everyone all the time. Somehow that didn’t hurt the club, though, as all but two players saw a drop in both ERA and FIP. Remember that.
2019: A Unified Organizational Approach
2019 is probably the first season when Maddux’s vision for the Cardinals’ pitching staff was allowed to play out without much interference. With the innovative and agreeable Mike Shildt working with Maddux on both installation of gameplanning and pitcher usage, there was significant positive movement. Seven of the top 10 arms by innings pitched saw an increase in K rates from expected. Walk rates continued to be a problem for Maddux’s staff, with 7 players seeing double-digit percent increases in BB/9.
Maddux don’t care about no walks, though. Not with Ks increasing and ERAs dropping. 6 of the 10 players saw a decrease in ERA. 4 of those were by 20% or more.
Interestingly, this drop in ERA (again), rise in BBs (again), and obviously systemic improvement in Ks corresponded with an organization-wide focus on improving team defense. Note that while Maddux’s staff showed significant improvement in ERA, it did not fare so well in FIP. Only 3 of 10 pitchers outperformed their FIP projections.
FIP minimizes the impact defense has on pitcher evaluation. Maddux’s staff intentionally and successfully pitched to the strength of the roster: fielding.
Do we credit Maddux here? Of course, we do. A pitching coach would have to be a complete fool not to take advantage of the team’s excellent defense in his approach to pitching. Intentionally pitching for more strikeouts might lead to more walks, but that’s not a problem when the defense and ballpark suppress crooked numbers on the scoreboard.
Maybe what we see here reflects an effort by the entire organization to implement a coordinated plan to maximize a relatively flawed roster. This is something the Cardinals did not see in the Matheny era. Credit Maddux for working with the front office and Mike Shildt to design and implement a pitching philosophy that would maximize the franchise’s strengths. The club rode that pitching philosophy to an improbable NLCS bid before the lack of offense ended the season.
2020: Maddux’s Philosophy Shines in Extreme Circumstances
2020 introduces volatility from two areas. One is the extreme training, coaching, and playing environment caused by COVID. The second is small sample sizes. Innings totals are far below norms and that causes the projections vs actuals to be extreme.
Still, that’s a TON of dark blue ink. After seeing an across the board bump in K’s in 2019, Maddux wasn’t able to double down on his success, though most pitchers stayed within 10% of expectations. Fatigue might be a factor here. Changes in usage — chiefly asking one-inning relievers to consistently go multiple innings — would cut K rates as well. Walk rates finally began to see improvement, with 5 of 10 pitchers outperforming their BB projections by 19% or more.
Then there are the club’s ERA and FIP numbers. Look at all that blue ink! Maddux’s staff dramatically improved over their ERA projections. The FIP numbers aren’t as extreme but are still very positive. Not only did Cardinals’ pitchers take advantage of excellent defense, but they weren’t quite as defense dependent.
In the worst possible circumstances, Maddux produced the best possible results in run prevention. It’s too bad the offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
Final Verdict: 2021 and Beyond
By results vs. expected, Mike Maddux has been nothing short of excellent in run prevention. Based on these metrics, he seems oriented toward generating strikeouts at the expense of somewhat higher walk totals, while trusting in the club’s strengths — defense and a park that suppresses offense. At the end of the day, runs allowed are what matters the most for a staff and this is where Maddux’s staff has excelled.
Improvements in FIP and BB rate have been slower, but signs are positive. It’s not that Maddux doesn’t care about BBs or that his approach is entirely dependent on a world-class defense. Rather, the organization recognizes the strengths of the roster and has implemented a pitching philosophy that accentuates those strengths.
Looking toward 2021, Maddux’s task is not getting any easier. The defense seems likely to take a step back. The offense isn’t likely to be any better. There will be a lot of pressure on the staff to continue to overperform in run prevention. He’ll have to do it with a “Johnny Wholestaff” approach to staff construction rather than 5 established starters and a bullpen in entrenched roles.
It won’t be easy, but Maddux seems like the right guy for the job. In some ways, he’ll get to take the all-hands-on-deck philosophy he developed for 60 games in 2020 and expand it to 162. With the talent he has, look for K rates to increase across the board again. BB rates could follow, but don’t count on it. ERA improvement won’t be extreme, but hopefully, the club will continue to show improvement in FIP actual vs. projections.
Maddux was a great hire. Better yet is the increasing alignment of the whole organization around advanced analytics and technology.
Now, if the Cardinals could just get their hitting to catch up to their pitching…