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The Cardinals Throw Too Many Fastballs

While the league is throwing fewer and fewer fastballs every year, the Cardinals fastball usage has stayed constant.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The struggles of the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff are well documented. At the time of writing, the staff ranks 22nd in ERA, 16th in FIP, 20th in strikeout rate, and 20th in fWAR. That’s below average all around.

There’s been plenty made about the lack of frontline stuff in the rotation and that’s certainly a fair criticism. I’m not going to focus on that, though. What I want to focus on is pitch mix because the Cardinals throw too many fastballs in a league where pitchers are throwing fewer and fewer fastballs every year.

I’ve pulled the last decade of data to prove this. (Obligatory mention to mind the scale of the graph because I didn’t start the vertical axis at 0.)

Now, to be fair, the Cardinals used to throw way more fastballs than they do now, and you can see how quickly the Cardinals went from nearly 65% to actually below the league average in 2018. Yet, that’s where things leveled off. The Cardinals have thrown a relatively consistent percentage of fastballs for the past 6 seasons while league usage has continued to decline.

In fact, league-wide usage has dipped below 50% for each of the past two seasons, yet the Cardinals have remained nestled right around the 52-53% mark for a little while now, which means the gap between the league and the Cardinals is growing every year (except for a slight dip in 2021 but I digress). That’s not ideal.

League vs. Cardinals Fastball Usage

Year Cardinals MLB Gap (Cardinals-MLB)
Year Cardinals MLB Gap (Cardinals-MLB)
2018 53.7% 54.9% -1.2%
2019 53.8% 52.3% 1.5%
2020 52.4% 50.4% 2.0%
2021 52.2% 50.9% 1.3%
2022 52.0% 48.8% 3.2%
2023 52.6% 47.4% 5.2%

If you want a graphical view of the increasing divide in recent years, here’s the same graph from above, but only going back to 2018.

The gap between the Cardinals and the rest of the league is widening and that’s not good. This isn’t an example of zigging while other teams zag, this is an example of being left behind. Every other team used to be like the Cardinals, pumping in fastballs over 50%, and even over 55%, of the time. But the game has changed as teams looked more and more at the numbers behind the decisions they were making.

Teams aren’t moving away from fastballs because it’s the trendy thing to do. Teams are moving away from them because they are easier to hit than breaking and offspeed pitches.

It makes logical sense that pitchers should throw the pitch that’s harder to hit. It’s why pitchers tend to throw junk when a hitter has two strikes, and it’s why hitters tend to swing and miss against breaking balls much more than they do against fastballs.

Going beyond simple reason, it also checks out statistically.

I was unable to track down the league-wide performance against each pitch type for last season, but Pitcher List came in clutch with an article posted after the 2021 season giving us just the data we need (even if it is 2 years old).

You can read the article here but what I’m most interested in is one specific table in the piece giving the league wOBA by pitch type.

Unsurprisingly the league loved hitting fastballs, putting up a wOBA of .350 against four-seamers and .349 against sinkers. Cutters were next at .315 but every single breaking or offspeed pitch came in below .300 with the changeup at .292, the slider at .269, the curveball at .263, and the splitter at .257.

Breaking balls and offspeed pitches are simply harder to hit than fastballs. Yet the Cardinals have had no interest in decreasing their fastball usage in the past half decade or so. And they should have a lot of interest.

By Stuff+, which, admittedly, is an imperfect metric but does provide a pretty good basis for evaluating stuff overall, has the Cardinals’ four-seam fastballs at 95 collectively. Sinkers are a hair lower at 94.

However, it’s the curveballs and sliders that stand out at 104 and 115, respectively. So why do the Cardinals rank 5th in fastball usage and 26th in slider usage? The answer is simple, an antiquated view of pitching. And it’s the entire view that needs to be revamped, not just part of it.

And that’s my whole point - the Cardinals have fallen behind when it comes to pitching.

The 5 teams that throw the most fastballs don’t exactly make for an elite list - Washington Nationals, Oakland A’s, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, and Toronto Blue Jays. As you would expect, none of those teams are pitching particularly well, with the Cardinals’ staff ranking the highest in fWAR at 19th in the league.

Top 5 Fastball Teams

Team Fastball Usage ERA fWAR
Team Fastball Usage ERA fWAR
Washington Nationals 54.1% 4.39 3.5
Oakland A's 53.2% 6.78 -4.1
Chicago White Sox 52.6% 4.89 3.0
St. Louis Cardinals 52.6% 4.49 4.6
Toronto Blue Jays 51.3% 3.99 4.5

Now let’s look at the 5 teams that throw the fewest fastballs. There’s quite a big difference.

Bottom 5 Fastball Teams

Team Usage ERA fWAR
Team Usage ERA fWAR
Los Angeles Angels 39.7% 4.15 5.7
Cincinnati Reds 39.9% 4.90 5.3
Pittsburgh Pirates 41.7% 4.04 5.5
Cleveland Guardians 43.0% 3.69 5.4
San Francisco Giants 44.0% 4.03 4.0

4 of these 5 teams, with the Giants being the exception rank in the top half of the league in fWAR. If we look at the top 5 teams in pitching fWAR, 3 of them rank in the bottom third in the league in fastball usage (MIN, HOU, ATL).

But let’s get back to the Cardinals now.

The team generally doesn’t produce pitchers with great stuff, instead focusing on ground balls, pitching to contact, and limiting walks. That’s more of an old school philosophy that has led, in part, to the struggles of the pitching staff this year.

Simply put, it’s hard to pitch well if you can’t miss bats (look no further than Adam Wainwright this year for proof of that) and fastballs generally aren’t bat-missing pitches.

So, part of the problem is simply a lack of stuff, but another part of the problem is a bad pitch mix. When a staff, and specifically a rotation, doesn’t have elite stuff, pumping in fastballs more than almost anyone else isn’t going to do the staff any favors.

I was hoping to see this change with a new pitching coach, but instead it’s been more of the same. That makes me think it’s an organizational commitment and not an individual one.

And it’s this commitment that is holding some pitchers back. I’m not too worried about Jordan Hicks or Ryan Helsley, who have some of the best fastballs in the game. I’m more worried about a prospect like Matthew Liberatore, who has thrown fastballs 61% of the time since coming back to the majors this year. And that’s despite having a knee-buckling curveball and a high spin slider.

This is the wrong approach for him, even if his fastball has gotten better.

So, why do the Cardinals, and a few other teams throw so many fastballs? There could be a number of reasons, but a big one is likely that it’s easier to command fastballs. Generally teams that like to pitch-to-contact do so because it can lead to quicker outs. Throwing a bunch of breaking and offspeed pitches may lead to more whiffs, but it may also lead to hitters getting deeper in the count as pitchers throw out of the zone more.

That may be the idea but that’s not always the case as the Cardinals rotation has routinely struggled to pitch deep into games despite a fastball-heavy approach. New pitchers may help with that but It’s not just personnel that needs to change for the Cardinals.

Obviously, getting better pitchers will help the pitching staff be better. That’s pretty simple. But to optimize the pitching staff, the Cardinals need to change their pitching strategy. It’s time for the organization to catch up to the rest of the league and start throwing fewer fastballs and more breaking and offspeed pitches.

This wouldn’t just help the major league staff, but it may also help some prospects develop into more consistent contributors at the major league level. The Cardinals more than a few pitching prospects with average or below fastballs, and getting those prospects to lean more on their secondary pitches could be a huge boost to their development.

Every year the Cardinals wait, the further and further away the organization is left behind from the rest of the league. The game is trending towards fewer fastballs and the Cardinals need to catch up if they want to improve their performance on the mound.