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Which Cardinals Have the Best Approach at the Plate?

Only 2 Cardinals swing at more strikes and take more balls than the average hitter.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot of nuance when it comes to plate approach. I want to be clear about that up front because I won’t be getting into all of it in this article. Broadly speaking it refers to which pitches a player swings at and which ones he doesn’t so today I want to look at plate approach in the simplest of ways. Namely, does a player take balls and swing at strikes?

Simple enough, right?

So who do you think is the best at this? If you’re thinking of names like Brendan Donovan, Lars Nootbaar, or Paul Goldschmidt, you would be wrong.

In 2023 the Cardinals had only 2 players better than the league average in both chase rate and in-zone swing rate - Dylan Carlson and Nolan Gorman.

There’s a lot more to dive into than just that fact, though, which is why I made the graph below. So take a good look at where every player lands on the graph and then we’ll dive into some things about the graph that stood out to me.

Takeaway #1 - There are different ways to have success

There a few things that really stand out about this graph for me. The first was brought up by Kyle Reis when I posted this graph on Twitter.

There are different ways for hitters to have success.

You can see that in the graph. In the top left quadrant we have our free swingers who can absolutely crush the ball and, consequently, should be swinging a lot (Contreras and Walker). In the bottom right quadrant we have OBP machines who never swing (and also make a lot of contact) and they add a lot of value by simply getting on base.

Would it be nice if, say, Jordan Walker shaved 5% off his chase rate? Absolutely. But the key is maintaining that in-zone aggressiveness so he can still punish hittable pitches. Walker can crush the ball so should be an aggressive hitter. If trying to cut his chase rate turns him into a passive hitter then he likely becomes a worse one.

The same can be said for a hitter like Lars Nootbaar but in reverse. Would it be nice if he was a little more aggressive on pitches in the zone? Absolutely. He can hit the ball hard too. He’s not just some slap hitter.

But if more in-zone aggressiveness means that he’s chasing a lot more too, then such a change may not be in his best interest.

That’s the nuance that comes with plate approach. Telling a hitter to swing at strikes and not swing at balls is much easier in theory than in practice and a change in approach is often a change in mentality. A more aggressive mentality means swinging more. Period. It doesn’t necessarily mean being more selectively aggressive. That’s the challenge.

So, back to my original point, there’s different ways for hitters to add value and you can see that in this graph. The sluggers slug and the OBP hounds walk and both are viable ways of producing at a high level for a hitter with a skill set that complements his approach.

Takeaway #2 - It’s possible to have success with a “poor” plate approach

Yes Nolan Arenado just had one of the worst years of his career. You might think his poor plate approach played into that but here’s the thing...he always has a poor plate approach. Or, at least, he has a mostly permanent home in the “poor” quadrant of the graph.

Quite frankly, plate discipline is not his forte.

Last year, he would have fallen into the “poor” quadrant too and the year before that he would have been right on the line between “poor” and “aggressive”. He simply chases a ton and isn’t all that aggressive against pitches in the zone.

He succeeds despite that because he makes a ton of contact (81.2% contact rate in 2023; league average was 76.3%) and because he possesses a tremendous ability to pull the ball in the air (37.6% pulled fly ball rate in 2023; league average was 24.9%). That helps him limit his strike outs and hit a ton of home runs.

So what’s the takeaway here? Having a good plate approach is important but it’s not everything. Some hitters can succeed with a poor plate approach because they have outstanding skills in other areas. Nolan Arenado is one such example.

Takeaway #3 - Nolan Gorman’s Improvement

The next takeaway I have is about Nolan Gorman. You may have been surprised to see his name as one of only two names in the “ideal” category. After all, plate discipline was a question mark on all of his scouting reports through the years.

Yet his plate approach has somehow become an underrated part of his game.

The big change Gorman made at the plate in 2023 was cutting down on his chase. His chase rate dropped from 31.1% to 27.7% which is what pushed him from the “aggressive” quadrant into the “ideal” quadrant.

He did have to sacrifice some in-zone aggressiveness as his in-zone swing rate also dropped 2%. That’s okay for Gorman, though, because even with that drop he remained aggressive while becoming more selective at the same time.

The other key is that he still swings at pitches he can punish. Gorman swings at nearly 90% (89.6%) of the middle-middle pitches he faces and put up a .550 wOBA against them in 2023. He absolutely obliterates the ball when it’s thrown in the spot and he knows it. In fact, his meatball swing rate was the 9th highest among all hitters with a minimum of 200 plate appearances in 2023.

That helped him put a run value of +17 against pitches in the heart of the zone. That also ranks 9th in the majors.

So you can see the key here. Gorman doesn’t let hittable pitches go by and that’s still true even as he swings less overall.

It’s no wonder he saw his walk rate increase by 2.5% and his wRC+ go up 13 points. He took a better approach into the box and it helped him have a big year in 2023. That bodes well for the upcoming season.

Takeaway #4 - Dylan Carlson’s Consistency

There’s been a lot of fluctuation in Dylan Carlson’s major league career thus far. His power has come and gone, his position has changed, and his spot in the outfield pecking order isn’t what it used to be.

Despite all that, Carlson’s plate approach has been remarkably consistent.

In Carlson’s first 3 full MLB seasons (2021-2023), his in-zone swing rate has always been between 67.2% and 68.0%. In that same time his chase rate has been between 23.9% and 24.9%.

Carlson’s plate approach is superb and it always has been. He’s been in the “ideal” quadrant for 3 straight years now and that doesn’t looks like changing any time soon. He chases a lot less than the league average and swings at pitches in the zone slightly more than the league average. The improvement has come in how often he swings at pitches thrown middle-middle.

In 2021 he swung 73.6% of the time. That jumped dramatically to 83.3% of the time in 2022 and then took another step up to 84.5% in 2023. For reference, the league average is 76.1%.

So Carlson has basically kept his pattern of laying off balls and swinging at strikes while swinging at more meatballs. There are some other issues with the hitting profile that have limited him but I wouldn’t be shocked if he was in store for a moderate bounce back season in 2024 if he can find a better BABIP.

Takeaway #5 - A deeper dive into swing decisions

This is where I need to mention some of the nuance that I haven’t brought up yet. A good plate approach is more than just swinging at strikes and not swinging at balls. Among other things, it’s also swinging at pitches in a hitter’s wheelhouse and not swinging at pitches in a part of the zone where a hitter struggles.

I wanted to start with that because I was a bit surprised Paul Goldschmidt wasn’t closer to the “Ideal” quadrant. That doesn’t mean he makes bad swing decisions.

Sure Goldschmidt doesn’t swing at as many in-zone pitches as we would like to see given his power and sure he swings at a below average number of middle-middle pitches but he knows who he is as a hitter and where he thrives in the zone.

These next graphs should help illustrate that.

So where does Goldschmidt like the ball? On the inner half of the plate. That’s when he’s at his most aggressive.

And where do you think Goldschmidt is at his best? The inner half of the plate.

The slugger knows where he thrives and he looks for pitches in those spots. Even if he does fall into the “Patient” quadrant in my graph and not the “Ideal” quadrant, that doesn’t mean he has a bad plate approach. A little more in-zone aggression would be nice but Goldschmidt’s patience allows him to take walks and his knowledge of where he thrives allows him to crush the ball when he does swing.

It’s hard to complain about that.

Closing

There are plenty of other takeaways and observations to be had from the graph I started this article with but I’m limiting myself to the 5 that I pointed out.

As you can tell from the graph (and as I mentioned earlier), plate approach isn’t everything. Still, this was a fun way to look at St. Louis Cardinals hitters and gain a better understanding of what they do at the plate.

I hope you enjoyed it. You may see more things like this in the future as I’m getting back into R and having fun with using baseball data to do so.

Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Sunday!