The St. Louis Cardinals have constructed a team that does well at putting the ball in play. And when the Cardinals make contact, they often hit ball on the ground. This tendency has been the subject of some study in sabermetric circles. Back in 2012 at Fangraphs, Jeff Sullivan first delved into the Cardinals' good fortunes on grounders. In that piece, Sullivan makes the following observation:
When you think offense and batted balls, you think fly balls and line drives. Fly balls for homers, and line drives for singles, doubles, and triples. This year, the league-average wOBA on fly balls is .352. The league-average wOBA on line drives is .679. Meanwhile, the league-average wOBA on grounders is .214. The league-average BABIP on grounders is .235. Grounders aren’t exciting, and grounders aren’t what drives an offense forward. Grounders are how you make a lot of outs.
That statement was just as true in 2014 as when Sullivan penned it in 2012. Here are the wOBA and wRC+ by batted-ball type for MLB as a whole in 2014:
FB: .335 wOBA, 114 wRC+
LD: .684 wOBA, 355 wRC+
GB: .220 wOBA, 35 wRC+
Liners are the most desirable batted-ball type a hitter can create when putting lumber to horse hide, but fly balls are where the power is generated. Isolated Power (ISO) is a stat similar to Slugging Percentage (SLG) except that it excludes singles and reflects only a player's extra-base hits. For a bit of context, the ISO for MLB as a whole in 2014 was .135. Here is the ISO by batted-ball type for all of MLB in 2014:
FB: .378 ISO
LD: .190 ISO
GB: .020 ISO
The Cardinals' 21.3% LD rate tied for the fourth-highest team LD rate in the majors last season. Their 46.5% GB rate was the seventh highest in MLB. The 32.2% FB rate St. Louis posted in 2014 was the 25th highest in the big leagues; or, the sixth lowest. The Cardinals' 1.44 GB/FB ratio was the majors' seventh-highest last year. Given that most power-hitting in the majors comes via the fly ball, it isn't surprising that the Cards, a team that hit relatively few flies last year, struggled to hit for power. The club's .116 ISO was the third lowest in the majors.
The Cardinals' struggles in the power-hitting department have caused them to makeover their bench. Gone are the light-hitting Daniel Descalso and Mark Ellis. Signed is the heavy-hitting Mark Reynolds. Upon the announcement of the deal, we looked at how Reynolds was an anti-Cardinals as a hitter, a bizzarro Birdo at the bat, because of his penchant for hitting for power, swinging and missing, and striking out. But Reynolds's batted-ball profile also represents the antithesis of what has become the Cardinal (hitting) way in recent seasons.
Reynolds hits very few grounders, just 36.6% over his career. During Reynolds's seven years in the majors, his GB rate has typically been about six or seven percentage points below the MLB as a whole. Last season, Reynolds posted a 38.1% GB rate that was 6.7 percentage points below the MLB's collective GB rate of 44.8%. Reynolds is a fly-ball hitter. His FB rate as a hitter has typically been eight to ten percentage points higher than normal. In 2014, Reynolds's 48.1% FB rate was 13.7 percentage points higher than the MLB overall rate of 34.4%.
Given Reynolds's 0.78 GB/GB ratio (which equaled his career ratio), it's no wonder that Reynolds's ISO of .198 was 65 points above the MLB's overall ISO last year.
Comparing the batted-ball profiles of the 2014 Cardinals as a whole and Reynolds reminded me of former pitching coach Dave Duncan's effort to persuade veteran Brad Penny to throw more sinkers during spring training, as reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by beat writer Derrick Goold early in 2013:
During spring training in 2010 as the Cardinals tried to indoctrinate fastball jockey Brad Penny into the organization’s philosophy of sink, pitching coach Dave Duncan and his staff kept a running tally for Penny’s benefit on a markerboard in the coaches’ office.
In one column, the pitching coach counted every fly ball allowed during spring, and in another all of the groundballs. Beside each was the number of extra-base hits in the air or on the ground. That number, so much higher by the fly ball totals, showed that when it came to pitches put in the air "extra bases are everywhere," a coach said. Duncan wanted to prove to Penny, who had the game’s hottest fastball for several years and an eagerness to flex it high in the zone, the benefit of staying down, down, down.
"Hell," Penny said later, "why I haven’t been trying to get ground balls all the time?"
Looking at the 2014 Cardinals offense, one might wonder: "Hell, why haven't they been trying to hit more balls in the air?" It seems that the signing of Reynolds signifies an effort to diversify their offensive attack so that it has a bit more aerial bombardment to it.