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St. Louis Cardinals: How sustainable are Michael Wacha and Randal Grichuk's 2015 numbers?

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Plus a couple charts regarding some common broadcaster musings about the shift.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

I keep a notebook on me and it has a list of potential VEB post topics in it. Many of the items on this list never get written up because I never feel we have enough information to give them the proper VEB post treatment. I wanted to touch on a few of these topics today. Instead of one post, there's three mini-posts in one.

Is Wacha's defiance of his peripherals sustainable?

Unsustainability has become perhaps the strongest indictment in sabermetric analysis. "Sure, Player A is off to a good start but look at his perhipherals. He's another Bo Hart." Or something like that. The question of sustainability has me chuckling uneasily while perusing St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha's Fangraphs page. He was at it again on Sunday vs. the Royals: 7 IP, 1 R, 0 ER, 4 SO, 2 BB, 5 H. Wacha actually lowered his seasonal K/9 from 5.51 K/9 (which ranked 111th among MLB starters with at least 30 IP in 2015 entering play on Sunday) to 5.46 with Sunday's start.

Since I'm writing this on Sunday and Fangraphs hasn't updated its leaguewide numbers yet, we're going to compare Wacha's stats including Sunday to those of MLB starters overall through play on Saturday, May 23. It's not perfect, but its imperfection doesn't render it so flawed as to be not worth considering.


BABIP

LOB%

K/9

BB/9

HR/FB

ERA

FIP

xFIP

Wacha

.232

85.1%

5.46

2.18

7.1%

1.87

3.65

4.08

MLB SP

.295

71.6%

7.26

2.79

10.9%

4.08

3.99

3.94

First, a 1.87 starter ERA is almost assuredly unsustainable going forward for any pitcher—even if he had a 1.87 FIP, 1.87 xFIP, league-average LOB%, and league-average BABIP. The reason? It's really hard to hold opponents to that low a runs-scored total over 50 innings and next to impossible over 175 or 200. That's the first layer of sustainability. Even if a pitcher has pitched brilliantly for a stretch, he's unlikely to maintain it. Unfortunately, Wacha hasn't pitched all that brilliantly, which brings us to the second layer of the sustainability inquiry: peripherals.

Joe wondered about Wacha's reduced strikeout rate earlier in the year, and I don't want to belabor the point. But it's worth noting that he has gone from having a K/9 over 8 pre-shoulder injury to one that is sub-5 this season. It's like he's Joe Kelly, but without the sinker. So far the more democratic approach has worked well in the end. But can we really expect a starter with a 5.46 K/9 to maintain a BABIP against so far below the major-league norm or a sky-high strand rate? Probably not. Wacha's FIP and xFIP both indicate that his ERA will rise in the months ahead if he continues on his current strikeout, walk, HBP, and IP trajectories. xFIP indicates a more foreboding future if we include a league-average HR rate. Luckily, Wacha plies his trade at Busch III, which suppresses homers. A 3.00-plus ERA isn't bad, to be sure, but it's not staff-ace quality either. Then again, he might start striking players out again, which is what ZiPS forecasts.

Can Grichuk be successful with his plate approach?

Randal Grichuk's swing can make the ball do things that other Cardinals' can't. That's the allure of the soul-patch-styling 24-year-old. It's why Baseball Men like John Mabry say silly things like what Derrick Goold reported back in March:

"He’s still a young guy figuring it all out," Mabry said. "He’s a Lamborghini. He’s got all the skills in the world. You look at his skill set and every person on this field and every person in this league would look at him and go, ‘Yeah, I want that.’ He’s got the tools. He’s also trying to manage them on the fly."

I don't doubt that many a big-leaguer would love to have Grichuk's defensive skills or his power-hitting capability. However, I suspect a great many major-league hitters would politely decline an offer of Grichuk's strikezone awareness or contact tool. That's because both appear to be minute.

Grichuk had swung at 37.4% of the pitches he'd seen outside the zone entering play on Sunday. The MLB non-pitcher chase rate was 30.3%. Grichuk's swinging-strike rate (SwStr%) was 16.8% compared to 9.4% for non-pitchers. It's not surprising then that Grichuk's 26.1 K% after adding two strikeouts to his ledger on Sunday against K.C. outpaced the MLB non-pitcher rate of 19.5%. Put all this together and Grichuk's .250 BA and .283 OBP aren't terribly surprising either.

Grichuk is an out-making machine. The sink-or-swim question for the young outfielder: Can he hit for enough power to justify playing despite all of the outs he makes? So far, Grichuk has over 46 PA this season. His .273 Isolated Power (ISO) is the driving force behind a batting line is 17% above average after an adjustment for park effects according to Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+).

Broadcaster Commentary on the Shift

The use of fielding shifts in MLB has caused broadcasters to comment on the tactic since they are paid money to talk during ballgames. Time and again, I've been struck by this commentary. It can take different forms, but two regularly made observations never cease to amaze me. Some MLB broadcasters seem to be unable to grasp that a player can have a tendency to pull grounders but not liner and fly balls. They also seem to not comprehend that a pitcher pitching outside while the infield is shifted to the batter's pull side is not in conflict with the shift.

1. A batter can have a tendency to pull grounders but not have a tendency to pull fly balls.

We'll start with the first point and use Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams as an illustrative example. During Sunday's game in Kansas City, the Royals shifted on the infield into the now-familiar alignment that consists of three infielders between first and second base and one between first and third. Fox Sports Midwest commentator Ricky Horton made a comment about Adams being a gap-to-gap hitter and seeing himself as such. A look at Adams' career spray chart entering play on Sunday, May 24, shows that Adams is a gap-to-gap hitter when it comes to hitting the ball in the air but a nearly dead-pull hitter when he hits the ball on the ground.


Source: Fangraphs

The green dots are grounders. Blue dots are flyballs. Liners are red. As this chart makes clear, Adams puts the ball in play in the air to all fields. However, the vast majority of his grounders are to his pull side. It's no wonder that opposing teams shift their infield against Adams while largely leaving their outfield in their traditional positions.

2. Pitching outside to a batter when the infield has shifted in a way that indicates an expectation that he will pull the ball is not inconsistent with the shift.

We'll use Adams as an example again. Teams often pitch him down, which makes sense because grounders are induced low in the zone. They will also pitch him away. The hope is that he will roll over on the pitch, make weak contact, and hit a grounder into the shift. Adams' strike zone heat map for grounders shows this to be a decent bet.


As you can see, Adams has hit the largest share of grounders on pitches outside the zone, from down and away to complete off the plate, off the outside corner.

Adams is evidence that a player can have a tendency to pull grounders but not balls hit in the air and that pitching outside is not contrary to the tactical shift of the infield to the hitter's pull side.

FanDuel

SBN has entered into an exclusive partnership with FanDuel with respect to daily fantasy baseball. The Cardinals scored nine runs (eight earned) against Bartolo Colon during the righty's last start, raising his ERA almost a full point, from 3.86 to 4.85 on the season. Colon faces the Phillies this Memorial Day, so I like his chances of putting together a solid bounce-back start. You can play FanDuel here.