The 2015 St. Louis Cardinals are off to one of the best starts in team history. In no way is today's article meant to put a damper on what has happened up to this point in the season. In fact, I have not been this excited about a team since the 2004 season. Plus, back when MV3 (Albert Pujols-Jim Edmonds-Scott Rolen) patrolled Busch Stadium and terrorized opposing parks, I was not even in high school yet, so I feel like my threshold for excitement was much lower back then.
For quite some time now, I have been genuinely curious to see if there existed a trend in the type of pitcher on the mound during games in which the Cardinals offense struggled. For this exercise, I revisited each game in which the offense scored one run or less over the last three seasons. Upon further review, this situation has occurred 73 times since the start of 2013, with a little more than half of them (37) occurring in 2014 alone. Now, can a trend be spotted in the type of pitcher in the majority of these games? Going in, I fully realized that the sample size was likely not big enough to draw a finite conclusion on the matter, and plus, there was no guarantee that I would even uncover anything substantive. Nonetheless, it was something I wanted to check out.
After determining the starting pitcher of each game, I looked at four specific categories: 1) pitcher handedness, 2) average fastball velocity, 3) breaking ball usage, and 4) "best" pitch via FanGraphs' Pitch Values. I chose these four categories because though admittedly rough around the edges, I feel like they do a pretty good job at painting a picture of any given pitcher's individual style. Given grumblings about how the offense under-performs against lefties, including pitcher handedness was a must. The other three categories were included to help distinguish how each pitcher utilizes his given repertoire. Does he blow hitters away with a high velocity fastball? Does he set up a devastating changeup with a fastball? Does he rely on keeping hitters off balance with an abundance of breaking balls?
Given that 28% of the league's pitchers were left-handed back in 2013 (and I assume this number has not changed much in the two years since), no conclusions can be drawn from this table as 22 of 73 is ~30%, which is an insignificant difference of 1.5 more lefties than the league average amount.
Average Fastball Velocity
In the 73 games in which the offense scored 0 or 1 run, the pitchers' average fastball velocity was 92.72 MPH. For perspective, the league average fastball velocity was 92.0 MPH and 92.1 MPH in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and sits at 92.2 MPH in 2015. Thus, in general, the Cardinals have faced pitchers with faster-than-league-average fastballs, but it is hard to quantify the significance of a 0.5 MPH increase. I know 0.5 MPH can make a huge difference in a given pitcher, especially late in his career, but for a sample size of 73 with varying repertoires, it is hard to tell. What I do know is that 30 of the pitchers had an average fastball velocity of 93.5 MPH or greater, compared to only 10 pitchers with fastball velocities averaging below 90 MPH.
Two Fastest and Two Slowest for 0-run Games
|Jacob deGrom (2015)||Homer Bailey (2013)||Chris Young (2015)||Barry Zito (2013)|
|95.58 MPH||95.20 MPH||87.34 MPH||84.25 MPH|
Two Fastest and Two Slowest for 1-run Games
|Matt Harvey (2015)||Wily Peralta (2014)||Jered Weaver (2013)||Josh Collmenter (2014)|
|96.94 MPH||96.58 MPH||87.00 MPH||86.82 MPH|
Breaking Ball Usage
The set of pitchers included in this exploratory exercise went with a breaking ball (slider, curve, knuckle-curve) 25.08% of the time. Similar to the average fastball velocity category, nothing too meaningful can be gathered from this percentage as per FanGraphs, the league average breaking ball usage has been 25.4%, 24.8%, and 24.2% in 2013, 2014, and 2015, respectively.
Two Highest and Two Lowest for 0-run Games
|Barry Zito (2013)||Jake Arrieta (2014)||Chris Rusin (2013)||Tim Hudson (2014)|
Two Highest and Two Lowest for 1-run Games
|Jake Arrieta (2014)||Nick Tepesch (2013)||Josh Collmenter (2014)||Carlos Frias (2015)|
"Best" Pitch via FanGraphs Pitch Values
This is where things start to get interesting. First, I understand there are inherent flaws associated with pitch values (specifically related to pitch sequencing), but given the circumstances used for this post, I think they do an adequate job at portraying a specific pitcher type. Either way, regardless of handedness, the numbers found in the table above indicate that pitchers with a good fourseamer have had documented success against the Cardinals offense. If you go by the broader term of "fastball" (fourseamer plus sinker), this style of pitcher accounts for more than half of these 0- or 1-run games (39 of 73, or 53.4%). Thus, unless a pitcher has a wipeout non-fastball like Liriano's slider, the best bet in taming the Cardinals offense is utilizing a good fastball.
Of the 73 games reviewed, 22 of them consisted of what I have decided to call "repeat offenders." At the top of the list, you shouldn't be surprised as Jake Arrieta and Francisco Liriano both have four games falling into this category. Next, with three games apiece, the group is somewhat surprising with A.J. Burnett and Edinson Volquez. The four that remain have each pitched two games of 1-run or less: Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and Bartolo Colon.
For the record...do rookie pitchers shut down the Cardinals?
For whatever reason (possibly recall bias?), the belief that the Cardinals' offense is consistently shut down by rookie pitchers has seemingly become a very popular opinion around the St. Louis area over the last couple of years. Curious to see if there was any validity to such opinion, I looked into it further using the Major League Debuts feature on the always handy Baseball-Reference.com.
After reviewing 36 starts made by rookie pitchers against the Cardinals over the last three seasons, I can confirm that there is no evidence behind the "rookies shut down the Cardinals" belief. In 36 starts, opposing rookies recorded a 4.40 ERA in 194.1 innings pitched. While not necessarily dominant, the Cardinals sustained a 19-17 record in those games. I realize many think the Cardinals should beat rookie pitchers more often than 53% of the time, but in a handful of the games I looked at, the loss was more an indictment of the Cardinals pitcher that day than the offense.
If interested, here is a link to the spreadsheet of my data collection.