Last Thursday I took a look at some of the best Cardinals teams by various traditional statistics dating back to 1962 when the National League first started playing a 162-game schedule. One part that stood out was how little Cardinals pitchers have relied on the strikeout going back these last 55 seasons. From the article:
Even in the last five years though, [the Cardinals] ranked in the bottom half of the league in strikeouts more often than not. The Cardinals have never been a strikeout heavy organization. Going back to 1962, the Cardinals have struck out 50,861 batters which ranks dead last in the NL (only including the ten teams that have been in existence for that entire period). The Astros, who came into the league in 1962, rank ninth with almost 1,000 more total strikeouts.
To get the point across, I probably should have mentioned that the Astros haven’t played in the NL since the 2012 season. However, the Cardinals have countered this with one of the best walk rates in the NL, which means if you’ve watched a Cardinals game the last 55 years or so you’ve probably seen a lot of balls in play. And likely relevant to their walk rate, after the Dodgers (.537) the Cardinals (.531) have been the best team in the NL since 1962.
The graph below shows each NL team’s various strikeout and walk rates (again, using 1962 as the starting point and up to the present). Expansion has probably skewed things a bit - the Rockies, Marlins, Diamondbacks, for example, weren’t around for the 1970s when strikeout rates were drastically low. But for the sake of exclusivity, I included everyone’s NL stats, including the Brewers who didn’t begin play in the league until 1998, and the Astros, who, as mentioned, left after the 2012 season.
The Cardinals’ 15.2% strikeout rate is last, with the Pirates (15.4%) being their closest competition. The Giants (15.9%) are the only other team also below 16%. As for walks, only the Dodgers’ 8.0% walk rate is better than the Cardinals mark at 8.1%.
If you’ve watched enough Cardinals games before the Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, and Alex Reyes days, you’re well aware that the Cardinals fit this particular profile, and have for a long time. But I wanted to take a look at which particular era of Cardinals baseball is most responsible for this profile. To do this, I’m going to break the eras up into six quite arbitrary sections: ‘62-’69, the ‘70s, Whiteyball, the Torre years, the La Russa/Duncan years, and Mike Matheny’s tenure.
Below is a graph showing the Cardinals’ strikeout and walk rates between 1962-1969 as compared to the league average, as well as similar graphs for each era. (Note: The league averages in the graphs are approximate and may be a bit rough around the edges as FanGraphs Leaderboards doesn’t compute league averages over a several year span, but with the large sample size and relatively similar amount of plate appearances faced by pitchers from season to season, they should be pretty close to the mark. Seasons cut short by a labor stoppage were weighted accordingly when computing the average.)
The Cardinals’ 15.4% strikeout rate was right on par with league average and their 7.4% walk rate was a bit better than the league mark (7.7%) and good for fourth in the NL. Their best year for strikeouts (16.5%) interestingly enough came in 1969, the first year the mound was lowered after Bob Gibson broke baseball. Their best walk year came in 1968 when their staff walked just 6.2% of batters on their way to their third pennant in five years.
The Dodgers had the best strikeout rate (17.2%) and the Giants led the way with walks (7.1%). For these eight years, the Giants had the best record in the NL with a .569 winning percentage followed by the Cardinals (.555) and then the Dodgers (.544).
Earlier I mentioned the low strikeout rates in the ‘70s which saw an NL average of 13.9% (the Cardinals fell just under this at 13.6%). Compare that to a 21.3% average in 2016, and it’s as though they were playing a completely different game. On the other hand, the average walk rate back then (8.7%) was relatively close to what we saw in 2016 (8.4%). In the ‘70s the Cardinals’ 9.1% mark for walks was the fifth worst in the league.
The three best teams in the NL in the ‘70s (Reds, Pirates, Dodgers) had three of the top four walk rates for the decade. The Cubs were the team that didn’t belong. They had a 7.9% walk rate which was second to Cincinnati, yet they still had a pretty bad decade (785-827). Also relevant: The Cardinals lost 13 more games than they won.
I’ve said before that a more in-depth book needs to be written about the Whiteyball Cardinals because they were an outlier to an absurd degree, but I didn’t mention that their pitching staff’s strikeout rate was dead last in the NL and well below the league average (12.6% vs. 14.6%). Their 1981 team only struck out 9.9% of batters, which is the lowest mark in the NL since the 1948 Boston Braves. Granted, it was a strike shortened year but closer Bruce Sutter led the ‘81 team in strikeouts with 57. The ‘82 squad only struck out 11.2% of batters and they still managed to win the World Series, which I assumed was going to be some sort of untouchable record but the ‘75 Reds only whiffed 10.8% of batters.
The flip side is that only the Expos and Dodgers walked batters at a lesser rate than the Cardinals in the ‘80s. With all of those balls in play it helped that the Cardinals were regarded as having the best defense in baseball.
The Torre Years
Again, this looks like an extension from the 1980s with a strikeout rate that is dwarfed by the league average only the Cardinals, mostly under the tutelage of pitching coach Joe Coleman (1991-1994), and with the help of Bob Tewksbury, had the best walk rate (7.3%) in the league. The ‘93 squad’s 6.2% walk rate had been the best in the NL since 1968 until the Nationals topped it in 2014 and again in 2015.
The goal was to eventually end this post with a grand point on how teams who walk the least amount of batters almost always win a lot of baseball games but Joe Torre’s Cardinals don’t drive this point home. From 1990-1995, they had a .485 winning percentage. Still, if you start this year and work backwards, you won’t find a team ranked in the top three in baseball in walk rate with a losing record until you hit the great baseball year of 2011 when the White Sox had the second best walk rate in baseball but only won 79 games. Even more impressive, the top twelve teams in 2015 by walk rate all finished at or better than .500.
The La Russa / Duncan Years
Again, here we see the Cardinals’ strikeout and walk rates well below league average (16.6%/8.3% vs. 17.6%/8.8%). However - and maybe this is from reading too much about Dave Duncan’s ground ball philosophy or seeing Jeff Suppan pitch in a lot of big games - I was expecting these numbers to be more extreme.
It helps to remember that Chris Carpenter, Matt Morris, Woody Williams, and Darryl Kile, while hardly Noah Syndergaard, all struck out their fair share of hitters. And the Cardinals still had the third worst strikeout rate, and third best walk rate during the La Russa era - all while having the second best record in the NL to the Braves - so I’d say these years actually fit their stereotypical profile quite well.
Mike Matheny’s Tenure
Here we see the sharp, recent increase in strikeouts, and for the first time, the Cardinals with a strikeout rate above the league average, albeit ever so slightly (20.6% vs. 20.5%). That’s still good for fifth best in the NL and combine that with their walk rate (7.5%), which has been fourth best in the league since Matheny and Derek Lilliquist took over, and you have the best team in baseball the last five years.
To put the final touches on a piece overwrought with graphs, here are the last two showing the trends for strikeout and walk rates, grouped by the imperfect, arbitrary time periods from above:
Strikeouts are on a meteoric rise - to find the nine highest strikeout rates across the league dating back to 1962, just start with last year and work your way back in reverse chronological order to 2008 - whereas walks have remained relatively stable. The Cardinals have excelled at not giving many batters the free pass to first base, which has been a good recipe for success whether they’re striking out anyone or not.
Credit to FanGraphs Leaderboards for the stats in this post.