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A way too early look at the Cardinals’ struggling offense

An attempt to make some sense out of very small sample sizes

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The season has barely just begun, but Cardinals fans are already anxious after a 2-5 start to the season. Don’t get me wrong, after six full months without Cardinals baseball, it’s not what I wanted to see either. However, I think my fellow Cards fans would do well to remember that the season is only about 1/25th of the way over at this point. Your opinion of the Cardinals shouldn’t have changed over such a small time frame. And while the games count, the odds for the Cardinals haven’t changed all that much. Using Fangraphs’ playoff odds, here is graph of the Cardinals’ chances at a Wild Card berth by day in 2017:

I’m writing this last night, so maybe it’s not the same by the time you read this, but the team’s record is updated, so it should be. On the morning of Opening Day, the projections gave the Cards 35.5% chance to make the Wild Card, now it’s dropped to 31.1%.

Now, that’s not the whole story. Their odds of winning the division have also dropped from 10.8% to 6.6%. So overall, the chances of making the playoffs have dropped around 10%. Not fun, but this isn’t something that buries a team. The Diamondbacks are 6-2, and the Twins are 5-1. These type of streaks happen all the time in baseball, they’re just easier to notice at the very start of the year.

The team’s offense has caught a lot of flack, averaging 3.57 runs per game, 22nd so far in the majors. The advanced metrics are worse, with the team 28th in wRC+, with just a 69 wRC+. For context, last year Kolten Wong was the team’s worst hitter with over 200 plate appearances last year, and he had a 85 wRC+. The team collectively is hitting meaningfully worse than their worst performing hitter last year.

After seven games, I’m not worried. There’s not much to project from that. On the hitting side, two of quickest stats to stabilize are Contact% (how often a hitter makes contact per swing) and O-Swing% (how often a hitter swings at a pitch outside the zone). To illustrate this, here are two graphs. On the left is Contact% in Year 1 vs. Contact% in year 2. That’s for all qualified seasons from 2006 to last year. On the right is Contact% in April, vs. Contact% for the same year, but over the whole season:

Remember, this for a whole month, not just a week like where we’re at right now. Also, the full-season numbers include April. A more rigorous analysis would instead look at April vs. the other five months. April makes up 1/6th of a full season, and what we really want to know is what to expect going forward. I plan to do that, but it’ll take more time to put together. Still, a month into the season is almost as good the entire last season when predicting a players’ contact rate. Here’s the same for O-Swing%

The correlation isn’t as strong for O-Swing%, either in absolute terms or compared to last season. It’s strong enough that after a month you can’t handwave it away though. Again, these graphs are for a whole month, not just seven games, which is where we sit. I don’t have a way to look directly at the first week, but it stands to reason that it’s much lower.

At the very least though, we can look at how the Cardinals have done in these two stats, and at least be aware of which ones have the largest differences between this year and last year. We can keep it in mind, and when that month mark comes around, revisit things. Anyway, here’s some Cardinals position players, their Contact rates in 2016 and 2017, and the difference between the two:

Contact% differential, 2016 to 2017.txt

name 2016 Contact% 2017 Contact% difference
name 2016 Contact% 2017 Contact% difference
Kolten Wong 83.2 92.3 9.1
Jedd Gyorko 76.1 79.3 3.2
Matt Carpenter 82.6 84.6 2
Randal Grichuk 72.1 74 1.9
Stephen Piscotty 76.3 75 -1.3
Dexter Fowler 79.4 76.5 -2.9
Matt Adams 76.3 72.7 -3.6
Aledmys Diaz 83.4 77.3 -6.1
Yadier Molina 86.7 74.3 -12.4
Jhonny Peralta 82.1 66.7 -15.4

You probably didn’t expect to see Kolten Wong top this list, but there you go. Wong is making contact with everything. While he’s criticized for his lack of offensive value though, his weakness is quality of contact rather than quantity. On the other side, Yadier Molina and Jhonny Peralta, bring up the rear. It’s definitely not what anyone wants to see after Molina’s extension. Peralta in last may just be a sign that he’s continuing to age hard rather than bounce back from 2016’s sub-replacement level campaign. We’ll have to see.

And now the same thing for O-Swing%:

O-Swing% differential, 2016 to 2017.txt

name 2016 O-Swing 2017 O-Swing difference
name 2016 O-Swing 2017 O-Swing difference
Matt Adams 37.3 20.6 -16.7
Kolten Wong 30.3 21.1 -9.2
Yadier Molina 36 26.8 -9.2
Jedd Gyorko 31.2 24.3 -6.9
Matt Carpenter 22.6 17.4 -5.2
Stephen Piscotty 33.1 29.4 -3.7
Randal Grichuk 37.2 42.1 4.9
Dexter Fowler 19.4 26.1 6.7
Jhonny Peralta 27.2 41.2 14
Aledmys Diaz 28.2 45 16.8

Super-utility man Matt Adams takes this one home, who has been much more patient thus far this year. Adams is swinging at more pitches in the zone in addition to swinging less out of it, so at the moment he’s had great strike zone judgement. Of course, at this point he may have just guessed right a few more times than he usually would, and he’ll look more like his usual self as the season goes on. In fact, I’d say that’s the more likely outcome. It seems like something to check up on again in a few weeks though.

Near the top again is Wong. Like Adams, this doesn’t look like just a more patient approach, as he’s swinging at the same rate of pitches in the zone as last year. Overall it’s really only a difference of a few pitches though, so again, we need to take caution when looking at these. However, we might be looking at another year of Wong improving in plate discipline.

Peralta has the second largest increase in swinging at pitches out of the zone, but he’s also swinging more in the zone as well (70.9% to 86.1%) On it’s own, that would usually mean less of both walks and strike outs, but with the large drop in Contact rate as well, it’s led to an astronomically large strike out rate (41.2%)

Diaz also is swinging at more pitches in the zone in addition to outside it, but it’s a much smaller increase. He’s making less contact and exercising worse strike zone judgement. That’s another thing to keep a watch on.

Again, I can’t stress enough that these numbers are still not that important. This is just to take a look now, and see who we should be paying attention to. Matt Carpenter may be struggling, but he’s actually improved his O-Swing% and Contact%, while holding steady on Z-Swing%. It’s hard not to think of that as just baseball being baseball.

On the other hand, Peralta is getting horrible results from horrible peripherals. That doesn’t mean it’s bound to continue, but it does make it more concerning. Going into the season, I couldn’t get myself worked up over the whole Peralta vs. Gyorko competition at third. The more this trend continues though, the more I’m going to want to see Peralta on the bench.