It’s been three and a half weeks since the Cardinals shook things up in the dugout, replacing one Mike (Matheny) with another (Shildt). The number of fan and media concerns about managerial decisions have noticeably dipped since Mike Shildt took the reins. With just three and a half weeks of results, there’s already a palpable difference. However, the Mike swap wasn’t the only move made that day. In addition to relieving Mike Matheny of his duties, the Cardinals also replaced hitting coach John Mabry and assistant hitting coach Bill Mueller with Mark Budaska and George Greer, respectively. We’re dealing with small samples, but an improved offensive profile is starting to emerge since the change took place.
Mabry and Mueller were replaced by Budaska and Greer just one day before the All-Star break. The timing allows us to neatly divide the team’s offensive performance under the hitting coaches. The first half happened under Mabry and Mueller’s tutelage, with the lone exception being the final game before the All-Star break. The second half performance has occurred under Budaska and Greer. Let’s start with some very basic rate stats.
They’ve gone from 4.39 runs per game before the break to 4.6 runs per game since, through Tuesday’s game. In the interest of full disclosure, their league rank in runs per game has actually slipped a little, from 13th before the break to 16th since. As we move on through these numbers, you’ll see that it’s more of a results issue and less of a process issue. They’ve improved in virtually every other offensive category. I’ve used a barbell plot for this data- the Cardinals’ league-wide ranks in several more traditional rate stat categories (plus wRC+), comparing both the 1st half and the 2nd half through Tuesday’s games.
Categories with improvement use a red connector line, while areas of decline use gray. That’s improvement in six of the seven categories. Only ISO (isolated slugging percentage) shows a very mild decline, the type that gets washed out with the next three homerun game. On-base percentage has seen the most impressive improvement under Budaska and Greer, climbing all the way to 4th in the league. Their wRC+ has climbed from an average 15th up to 10th. On the surface, it appears that much of this improvement is driven by the spike in BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Digging a little deeper, it’s more complex than that.
Here’s the same graphical representation for another batch of stats. We’ll look at quality and type of contact, along with walk and strikeout rates.
For purposes of these rankings, I’ve considered a higher flyball percentage to be a positive, and a higher groundball percentage to be a negative. The best part of this graph is the top section. They’re walking more and striking out less, and their BB/K rate has been the third best in baseball since the All-Star break. They rank in the top five of all three categories since the break. Now you see why I didn’t want to attribute the improvement solely to BABIP.
They’re also hitting more flyballs, taking a huge bite out of their GB/FB rate. Fewer of those flyballs are clearing the fence, though (HR/FB). One probable reason for this is the exchange of hard contact for medium contact, as soft contact percentage (not shown in the graph) is almost completely identical between halves (16.6% before, 16.0% after). The fact that their slugging percentage has actually improved overall in the 2nd half should tell you that whatever is going on hasn’t made them unproductive. In all, this is a promising profile- some of those flyballs are going to start clearing the fence, particularly if they can maintain their impressive plate discipline portfolio.
Most of this is meant to be about hitting, but I’ve also included their wSB- weighted stolen base runs. It almost certainly has nothing to do with Budaska and Greer, but they’ve improved from 30th in the league- dead last- before the All-Star break to fifth best in wSB since the break. They went from -4.2 before the break to 1.1 since. It’s not a major difference maker for the offense, but it’s easier to be productive when you don’t give away outs with poorly timed stolen base attempts.
Let’s take a look at one last item- their approach at the plate.
They’re swinging at the same percentage of pitches outside the zone, 29.0% before and 29.1% after the break. It shows up as 25th in the league since the break (and 26th before), but that means 24 other teams since the break have chased more pitches outside of the zone. In other words, both before Budaska/Greer and after, the Cardinals as a team rarely chase pitches outside of the zone.
Their overall swing percentage is up, and their swing percentage on pitches inside the zone is way up. They’re swinging at pitches in the zone 3% more, which takes them from 27th to 15th in the league. They’re also making contact at a higher rate (76.8% before, 80.3% after), moving from 20th in the league to 5th. Swinging strike percentage has dropped from 10.3% to 8.9%, which has improved their standing in the league from 13th to 6th (they have the 6th lowest swinging strike percentage since the break).
The increase in zone swing percentage plays in to the team making more contact, more medium contact, and less hard contact. It appears they’ve decided to stop seeking the perfect pitch and are instead going after the good enough pitches. The one potential blight on the entire performance is the giant increase in out of zone contact (61.2% before to 66.3% after), as it tends to be unsustainable. If a lot of their production is coming on those pitches, it may spell trouble down the line.
In conclusion, these are a lot of positive results coming from a team that’s clearly taking a different approach at the plate. The enhanced plate discipline is an important component, as is their diminished selectiveness within the strike zone. The spike in BABIP and contact outside of the strike zone are potential trouble areas that we’ll have to pay attention to moving forward. Maintaining even a few of these trends, particularly the improved walk and strikeout rates, should help the offense conquer its inconsistency issues. Whether or not these trends are completely attributable to Budaska and Greer, it’s hard not to notice it coinciding with their arrival.