The last three years have been a rollercoaster ride for the St. Louis Cardinals offense. In 2013 they set an MLB record by hitting .330 with runners in scoring position and finished third in baseball in runs. At the time, everyone knew this pace was unsustainable and were subsequently proven correct when their average with runners in scoring position fell to .254 in 2014 and were 23rd in the league in runs. These two seasons represented the extremes for the Cardinal offense, but after last year it was clear that something needed to be done for them to score more runs.
St. Louis Cardinals New Hitting Philosophy
The team acquired Jason Heyward in the offseason after the tragic passing of prized prospect Oscar Taveras, but so far he is continuing to struggle at the plate and has yet to exhibit the same level of power he did in 2012 when he hit 27 home runs. The rest of the starting offense from last year is the same, yet the Cardinals offense has rebounded to respectable levels and currently sits 10th in baseball in runs with 150. They still are not hitting home runs like they failed to do last season when they hit the second fewest in baseball, yet the offense has scored the 5th most runs in the national league. A closer look at their plate discipline tendencies reveals this is no accident.
About a month ago, Buster Olney wrote a blog post revealing Matt Carpenter’s new hitting philosophy and how he has become more aggressive at the plate. Buster noted that Carpenter had taken the most pitches since the start of 2013, and that the benefit of wearing down a pitcher to get to the bullpen earlier in the game had become less advantageous than years past, with the abundance of hard throwing pitchers that populate most of the bullpens throughout baseball. After 32 games into the season, it is clear Carpenter has in fact become more aggressive at the plate. Last year, Carpenter ranked last in baseball among qualified hitters with a z-swing% (pitches swung at in the strike zone) of 49.4%. So far this season, Carpenter is swinging at a career high 60.4% of pitches in the zone and swinging at an extra 5% of pitches overall that he is seeing. While Carpenter has clearly altered his approach at the plate to become more aggressive at pitches in the zone, this got me wondering if his new approach was an isolated example on the Cardinals or if it was emblematic or a new hitting philosophy promoted by Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry. So far, it seems clear that latter seems to be correct.
In 2013, the Cardinals swung at 66.8% of pitches in the zone. In 2014, the Cardinals swung at 65.5% of pitches in the zone. Their swing rate was almost identical in both seasons, a rate of 46.6% in 2013 and 46.5% in 2014. It is clear however that the Cardinals as a team are being more aggressive at the plate, to levels so far that exceed anything we have seen from them in the past five. This season, their z-swing% is at 70.3% and their overall swing rate is up 2% to 48.5%. They are even chasing more, as the percentage of pitches swung at outside the zone has also gone up. If these swing rates continue, they would represent the highest any Cardinals’ team has achieved in over a decade. In each of the past two seasons, the Cardinals have only had two players who swung at more than 70% of pitches in the zone, and were the only two players on the team to rank in the top 40 in baseball in this category. This season, five Cardinals (Matt Holliday, Jhonny Peralta, Kolten Wong, Yadier Molina, Matt Adams) are swinging at over 75% of pitches in the zone, and all five are ranked in the top 15 in baseball in this category. In fact, Matt Holliday leads the majors in this category with a z-swing% of 82.3%, a career high for him. Peralta is also swinging at a career high rate of pitches in the zone with a rate of 76.8%. Kolten Wong has swung at almost 10% more of the pitches in the zone than last year, his first full season, and Jhonny Peralta is swinging at over 5% more of pitches in the zone than last year, his previous career high.
While Buster Olney brought attention to Matt Carpenter’s newfound aggressiveness at the plate, this phenomenon goes clearly beyond him. The Cardinal’s hitting philosophy of years past seems to have changed in favor of a more aggressive approach at the plate, particularly at pitches in the zone. Nobody can say for certain if this is the reason for the Cardinals’ early season hitting success. Their babip (batting average on balls in play) is at .319 and is likely to regress at least a bit before the end of the season. They are also striking out at a higher rate than they have in the past five seasons, which would make sense given all the pitches they are swinging at. Regardless, it is clear that the Cardinals are taking an aggressive approach at the plate and are swinging at more pitches they think they can hit. Who knows if this approach is sustainable or if it will continue to yield the same results it appears to be so far this season. Right now, it seems to be working, and it is a phenomenon that goes beyond Matt Carpenter. Only time will tell if they were wise to change approaches. Right now, it seems they were.