The St. Louis Cardinals are only seven games into the 2017 season. However, I’m susceptible to early overreactions, and their slow start is testing my ability to remain optimistic. I decided today to take a step back and see if it’s really been that bad, if there’s reason to expect it to improve going forward, and if there are any positives to build on.
*The data and stats mentioned below are all through the first six games of the season. At this point in the year, everything should be taken with many grains of small sample size salt.*
First off, we know that the St. Louis Cardinals offense has been abysmal. Thus far, they’ve scored a total of 19 runs, which is second-to-last in the league. Taking out the ten run explosion against Cincinnati, and the Cardinals are averaging less than two runs per game. Their isolated slugging percentage (ISO) is also second-to-last in the league at .089. Their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) comes in at .264, which is in league’s bottom third.
We know that baseball is a high variance game, so small sample size results are extremely unreliable. Therefore, rather than just citing those stats, I looked into the team’s average exit velocity and launch angle, available through Baseball Savant.
Exit velocity measures how hard the ball comes off the bat, and launch angle measures the vertical angle that the ball comes off the bat. Using these metrics allows us to better isolate hitter performance; instead of looking at the result in terms of hit or out, we can look at the contact quality generated by the hitter. Over the course of a season, luck will even out and results will follow.
With regard to exit velocity, harder is basically always better. Therefore, the St. Louis Cardinals average exit velocity of 86.1 mph, which ranks second-to-last in the MLB, is disappointing. Comparing that to last year, the Cardinals have the second largest drop in average exit velocity. Again, we’re dealing with a tiny sample, but so far the Cardinals don’t look like they’re hitting into bad luck. They just aren’t hitting the ball hard.
Unfortunately, I don’t see this aspect dramatically improving going forward. For one, the team’s top two hitters by average exit velocity (with a minimum of 50 batted balls) from last season aren’t currently on the roster: Tommy Pham and Matt Holliday. Beyond those two, the Cardinals only had three hitters who generated exit velocities above league average: Randal Grichuk, Matt Carpenter, and Aledmys Diaz.
Assuming those three can generate similar contact quality to last year, the St. Louis lineup will feature another five position players who generated below average exit velocity last season. Thus far, obviously, they have continued to do so. Of those five, only Stephen Piscotty was within 0.5 mph of the league average (89.1 mph). Dexter Fowler checked in around the bottom 40th percentile at 88.4 mph. The rest of the Cardinals regulars, including Jedd Gyorko, were in the bottom 40% of the MLB.
The exit velocity drop shouldn’t really be a surprise. When the team let Holliday and Brandon Moss walk while also signing Dexter Fowler, they showed a commitment to a lineup of guys who would take “professional” at-bats. The result, in theory, would be a more consistent lineup that produced at a high level while sacrificing power. While I’d expect the Cardinals to improve some, it’s a strong possibility that they’ll end the season with an average exit velocity in the bottom third of the MLB. Unfortunately, hitting the ball hard is still important, and the Cardinals haven’t done that yet. They might not do it all year.
Launch angle is a little more complicated, but using weighted on-base average (wOBA) we can see the best angles are from about 10 degrees to 30 degrees:
Follow up with pHR graph – dip in wOBA/OPS comes after BABIP and before pHR peaks. Weird to see, but logical pic.twitter.com/dGBGK4YV6f
— Zach Gifford (@zjgifford) April 1, 2017
Here, again, the St. Louis Cardinals have seen the second largest drop in average launch angle from 2016 to 2017, dipping from 13.3 degrees in 2016 to 8.0 degrees in 2017. This puts them below the ideal range shown above. Couple that with their low exit velocity, and it’s no wonder the offense has struggled. They just aren’t consistently generating quality contact.
I do, however, think the Cardinals average launch angle will improve. While they lost Brandon Moss, who had the team’s highest average launch angle in 2016, seven of the top eight are still with the team this year. Dexter Fowler would have had the sixth highest launch angle at 13.7 degrees, so he should fit the mold. Improving the team’s average launch angle will help the team maximize the value generated by their exit velocities, even if those are below average.
One major positive early on is the team’s overall walk rate of 13.3%, which is the second best in the MLB. Supporting that, they’re in the lowest third of the MLB in terms of chase rate (O-Swing%). This suggests they’re seeing the ball well and taking good at-bats, even if that isn’t translating into batted ball results yet. If I had a concern here, it might be that they’re being too patient since they are also in the lowest third at attacking pitches inside the zone (Z-Swing%).
Seven games into a 162 game season is hardly time to panic. After all, the 2011 World Series team started the season 2-6. Hopefully the St. Louis Cardinals start to find more grass with their batted balls so we can stop worrying about the offense.