|May 21st, 2014||#1|
Join Date: Nov 2003
Blog Entries: 34
The White Attitude: Faith in Rationality
Faith isn't needed for things that aren't true; that's an abuse of it. It's needed for things that are true. For proof against wavering. Spackle and grout are real things with real uses. I mean, you can't make a wall out of them. But you can help one stick together.
Basic White Attitude is that religion is for monkeys: the world can be understood through accurate perceptions tied together with logic into irrefutable explanations.
While the Cardinals may not have the same reputation the A’s have for winning games with analytics, Duncan quietly built an advance-scouting powerhouse based on exploiting hitter tendencies. Unlike the announcers, managers, and stat-tracking websites that spit out reams of hitter-versus-pitcher data, Duncan knew that getting caught up in small sample sizes like a batter’s 2-for-13 track record against a certain pitcher could lead to misguided decisions. So, Duncan instead focused on the tendencies of entire teams or even entire leagues. “We made a point of recognizing the tendencies of opposing hitters, their strengths, their weaknesses,” Duncan said.
One of his main missions was to change the way Cardinals pitchers attacked hitters with runners in scoring position. Major league hitters, like all human beings, are motivated by incentives, so when they come to the plate with runners in scoring position, they’re flooded with team incentives (a chance to put runs on the board and help produce a win), individual incentives (a chance to feel the rush of driving in a run), and financial incentives (even amid the advanced stats movement, RBIs still = $$$). Logically, then, the natural tendency in this case is for a hitter to swing the bat. The numbers confirm it: According to ESPN’s TruMedia system, hitters have swung away on the first pitch with runners in scoring position 31.6 percent of the time this year, compared to swinging at 26.8 percent of first pitches in non-RISP situations. If the first pitch is a fastball, that gap becomes even more pronounced, at 34.6 percent versus 27.9 percent. And that aggressive approach bears fruit; when hitters swing at first pitches with RISP, they have produced a .391 average and .620 slugging mark this season.
Duncan recognized those aggressive tendencies early and sought to exploit them. Working with talented and sharp All-Star catcher Yadier Molina, Duncan urged his pitchers to throw soft stuff on first pitches with runners in scoring position. Dan Brooks, proprietor of Brooks Baseball, first noticed this trend. The below chart, provided by Brooks specifically for this story, underscores just how dramatically different St. Louis’s approach is on first pitches with runners in scoring position compared to other teams:
While Brooks’s chart shows that the rest of the league also tends to throw fewer first-pitch fastballs with runners in scoring position, the bigger takeaway is that St. Louis’s totals dwarf those MLB-wide figures. In 2008, the first year for which Brooks has data, qualified Cardinals pitchers (starters plus high-usage relievers) threw first-pitch fastballs 21 percent more often in non-RISP situations than with runners in scoring position. That figure jumped to 26 percent in 2009 and 29 percent in 2010. Counting the early returns in 2014, St. Louis pitchers have produced a bigger gap (and usually a much bigger gap) than league average six times in the past seven seasons.
“I don’t think it was something we established where we said, ‘No fastballs in those situations,’” Duncan said. “We talked a lot about runners in scoring position, and whether the hitter takes on a different approach. It was really part of our broader philosophy, to pitch to situations more than anything else.”
Wainwright, the Cardinals’ ace, has been one of the team’s most devoted practitioners. In 2008, he threw first-pitch fastballs with runners in scoring position 42 percent of the time; in every other situation, he threw first-pitch fastballs 73 percent of the time. That gap widened in 2009 (22.9 percent versus 70 percent), and though it dipped slightly in 2010 (20 percent versus 62.9 percent), Wainwright has generally maintained that chasm over the years.
On a recent trip to St. Louis, I asked Wainwright about this striking tendency.
“You’re writing an article about this?” Wainwright asked, deadpan. “Then I would never tell you.”
Pressed for details, Wainwright said the Cardinals have been borderline maniacal about advance scouting since Duncan’s heyday.
“We spend a good deal of time and a great deal of effort preparing for each and every hitter,” Wainwright said. “That goes from the starting lineup all the way to the guys coming in off the bench. We know exactly what their approach is, what they’re trying to do, what they’re trying to accomplish. There are times where we’ll just stay with our strengths. But the numbers in certain situations don’t lie, and it’d be silly not to pitch to them.”
Deploying pitchers who actually have the arsenal to effectively execute those plans certainly helps.
“It definitely helps when you have more than one off-speed pitch you can throw for strikes,” Wainwright said. “If you have more than one off-speed pitch that people can swing and miss on, that’s also great. That was a big thing for me coming over here. I had a slider but I wasn’t allowed to throw it; here, I was. Throwing the slider and the breaking ball along with the fastball, it’s just too many speed variables and break variables to cover for a hitter. That’s why it’s so important to work ahead in the count, to put them on the defensive. That’s what we’ve tried to do.”
Duncan also worked to limit extra-base hits. Ground balls rarely go for extra-base hits, he likes to say, unless they’re mashed down the first- or third-base line. So if balls hit in the air are far more likely to end up as doubles, triples, and homers than balls hit on the ground, it makes sense to encourage pitches with downward movement.
Kyle Lohse figured this out in a hurry. Lohse had spent seven seasons in the big leagues before signing a one-year deal with St. Louis after the 2007 season, and had produced a 4.82 career ERA to that point. In his first season with the Cardinals, the right-hander sliced that number by more than a full run, to 3.78. Some of that improvement probably stemmed from Lohse’s switch to the lower-offense National League, and 2008 was also a slightly lighter year for offense than what Lohse experienced from 2001 to 2007 at the tail end of the PED era. But even after stripping out those factors, Lohse still looked like a different pitcher, slashing his home run rate to career-low levels and pitching deeper into games than in any other season except 2003.
The biggest change? At Duncan’s urging, Lohse threw a ton more two-seam fastballs (also known as sinkers) in that first year in St. Louis. Via Brooks:
“That was one of the first things Dave Duncan told me when I came over,” Lohse said. “‘You’re gonna learn to command your two-seamer.’ That was something that I had been steered away from when I was in Minnesota. I started throwing almost exclusively four-seamers there. It’s one of those things where you kind of shake your head at now, like, ‘What was I doing?’ But I was just listening to the instruction I was getting. Then I got to St. Louis, and I realized, ‘How many guys can hit a sinker down and away?’ Not a whole lot. If you can locate a sinker down and away, the results you’re getting are usually pretty good.”
After that strong 2008 season, Lohse re-signed with the Cards for four years and $41 million. In 2011, he established then-career-best marks in ERA (3.39) and FIP (3.67), and he topped himself in 2012 (2.86 ERA, 3.51 FIP). Those performances earned him a new three-year, $33 million deal with the Brewers, and at age 35, Lohse currently ranks among the league leaders in ERA. While Lohse certainly earned that $74 million with talent and hard work, let’s hope Duncan still gets the occasional Christmas card.