Diamond Diaries

Cardinal baseball, from the girls

Tag Archives: hitting

Is Defense Overrated?

Sometimes it takes the right baseball question to jumpstart a conversation.  Yesterday on twitter, just such a question popped up.

A very good question, indeed.

First, the glorious numbers:

Matt Holliday is leading (numero UNO) all of baseball in batting average (.398) and Lance Berkman is #2 (.374).  Berkman also sits atop the Major Leagues stats board in runs batted in (32) and is one of the top five players for homeruns so far this season (10).  As a team, the Cardinals lead the Majors in team batting average (.285).

(psssssst….. by the way, those big numbers are primarily from two Cardinals not named Pujols.)

Two Cardinal starting pitchers are in the top five National League pitchers in wins: Kyle McClellan (5) and Kyle Lohse (4). And our lefty with the red-hot glove, Jaime Garcia, is 3rd in the National League in Earned Run Average at 1.99.  Hooya!              (*stats from 5/9 espn.go.com/mlb/statistics)

(psssssst…. those are three of our pitchers not named Wainwright or Carpenter, by the way.)

The flip side -because there’s always a flip side, especially with baseball stats- is that our darling Redbirds also happen to have the 2nd most team errors in all of baseball this year.  (The Texas Rangers have that dubious lead at 32 to our 29.)  Ryan Theriot is tied for the most errors (8) at shortstop, and Albert Pujols currently has more errors (4) than any first baseman.

So, back to that good question:  With our boys smacking away and hurling the ball off the mound as they have in the first 5 or 6 weeks of 2011, do we worry about the nose-dive in defense?  Does this season’s early power surge make all that whining and complaining about the front office trading away superior defense for a little better bang in the bats look, well, kinda silly?

I don’t think so.

Here are my meager sticking points.

  1.  I’m a gal who loves flashy gloves, dirty uniforms, diving catches and gritty double plays (the defense kind, not the kind our Cardinals have been hitting into with reckless abandon this season.)  Sloppy errors aren’t sexy, they’re embarrassing.
  2.  Ask the losing pitcher in a close game what they think about defense/errors.  I’m fairly certain they’d have strong opinions. During the last month, the Cardinals have lost 9 games.  In 6 of those games, we scored 5 or more runs. And in 4 of those games, we lost by only one.)
  3. A few early losses may make a big difference down the road. 
  4. Even if our boys are hitting, it still takes three outs (sometimes four) every inning to shut down the opponent. 
  5. And of course, cue the chorus:  Ground ball pitchers need good infield defense.

Which brings me to another thought-provoking tweet, this time from Aaron Hooks back on May 6th :

Aaron, with his tell-it-like-it-is-no-matter-how-much-it-hurts counterbalance to my optimistic cheerleader-type Cardinal fan personality, may have the perfect response to the question that started this off.  Only time will tell if those errors will continue to haunt the Cardinals.  However, errors alone don’t tell the whole story.  Making the routine (and not-so-routine) plays, being in the right place at the right time and turning efficient outs are all crucial to good baseball.

A truly great team, one built to win a World Series run, should have it all: solid defense to complement strong offense.  Without dependable, steady gloves, a team is left susceptible to unpredictable hitting droughts or arms breaking down through a long season.

If the Cards keep playing as they have in the past month (winning 2 games of every series,) life is good.

If the power dries up over the long season or injuries take a further toll, defense could take center stage.

If Albert powers up and joins Berkman and Holliday in the offense leader boards, 2011 may be a very special year.

Obviously we won’t know how it all shakes out ‘til we’ve played 162. And isn’t that part of what makes baseball so great?  The what if’s.  The numbers can’t tell us what will happen.  The boys must get out there on the field and play the game.  We fans hang on until the last out because anything can happen.  And those late-inning home runs (and errors) may tip the scale.

Hopefully it just keeps tipping in our direction!

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The Cardinals play the first of three games against the Cubs at Wrigley today at 7:05.

Chris Carpenter gets the ball against Carlos Zambrano in what could be called a Clash of the HotHeads.  😉

Go Cards!!

Please Send Bats

Credit where due

How I long for the days when we were (complaining?) talking about how the Cardinals were hitting too many home runs. Those were good good days. This has been a very unkind road trip for our boys in red, and the men in blue (aka umps) haven’t helped, to be sure, but the biggest issue? Far and away – the Cardinals bats have been lost. I’m not sure if they didn’t make the plane out of St. Louis for the east coast or if the boys are holding them at the wrong end, but it’s been tough to watch some of these at bats lately. In fact, I’m fairly certain some of the boys in my 8th grade class had better at bats in PE last week than I saw last night.

I’ve come to the conclusion (not that this is a new one by any means) that the Cardinals are indeed playing the role of guess hitters. I went out in search of the article that started this thought process in my head a few days ago. My search was exhausting, and took me to so many random and varying sites that I got a little lost in the history of the game, as well as wrapped up in the current oddities of the internet. Here are some of the examples:

  • tweets that were just a few minutes old (that are appearing on google now… and I saw twitter names I knew… sometimes google is scary)
  • Bleed Cubbie Blue game threads
  • Milwaukee Sentinel articles from 1954 about the Milwaukee Braves (pictured at right)
  • Baseball Digest articles from 1959 and 1961 (I’ll get back to these)
  • Joe Strauss Live transcripts
  • a simulation to see if you can react fast enough to hit a fastball (entertaining for the first 5 seconds or so… and I recommend turning down the sound)
  • and this article from Bernie Miklasz, which (along with the Mark McGwire/Al Hrabosky conversation mentioned therein) is what started this whole thought process to begin with for me

That’s right, I am admitting for the second post in a row that something Al Hrabosky said got me thinking. I’m scared too.

However, hearing that our batting coach thinks that our guys are going out there guessing, and are far too reliant on watching video scares me much more. Videos like this speak to the issue as well.

I’m not saying this problem is localized to the Cardinals by any means. One article I found (and lost – there were too many) stated that there were more guess hitters in the league now than ever before, which didn’t surprise me in the least. Players from Garrett Anderson and Pat Burrell to Dustin Pedroia were being nominated as being guess hitters.

It sounds scary doesn’t it? Guessing. You and I couldn’t go into our daily jobs and just guess. I know I don’t get paid millions of dollars to guess all day (I also don’t get paid millions of dollars). That said, here are some names of guys that ‘just guessed’ through their whole careers and came out juuuuust fine:
Johnny Bench
Ted Williams
Tony Gywnn

That’s just the short list. I would also venture my own guess here and say that these guys knew a little bit more than some of the current free swingers running around MLB clubhouses. Just a guess though.

Speaking of history, ThisBaseball Digest article (I miss having a subscription to this mag) from May of 1959 had a nice quote from Rogers Hornsby, AKA the second-last NL player to hit .400 in a season. He stated,

Don’t be a guess hitter. Too many hitters are guess hitters. They should wait until they get a ball in the strike zone. It only takes one to hit. Instead they guess. They swing when they think they’ve outguessed the pitcher. But that isn’t a good percentage. Every pitcher has four pitches in his repertoire, fastball, curve, change-up and one other, possibly a knuckler. If the batter guesses right once out of four he’ll only hit .250.

A coach says swing, (players) swing, even if the pitch is a foot from the plate. They’re not supposed to. That’s not required. A batter doesn’t even have to protect a base runner if the hit-and-run signal is on. The main thing is don’t do anything silly.

Leave it to the Rajah to tell it like it is. I believe if someone pulled out this quote and showed it to Mark McGwire right now, he would look at you and say, ‘Exactly.’

I will leave you with one more thought for today (I know, I’m wordy for a Sunday). This gem is another Baseball Digest find, from 1961. Legendary Cleveland skipper Jimmie Dykes had this to say on guess hitters:

There are two kinds of ‘guess’ hitters in baseball. A batter of one kind ‘guesses,’ if you would call it that; that he will get some certain pitch while at bat and looks for this particular pitch; in fact, waits for it and lets other pitches go until he has two strikes and must hit at anything. A better name would be ‘waiting for your pitch,’ and most of the great hitters do it. The other kind ‘guesses’ on each pitch. Batters of this type will ‘guess’ that the next pitch is to be a curve or fast ball, and if wrong, as they frequently are, try again, probably changing the guess. They are continually getting crossed up, in part because they don’t stick to the original guess, but keep switching, thus can be wrong on every pitch. This is a bad hitting habit to get into and a hard one to break.

Let’s all hope the Cardinals are more like the first type, but the past few games don’t do much to reassure me in that regard. We need to see a beat-down of the Pirates today so the boys can at least go home on a higher note!

In _____ We Trust

As I was watching the broadcast last night, the silly text poll that Fox Sports Midwest runs every night caught my eye. The question was on who the fans trusted the most for the Cardinals – the offense, the defense, or the pitching. For the first time that I can recall, I honestly had no idea which one I would choose. These things happen when you are playing .667 ball, one would hope.

So let’s break this down a little. I’ll hold my final decision for the end, and we’ll see if it holds water. So buckle in for fun with numbers with Ang (I promise it’ll be at least as fun as one of my math classes – no really)!

The Offense 
Coming into the beginning of the year, we were all feeling fairly confident that the Cardinals would have no trouble scoring runs. After having some fun with the sortable stats on mlb.com, here’s where I’ve found the Cardinals stand with the rest of the NL:
Hits: 4th (Cubs are first – bet you didn’t expect that, did you?)
Home runs: 3rd
Walks: 5th
Strike outs: 3rd most, with 210… 3 true outcomes, anyone?
Here’s a fun one – intentional walks: 1st with 21. No other team even is in the double digits. Fear? Respect? I’ll accept both as correct answers.


Obviously I did not choose very in-depth numbers or newer statistical measurements here. Heck, I didn’t even throw any percentages at you! But it’s safe to say even with these small-ish sample sizes of the last month+ that this team is going to get on base (the OBP of .340 told me so… oops! Percentages!). I know that we’ve had those games where Albert’s up with the bases loaded or one of the bench guys like Stavinoha pinch hits in a critical situation and we as fans just know that this is going to be the at-bat that breaks open the game. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, and Albert pops up or Stavi strikes out. Still, the Cards are creating 5.4 runs per game. We’ll lose some 1-0, but we won’t lose a lot of them.


Pitching
It’s safe to say that our pitchers have been stellar this season. They’re tops in the league with a 2.58 ERA, an 88% quality start percentage, and have given up the fewest home runs with 13. It’s said that pitching wins games, and when we’re winning on the strengths of Adam Wainwright’s curveball, Jaime Garcia’s incredible poise for a rook, Chris Carpenter’s command of a general, Brad Penny’s flames and Kyle Lohse’s quality starts, it’s pretty easy to see why our starters are a combined 14-4. Ready for this? We’re also second in runs, earned runs, walks, and walks/hits per inning pitched.

Surprise! Those numbers include the bullpen guys. All the accolades I’ve heard for our pitchers have been aimed in the general direction of the starters, but the pen’s held their own rather admirably. Consider this – they’re tops in the league with a mere 18% of their inherited runners scoring. The league average is 35%, and they’re having fun out in Arizona where the pen’s allowed a whopping 53% of their inherited runners to touch home. The pen isn’t getting cheap luck either – they’ve got the highest leverage index in the league – meaning Tony isn’t afraid to go to them when the game is on the line.

Defense
Everyone knows we’ve got a fairly groundball-heavy staff, thanks to Dave Duncan’s pitch-to-contact/live and die by the sinker mentality. It’s pretty nice for Carpenter to be on the mound with 2 on and 1 out and know that he’s got a .989 fielding percentage running around behind him waiting to gobble up double play balls, isn’t it? 1 error for every 100 chances – that’s roughly what it breaks down to. That’s out of 1,082 total chances. That right there should be enough, but let’s look closer…

It doesn’t hurt to have a Gold Glove winner like Yadi behind the plate throwing out over 40% of would be base-stealers; Freese, Brendan, Skip, and Albert turning a stunning 32 double plays; and a mere 13 errors so far on the year. True, sometimes the errors become glaring, as they did for CDD favorite David Freese in Milwaukee back in April. However, I spend much more time marveling at the diving stops, flying catches, and catch/spin/throws than I do the rare errors. We’ve already got 3 Gold Glove-winning players on the team, and I know Erika, Chris, and I aren’t the only 3 that think Brendan could easily win one, plus Freese has been flashing the leather as of late as well.

Bottom line, to me anyway, is to send my vote the way of the defense. Our pitchers are scary beyond words, but throw them out there with Florida’s defense (a .974 fielding percentage, 14 double plays, and 25 errors) and some of our pitchers’ rougher innings suddenly look a lot more rough. You can’t keep a groundball staff going without a strong defense behind you waiting to snag every ball they can dive, jump or stab at. Yes, our offense is absolutely terrifying and our pitchers make hitters weak in the knees, but on the nights where the runners aren’t crossing the plate (see last night) or the pitchers are struggling to find location, the defense is there, doing their job and doing it amazingly well.

Agree? Disagree? Fell asleep with all the numbers? Debate in the comments!

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