PITTSBURGH • The benefit of something so routine, so seemingly mundane as a ball in play was right there Sunday, just out of the Cardinals’ reach.
And that’s the point.
As their lead turned to dust in a snap at Miller Park and Milwaukee rallied for a walk-off win, the Cardinals saw Travis Shaw dump a bloop, RBI single into left field. Ryan Braun had skipped an RBI single to left in the previous at-bat, and in the decisive ninth inning Lorenzo Cain got an infield single that glanced off Jordan Hicks’ glove. Not one of those hits was going to sizzle with exit velocity or ride launch angle to glory. They weren’t going to project or predict, only produce – and all because some contact, not even hard contact, was made. It was an eyeful for a Cardinals team, bogged down by strikeouts, that has been slow to connect with his season.
“Candidly, I don’t think it needs to be reinforced,” manager Mike Shildt said when asked if the Brewers showed the upside of contact. “They put it in play and deserve the credit for it. It’s something that is just – important. It’s something that, especially in this game today … It’s hard to survive with 15 strikeouts.”
The next day they did, with 17.
The Cardinals have set an absurd pace for strikeouts through the first week of the season. With at least 10 strikeouts in every game and 32 in the previous two, the Cardinals lead the National League with 64 strikeouts through five games. No other NL team has more than 47. The only team in baseball with more strikeouts is the Mariners (66), and they’ve already played seven games. This is a spike in what really has been a creeping trend for the Cardinals (and baseball in general).
This past season was the first when the Cardinals had fewer hits (1,369) than strikeouts (1,380), but it marked the fourth consecutive season that the Cardinals had reset the club record for strikeouts in a season. Before 2015, the Cardinals had never had 1,200 strikeouts in a season. They’ve had more than 1,300 in each of the previous three seasons. It’s silly to say this – but it’s illustrative – so at their current rate, they’ll strike out 2,073 times.
Shildt suggested that Milwaukee threw two pitchers that had “plus pitches” that gave the Cardinals fits. On Sunday, Corbin Burnes had a four-seam fastball that was slashing half of a foot at times. And lurking for late innings was Brewers reliever Josh Hader, a lefty that threw an immaculate inning (nine pitches, nine strikes, three strikeouts) against the Cardinals over the weekend. Hader throws “an invisi-ball,” Shildt said. Pirates starter Chris Archer does not. He came one shy of tying his Bucs-best nine strikeouts, and by the time Pittsburgh lefty relief ace entered the game the Cardinals had 15 strikeouts, on their way to 17.
As they enjoy an off day in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals have a team batting average of .229 and a team on-base percentage of .320.
If strikeouts were writing as an average, they’d be at .358.
The Cardinals are striking out at a greater rate than any player on the team except Kolten Wong is batting. Take a look at the other NL Central teams with the same metric:
- Cubs .327 BA, .177 KA
- Brewers .265 BA, .247 KA
- Pirates .206 BA, .245 KA
- Reds .200 BA, .274 KA
Where this is crippling the Cardinals is where it has hurt them most on defense – as the Brewers did. It’s not just generating rallies, it’s sustaining them.
More than half of the Cardinals’ strikeouts have come with runners on base. They are, as a lineup, doing well to get runners on and create chances to score runs. Too often that chance is gone in a puff – or, rather, a whiff. The Cardinals have hit .179/.274/.405 with runners on base. They have 84 at-bats with runners on base – more than any other team that didn’t begin the season in Japan. But in those spots they have more strikeouts (35) than total bases (34). Consider contact: They have a total of 36 groundouts or flyouts in those spots.
It becomes more acute when there is a runner or two in scoring position.
Only the Reds, who have played three games, have fewer hits in the NL than the Cardinals do with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals have hit .154/.313/.231 – higher OBP than SLG – with runners in scoring position. They have more strikeouts in those spots (19) than they have any other out (17). That means they aren’t testing the defense. They aren’t taking advantage of runners in motion. They aren’t capitalizing on the lack of a shift. They aren’t doing anything but letting the battery have a catch. On Monday, Marcell Ozuna struck out three times, twice with runners in scoring position. Harrison Bader led off the fifth inning with a single, and then didn’t advance at all as the next three batters all struck out.
Shildt has repeatedly explained this past week that they want the hitters to “be aggressive” and to “be aggressive on their pitch.” He added Monday morning that they didn’t want the hitters up there “slapping the ball.”
That’s the tradeoff.
The advent of launch angle and acceptance of strikeouts as an out that at least avoids the double play is supposed to have a net result of more power. The Cardinals have played this game before. They led the league in homers. They’ve stacked their lineup with OBP. They traded in back-to-back winters for middle-order hitters, Ozuna and Paul Goldschmidt. They’ve prioritized OPS and a modern lineup this year. And in return for this binge of strikeouts early they have had some monstrous homers, but also something that’s an underappreciated, overlooked hindrance.
“You put the ball in play and good things happen,” Shildt said. “Strikeouts are easy to defend.”
He said that twice Monday, once after the Cardinals had won, 6-5, in the 11th inning at PNC Park. The winning run scored on a passed ball, but to even get back in the game the Cardinals had to shed their strikeout tendency and put the ball in play. Two of the Cardinals’ rallies were the result of errors made on groundballs. In the seventh inning, Bader keyed a rally with an infield single. He scored on a bases-loaded walk to hack the Bucs’ lead down to a run.
The next inning, the Cardinals tied the game, 4-4, when Yairo Munoz skipped an infield single off the mound.
In the ninth, an error put a runner on base, and the Pirates inability to turn a double play kept the runners there to allow the Cardinals to tie the game again, 5-5.
Three rallies, three key moments, all because of how the Pirates reacted to three balls just put in play.
They didn’t dazzle Statcast. They aren’t going to make any highlight reels. They didn’t project or predict future power, just immediate production. And besides, what they’ve said for years about the hits that changed Monday’s game remains true, even in the Statcast age.
It’s a line drive in the box score.
A K is just a K.