April 14th, 2014 by Pip
Players of the Game
- Michael Wacha: Yielded his first home run of the season, but his 2.88 expected FIP was better than his previous outing, when he allowed fewer runs, and his eight Ks is most in three starts so far.
- Matt Holliday: Reached base four of five plate appearances, though he effectively made it three after pointlessly trying (and failing) to steal.
- Anthony Rizzo: His lone hit was the most impactful scoring off Wacha this season, a two-run home run in the first inning.
Plays of the Game (by Win Expectancy)
- Matt Carpenter singled, scoring Allen Craig and Jhonny Peralta (+.187): The team’s most reliable hitter — Carpenter leads with a .411 OBP — came through to
- Anthony Rizzo homered, scoring Justin Ruggiano (-.182): The first-inning home run staked the Cubs to a 2-0 lead and gave them a short-lived 68% win expectancy.
- Welington Castillo singled, scoring Junior Lake (-.134): Castillo continued to frustrate Cardinal pitching at the least opportune times, two games after his game-high .462-WE-adding home run Friday.
- We suppose giving Trevor Rosenthal a few Robb Nen save chances is one way to ensure that he converts.
- Kevin Siegrist doesn’t get as many pixels as Trevor Rosenthal or Carlos Martinez, but he’s somewhat quietly the team’s most reliable reliever.
- We were skeptical of Mike Matheny using Kolten Wong in the number-two spot in the lineup, since we assumed it was primarily based on his speed and body type — the conventional legacy view of the #2 batter. But Wong’s on-base skills — his .354 OBP is all the Cardinals can ask of anyone in that role. (League average for #2 hitters last year was .318, fifth-highest of any lineup spot, which says more about today’s managers than anything).
- Matt Holliday has a 17% walk rate. We expect that Matt Adams, who has batted behind the team’s left fielder the last four games, doesn’t mind this.
- We suspect that Adams would rather take his chances hitting into a double play with Holliday on first, than possibly bat with the bases empty as a result of Holliday taking his chances trying to steal.
- Through 12 games, Matheny has used only Carpenter, Holliday and Yadier Molina in the #1, #3 and #5 spots, respectively, in the lineup.
April 11th, 2014 by Pip
The Cardinals enter the weekend tilt with the Cubs not quite themselves, having begun the season only 5-4 (and a 4-5 Pythagorean record). Led by their three Matts — Carpenter, Holliday and Adams — they’ve flashed some of the balanced offense and strong starting pitching that carried them to the NL pennant last year, but key players like Allen Craig, Jhonny Peralta and Shelby Miller have yet to find their form.
The Cubs will have their work cut out for them on Saturday and Sunday when they face the top of the rotation in Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha, so their best chance to take down the reigning NL champs is in the series opener as fifth starter Joe Kelly takes the mound. Kelly’s 1.69 ERA in his first start belies a 4.55 FIP and 4.79 xFIP, so if Cub hitters are patient, they can coax some walks (he had a 3.2 career BB/9). He has a knack for slipping out of trouble, though, by inducing grounders — he had a 16% GIDP rate last year (league average was 11%).
Cub hurler Jeff Samardzija will want to watch out for Yadier Molina, who not only is off to a hot start with three home runs and a .390 wOBA but also hits the Cub righty well (.579 OBP/.588 SLG in 19 PAs). Cardinal left-handed-hitting center fielder Jon Jay, whom newcomer Peter Bourjos has displaced as the team’s default center fielder mainly for defensive reasons, may see more action this weekend with Samardzija and fellow righties Carlos Villanueva and Edwin Jackson due to start. Cardinal manager Mike Matheny has been reluctant to start Jay even when he has a platoon advantage, having opted for the right-handed Bourjos against right-handed starters three of five opportunities.
April 8th, 2014 by Pip
When you play the same team multiple times this early in the season, you’re bound to duplicate pitching matchups. Such was the case in the Cardinals’ home opener, when Reds lefty Tony Cingrani squared off against Cardinals righty Michael Wacha only five days after facing each other in Cincinnati. The two starters locked up in a classic pitchers duel, ultimately decided by the teams’ bullpens in a 1-0 Reds win.
So Reds manager Bryan Price could be forgiven for prizing that earlier experience in his strategy Monday afternoon at Busch Stadium. When leadoff man Billy Hamilton reached on a double in the first inning, the Reds decided to have #2 man Brandon Phillips move him to third. As Reds beat reporter Mark Sheldon quoted Price after the game: “We’ve got Wacha, who has had really nothing but success as a starter in the big leagues. So we don’t know if he’s on or if he’s not. We know they’ve been tough to score against.” It’s high praise for the 22-year-old Wacha for the opposing manager to admit to changing strategy to a plan more suited for Sandy Koufax. It might be even bigger praise that Phillips — who is fairly adept at going the other way — was apparently on his own in terms of how to advance the runner and chose the easy way out.
Recency bias doesn’t necessary mean that the view is wrong. In this case, Price was right in expecting another pitchers’ duel. After all, Cingrani and Wacha’s scoreless standoff in Game #2 of the season was hardly a fluke: Cingrani projects to have a 3.70ish FIP this year, while Wacha projects at around a 3.50 FIP. The problem was that the sac bunting strategy is almost always suboptimal in the first inning of a game. That’s because the implicit tradeoff is increasing the likelihood of scoring one run, while decreasing the likelihood of scoring multiple runs. Unless you’re absolutely certain that you’re not going to need more than one run (which you might be in the eighth or ninth innings), you run the risk of shortchanging your run total and losing the game. As stingy as Wacha is, his projected FIP is something higher than Koufax’s.
For Mike Matheny and Cardinals’ part, they chose a different path in their half of the first. Matt Carpenter rapped a leadoff single, bringing up Peter Bourjos, whom Matheny promoted to the second spot in an effort to gig his performance. With a notably less potent batter — Bourjos’s career wOBA (.307) is 18 points less than Phillips’s (.325) — Matheny had his #2 batter swing away. The result — a single to center, which led to Yadier Molina‘s three-run double — doesn’t validate the decision, just as a different outcome from Votto or Bruce would’ve justified Price’s. Whether Matheny had Bourjos swing away as a sign of trust or because he better understands when to optimize on single run chances, the Cardinals played smarter — not smaller –ball in their home opener. It’s not often that first-inning strategy determines the outcome of a game, but the differing ways in which the teams’ two managers played the first inning was the difference in the Cardinals’ home opener Monday.
April 7th, 2014 by Pip
Players of the Game
- Adam Wainwright (2.04 FIP, 26 batters): Despite yielding the go-ahead run in the form of a walk, Wainwright pitched another dandy, striking out seven.
- Neil Walker (.130 WPA, .663 wOBA): Walk knocked a key RBI double and walked in three plate appearances.
- Edinson Volquez (2.30 FIP, 21 batters): After a terrible spring, Volquez held down the Cardinals in his first outing when it mattered, striking out four and walking only one.
Plays of the Game (by Win Expectancy from the Cardinals’ point of view)
- Tony Sanchez doubled to center, scoring Pedro Alvarez in the 7th (-.269): As Wainwright said afterward, “A walk followed by a ball in the middle of the plate is usually a pretty bad sequence.”
- Matt Holliday grounded into a double play to pitcher in the 9th (-.222): In the highest-leverage play of the game (4.75) and the tying run on first, Holliday couldn’t get the job done.
- Jon Jay tripled to center, scoring Matt Carpenter in the 6th (+.220): For the second time in as many starts, Jay ripped a run-scoring extra-base hit into the gap, bringing the Cardinals from a 27% win expectancy to nearly 50%.
- Gabi Sanchez, Neil Walker, et al looked fab in their traditional gold and black stirrups. Now if they were only real stirrups.
- Yadier Molina threw out speedster Starling Marte on a strike-em-out, throw-em-out DP. That Molina was able to gun down a fast runner while waiting for a batter’s swing to finish is another testament to his skill, not to mention Wainwright’s quicker delivery.
- Jon Jay may be hitting his way back into at least proper platoon time.
- With Volquez pitching in the sixth, Clint Hurdle made the managerial call of the game by intentionally walking Matt Holliday with a runner on third and two outs, then relieving his righty starter with lefty Tony Watston when Matt Adams batted. In the highest-leverage at-bat to that point in the game (2.87 LI), Watson struck out Adams on three pitches. Volquez had faced only 21 batters but was perhaps tiring, having allowed a hard groundball single to Wainwright and Jay’s triple. With an off-day Monday, the Bucs could afford to dip into their bullpen a bit early.
- The 30 total batters that Cardinal pitchers faced was the fewest on the young season.
- The 31 that came to bat for the Cardinals was also the fewest.
- As we wrote for ESPN’s power rankings, the Cardinals are yet to find rhythm on the mound (1.90 K/BB is 14th in NL) and groove at the plate (.281 OBP is 11th), but they managed a 3-3 start against division foes Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to start the season.