Baseball STL mailbag: Do Cards have a hitting approach problem? -

Baseball STL mailbag: Do Cardinals have a hitting approach problem?

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ST. LOUIS (BaseballStL) -

Welcome to the first edition of a new feature for KMOV’s Cardinal coverage, the weekly Baseball STL mailbag. Got questions about the Cardinals that you’d like to see answered by KMOV’s baseball writers, JJ Bailey and Brenden Schaeffer? Send a tweet with #BaseballSTLmailbag and your question could be featured in a future edition of the mailbag! Let’s get right to this week’s questions:

Not a fan of bashing hitting coaches because they aren't playing, but with such a lackluster Cardinals offense do you think there is an issue with the teams hitting approach? I've seen too many good pitches taken and even more bad pitches swung at. - Zach Gonzales (@zachgonzo09)

 JJ: This is a fair question and one that seems to come up each year. First, it’s important to note that while it may feel like the Cardinals are all over the place at the plate, they’re not THAT bad in terms of chasing bad pitches.

According to Fangraphs, the Cardinals have the seventh-best O-swing percentage, which measures the number of pitches swung at that are outside the zone. The Cardinals swing at non-strikes 28.9 percent of the time, which is only .2 worse than the fourth place Twins.

So while it may FEEL like they’re chasing everything within a zip code of home plate, they’re doing much better than, say, the White Sox, who chase bad pitches at a rate of nearly 34 percent.

I think part of why it feels more pronounced than it is is because the expected tradeoff for a free-swinging lineup is power. You’re fine exchanging some strikeouts on bad pitches for the freedom of power hitters to swing away and try to do damage.

But the Cardinals are 11th in the league in homers and 22nd in slugging. They aren’t getting the power. So in that sense, you could argue their approach should be to reduce strikeouts (currently 16th most in the MLB) and try to get as many men on base for the hits if they aren’t hopping the wall.

But to your point about the hitting coach, I think the larger question is why the major league staff has been unable to fix young hitters when they struggle.

John Mabry has been the hitting coach since 2012 and is the last remaining member of Mike Matheny’s original regime. However, the organization has consistently sent hitters down to work with coaches like George Greer and Mark Budaska. Part of that approach is the stakes are lower in the minors, but that Mabry and his help have not been able to fix broken swings is troubling.

Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Aledmys Diaz and Matt Adams were all sent down to work on their swings in recent years. Wong and Piscotty had significant contracts and still had to be shipped off for help. Grichuk was sent down to specifically work with George Greer, who is NOT the MLB hitting coach.

Matt Adams was a .503-slugging prospect in 2013, and at the coaching staff’s instruction, began trying to beat the shift against him at the expense of pull power. His slugging percentage cratered over the next three seasons. When the Cards traded him he was slugging less than .400.

For the Braves he slugged .543 and hit 19 homers. This season in Washington D.C., he has a career-high .579 slugging percentage and 13 bombs. He was good, got worse under this hitting coach, and thrived once again elsewhere.

Not all exports ended up that way, but it’s notable. So is the apparent inability to right the ship at the MLB level when a hitter starts to slide. That, to me, is a bigger issue than the approach in an individual season.

Would you bring Dakota Hudson up and put Luke Weaver in the bullpen (or Hudson in the bullpen himself)? Or would you rather see Ryan Helsley come up to help the ‘pen? -Erik (@erikneff86)

Brenden: With an 8-2 record and 2.18 ERA in 74.1 innings this season, Dakota Hudson is shining as a starter at Class-AAA Memphis. Meanwhile, Luke Weaver has struggled of late, failing to get through six innings in any of his last four starts. His ERA in that stretch is 5.12 with opposing batters enjoying an .824 OPS against him. Giving Hudson a chance in the major league rotation makes some sense.

There’s also another matter to consider alongside such a proposal. With his question, Erik is brainstorming for solutions to a legitimate problem for the 2018 Cardinals: the bullpen hasn’t been good enough. Its 4.39 ERA ranks 23rd in MLB, and St. Louis relievers have allowed a .754 opposing OPS, 21st overall. So if Hudson were hypothetically added to the roster (which would, for the record, require a move onto the 40-man roster), how could the Cardinals use him and Weaver most effectively?

While Weaver’s struggles of late aren’t ideal, the Cardinals likely view him as a long-term starting pitcher for the organization. Hudson is certainly working his way into that conversation with his recent performance, but he had also been discussed in the past as a player who could fit nicely into a late-inning relief role. As a sinkerballer, he induces a ton of ground balls, a trait the Cardinals have frequently employed in their bullpen—Seth Maness, Matt Bowman, and Jordan Hicks come to mind. Of the two, Hudson might be a better fit for the bullpen, but if he could improve the club as a starter, the inverse would have to be considered.

In a perfect world, Weaver straightens things out sooner rather than later, freeing Hudson to bolster the bullpen whenever the team decides to go that route. One deterrent that applies to Hudson—and, also mentioned in Erik’s question, Ryan Helsley—joining the bullpen is the idea that the organization would prefer to build up their inning totals in 2018 to a level that would allow for their continued develop toward, ultimately, an MLB starter’s workload in the future.

If the Cardinals call on the kids as relievers too early in the summer, it could hinder their ability to put starter’s innings on those arms in coming years. While that decision is one the team appears comfortable making for Jordan Hicks, who has been in a relief role from day one this season, it may not want to do so for guys like Hudson and Helsley just yet.

How would you feel about this trade: Wil Myers and Brad Hand trade for Luke Weaver, Jose Martinez and Dakota Hudson? -Jason Steiner (@JasonSteiner)

Brenden: I thought this was an interesting one from Jason. There’d be a lot of moving parts, with several elements of the Cardinals organization impacted by such a trade. Let’s start with the two hitters.

The positional implications of this swap are fascinating. From the St. Louis perspective, it would be viewed as a swap of first basemen, while the Padres might view it as a swap of outfielders.

On the disabled list for all but 10 games of this season, Myers mostly played outfield for San Diego when he was healthy. For his career, he’s spent more time at first base. For the Cardinals, Martinez has been employed as a first baseman this season, but for his career, he’s been primarily an outfielder. The defensive metrics indicate Myers is playing the wrong position this year, while Jose Martinez doesn’t necessarily fit well anywhere defensively.

His bat, however, fits nicely everywhere. He’s continued to hit, so the Cardinals have continued to plug him into the lineup. But how does Martinez’s offensive profile compare to that of Myers? Which team would be getting the better hitter?

It depends on how much you closely you believe Martinez’s MLB sample size aligns with his true talent as a big-league hitter. Martinez’s career OPS in 590 plate appearances is .904. That’s an OPS+ of 141, or 41% above league-average. That’s really, really good.

A formerly heralded prospect, Myers has less gaudy stats, with a .768 OPS and 109 OPS+ for his career. Solid, but nothing close to Martinez. Notably, Myers also stole 48 bases between 2016 and 2017.

Over a larger sample, would Martinez’s performance level out and bring him closer to Myers? It’s possible, but should be noted that Myers hasn’t displayed comparable numbers to what Martinez is doing since his rookie year with Tampa Bay in 2012 (131 OPS+). His best single-season OPS+ since: 115 in 2016.

Martinez’s OPS+ this year is 147.

Something else to consider: the contracts. The Cardinals have Martinez under team control through the 2022 season, set to earn pennies on the MLB minimum salary until he reaches arbitration eligibility in 2020. Myers is also under team control long-term, but with an annual salary that jumps to a whopping $22.5 million from 2019-2022.

All things considered, Martinez might actually be the better asset. Who would have said that 18 months ago?

On the pitching side, Brad Hand would instantly make the Cardinals bullpen more formidable. He’s been everything the Cardinals wish Greg Holland would be, notching a league-leading 21 saves with a 1.78 ERA as San Diego’s closer. He’s got 52 Ks in 35.2 innings. He’s dynamite, and under long-term team control for a very reasonable rate: just over $7 million per year for 2019 and 2020, with a $10 million team option for 2021.

But Luke Weaver and Dakota Hudson are even cheaper. And if the Cardinals believe Hudson could continue his recent dominance at the next level, they would be insane to let his six years of club control depart. Even with Weaver’s recent struggles, he’s a cheap controllable asset who has shown impressive MLB ability in the recent past.

This trade proposal is an intriguing concept, but when you break it down, it’s probably not one that works for the Cardinals. Now, a proposal for Hand on his own? That might be the ticket.

What’s holding Jordan Hicks back from being the everyday closer? Or an every day 1-2 inning setup man for Norris? -Ben Pinter (@BenPinter30)

JJ: The short answer is nothing. He essentially is the setup man. Starting in mid-May his appearances were trending later and later, and in June he hasn’t entered a game earlier than the eighth.

Going forward, the eighth inning is almost certainly his, and he’ll finish some games when Norris isn’t available or the lead is healthy.

As far as why he isn’t the closer right now, it’s mostly due to the twin factors of his experience level and Norris’ effectiveness.

Norris is one of the few parts of the bullpen working reliably well. He has 13 saves in 15 opportunities and ended up with wins in both blown saves.

He’s a 10-year veteran on a one-year, $3 million deal. If it isn’t broke, don’t mess with it.

Hicks has really turned a corner with his control, which was the main hang up early in the season. He’s walked three hitters in the last 10 games, and he’s struck out 19, which is the ratio you’d expect for a pitcher with his arsenal.

But the highest level he’d reached prior to this season was High-A.

He’s looked great in the 35 innings so far, but shifting him to the highest-leverage role in the bullpen while he’s adjusting to the majors AND developing his control is a tough ask just three months in.

Mike Matheny has proven he’ll go to young arms for that role (Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal in recent memory), but there’s no real need to if Norris is chugging along like this and Hicks is doing well as the setup man.

Hicks is almost certainly the Cardinals’ closer, just not this season.

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