Why raising Minor League player pay would be good for baseball

There seem to be many more important topics that Congress should be tackling right now, but the House of Representatives has seemed to have finally found something that both sides of the aisle can agree on: Minor League baseball players should live below the poverty level.

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-Illinois) and Congressmen Brett Guthrie (R-Kentucky) introduced the ironically named “Save America’s Pastime Act,” last week. The goal of the bill is to exempt Minor League baseball players from federal wage requirements to keep them from eventually unionizing or successfully suing for fair wages.

While many will likely cheer the concept (or not care) because, in a world where professional athletes make millions and millions of dollars, nobody wants to ever feel sorry about a professional athlete not making enough money. Except these aren’t the guys making millions and millions of dollars. In fact, 99% of them will never make much of anything from baseball.

Minor league baseball salaries start at $1,150 a month for short season A ball player and goes as high as $2,150 per month for a first year Triple-A player. Keep in mind that that’s not an annual salary rate either, they only get paid for the six or seven months of their season. Players also receive $25 per day in meal money while on the road. Just for comparison, umpires get $50 per day and college athletes get $36 per day.

Representatives Bustos and Guthrie would tell you that requiring Minor League teams to play their players fair salaries would doom the finances of minor league teams, many of them in small towns around America. What they don’t tell you is that the Minor League teams don’t pay the player salaries, the Major League club does. The revenue that Minor League teams do bring in are used to maintain facilities and pay front office staff, not the players.

One could actually argue that requiring Major League teams to pay their Minor League players a fair wage would actually be a positive economic step for small towns where these Minor League organizations are located. Young players with more discretionary income being brought in from outside the local economy. It would be great.

The bill is clearly a response to a lawsuit filed a couple years ago that alleges that Minor League Baseball violates federal wage laws with their pay structure. Last October, a federal court ruled that it can be expanded into a class action lawsuit which now includes a couple thousand players.

Current Minor League players will be silent on this. Why wouldn’t they? They have more to lose from speaking up than anyone. Most of them are in the situation where they need baseball more than baseball needs them. It’s why the Minor Leagues haven’t unionized.

The MLBPA, the player’s union for Major League players, have routinely negotiated away the rights and pay of Minor League players to benefit themselves. That seems unfair on it’s own. But in the Majors, paying your dues and grinding through the Minors is as much a rite of passage as having the skills to get to the Majors.

Many will say that they find it difficult to get worked up over the payment of Minor League players. After all, they are playing a game for a living. Except this isn’t a game and it really isn’t a living. Not one that anyone would really want. This is a job. This is work. The vast majority will never make it and you’ll never know their name.

But beyond all of this from a political, economic and moral standpoint, keeping Minor League salaries down is exactly the opposite of what baseball should be doing. Instead, baseball should be addressing the fact that the finances of the game turn young athletes away at a young age.

Young athletes are asked earlier and earlier to specialize in a sport so that they have the best opportunity to develop as a player and compete at a high level so they can make it to the professional level. So you have high school aged young men making the decisions that will shape their lives, which sport will they dedicate themselves to?

These decisions are made with family members and coaches and the decisions are driven by opportunity, odds of success, and, in many situations, finances.

There are many gifted athletes who go play basketball or football because they can find money sooner. The minimum rookie salary in the NBA last year was about $525,000. In the NFL it was $435,000. The rookie salary in Major League Baseball was $507,500, but that’s in the Majors. If you’re a typical prospect, you’ll get your five figure signing bonus and then get assigned to A ball where you’ll make $1,300 a month for a six month season. In other words, just a hair under $8,000. You can make $6,600 in one week on an NFL practice squad.

If a family’s finances are a concern, a young player won’t even consider playing baseball. Get drafted, continue to be poor, play a few years of minor league baseball, and maybe, if you’re lucky, be part of the 5% that plays a single day in the Majors or the 1% that strikes it big. Or go play football where, even if you go undrafted, end up on a practice squad and you can pull in $100,000 a year.

I know what I’d choose.

Combine that with us having seen football players retire young because of fear over the long-term effects of head injuries. So many players don’t want the risks of football and there are much fewer opportunities to play basketball, enter baseball with a perfect opportunity to capitalize on it and steal away young talent.

And baseball has the money.

Over the last 10 years, baseball has gone from the major sport where players get the largest share of revenues to the lowest. In 2015, players got less than 40% of revenues. In bargaining between owners and players, leagues usually shoot for a 50/50 split of revenues, so if that’s the case, of the $10 billion in revenue that baseball will acquire this year, that’s $1 billion that needs to be redistributed to the players.

With roughly 6,000 professional baseball players across all levels of associated baseball, that works out to over $150,000 per year per player.

But Major League players still get paid well and their contracts are all guaranteed.

So how about we give all 4,500 or so Minor League players a $50,000 per year salary. That would cost $225 million a year total, right now teams pay about $60 million in payroll for Minor League players, but that’s a drop in the bucket on $10 billion. That’s an increase of 1.6% of revenues.

It would also be great for every aspect of the sport.

First, more young athletes would choose to play baseball, so you’d have more talented athletes flowing through the Minors.

Second, that talent would then be able to spend more time preparing and fine tuning themselves and their skills to unlock their talent rather than having to take odd jobs over the winter to support themselves and living off fast food during the season.

And third, with better prepared players, the fans should see better baseball across all levels. Better baseball will make more fans and bring more revenue to the sport.

So there are ways for everyone to benefit from paying Minor League players better wages. It doesn’t need to be exorbitant, but it should be enough that they can focus on their craft and actually become professionals at the sport rather than just “seasonal apprentices” as Major League Baseball puts it.

Paying Minor League players more isn’t just a payment to the players, it’s an investment into the future of the sport in so many different ways.

And as a post script, it is worth noting that Congresswoman Bustos abandoned her support of the legislation this afternoon saying that she was withdrawn her support because she’s learned some things over the last 24 hours. Perhaps she should have Googled “who pays minor league baseball players” before deciding that this was an issue that needed to be solved with a law.

Ichiro versus Rose

There has been a lot made over the last couple days about the idea that baseball has a new hit king. Ichiro Suzuki now has 4,257 hits between his years in Major League Baseball and in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. That number surpasses Pete Rose, who had 4,256 hits over his Major League career and currently holds the MLB record. That news has many writers proclaiming that Ichiro is baseball’s new “hit king,” but in my opinion it is a contrived attempt to create a false record and perhaps a veiled attempt to take a shot at Rose and his accomplishments.

At the crux of the discussion is really whether you should count the 1,278 hits that Ichiro got while playing professionally in Japan. The only thing this argument has going for it is that it is still a nation’s top league, just like MLB is for the United States.

But there are a number of stats that we don’t count torwards career records here in the United States. We don’t count spring training games or all star games or, the one that’s always puzzled me a bit, postseason games. Pete Rose has 86 career hits in the postseason that apparently don’t count towards his career numbers? Those literally came against some of the best teams in the Majors at the time.

And if hits are hits, as the President of baseball’s Hall of Fame has basically put it, why aren’t we counting stats from other U.S. based leagues? Why don’t we add in Rose’s 427 minor league hits? Those are professional leagues right?

Nobody ever makes that argument because it’s ridiculous. Nobody is still calling Hank Aaron baseball’s “home run king” because he has 786 home runs (Majors and Minors combined) while Barry Bonds has just 782. Or, if we’re combining statistics achieved in Japan with those achieved in the Majors, why don’t Sadaharu Oh’s 868 career home runs count?

It’s hard for me to accept the idea that the Japanese leagues are equivalent to the United States for one big reason: Japanese stars come to the U.S. to play while players who can’t stick in the Majors here go over there to play and often become stars. That damages the argument.

While I do believe that you’ll find the top talent in Japan to be on par with some of the top talent in the Majors, the same depth of talent is not present. One could say the same about Triple-A. You’ll run across some Major League caliber guys, but ultimately, the majority of guys in the league will never go further.

So I think to count his hits from Japan and say that Ichiro broke some kind of record last night is stupid and ill conceived.

Now there are some other ways you could approach to argue that Ichiro’s hit totals are more noteworthy than Rose’s, so let’s take a look at those.

First, I’ve seen some writers suggest that Rose hung on too long to simply pad his hit totals and that we should give more credit to Ichiro since he is still worth putting into the lineup. But I think that’s putting too much credit into his .349 batting average this season. Because when you look back over the past five years, he has not been better than Rose was in his final seasons.

If you look at Rose’s final five seasons, 1982 (his age 41 season) to 1986 (his age 45 season), Rose hit .261 with a .662 OPS and an 86 OPS+. Then let’s look at Ichiro’s last five seasons, 2011 (his age 37 season) to 2016 (his age 42 season), which even includes this year’s good start, Ichiro has hit .271 with a .654 OPS and an 84 OPS+. So at best, over Rose’s last five seasons and Ichiro’s previous five seasons, they were equals. And Ichiro’s sample happens is when he is four years younger.

So if Rose held on too long to pad his stat totals, Ichiro has too.

Second, there is also the fact that Ichiro made his debut in Japan at the age of 18 while Rose had to wait until his age 22 season to debut in the Majors. So Ichiro started counting four years earlier and it took him until age 42 (25 seasons) to get to 4,257 while it took Rose from age 22 to 45 (24 seasons) to get to 4,256.

And third, even if we just compare age years to age years for the time that they’ve overlapped in baseball, Ichiro has 2,979 hits from his age 27 season to his current age 42 season. Meanwhile, from age 27 to age 42, Rose had 3,091. At his current pace, Ichiro should add about 76 more hits this season, so he still won’t reach Rose’s number. So he can’t even beat Rose head-to-head on as equal ground as we can place them on.

So the bottom line in all of this for me is that Pete Rose was a great player who had a ridiculous number of hits in his career.

And Ichiro Suzuki is a great player who has had a ridiculous number of hits in his career.

It’s amazing and worth noting, but it’s not any kind of record. There is no need to contrive some record for him to make it seem bigger than it is. You can celebrate Ichiro’s accomplishment without discounting what Rose has done. They both stand as unique in my mind.

I believe Ichiro is a great player and an easy Hall of Famer, which for debuting at age 27 is quite a feat. I would have loved to see him in the Majors sooner. I think that if you put him in the Majors at age 20 in 1994, we would be talking about him breaking Rose’s record. But he wasn’t, so we shouldn’t be.

In a few weeks Ichiro will likely become the 27th Major League player to collect his 3,000th Major League hit. And on that day I will tip my cap to him.

4,257 was an amazing accomplishment and should be celebrated as such. But it’s no record.

Optioning Wong was the best call

I had a piece outlined for today that was going to argue that optioning Kolten Wong to Memphis was not only the best decision for the Cardinals to make to create room for Jhonny Peralta‘s return, but the only one that really made sense. The two other obvious possibilities for the Cardinals were Greg Garcia and Jeremy Hazelbaker. But then Mo had to go and ruin it as the team announced that Wong was headed for Memphis with Peralta expected to be recalled tomorrow.

When it comes to those other two possibilities to be optioned to the minors, Garcia has carved himself out a role with the club and Hazelbaker’s stay was dictated by the organization’s comfort level with having just three outfielders on the roster. That left Kolten Wong.

It’s no secret that Wong has struggled mightily in 2016. With his 61 OPS+, Wong was worst offensive performer among the position players on the Cardinals’ roster given whatever playing time they’ve had.

Let’s take a quick look at where Wong has been in his first three full time seasons with the Cardinals after 57 games.

2014: .268/.333/.325, 0 HR, 4.4% xBH%
2015: .308/.359/.464, 6 HR, 8.7% xBH%
2016: .222/.306/.286, 1 HR, 2.8% xBH%

And to compare, how he finished those seasons:

2014: .240/.273/.416, 12 HR, 7.7% xBH%
2015: .234/.298/.338, 5 HR, 6.0 xBH%

This is clearly the worst couple months of baseball that Kolten has put together in his big league career. And being in the muck of this season’s 2B/SS/3B situation certainly isn’t helping things.

Already known as a guy that puts too much pressure on himself, the Cardinals added fuel to that fire in November when they acquired Jedd Gyorko who was signed through 2019 and plays second base. In February, the Cardinals signed Wong to an extension with the organization that locked him up through 2020. They showed faith in Wong and likely part of that was to demonstrate a vote of confidence in Wong going into the season.

It doesn’t quite appear to have worked as planned.

Second base is really a position where the Cardinals are stacked with players like none other. There are probably ten different ways I can come up with to not play Wong. And if Matt Carpenter, Peralta, Aledmys Diaz, Gyorko, and Garcia are all playing well, why would you? Because of that, Wong was on the verge of drowning in a sea of competition without the time to get right.

And it’s not going to get easier either. All six of those players are under control for next year too.

Luckily for the Cardinals (and really for Wong too), Wong has options and doesn’t become eligible for optional assignment waivers until August 16th, so he can freely move to the minors without an issue. So Wong gets his first class ticket to Memphis with some homework: Get right.

There’s been lots of talk that he’s made some changes to his swing. He will get plenty of reps required to get it right and once again become a productive offensive player, but I believe that for his longterm future in St. Louis, he needs to add another tool to his tool box. Versatility.

In 2011, when Matt Carpenter lit up spring training, only to find himself sent back to Memphis. He played seven games for the big league club that year during a cup of coffee in the summer. Over the winter, he decided to add to his versatility to create more value for the team to keep him in the Majors. It worked. He made the team in 2012 and played 114 games as a utility player. He parlayed that into learning second base and became the team’s starting second baseman in 2013, a decision that is playing out quite nicely now in 2016 too.

There are holes in the organizational depth chart where Wong could make himself useful too. I personally think he could get a quality center fielder. He has the speed and the ball tracking ability to play the position. The arm should be serviceable out there too. All that he’d need is the experience to make a successful transition.

But I don’t expect that to happen.

There has been plenty of talk today about Wong’s extension and how it is a bad deal for the Cardinals. I still believe in Wong and I still think that it’s a good deal. He’s only two months into what could be a six year deal. It’s like watching the first inning of a game and turning off the TV. Last year, even with the horrendous second half, Wong was still a league average second baseman on offense on the whole. Somewhere inside him is the guy who was widely considered an all star snub last July.

To see how such a demotion could actually benefit him, he doesn’t have to look far. About this time last year, San Diego optioned Jedd Gyorko to Triple-A to get right. Through the Padres’ first 59 games last year, Gyorko had hit .210/.282/.311 with 2 home runs. He spent three weeks in the minors before returning to the big league lineup on June 30th, hitting .262/.303/.430 with 14 HR in the remaining 83 games.

The move created new life for Gyorko who was acquired by the Cardinals that winter and is currently having the best start to a year since he was a rookie in 2013 and mashed 23 homers.

Wong will get another chance. If not this season, then next. His contract will guarantee that. And I can’t wait to see what he can do.

The power of the first impression

First impressions are everything these days. If you can perform well enough (or bad enough) just long enough for people to think they have you figured out, that impression will stick like glue. The best current example of that is Aledmys Diaz.

Diaz started strong in April, leading the Majors in batting average and slugging. He somehow still failed to win either NL Player of the Month or NL Rookie of the Month. But after a month of complaints about where Diaz bats in the lineup, Mike Matheny finally made the decision to promote Diaz from his regular eighth spot in the lineup to second, arguably the most important position in the lineup.

It was always going to be a tough task for Diaz to duplicate his April performance, but a relatively pedestrian .267/.304/.419 slash line and 3 home runs in May was not the kind of performance anyone was expecting out of him.

It becomes pretty obvious once you dig into his numbers that the league is catching up to him.

Diaz’s strikeout rate has nearly tripled from 5.3% in April to 14.8 in May. His line drive rate fell from 22.4% in April to a well below average 15.6% in May (current league average is 20.7%). And while his line drive rate is up ever so slightly (15.9%) over the last two weeks, it’s certainly not enough to say that he’s figuring things out.

You can dig further and find that teams are throwing him more pitches outside the zone and he’s swinging at those far more often. He’s getting more fastballs (which makes sense for where he’s batting in the lineup now), but it’s also the pitch he’s done by far the least damage with in his brief career. So he’s getting more fastballs while opposing pitchers lay off the sliders, curveballs, and splitters he’s been destroying.

The numbers actually got even worse when you consider the 14 games since he was moved to the second spot in the lineup. In the second spot he has a slash line of just .190/.238/.259. That’s not good at all.

It remains to be seen just what kind of adjustment Diaz can make because we’ve never seen him in this situation before.

Earlier this week I tweeted out a comparison of Diaz’s April and May numbers and found it very interesting that all the responses I got were defending Diaz. He’s still learning. He’ll figure it out. He’s making adjustments. All the while, he’s still batting second in the Cardinals’ lineup.

So let me get this straight. Diaz hits .267/.304/.419 in May and .190/.238/.259 since taking over the second spot in the lineup and everyone is cool with him batting second, but Matt Holliday hits .253/.341/.507 in April and most wanted to bring Mike Matheny up on crimes against baseball for continuing to bat him third?

But if we’re going to be that hard on a veteran player batting third who has proven to be capable of adjusting and producing at a high level for many years, shouldn’t we be equally as hard (or harder) on Diaz batting second as a rookie who has proven nothing except that he had a great debut month?

The way I like to look at these kinds of situations is to consider each of Diaz’s two months in the Majors and ask yourself this question. Is he more likely to be the guy who hit .423 and had a bad month? Or is he more likely to be the guy who hit .267 and had a great month?

The obvious answer is obvious. The latter.

And that’s not to say he won’t probably settle in somewhere in between. I do see him eventually as a guy who will settle in and hit about .270 with 13-18 home runs. The odds of him being more than that are exceptionally slim. Fewer than 40 guys produced more offense than that last year and none of them played shortstop as their primary position.

The average MLB shortstop this season is currently hitting .253/.313/.389. So if Diaz ends up being that guy, he is definitely an above average offensive shortstop. And while that’s definitely worth having in your starting lineup, that’s not automatically worthy of hitting second in the lineup.

So it’s time for Matheny to move Diaz back into the second half of the lineup. If Holliday was hurting the team while batting third with what he did in April, Diaz is definitely hurting the team right now batting second with what he did in May.

And if he can’t turn it back around out of the second spot in the lineup, all that talk about Kolten Wong working on his bench warming might get a reprieve. And maybe we should be revisiting whether Jhonny Peralta should be shifting positions after all.

More on Matt Holliday

As I mentioned on Twitter this morning, since writing about Matt Holliday’s start, he has hit .500 with 2 HR in 5 games. Maybe he’s starting to hit his stride and get warm, which would be a welcome sight for the Cardinals offense and their fans.

But discussion of that this morning, led me to wonder how Holliday’s extra base hit rate (xBH/PA) was stacking up compared to previous seasons with the Cardinals. So here are Holliday’s extra base hit rate for his time with the Cardinals:

Now looking at that, you can easily see why there are many people who feel that Holliday is in full on decline. At age 36, he is definitely declining and I wrote about that back in November. But with the rounded skillset that Holliday has always had, a rapid decline always felt unlikely to me. He should be a guy whose game generally ages well.

But believe it or not, the real difficulty for Holliday this season has been getting base hits. Here are his singles rate (1B/PA) during his time as with the Cardinals:

As you can see, his singles rate stays pretty steady around 15%, give or take, in previous seasons with the Cardinals, except this year where it has fallen just below 12%. You would think that that’s going to be the easiest thing to correct, far easier than a lack of power.

Seeing those numbers actually gives me more hope that Holliday can and will be a quality contributor to the lineup this year. If you give him a 2% bump in his singles rate (turns into 4 additional singles), he would still have his lowest singles rate during his time with the Cardinals. But he’d be hitting .280/.351/.514 which is still a little lower than usual, but not quite as panic inducing as we’ve seen early this year.

Matt Holliday’s slow start

Yesterday afternoon Matt Holliday hit his 7th home run of the season. Holliday has been a target of criticism for a slower than typical start, but Dan Buffa posted yesterday the dates that Holliday hit his 7th home run of the season, which I’ve expanded here a little bit for all his years with the Cardinals and with some more info.

2010: Hit on June 18th in game 67, hit 28 total
2011: Hit on June 16th in game 70*, hit 22 total
2012: Hit on May 15th in game 36, hit 27 total
2013: Hit on May 28th in game 51, hit 22 total
2014: Hit on July 18th in game 97, hit 20 total
2016: Hit on May 25th in game 47…

*- in his first game back after missing 14 games while on the disabled list

So we see that Holliday’s overall home run production is pretty equal to what he’s done in previous seasons where he hit 20 or more home runs.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s see where Holliday has stood after game 47 in each of his previous seasons.

2010: .279/.344/.442, 5 HR, 18 RBI
2011: .356/.447/.468, 6 HR, 30 RBI
2012: .261/.341/.473, 10 HR, 32 RBI
2013: .263/.347/.425, 6 HR, 28 RBI
2014: .267/.366/.369, 2 HR, 25 RBI
2015: .320/.433/.444, 3 HR, 24 RBI
2016: .233/.307/.453, 7 HR, 24 RBI

As we can see, Holliday’s power and slugging still seem to be present, but his batting average and OBP are well down from his normal start. We can also see that, pretty much outside of 2011, he is a slow starter as he has a .295 batting average during his time with the Cardinals. Holliday has pretty consistently been a player who really gets going in the summer time. For his career, June and July are his two best months at the plate.

But let’s take a look at how he finished each of those seasons out over the team’s final 115 games.

2010: .325/.407/.568, 23 HR, 85 RBI
2011: .267/.358/.503, 16 HR, 45 RBI
2012: .311/.396/.508, 17 HR, 70 RBI
2013: .317/.408/.521, 16 HR, 66 RBI
2014: .274/.374/.467, 18 HR, 67 RBI
2015: .197/.311/.342, 1 HR, 11 RBI

As a brief aside, it’s worth pointing out that the second half of 2011 is really what earned Holliday his “unclutch” reputation. After all, how did the #4 hitter on the league’s fifth best offense only rack up 45 RBI over 115 games? Lack of opportunity. For whatever reason, he didn’t get many chances. His 19% RBI rate in 2011 is one of the best of his career, but he got 10% fewer opportunities than he typically has as a Cardinal.

I also included 2015 even though it isn’t very indicative as he played just 30 games, and most of those while coming back from a long stint on the disabled list and likely struggling with his timing. But what we see from all the data is a guy who has typically hit near .300 and adding 16-18 home runs from Game 48 to the end of a season during his time with the Cardinals.

At his current pace, he should have 431 remaining plate appearances this season. Let’s say he hits .300 with 15 home runs the rest of the way. That would put him hitting an overall .273 with 22 home runs.

I think we all would be happy with that.

All about the Ace

There has been many bytes transmitted across the internet–perhaps the modern day equivalent of ink spilled–discussing the start that Adam Wainwright has had to the 2016 season. Many are questioning his place with the team and whether he can still be considered the team’s ace.

If an ace is the best pitcher in your rotation, Wainwright fits the definition. If an ace is one of the best 10 starting pitchers in the league, he still qualifies (10th in ERA+ among starting pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched since 2013). He had a career year in his last full season on the mound (153 ERA+ in 2014) and was off to the best start of his career in 2015 before tearing his Achilles tendon in his fourth start of the season.

So in my opinion, Wainwright is still an ace and still one of the league’s best pitchers. He just hasn’t gotten off to a good start this season and that has people nervous about the 34-year-old Wainwright. So nervous that I even read an article today that suggested that Wainwright should be permanently moved to the bullpen if top prospect Alex Reyes is called up this summer. I found the suggestion pretty laughable.

To me, I think most people are forgetting the fact that Wainwright didn’t pitch very much last year. The best comparison to what we should have expected from him to start the season seems like it should be the 2012 season. That was his return after missing the 2011 season following Tommy John surgery. How does his 2016 start stack up to 2012?

First 8 starts of 2012: 5.77 ERA, 43.2 IP, 1.53 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9

First 8 starts of 2016: 6.80 ERA, 45.0 IP, 1.60 WHIP, 5.2 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9

The comparison results in a mixed bag. His ERA and WHIP are higher in 2016, but his walk rate and home run rate are improved. But the bottom line has been the same: Command.

In the start of the 2012 season, Wainwright was searching for touch on his pitches. Even though it wasn’t his arm injured in 2015, he still couldn’t throw off a mound for most of the year. So he is still looking for that touch. He probably should have thrown more than 15 innings in spring training to ensure he was closer to finding that touch when the real games began. In that regard, the deck was stacked towards struggling to start the season.

But those numbers of Wainwright’s this year are improving. Even with the pounding he took against the Angels, his May numbers look better. Outside of ERA, they look markedly better.

April 2016: 7.16 ERA, 27.2 IP, 1.70 WHIP, 4.6 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9

May 2016: 6.23 ERA, 17.1 IP, 1.44 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 1.1 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9

Guys are still pounding his mistakes, but he is making fewer of them. He’s walking 2.5 fewer batters per nine while striking out 1.6 more. So he’s able to throw strikes when he needs them with more regularity.

And, while I discount the ability of BABIP to tell us much when comparing one player to another, I still think it has some value when comparing a player to himself. Wainwright had a .379 BABIP in May and has a .353 for the season (likely deflated a bit courtesy of those extra home runs he allowed). For Wainwright’s career his BABIP is .298. For 2014, his last full season of pitching, it was .270.

While his performance may be in doubt, there is no doubt of Wainwright’s importance to the pitching staff. Whether you think he is or not, he is supposed to be the ace. The guy who steps up to stop a losing streak.

He and Mike Leake are supposed to be the veteran pitchers who lead this staff. In April, they both struggled. The Cardinals went 3-7 in games started by Wainwright and Leake.

So far in May, the Cardinals are 6-0 in games started by Wainwright and Leake. That’s been a big difference. Leake has figured it out and pitched superbly his last two times on the mound. Wainwright still has work to do, but there is reason to be optimistic in his numbers.

My conclusion is that time and innings are what Wainwright needs right now. And he’s going to get it.

Just how good are these Cardinals?

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The St. Louis Cardinals suck and the Chicago Cubs are unstoppable! Chicago Cubs: 2016 World Series champs. Let’s just give them the trophy and go home. I read an article the other day that said the Cardinals were closer to being a last place team than they were a first place team. Is anyone else tired of this crap or is it just me?

As the Cardinals prepare to play the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim tonight, they are just 32 games into the 2016 season. That’s 20% if you prefer to deal in percentages. There is quite a bit of angst around the Cardinals right now. Some of it deserved, some of it not. The Cardinals have been so good for so long that anything less than excellence is revolting to fans’ tastebuds.

Through those 32 games, the Cubs already find themselves with a nine game lead on May 9th. How will anyone ever catch them? Well, for one the Cardinals had a nine game lead as late as June 28th last season and, while they still managed to win the division by two games, I sure remember a lot of complaining about how they were going to lose the division pretty much the entire second half. So it’s possible.

Or is it? Cardinals fans only ever seem to think it’s their team capable of losing a division lead, even though their team was the recipient of one of the biggest choke jobs in history (thanks Milwaukee!).

I actually only had to go back to 2014 to find a season where the Cardinals had a larger than 9 game swing in the division. They were five games back after their 32nd game that year and on September 8th they finished that game up 4.5 games, a 9.5 game swing. That team was 16-16 after 32 games too. They had also lost a series to bad teams, something this team has yet to do.

So lets talk about that.

Let’s put the Cardinals’ opponents so far this season into three baskets. The great teams that we expect to not only compete for a division, but be World Series contenders. The good teams that don’t really have a good shot at their division, but should end up battling for a Wild Card spot into September. Then you have the bad teams that are rebuilding and don’t expect to contend. The Cardinals haven’t played any good teams yet.

They’ve played 12 games against teams that I would say qualify as great. You have the Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who won 97 and 98 games respectively last season, and got better over the winter. Then you have the Nationals who got better and are finally getting hype-matching performances out of Bryce Harper. The Cardinals are 2-10 right now against those teams, averaging just 2.7 runs per game.

The other 20 games are against teams that easily qualify as bad. The Cardinals are 14-6 in those games averaging 7.2 runs per game.

That’s a much better performance, but it tells us only that the Cardinals are much better than the bad teams, but not quite as good as the great teams. At least at this point everyone still has to grind their way through 130 more games, five more months of baseball, injuries and tests of depth. And we still don’t know where the Cardinals stack up against the good teams.

They start that this week with their trip out west.

If there was a positive note from this past weekend’s series against Pittsburgh is that the Cardinals looked much better than they did during the season opening series. To start, the managed to win one of the games and avoid a sweep. And to add to that, the Cardinals hit just .158 against them in April, but hit a much more robust .255 over the weekend.

Plus, wouldn’t you rather the team be losing to great teams rather than the bad teams? I know I would.

This Cardinal team still needs to get better. But the good news is that there is room to improve. You can’t honestly look up and down this roster and say, “The Cardinals are really playing as well as they can.” It’s just not the case.

Adam Wainwright and Mike Leake won’t finish the season with ERA’s above 6. That I know. And it’s their struggles that have hurt the most, primarily because they are the veteran arms that are supposed to throw innings, but also because that’s two of every five games that just became twice as difficult to win. You get them straight and that changes the equation for the offense.

I also doubt that Matt Holliday and Randal Grichuk will finish the year with below average offensive production as well. As much as we question Holliday’s role on the team, he is still valuable and one of these days will go off for a couple weeks, hit .400 and we will all forget about his April struggles. At least until it comes time to exercise that option in November.

They have gotten some outstanding performances from unexpected places. Aledmys Diaz has been amazing. Jeremy Hazelbaker, though I consider him lucky more than anything, is getting results and that’s ultimately what matters. Even Matt Adams has been a surprisingly valuable member of the team, hitting .306/.382/.551 against right handed pitching after many, including myself, were ready to dump him as soon as possible.

The problem, as many Twitter users like to so eloquently point out, is that without those guys in key lineup positions, or even bunched together, their overall impact to the lineup is minimized.

There’s been a lot of complaints about lineup order (a topic I’m sure that I will write on sooner or later), but ultimately, at the most, there’s about a 5% run output impact between what Matheny is running out there and a mathematically optimal lineup, assuming every player plays every game to their averages. Matheny’s lineups usually end up right down the middle of the best and worst lineup, as I’m sure most managers’ lineups do because no manager actually uses a mathematically optical lineup. Mainly because there are matchups, health, and a variety of other factors in play as well.

So the answer to the question I posited in the title is that I don’t know, you don’t know, and I don’t even think the team really knows (despite what Mike Matheny wants to say about being a good team that just hasn’t gotten hot yet).

The good news is that this team has both time and room to improve, and I believe they will. But I’m also one of the few who believe that this team is better top-to-bottom than the one that won 100 games last year. They just haven’t played better. But I believe that they have more than enough talent to get there.

Strikeouts are (mostly) overrated

Over at Cards Conclave today Doug made a post about who plays and strikeout rates and that got me started. This was supposed to be a simple few paragraphs about why strikeout rate is an overvalued metric of player ability in most cases, but after running across some numbers it became more. The discussion was focused on three players and who should play between Matt Adams, Brandon Moss, and Jeremy Hazelbaker. But since 140 characters makes it difficult to have a discussion…

As of this morning, Adams and Moss have a 30.7% K rate and Hazelbaker’s is at 29.9%. So over 600 plate appearances (generally considered a “full season”), Hazelbaker will strike out 5 fewer times. That’s hardly moving the needle. The three of them have the three highest strikeout rates on the team, so it isn’t like we’re debating between that 30.7% K rate and Aledmys Diaz‘s team leading 8.9% K rate.

I’ve been fairly vocal of my opinion of strikeouts over the years. They get a bad rap. Getting one out by swinging through a ball is far better for the team than getting two outs with poor contact.

So ultimately, making good contact with the ball is far more important. I think most everyone would agree, but I do understand why some use K rate as an inverse measure of contact rate. The logic is sound that if you’re striking out a lot, you may be having trouble squaring up the ball.

But no longer do we have to rely on a rudimentary logic jump to determine just how well players are hitting the ball.

We can look at ground ball rate. Matt Adams has a 27.0% ground ball (GB) rate, Moss has a 29.4% GB rate, and Hazelbaker has a 58.4% GB rate. That’s astoundingly high. That means almost 60% of the time Hazelbaker hits the ball, it’s on the ground. League average runs about 45%.

We can also look at line drive rate, which is a great measure to see how well a player is squaring up the ball at the plate. Matt Adams has a 29.7% line drive (LD) rate, Moss has a 21.6% LD rate, and Hazelbaker has a 15.2% LD rate. League average runs about 21%.

Just by that metric alone, when Matt Adams makes contact, he hits the ball hard twice as often as Jeremy Hazelbaker does. That is a meaningful difference.

But how much of a difference?

Line drives, of all the batted ball types (ground ball and fly ball being the other two) have the greatest odds of ending up as a hit. I wasn’t able to find 2015 or 2016 numbers in a quick search, but in 2014, the league had a .685 batting average on line drives and just a .239 batting average on ground balls (and .207 on fly balls for reference).

Further, when you do some math you find that a line drive produces 1.26 runs per out while a ground ball produces just 0.05 runs per out.

And when you take all of that in, it becomes pretty clear that Hazelbaker’s odds of continuing to out produce either Adams or Moss are pretty slim. Some of Hazelbaker’s early success can be attributed to pitchers learning him, but now they are finding out where his weaknesses are and that strikeout rate is rising.

Over the season’s first 10 games, Hazelbaker hit .419 with 3 home runs and a 24% K rate. In the 19 games since, he’s hit .216 with 2 home runs and a 35% K rate.

But that realization is not nearly as much fun as claiming Matheny is incapable of understanding this and is just playing favorites, right?

Home Run Quick Hits

When Brandon Moss hit the Cardinals’ Major League leading 31st home run of the season in the 5th inning, the question crossed my Twitter feed. How many three run home runs have the Cardinals hit this year? The answer? Nine.

Here are some quick hits about home runs so far this season.

  • With this 5th home run in the 20th game of the season, Brandon Moss is currently on pace for 41 home runs. It’s nice to dream, isn’t it?
  • The Cardinals are on pace to hit 251 home runs this season. That would be the most since Toronto hit 257 in 2010.
  • The Cardinals hit their 31st home run on April 26th. Last year it took them until May 17th. In 2014, until June 3rd.