In their respective NLDS Game 5’s, both the Reds and Cardinals found themselves staring up at a 6-0 deficit. So why did I think the Reds had no chance of winning and the Cardinals definitely would win?
In my eyes, it all comes down to organizational hitting philosophy and instruction.
Let me explain.
On the phone with a close friend in Cincinnati last night, venting to each other about the Reds’ collapse, we began to discuss the ridiculous comeback put on by St. Louis against Washington in Game 5. We both fervently agreed we expected that outcome and would have been shocked with any other result. I brought up the last two run-scoring plays for the Cardinals. First, Daniel Descalso worked a tough at-bat with 2 outs until he was able to hit a hard one-hopper up the middle. Next, Pete Kozma let a 95 mph fastball on the outside corner get deep enough on him to punch a line drive to right.
Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma, you ask? Who are those guys? Exactly. The average baseball fan has never heard of either of those guys. Regardless, as a result of two hard-hit balls, one up the middle and one the opposite way, the Cardinals turned a 2 out, 2-run deficit in the 9th inning on the road into 4 runs, a 2-run lead and a trip to the NLCS, while 45,000 stunned D.C. fans sat helplessly in the stands.
All of this got me thinking. I thought back to Game 5 of the other NLDS. My Reds were down 6-4 in the bottom of the 9th, needing a rally to keep the season alive. Two men were on with one out, and Jay Bruce was at the plate with Scott Rolen on deck. The average fan has heard of both of those players. The results of the two all-star hitters? A lazy pop fly and a strike out. Season over.
My mind kept wandering, jumping back and forth over the past few seasons, mostly focusing on my Reds and their rival, the St. Louis Cardinals. I started thinking about the hitters on each team. And I started to notice some drastic differences.
I settled on two generalizations. The Reds are a bunch of pull-happy yankers who strike out a lot, while the Cardinals use the whole field and seem to put the ball in play most of the time.
I was curious. Is that really true or does it just seem that way? So I pulled up baseball-reference and Fangraphs and began adding up some stats. I looked at two categories: percentage of non-pulled hits and strikeout rate with men on base.
I combined the totals of the ten most significant recent Cardinal organization call-ups and the eight most recent Reds prospects in the major leagues.
Cardinals (10) – Kozma, Descalso, Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker, David Freese, Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Shane Robinson, Matt Carpenter and Tony Cruz
Reds (8) – Zack Cozart, Drew Stubbs, Chris Heisey, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Ryan Hanigan, Devin Mesoraco and Todd Frazier
The Cardinal players in this sample struck out just 13 percent of the time with men on base while 66 percent of their hits were not pulled.
The Reds players in this sample struck out 21 percent of the time with men on base while 57 percent of their hits were not pulled (52 percent if you remove Joey Votto from the sample).
This tells me that the Cardinal hitters have a plan at the plate. Based on these figures, Cardinal hitters are more likely to attack good pitches to hit early in the count. They are more likely to be looking to drive the ball up the middle and to the opposite gap, with the approach being to let the ball travel deeper into the zone. Allowing the ball to travel gives the batter a higher probability of laying off bad pitches and being early less often. And as most hitting instructors will tell you, if you’re early you’re out.
This information also tells me that the Cardinals have a defined two-strike approach, which is easy to implement when the overall philosophy is built on using the whole field. A solid two-strike approach generally should be centered on sacrificing some power to increase the chance of putting the ball in play. The numbers suggest the Cardinals are far more advanced in this area.
(Sidebar: Remember highly-touted center field prospect Colby Rasmus? The Cardinals traded Rasmus away in 2011, leaving the job for youngster Jon Jay. People speculated it was because of a beef between Rasmus and Tony La Russa, and that very well may have been the case. But, if you look at his numbers, Rasmus was at a 47% non-pull rate and struck out 22.5% of the time with men on base. Maybe that was the reason for the trade.)
Meanwhile, Reds hitters whiff with men on base at a much higher clip. Reds hitters also collect nearly half of their hits by pulling the baseball. In my opinion, there is a correlation between those two percentages.
These tendencies can rear their ugly heads in the postseason. In Games 3, 4 and 5 of the NLDS, in which the Reds became the first NL team to blow a 2-0 lead since the format began in 1995, Cincinnati left 29 men on base.
You wonder why the Cardinals never seem to be out of a game, and why it is so hard to close that team out in a game or a series. I believe the philosophy instilled in their hitters is a major reason. They adapt to the situation and even their best power hitters are fine with shortening up and going the other way with two strikes.
Look at the last three seasons. Reds hitters have fanned 537 more times than Cardinal hitters.
The Reds have had the same hitting coach at the major league level, Brook Jacoby, for the past six seasons. This team continues to strike out, swing for the fences and (with the exception of Votto) have a pull tendency. The two-strike approach, to the eye of the fan, does not seem to exist.
It’s time for a change both at the major league level and throughout the organization. Take the cue from the St. Louis Cardinals. You can’t argue with success.
And while you’re at it, lock everyone on the team not named Joey Votto in a room and don't let them out until they've watched a thousand hours of film of Joey Votto!