Posted on 18 September 2013.
The St. Louis Cardinals struggle against left-handed pitching so goes conventional wisdom. I really can’t remember a time that this wasn’t said. During the 80’s, The Cards struggled against lefties like Sid Fernandez (as if any of The Cardinals today have anything at all to do with the players in the 80’s) while being able to score runs off of great right-handers like Nolan Ryan. It was credited to the fact that Fernandez was a lefty and not the fact that at his height, he was almost at the level of Ryan as a pitcher.
I bring up the past, not because it means anything to today, but I wonder if that conventional wisdom that is part of the team’s history may be why people are so quick to repeat it today. The point is, if The Cardinals struggle off of a righty, the struggles are credited to other factors. But against lefties, it’s almost always credited to the fact he is just a lefty.
So with the playoffs coming up, and some great lefties on the horizon like Francisco Liriano and Clayton Kershaw, I want to study how successful The Cardinals really are against lefties.
A recent Post-Dispatch article pointed out The Cards were 15-20 against lefties. The article stated:
Those wins stand out because the Cardinals this season are 15-20 against left-handed starters. They’re the only team in the National League with a winning record that has a losing record against lefties.
The Cardinals have the highest average in the National League overall at .272, but they are hitting just .239 against left-handed pitchers, which puts them 11th. In the three games against left-handed starters before Sunday, they were hitting .306. And even if you add in the struggles they had against Minor, they’re still at .281 in their past four games. That’s a big step forward.
The article was written on August 30th. Since then The Cards have gone 2-2 against lefties. The problem is more to do with small sample size than actual facts. The Post-Dispatch articles argues that the Cardinals are improving against lefties by winning 3 in a row before losing to Mike Minor. So if you add the 2-2 record in since then, they are 5-3. But the article then desperately tries to figure out a reason why The Cardinals are improving, even crediting Kolten Wong.
The recent success the Cardinals have had against lefties started right about the time they called up Kolten Wong from Memphis and the team shifted to more of a platoon concept. It’s not a strict platoon, since right-handers David Freese and Pete Kozma still get starts against opposing right-handers. But the Cardinals’ lineup Sunday had just one lefty, second baseman Matt Carpenter. Otherwise, Matheny went with his right-handed options when he could: Shane Robinson instead of lefty Jon Jay in center, Kozma instead of lefty Daniel Descalso at short and Freese at third instead of the Wong-Carpenter parlay
But as we now know, Wong struggled greatly this year hitting .163/.196/.184. But regardless of his struggles, The Cards winning pct improved against lefties. The article even points out The Cardinals are 2-0 against Kershaw, but even that doesn’t mean too much as both games they won because of good pitching. On Aug 6th they beat Kershaw by scoring 2 runs off of him and on May 26th they scored 4 runs off of him.
So more than likely the “struggles” against lefties is more overevaluting a small sample size, as any 35 game period for the best teams in baseball can produce a slightly below .500 record. As did the 35 games The Post-Dispatch viewed.
But when we look deeper at the stats, and not focus so much on wins and losses, this is what we see:
Versus righties The Cards are: .279/.341/.410/ with a WRC+ 110.
Versus lefties The Cards are: .235/.297/.370 with a wRC+ 85
Now when you compare The Cardinals to other teams, you do see slightly inferior numbers.
Other teams against lefties
Pirates 263/.332/.410 wRC+ 110
Dodgers .266/.328/.396 wRC+ 104
Reds .242/.318/.391 wRC+93
So why do The Cardinals struggle against lefties? It would show proof if you saw lefties shutting down left-handed hitters on the team. But against lefties, Matt Carpenter has a great OPS of .803, Matt Adams a slightly below average OPS of .667 and Jon Jay has an OPS of .602, which could be deemed as struggling if it wasn’t for the fact that Jay has struggled as a hitter altogether this year.
So who is really struggling against lefthanders? Molina’s OPS is .891; Holliday’s OPS is .770; even Freese’s OPS is .787 despite having an OPS of .691 against righties. Most of the starting players on the team have an OPS over .700 against lefties.
The big anchor on the team seems to be (surprise surprise) Pete Kozma. Kozma has the third most at bats against lefties this year at 137 with a horrible OPS of .551. By allowing someone so underachieving to rack up so many at bats is sure to bring the team average down. By removing him from the equation, The Cardinals numbers are more equal to the other teams in comparison. That may be an irrelevant point, as someone has to play shortstop this post season, and it’s either him or Descalso who has an OPS of .586 against lefties. But it does bring some assurance that an outlier is hurting the team as opposed to it being a team epidemic.
It appears the conventional wisdom that The Cardinals can’t hit lefties is created for several reasons. 1) It is a smaller sample size 2) fans are over evaluating the randomness of the win-loss record against lefties, which is actually just under .500 and 3) Kozma played so poorly this year over so many at bats that it brings the numbers down.
Whatever theory you accept, at least take solace in knowing the numbers against lefties are improving, either by strategy or just the numbers regressing back to the mean as more games are played.