By Curtis Hoffman, from Cardsblog.com

Small caveat

Statistics are often read and interpreted as if they independently influence other derivative stats, but they are all simply symptoms (i.e. statistics cannot have causality, just correlation). So, unfortunately, without being in the dugout we only have access to what are essentially secondary sources.

It is impossible to determine the root causes any performance, but we can look at some numbers to figure out what needs to change. Bottom line, it’s complicated and some things defy explanation.

Throw strikes, people

One of the easiest ways to improve your game is to stay within and near the strike zone. An average MLB pitcher will get a hall of fame batter out 70% of the time, conservatively. Pitchers run into problems when they are not throwing strikes because that causes issues during counts and affects pitch-by-pitch strategy. Now I will take a second to point out the relationship between BB% (walks divided by total batters faced) and ERA.

Click here to see the full chart.

St. Louis Cardinals Relief Pitcher Stats - Curated by Fangraphs

As you can see, ERA and especially fielding independent ERA has a pretty consistent inverted relationship with walk percentage. A low BB% paired with a low K% (strikeouts per batter faced) means that the pitcher is having trouble finding the zone, and when he does find it, it is either in disadvantaged counts or his “stuff” isn’t sharp enough to miss bats.

Siegrist Case Study

If we were to look at every pitcher on the roster that was not meeting expectations, to put it kindly, it would be a long and arduous process that would look like a thesis by the end.

Instead, we are going to look at the worst offender — Kevin Siegrist — and we can reasonably assume that any conclusions based on his statistics can be adapted and applied to the rest of the bullpen.

Pitch selection and effectiveness are going to be the main differences between pitchers, but we can assume that strike and ball percentages will translate reasonably close to 1-to-1 for any other MLB pitcher.

Also, keep in mind, he’s thrown only thrown a total of 52 pitches this year. This will exaggerate the effects of some of the stats, but it also emphasizes the importance of certain trends.

First Pitch Strikes

As a relief or closer, you have very little time to establish a rhythm. Consequently, it is crucially important that you establish yourself as quickly as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to throw first-pitch strikes. Look at the game logs for Siegrist’s 3 appearances below.

Kevin Siegrist Standard Stats - Curated by Fangraphs

Click here and here for the game logs.

If you look at the plate discipline chart, you’ll notice that only a couple of numbers are significantly different; I mean significance in both the statistical definition and significant in terms of baseball. The appearances seem similar yet, he has a 0.00, 9.00, and 108.00 ERA in each appearance respectively. So, what changed?

Two things, F-Strike% (First pitch strike percentage) and Swing% (Swings per pitch). In his first appearance, he faced 5 batters and threw first-pitch strikes 60% of the time resulting in 1 hit and no runs given up. Conversely, in his most recent appearance, he faced 5 batters and threw first-pitch strikes 20% of the time resulting in 4 hits and 4 earned runs.

Swing Percentages

Comparing these two outings again, you might notice that Zone% is 50.0% and 21.1% respectively. This factors greatly into swing percentage from which we can draw a couple conclusions.

First, when Siegrist stayed in the zone batters swung more often. Second, when he stayed inside the strike zone he gave up fewer walks. Obvious statements, right?

But, when you consider pitch selection and strategy, these things make a huge difference. The more strikes and first-pitch strikes you throw, the more freedom you have to mix pitches later in counts and the easier it is to stay in advantageous counts. Freedom equals variables, and the more variable there are, the more the batter must account for.

Margin of error

Essentially, by pitching strikes early in counts you are increasing your margin of error as a pitcher later in counts while simultaneously reducing the margin of error for your batter. Although it is much more complex than this, consider your margin of error as a number of pitches.

As a pitcher with a 0-0 count, you have essentially 6 pitches or four balls to get an out, ignoring foul balls. A batter has 3 strikes to get on base.

If you throw a first-pitch strike, you still have 6 pitches to get a positive result. Effectively, you have more chances to throw fewer pitches, and the batter must deal with the opposite situation Additionally, the weight of each pitch becomes more the closer it is to 3 strikes, just consult MLB averages sorted by counts if you don’t believe me.

The Wrap

If you don’t throw strikes, the batter can benefit without having to move a muscle. Throwing strikes forces the batters hand and makes their win condition dependent on their success against 9 opponents on the field. While strikes and balls do not inherently create outs or hits, they set up situations that are favorable to either the batter or the pitcher.

Success in pitching is often determined by only one or two simple factors, but simple does not necessarily mean easy. Start throwing strikes and some of the more specific areas for improvement will reveal themselves.

That said, the poor performances across the board for the Cardinals are indicative of a deeper more pervasive issue that needs to be addressed before in-game performance will change.

The bottom line, as when fixing any problem, is to start at the most fundamental level and work your way upward until you find a solution.

Afterword

Although this is somewhat tangential to the article’s theme, the Cardinals bullpen has a 38.4% ground ball percentage compared to the Reds bullpen’s 68.8%, which also happens to have a 1.31 ERA. Once the Cardinals figure out how to throw strikes, they need to keep them low in the zone.

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