For the locals, the World Series matchup will probably have many TV viewers headed to any of the estimated 1,500 talent-singing-dancing-contest shows that are available for those who enjoy shutting their brains down during the prime-time hours.
I take no shots here; Game 1 between the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros required an investment of 4 hours and 6 minutes of time for a competition in which only eight runs were scored. It was 5-0 Braves after three innings, and at that point I put in some eye drops to clear the soreness. Whatever you watched, it had to be better than this dull affair. Then again, this is Major League Baseball. What, you expected nonstop action?
At our house we clicked to Netflix to start watching the second season of the splendid Christina Applegate dark-comedy vehicle “Dead To Me.”
That show title likely echoes the sentiments that a large percentage of U.S. baseball fans have about the cheatin’ heart Astros. As for the Braves, I have no interest in engaging in the Tomahawk Chop debate. It’s been going on since the Braves appeared on the postseason stage in 1991. I do not need sensitivity training.
My decision is based on one thing: boredom. The Chop and related chant is stupid and played out. I was over it a long time ago. And I’m done with the chopped-up arguments, which is the usual mess of blue-state vs. red-state blathering that includes over-the-top wokeness, opportunism, “what-about-ism” faux outrage and all-around phoniness.
Ah, but Game 2 is Wednesday night in Houston, and I’ll be watching … unless it turns into another four-hour bonus dozing session. And if I switch to something else, I’ll honor the 2017 Astros by watching the classic baseball film “Bang The Drum Slowly.” Well, actually the Trashstros banged on a trash can to send signals to their hitters to let them know what kind of pitch was coming. But you get the point.
Speaking of the Astros: they cheated, they got caught, commissioner Rob Manfred wimped out, baseball fans outside of Houston were deeply offended and resentful and angry and will never-ever forgive or forget. That is perfectly fine; I do not push back on any that. I just don’t want to hear about it, OK? Rage on righteous people! All good with me …
Yes, even with the Cardinals fans who exhale flames in the Astros direction while conveniently forgetting about the Cardinals’ “HackGate” intrusion into Houston’s database to snoop for scouting information. Cheating is cheating … unless it’s your team that cheats, right? This is true of every sports town, college or pro, in America.
Seriously. I just want to watch baseball … World Series baseball … unless the game stinks, and then I’ll record the contest, just in case something dramatic happens. And then I can go back to see what I missed. That’s my system.
There is, however, value in taking notes and making observations on why the Braves and Astros are so good. I’m talking about the 2021 version; 2017 is, like, over.
I think the Cardinals — and perhaps some fans — could learn a few things from the Braves and Astros. I’m focusing on the offense which is a more relevant point of observation. The Cardinals’ pitching was chewed up by injuries this season and it doesn’t make much sense to do a sweeping analysis and comparison to the Braves and Astros. We all agree that the Cardinals have to walk fewer hitters in 2022.
1) Urgency! And you can make significant trades without signing over your future. That’s a favorite John Mozeliak meme that goes something like this, “We wanted to make a deal but we weren’t going to hand over our 15 best prospects.” Or something like that. It’s funny how so many other teams manage to secure meaningful upgrades in trades without giving up much in return.
The Braves lost their best player, Ronald Acuna Jr., to a season-ending knee injury. This weakened an outfield that was already playing without left fielder Marcell Ozuna, who was placed on administrative leave after being arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife.
After Acuna went down, Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos traded for an entire new outfield. He acquired four of them: Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario. To pull this off the Braves must have been taken to the cleaners, right? Well, no. They gave up next to nothing.
In 676 combined regular-season at-bats for the Braves, the four outfielders hit slugged .509, posted a .834 OPS, slammed 44 homers and 30 doubles, drove in 116 runs, and scored 95 runs.
In 133 combined at-bats in the postseason the four outfielders are hitting .315 with a .355 percentage, .562 slug and .917 OPS. And they’ve pounded nine homers, four doubles and two triples while knocking in 28 runs and scoring 16. In Game 1, Soler led off with a homer and Duvall launched a two-run homer.
These trades continue to pay off … big. And the Braves didn’t have to mortgage the farm in the transactions that changed the trajectory of their entire season. Four transactions that put them in the World Series.
The Braves Since Aug. 3, and including the postseason, the Braves are 44-21 and averaging 5.1 runs per game. On July 28, Atlanta was 50-53 and trailed the first-place Mets by six games in the NL East. And now the Braves are three wins away from winning the first World Series for the franchise since 1995.
The fearlessness of the Atlanta front office elevated the entire team — record, inspiration, morale and a reversal of fortune.
“The trades showed these guys that we’re not going to sit and hang our heads,” manager Brian Snitker said. “We’re going to go for this thing.”
In fairness, the Cardinals won 90 regular-season games to Atlanta’s 88. And the Cardinals wouldn’t have won 90 games to qualify for the postseason without Mozeliak and his associates acquiring starters Wade LeBlanc, Jon Lester and J.A. Happ and relievers Luis Garcia and T.J. McFarland.
But the Braves rebuilt an entire outfield in four low-cost moves. And their front-office made it all happen quickly. The urgency in Atlanta was much greater. And in obtaining Rosario, Pederson, Soler and Duvall, the Braves gave up less than the Cardinals did in sending John Gant to Minnesota for Happ and Lane Thomas to Washington for Lester.
2) Once again: analytics are your friend, not the enemy. There is nothing to fear but ignorance itself. There’s a lot more to performance than batting average and earned-run average and other baseball-card stats. Thankfully the St. Louis baseball operations department knows this and has correctly viewed analytics as a plus tool.
The deposed manager Mike Shildt was a lot more positive about analytics than predecessor Mike Matheny. No question about that, and I’ve written that during the course of Shildt’s term in office. Praised him for it many times. But Shildt wasn’t as enthusiastic about data-based projections as apologists claim. He stalled in this part of his managing.
(And by the way, a manager that cites hard-hit rate isn’t exactly stunning evidence of him being a deep-dive analyst. No, sorry, it makes him a baseball guy. And baseball guys have always explained away some of the struggles on offense by saying stuff like “We’re hitting the ball hard, and we don’t have as much to show for it as we should.” That’s been going on for a century.)
In a brief text exchange with Katie Woo of The Athletic, Shildt himself acknowledged differences with the front office on analytics. Shildt was a large improvement over Matheny, but the Cardinals need to get up to speed under their new manager — unless, of course, you’d like them to slip behind other teams that have the brains to use all that is available in the goal of winning games.
The lineup construction was an issue; Shildt was often too slow to make effective changes. Then again the roster-construction challenge would have been easier if the front office had given Shildt more good hitters and position-player depth.
When the Braves went to the bench to insert position players into the game, those replacements performed 22 percent above league average offensively. The Astros replacements were 14 percent above league average offensively. And the Cardinals? Not good: a whopping 21 percent below league average offensively.
Back to analytics.
Oliver Marmol should be more forward-thinking in this area.
The Braves jumped in this year.
— Displeased with the vulnerability of his defense, manager Brian Snitker, 66, deployed an aggressive and creative playbook of defensive shifts and put them into place in early May. The results were dramatic. The Braves finished a close second in the majors to the Giants in defensive runs saved (32) by infield shifts. The Braves saved five other runs with improved outfield positioning. That combination of 37 runs saved was the most gained through shifting-positioining by a major-league team this season.
The Cardinals didn’t need to use as many shifts as Atlanta, simply because their infielders and outfielders had superior range. And the Cardinals had more defensive runs saved overall than the Braves (81-55.) St. Louis saved only 13 runs on infield shifts and was a poor minus 3 runs saved on outfield positioning. But the Braves are an ideal example of how you can improve your entire defense just by enthusiastically implementing the intelligent information provided by the analytics people. Gee, doesn’t that make Snitker a hapless management puppet? It’s to laugh.
— Jorge Soler is a large man, listed at 6-4 and 235 pounds. When the Braves acquired him from Kansas City, they saw a potential leadoff hitter. Wait … what? He isn’t a fast little jackrabbit. He isn’t a “scrappy” hustler. You’re gonna bat him leadoff? He isn’t the type. He does not look like a leadoff hitter. These know-it-all analytics people are out of control! Idiots!
When the Braves pondered the possibilities after losing their exceptional leadoff man (Acuna) they went with Ozzie Albies. He’s an outstanding player, but didn’t reach base enough while filling the leadoff spot, managing a poor .282 onbase percentage in the role. Albies wasn’t comfortable with the new responsibility at the top of the lineup.
“It kind of felt like we had to maximize Ozzie better, and I like him hitting third,” Snitker said in September.
So the Braves gave Soler a shot at it — correctly projecting that his double-digit career walk rate would be a good fit. In 55 regular-season plate appearances at leadoff late in the schedule, Solder had a robust .352 onbase percentage and slugged a booming .556 for a .907 OPS. He had a walk rate of 12.7% at the No. 1 spot — and that walk rate is 18% in the postseason.
In World Series Game 1, Soler stepped up as the first hitter in the game. And on the third pitch — and first swing — of the 2021 World Series he made a pitch disappear into a distant region of Minute Maid Park to give the Astros a 1-0 lead. He got them rolling. And later he added an RBI single for a two-hit, two-RBI night.
Snitker didn’t laugh at the idea of using a middle-linebacker-sized athlete at leadoff. He liked the onbase+power potential at the top. No one forced it on him; he initiated the discussion.
“It’s not prototypical or how you would draw it up, but I think a lot of things are changing in the game,” Snitker said last month. “And I like Soler there.”
Snitker jokingly added: “I figured he’d want to drug test me after he looked at the lineup.”
Just as the Houston fans.
Message: Manager Marmol needs to expand the Cardinals’ thinking on the leadoff spot. Doesn’t have to be a middle infielder. Doesn’t have to be a speedy dude. Doesn’t have to look the type. Doesn’t have to come with the “scrappy” checkmark.
High onbase percentage. Heavy power. That can work very well. I can’t wait to see Marmol do something unconventional but smart with the lineup next season. They’ll have to install a fainting couch in the Busch Stadium press box, and fans will have to consult with their doctors and increase their meds.
3) A higher onbase percentage should be more of a priority for the Cardinals in 2022. They must create more run-producing opportunities, and that will fuel the offense.
Fact: the nine National League teams that averaged the most runs scored per game in 2021 also ranked among the top nine for highest onbase percentage. The Cardinals ranked 11th among the 15 teams in onbase percentage (.313), and were 10th in average runs per game (4.36.) Coincidence? Hardly.
Fact: In the first four months of the season, when the Cardinals averaged only 4.0 runs per game, their .304 OBP ranked 24th in the majors and tied for 14th in the NL. In the final two months of the season, the Cardinals averaged 5.0 runs per game. And their OBP over that time, .329, ranked eighth overall and third in the NL. Not a coincidence.
Fact: For the season Astros led the majors with a .339 onbase percentage. And they also led the majors with an average of 5.33 runs per game.
4) Plate Discipline Matters: Over the last three seasons the Astros have the lowest strikeout rate in the majors, the fifth-highest walk rate in the majors, the highest contact rate in the majors, the highest contact rate on strikes in the majors, and only five teams have chased fewer non-strikes.
The Cardinals have done a good job of lowering their strikeout rate under hitting coach Jeff Allbert; this season the Redbirds had the eighth-lowest K rate in the majors at 22.3%. And they aren’t chasing as many pitches out of the zone. Their contact rate (76.6%) was 10th best in MLB. And they gradually improved their two-strike hitting over the course of the 2021 season. But the Cardinals need to increase their walk rate (8%) which ranked 24th in MLB.
5) Lineup Balance: I’ve gone into this on multiple occasions this season, but the Cardinals were below average offensively against righthanded pitching in 2021, ranking 20th with a .706 OPS. The Astros were fourth in the majors in OPS vs. RH pitching, and the Braves were sixth.
Sure, the Braves and Astros have a better overall collection of hitters. But they’re also more balanced, and that helps them in matchups vs. righthanded pitching.
As I’ve previously noted, the Cardinals had the second-lowest number of plate appearances from lefthanded hitters in the majors this season. More LH batters, more success vs. RH pitching. The Astros had 560 more plate-appearances by LH batters than the Cardinals this season; Atlanta had 495 more.
Enjoy the World Series — if you can.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.