The Cardinals have been pitching much better as of late. We can see why when we compare Mike Leake and Adam Wainwright.
The Cardinals have won 6 out of their last 8 games. They appeared to have recovered from their disappointing start to 2017. Their successes and failures are, as is typical in baseball, highly dependent on the performance of the pitching staff.
As I was snooping around fan graphs looking for the specific reasons the Cardinals have started winning, I first noticed the dramatic difference in ERA, opponent batting average, and WHIP between the season averages and the numbers for the last seven days.
Unsurprisingly, the pitching staff put up significantly better numbers, excellent ones in fact. Now, saying the Cardinals are winning because the pitchers are performing better is a true but ultimately meaningless statement.
To find a more definitive reason for the vast improvement, I began exploring some of the heat maps of a couple Cardinals pitchers, specifically Adam Wainwright and Mike Leake. Respectively, they represent the worst and the best of the Cardinals’ starters in terms of 2017 performance.
Being Electric isn’t Enough
Velocity and movement differentiate aces from good pitchers, but everyday performances are determined mostly by pitch placement.
Good pitch location can compensate for inferior pitch quality, but the lack thereof can be extremely harmful. This is the reason Mike Leake has been so successful this year so far, and it is also one of the reasons Wainwright has been struggling.
First, let’s look at Mike Leake’s pitch location heat map compared to the averages produced by each pitch location.
Throw it Where they Ain’t
After only a quick look, you can see that Leake is most likely to give up a hit on inside pitches, from a right-handed batter’s perspective, as well as the upper middle part of the zone. Unsurprisingly, the slugging heat map closely resembles the AVG/P map; Batters hit the ball farther and more often on high inside pitches against Leake. Now to see where he throws the ball.
Looking at the location heat map, Leake’s pitch location is almost perfectly mirrored across an axis extending diagonally across the zone. There is very little overlap between his most favored locations and those that the batters seem to like.
With some photoshop magic, I can show you a more concrete visualization of this. When you see the two maps overlaid, it’s pretty easy to see why he’s having so much success.
Now, compare this to Adam Wainwright’s maps for the season so far.
Location, Location, Location
If we apply the same reasoning as before, Wainwright’s heat maps look alarmingly similar to each other. Now, look at the Pitch % map for each pitcher. Leake is predominantly in the bottom half of the zone consistently, a bulk of those pitches being in the bottom third. Wainwright’s, on the other hand, shows that most his pitches are in the middle part of the zone.
The massive overlap between his two charts confirms the facts that he needs to stay low in the zone to remain effective, especially with his pitches potentially less powerful than in the past.
Most, if not all, of the Cardinal’s problems have been almost directly attributable to issues executing the fundamentals. This is an especially relevant argument for pitching and defense. For pitching, the fundamentals start at throwing strikes. Two weeks ago, I said that they really just need to throw more strikes.
I think that has been accomplished. Now, it is a matter of refining pitch placement. In fact, I would even contend that pitch placement is the single most important factor in differentiating between good and great pitchers.
Just look at any game pitched by Greg Maddux and you’ll see what I mean. The difference maker in the past few games has been, I think, better strike throwing and pitch location more than any other adjustments.
If and when you get the entire pitching staff effectively spotting in the zone, you open up opportunities for improvements to pitches and more subtle elements of the game.
Fundamentals are building blocks. Solve those and you can ascend to great heights. Go Cards!
Photo Captured by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports