With a third of the games played this season, the Cardinals currently lead the MLB in every single pinch-hit category. Is this trend just a fluke or is there actually something behind the success?
As big of a story as any in baseball this year, the Cardinals have seemingly perfected the art of pinch-hitting.
Currently, the Cardinals not only lead the league in every pinch-hit category, but they lead in incredible margins.
In pinch hit opportunities this year, the Cardinals have 34 hits; the next closest team only has 21 (Arizona). The Cardinals also have a team pinch-hit batting average of .374 in 91 at-bats. The next closest team with at least 60 at-bats is only batting .284 (Colorado).
Not to forget, this Cardinals team has also already set an MLB record in pinch-hitting this year. In a game against Atlanta in April, the Cardinals’ pinch-hitters launched 3 home runs to propel the team to a road victory.
Because of this incredible success, Mike Matheny has been left with a problem on his hand that almost every MLB manager wishes he has. In close games, Matheny has a bench full of guys who he can trust and call upon to deliver a key hit. In the National league where the pitchers occupy a spot in the batting order, having a productive bench can be a potent secret weapon, especially in close games.
However, this begs the question: well, what is behind the Cardinals’ pinch-hitting success? Of course, we all want to say that this is a fluke because that’s an easy answer. But, is it actually a fluke? Or, is there a reason why the Cardinals have been better in pinch-hit opportunities than any other team in the MLB?
— Baseball Tonight (@BBTN) June 1, 2016
As much as we all hate to admit it, Matheny deserves just as much credit as his players do for delivering those clutch hits. His management of his players and his ability to keep them fresh and engaged with the game is the reason why the Cardinals have succeeded so much in the pinch-hit role.
Let’s evaluate how the at-bats were distributed amongst the team in the last 5 games.
For players with 14 or more at-bats in those 5 games, we will call them the “every day players.” These players include Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, Aledmys Diaz, Matt Holliday, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, and Yadier Molina. These are exactly who you expect to take the majority of the at-bats. These 7 players are the most important hitters on this team without a question.
This leaves one spot in the batting lineup plus pinch hit opportunities to be distributed among 5 players: Brandon Moss, Jedd Gyorko, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Greg Garcia, and Kolten Wong. For the purpose of this article, we’ll exclude Eric Fryer because Molina is Ironman and the team apparently has no problem playing him every day (wrong move, but that’s for another article).
Interestingly enough, each of those 5 “bench players,” played in at least 3 of the team’s 5 games in the past 7 days. More interestingly, each player has at least 5 at-bats. Yep. You read that right. In a 5 game week, Matheny has managed to find each player on his roster at least 5 at-bats. Though it is a small sample size, it is indicative of how the at-bats have been distributed throughout this entire season.
Though it is incredibly difficult to maneuver, Matheny consistently found a way to get every single player on his team regular at-bats because of the players’ flexibility in playing multiple positions. Matheny’s management has been the team’s key to success and that is why the Cardinals have been better at pinch-hitting than any other team in the league. Every single player on this roster is fresh and ready, so when the player is called upon, there is no rust at all.
Without a question, this Cardinals roster has as much depth and talent as any in recent memory. Every single batter on this 25-man roster can make his argument for why he deserves every day at-bats. Not many other teams in the league can say the same about their roster.
However, in order to allow that roster at their full potential and to flourish, the manager’s role becomes that much more important. His ability to manage his players can be the difference in whether his player delivers in clutch situations.
There is a lot of things we can question Matheny about. From the lineups to the bullpen useage, I’m sure if we start a forum about his management, it would fill up with hate every game. However, there are certain things we need to appreciate. There’s a reason why the Cardinals organization and John Mozeliak is so high on him: his ability to manage his players and to keep them all fresh is something few other managers could do.
If a team succeeds, it’s because of the players. If the team doesn’t, more often than not, it’s on the manager. Because there are so few tangible statistics that can measure a manager’s effectiveness, we have to at least credit Matheny for the Cardinal’s success in pinch-hitting. So far, in 2016, the Cardinals have perfected pinch-hitting.
Photo captured by Jeff Curry- USA Today Sports