Cardinals Pitchers Experimenting This Spring

photo: Mike Maddux and John Gant (Scott Kane/USA TODAY Sports)

Veteran baseball fans – and analysts alike – know to take spring training stats with a grain of salt. Yet, today’s reactionary crowd, fueled by the immediacy of social media, swing too high with the early successes and too low with the struggles.

Beyond the old standards of rust and recovery, one reason behind unusual spring stats is player adjustments being made and tested in real-time mode.

In the case of the St. Louis Cardinals, much has been written about the innovative new approaches being championed by hitting coach Jeff Albert. The first-year leader is working with his charges to increase contact, cutting down on strikeouts without sacrificing power.

Mike Maddux (Steve Mitchell/Imagn)

However, there is also a quieter set of adjustments occurring with Mike Maddux’s pitchers, as an unusually high number of Cardinals hurlers are experimenting with new pitches this spring.

Baseball analysts – and especially ones who focus on fantasy baseball – monitor these kinds of changes as they identify candidates who may deliver improved results in the upcoming season – assuming they are able to master their new offerings, of course.

One such prominent analyst is Jason Collette of Fangraphs, who for the last six springs has maintained what he calls his “New Pitch Tracker”. Jason combs beat writer reports and relies on folks who focus on teams (like me) to tip him off on new offerings being developed by pitchers across Major League Baseball. He then goes one step further, using data from BrooksBaseball to validate the new pitches are being thrown in spring game action.

In conversing with Jason, a long-time friend and industry fantasy league competitor, he noted the heavy representation of Cardinals pitchers on the 2019 New Pitch Tracker.

“18 percent (8 of 44) of the guys on the New Pitch list this year are Cardinals,” Collette noted. That compares to a “fair share” for any one MLB team of 3.3 percent (1 of 30).

Here they are. Note that none are borderline MLB pitchers, each having pitched for St. Louis in 2018. All have a strong case for making the 2019 Cardinals out of spring camp and likely want to improve their chances by mastering a new offering.

Specifically, four of the eight – John Gant, Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson and Daniel Ponce de Leon – are among those in a battle for the rotation spot at least temporarily vacated by injured Carlos Martinez. Further, Gant and Mike Mayers have exhausted all of their minor league options, setting up a make-or-break situation this spring.

So, why do the 2019 Cardinals have five times as many new pitch additions than the reported MLB average this spring?

Perhaps heading into his second year leading St. Louis’ pitchers provides Maddux a greater level of familiarity with his charges and willingness to recommend what might be considered substantive changes to their repertoires.

“There is clearly some kind of shift happening there in the staff,” Collette suggests. “It seems like everyone was provided with a shortcoming and a way to address it.”

Right you are, Jason.

In an article last month, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that Maddux provided off-season recommendations to various pitchers. In some cases, the pitchers came up with their own change of plans. For some, it was new offerings. For others, it was focusing on shifting location, adjustments beyond those noted in the New Pitch Tracker.

Mike Mayers (Steve Mitchell/Imagn)

For example, Mayers’ first-ever use of a curveball in his final outing of 2018 was expanded, augmented by his deployment of Rapsodo to develop a one-seam sinker to play off his four-seamer. The intent is to vary his repertoire from being an “everything hard” pitcher to become as effective working down in the zone as up.

Another example cited is Chasen Shreve, who has been urged by Maddux to work more extensively inside to batters and is actively executing that plan.

Data is increasingly being deployed in helping to make such decisions. As camp opened, Maddux relayed how he spent his off-season in preparation for 2019.

“This winter was a heavy analytics, tried to really get more into that, understand them,” Maddux told Ben Fredrickson of the Post-Dispatch.

Still, despite all the spring experimentation with new pitches, the eye is not being taken off the primary goal – for these hurlers to be fully ready for Opening Day.

“The guys that we know, you just want to see them be healthy, compete, and continue to excel,” the veteran pitching coach told Goold.

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