Cheap Seats

And here's the first pitch...

One of the things about the 2010 Cardinals that has driven me nuts is the plague of

poor at-bats that has spread throughout the lineup.

It especially drives me up the wall when one of the Cardinals pitchers labors through

a tough inning only to have the batsmen make three quick outs and throw the hurler

right back into the fire.

What can happen when you take a couple of pitches became very apparent in the

fourth inning Monday against the Reds. With Reds starter Bronson Arroyo returning

from an hour-long rain delay, Yadier Molina and Skip Schumaker didn’t even give

the pitcher a chance to see if he still had it. Maybe it was to give the defense a break

or maybe it was because he was just waiting for a decent pitch. But St. Louis starting

pitcher Jaime Garcia came to the dish and waited for Arroyo to throw a strike.

Ball one. Ball two. Ball three. Ball Four.

Garcia’s patience sparked a two-out rally that gave the Cardinals the lead in the

game when the guys who are SUPPOSED to get on base couldn’t get the job done.

Makes you wonder what sort of damage the Cardinals could have done if Molina and Schumaker bothered to notice Arroyo couldn’t throw strikes after the long layoff...

Manager Tony La Russa has defended his hitters with the argument that sometimes

in the major leagues you just get one good pitch to hit. If you get a good first one,

by all means hack away. But it doesn’t seem to me that some batters are giving

the opposing hurler a chance to make a mistake because they’re just going up there

to swing at the first one they can reach with a boat oar. It’s hard to convince me that

the eye high fastball a hitter just popped out to the second baseman or the worm

burner they just dribbled to the shortstop was the pitch they had been waiting their

whole life to see.

Schumaker, who is supposed to be disciplined as a leadoff hitter, is batting only

.211 this season on the first pitch. He’s put the ball in play on the first or second

pitch 71 times in 203 plate appearances -- a third of the times he comes to the plate.

But even taking one delivery makes his numbers significantly better. He bats .294

on a 1-0 count and .440 when down 0-1.

Ryan Ludwick also swings at the first pitch entirely too much. So far this season he’s

put the ball in play 28 times in 220 at bats. When he does, he’s only a .250 hitter. By

taking even one pitch, Ludwick’s fortunes also improve dramatically. He’s a .364 hitter

up 1-0 in the count. When the pitcher gets ahead 0-1, he’s even better: .556 with a

1.378 on base plus slugging mark.

La Russa’s theory works great for a guy like Albert Pujols who knows a good pitch

when he sees one. But even Pujols seems to benefit from taking a few pitches as he

waits for something he likes.

Pujols has put the first pitch in play 18 times so far this season out of a total of 230

plate appearances. When he does it, he makes it count with a .444 batting average.

But, if he can get ahead in the count, the advantage gets greater. With a 2-1 count

Pujols hits .400. With a 3-1 count he hits .545 and on the rare occasion that a pitcher

throws Pujols a 3-0 pitch within five feet of the plate, the big guy hits .571.

Matt Holliday is so messed up this season -- despite a .307 batting average and

signs of life lately when he’s hitting with runners in scoring position -- that he’s the

odd case where he hits WORSE when he is ahead in the count.

When he swings at the first pitch this season he hits a very respectable .333. But

Holliday fails to take advantage of hitters’ counts later in at bats. He’s a .250 hitter

up 2-0 and he’s hitless in two at bats when he’s put a 3-0 pitch in play. That’s a

sign of a guy whose thinking about things too much. Holliday is so busy trying to

out-guess the pitcher and do something spectacular to justify his $120 million

contract that he’s stifling his natural ability.

The Cardinals finally bowed to pressure to give Pujols a crack at the cleanup spot in the order this season. Maybe they ought to give a little patience at the plate a try.