The Duncan Way: How Cardinals Pitchers Continue to Dominate by Exploiting Hitter Tendencies

AP Photo

Dan Brooks, an experimental psychologist and the proprietor of the excellent baseball analysis site Brooks Baseball, contributed charts, data, and research for this article. Follow Dan on Twitter @brooksbaseball and visit Brooks Baseball for more advanced pitch-tracking data.

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A baseball team can spark imitators by winning one World Series. It can spark true reverence, however, by delivering sustained success. That’s how The Dodger Way and The Oriole Way became blueprints decades ago for building winning franchises and fostering the kind of organizational culture that every other team wanted to emulate.

And that’s how The Cardinal Way has become a part of the present-day baseball lexicon. Like its predecessors, The Cardinal Way largely refers to successful player development technique, serving as shorthand for St. Louis’s ability to bring so many young players up through the minors and turn them into big league contributors — even if they were low draft picks. The label has also come to take on a broader meaning, encompassing everything from the team’s recent playoff success (two World Series trips in the past three seasons!) to its self-awarded honors (Best Fans in Baseball!).

But there’s also a less visible component, one that’s helped lead the Cardinals to postseason glory in the past and is now enabling them to remain in contention even as their prior clutch-hitting powers turn to dust: With every ball they throw, Cardinals pitchers seek to mentally beat hitters into submission.

It’s still working. After getting off to a slow start this year, the reigning NL champions have hit their stride by winning six of their last eight. Unsurprisingly, they’re creeping up on the NL Central–leading Brewers thanks to dominant pitching from the likes of Adam Wainwright, who faced just one batter more than the minimum last night in a one-hit, nine-strikeout masterpiece against the Diamondbacks. Though Wainwright and his rotation mates now play under pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, they practice a philosophy hatched under Lilliquist’s predecessor, Dave Duncan.

While the Cardinals may not have the same reputation the A’s have for winning games with analytics, Duncan quietly built an advance-scouting powerhouse based on exploiting hitter tendencies. Unlike the announcers, managers, and stat-tracking websites that spit out reams of hitter-versus-pitcher data, Duncan knew that getting caught up in small sample sizes like a batter’s 2-for-13 track record against a certain pitcher could lead to misguided decisions. So, Duncan instead focused on the tendencies of entire teams or even entire leagues. “We made a point of recognizing the tendencies of opposing hitters, their strengths, their weaknesses,” Duncan said.

One of his main missions was to change the way Cardinals pitchers attacked hitters with runners in scoring position. Major league hitters, like all human beings, are motivated by incentives, so when they come to the plate with runners in scoring position, they’re flooded with team incentives (a chance to put runs on the board and help produce a win), individual incentives (a chance to feel the rush of driving in a run), and financial incentives (even amid the advanced stats movement, RBIs still = $$$). Logically, then, the natural tendency in this case is for a hitter to swing the bat. The numbers confirm it: According to ESPN’s TruMedia system, hitters have swung away on the first pitch with runners in scoring position 31.6 percent of the time this year, compared to swinging at 26.8 percent of first pitches in non-RISP situations. If the first pitch is a fastball, that gap becomes even more pronounced, at 34.6 percent versus 27.9 percent. And that aggressive approach bears fruit; when hitters swing at first pitches with RISP, they have produced a .391 average and .620 slugging mark this season.

Duncan recognized those aggressive tendencies early and sought to exploit them. Working with talented and sharp All-Star catcher Yadier Molina, Duncan urged his pitchers to throw soft stuff on first pitches with runners in scoring position. Dan Brooks, proprietor of Brooks Baseball, first noticed this trend. The below chart, provided by Brooks specifically for this story, underscores just how dramatically different St. Louis’s approach is on first pitches with runners in scoring position compared to other teams:

cardinals-vs-mlb-risp-chart

While Brooks’s chart shows that the rest of the league also tends to throw fewer first-pitch fastballs with runners in scoring position, the bigger takeaway is that St. Louis’s totals dwarf those MLB-wide figures. In 2008, the first year for which Brooks has data, qualified Cardinals pitchers (starters plus high-usage relievers) threw first-pitch fastballs 21 percent more often in non-RISP situations than with runners in scoring position. That figure jumped to 26 percent in 2009 and 29 percent in 2010. Counting the early returns in 2014, St. Louis pitchers have produced a bigger gap (and usually a much bigger gap) than league average six times in the past seven seasons.

“I don’t think it was something we established where we said, ‘No fastballs in those situations,’” Duncan said. “We talked a lot about runners in scoring position, and whether the hitter takes on a different approach. It was really part of our broader philosophy, to pitch to situations more than anything else.”

Wainwright, the Cardinals’ ace, has been one of the team’s most devoted practitioners. In 2008, he threw first-pitch fastballs with runners in scoring position 42 percent of the time; in every other situation, he threw first-pitch fastballs 73 percent of the time. That gap widened in 2009 (22.9 percent versus 70 percent), and though it dipped slightly in 2010 (20 percent versus 62.9 percent), Wainwright has generally maintained that chasm over the years.

On a recent trip to St. Louis, I asked Wainwright about this striking tendency.

“You’re writing an article about this?” Wainwright asked, deadpan. “Then I would never tell you.”

Pressed for details, Wainwright said the Cardinals have been borderline maniacal about advance scouting since Duncan’s heyday.

“We spend a good deal of time and a great deal of effort preparing for each and every hitter,” Wainwright said. “That goes from the starting lineup all the way to the guys coming in off the bench. We know exactly what their approach is, what they’re trying to do, what they’re trying to accomplish. There are times where we’ll just stay with our strengths. But the numbers in certain situations don’t lie, and it’d be silly not to pitch to them.”

Deploying pitchers who actually have the arsenal to effectively execute those plans certainly helps.

“It definitely helps when you have more than one off-speed pitch you can throw for strikes,” Wainwright said. “If you have more than one off-speed pitch that people can swing and miss on, that’s also great. That was a big thing for me coming over here. I had a slider but I wasn’t allowed to throw it; here, I was. Throwing the slider and the breaking ball along with the fastball, it’s just too many speed variables and break variables to cover for a hitter. That’s why it’s so important to work ahead in the count, to put them on the defensive. That’s what we’ve tried to do.”

Duncan also worked to limit extra-base hits. Ground balls rarely go for extra-base hits, he likes to say, unless they’re mashed down the first- or third-base line. So if balls hit in the air are far more likely to end up as doubles, triples, and homers than balls hit on the ground, it makes sense to encourage pitches with downward movement.

Kyle Lohse figured this out in a hurry. Lohse had spent seven seasons in the big leagues before signing a one-year deal with St. Louis after the 2007 season, and had produced a 4.82 career ERA to that point. In his first season with the Cardinals, the right-hander sliced that number by more than a full run, to 3.78. Some of that improvement probably stemmed from Lohse’s switch to the lower-offense National League, and 2008 was also a slightly lighter year for offense than what Lohse experienced from 2001 to 2007 at the tail end of the PED era. But even after stripping out those factors, Lohse still looked like a different pitcher, slashing his home run rate to career-low levels and pitching deeper into games than in any other season except 2003.

The biggest change? At Duncan’s urging, Lohse threw a ton more two-seam fastballs (also known as sinkers) in that first year in St. Louis. Via Brooks:

kyle-lohse-sinker-chart

“That was one of the first things Dave Duncan told me when I came over,” Lohse said. “‘You’re gonna learn to command your two-seamer.’ That was something that I had been steered away from when I was in Minnesota. I started throwing almost exclusively four-seamers there. It’s one of those things where you kind of shake your head at now, like, ‘What was I doing?’ But I was just listening to the instruction I was getting. Then I got to St. Louis, and I realized, ‘How many guys can hit a sinker down and away?’ Not a whole lot. If you can locate a sinker down and away, the results you’re getting are usually pretty good.”

After that strong 2008 season, Lohse re-signed with the Cards for four years and $41 million. In 2011, he established then-career-best marks in ERA (3.39) and FIP (3.67), and he topped himself in 2012 (2.86 ERA, 3.51 FIP). Those performances earned him a new three-year, $33 million deal with the Brewers, and at age 35, Lohse currently ranks among the league leaders in ERA. While Lohse certainly earned that $74 million with talent and hard work, let’s hope Duncan still gets the occasional Christmas card.

Lohse isn’t the only one continuing to benefit from Duncan’s former tutelage, as the Cardinals still employ many of Duncan’s hitter-attacking strategies today. Duncan, who’s now a pitching consultant with the Diamondbacks, left the Cardinals after their World Series–winning 2011 season in order to spend more time with his wife, Jeanine, who was battling cancer at the time. Lilliquist, who pitched for eight years in the majors and joined the Cardinals in 2010 as the bullpen coach, absorbed Duncan’s lessons during their brief time together.

“If you’ve got a reliever out in the bullpen getting ready to come in the game, he’s going to have questions,” Duncan said. “Is this guy going to swing at the first pitch? Can he hit the inside fastball? The breaking ball? The bullpen coach needs to know all of these things. He has to be as prepared as I am, as the starting pitcher is, as the catcher is. He has to be as aware of the opposition as all of us are when it comes to giving information to pitchers. I think that’s something that a lot of teams miss out on, that they don’t do. It’s a big advantage, when you use the bullpen coach that way.”

Now in his third year as Cardinals pitching coach, Lilliquist has helped the team’s current crop of pitchers carry on many of the same Duncan-inspired techniques. Lilliquist also has a new generation of electric arms at his disposal. The team’s focus on arm strength and athleticism might sound simplistic when it comes to building a pitching staff, but that approach has enabled St. Louis to reel in top talents like Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, and Lance Lynn, and even to spot top-flight potential in converted position players like Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez. A sound game plan coupled with 96 mph capabilities will lead to a pretty good chance of succeeding.

As Brooks notes, Wacha illustrated this well last fall. On September 8, Wacha made just the sixth start of his major league career. The Cardinals were in the thick of the pennant race and taking on the Pirates, who were battling them for NL Central supremacy. St. Louis’s advance-scouting staff — which includes both traditional scouts and data analysts — teamed with Lilliquist to concoct a plan: If the Cards combined Wacha’s repertoire with Pittsburgh’s batting tendencies, they’d have a chance to dominate their division rivals. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.

michael-wacha-chart-1

Again and again, Wacha fired pitches toward the outside corner or even off the plate outside, ignoring the inside part of the plate almost entirely. (Brooks flipped the vantage point for left-handed batters on this chart so all pitches on the right side appear as outside and all pitches to the left side appear as inside.) The Pirates were overwhelmed. Wacha tossed seven scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and pacing a 9-2 blowout win. The Cards opened up a 1.5-game lead, and though they fell into a tie a few days later, they never relinquished first place, eventually winning the Central crown by three games. By winning the division, the Cardinals also claimed home-field advantage in the National League Division Series, which they put to good use by knocking off the Buccos in a deciding Game 5 in St. Louis.

Wacha got another crack at the Pirates during that series, and he again destroyed nearly everyone in his path, unleashing an even heavier blizzard of pitches toward the outside edge than he had a month earlier.

michael-wacha-chart-2

Once again, the results were phenomenal: 7⅓ innings pitched, nine strikeouts, and just one run allowed on one hit, a solo home run. And again the Cards beat the Pirates, this time by a 2-1 score.

Lilliquist is quick to deflect credit for the team’s pitching success over the past two-plus seasons, instead praising the team’s talented and cerebral pitchers for executing game plans; current bullpen coach Blaise Ilsley for keeping the team’s relievers prepared; and manager Mike Matheny for being hands-on enough to take copious notes but also hands-off enough to trust others to make a plan work. Lilliquist reserved some of his highest praise for Molina, though. The scouts and quants find the weaknesses to exploit and the pitchers actually throw the ball, but without Molina, Lilliquist said, the Cardinals wouldn’t have the kind of sustained pitching success that’s carried them for so many years.

“It’s almost a sixth sense for [Molina], pitch to pitch, the feel of what this guy’s adjustments are, what he’s looking for, what to throw with runners on base,” Lilliquist said. “It boils down to his checklist being so much bigger than everybody else’s, and him being real good at processing it.”

Duncan echoed Lilliquist’s praise for Molina. “He’s really smart, and he’s got a great memory. We’d be talking about doing something with a particular hitter. And all of a sudden he’d say, ‘If you remember three years ago, playing in their ballpark, we tried to do that, and he burned us.’ His recall of past games is incredible.”

Molina doesn’t have to be an expert at recalling past events to know that the Cardinals haven’t been as good as expected this year, sitting 2.5 games behind the Brewers in the Central with a modest .533 winning percentage. For that, they can blame a lack of power hitting; an 8-9 record in one-run games that’s due partly to bad luck and partly to questionable tactical decisions by Matheny (Lilliquist’s praise notwithstanding, Matheny has made curious decisions on everything from the bullpen to bunting); and enough failures with runners in scoring position to make baseball fans wonder if opposing teams have bugged the Cardinals’ clubhouse for clues on how to get guys out in RBI situations.

But the Cardinals still have the arms, and they still have Duncan’s system. And thanks to that system, they still rank among the league leaders in run prevention this season, as they have for years. As long as the Cardinals can continue practicing what Duncan preached in order to outpitch and outwit the competition, they’ve got a fighting chance to outlast it as well.

Filed Under: MLB, St. Louis Cardinals, MLB Stats, Pitching, Dave Duncan, Derek Lilliquist, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Kyle Lohse, NL Central, Jonah Keri

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri