Unwritten rules of baseball are getting a makeover. The conservative St. Louis Cardinals appear to be adjusting, but are they doing it well?
Historically, the St. Louis Cardinals embrace change like a slug embraces salt. The franchise was slow to integrate, slow to sign free agents, and recent managers Tony La Russa and Mike Matheny weren’t always on board with baseball’s analytics revolution. Now, however, even the crankiest of diehards have accepted that some of the old ways weren’t the best ways. The Cardinals, for the most part, are getting with the times.
In 1986, Baseball Digest printed a list of 30 Unwritten Baseball Rules, beginning with “Never put the tying or go-ahead run on base” and concluding with “With a right-hander on the mound, don’t walk a right-handed hitter to get to a left-handed hitter.” While many of these rules still apply, let’s look at some that don’t, and how the Cardinals have adjusted — or not
RULE 7: DON’T STEAL WHEN YOU’RE WELL AHEAD
Former Brewers manager Davy Lopes unwittingly revealed the hypocrisy of this unwritten directive by raging over Rickey Henderson stealing a base during a 2001 Padres blowout win against Milwaukee.
Lopes charged the field after Henderson stole in the seventh inning with San Diego holding an 11-4 lead and threatened to retaliate against the Padres outfielder. Researchers later discovered that Lopes the player had stolen eight times when his teams held a seven-run lead.
Mike Shildt’s 2019 Cards had no qualms about swiping a bag with a five or six-run lead. Against the Cubs on Aug. 1, Jose Martinez stole a seventh-inning base with the team up 6-0. Against the Reds on Aug. 31, Kolten Wong stole a seventh-inning base with the Cards up 7-2. Against the Pirates on Sept. 7, Paul DeJong and Harrison Bader stole sixth-inning bases with St. Louis up 6-1.
There may be a point where Shildt makes his baserunners hit the brakes, but what does “well ahead” mean any more? On July 19th of last year, the Cardinals overcame a 7-0 fifth-inning deficit to beat the Reds 12-11. If a seven-run lead isn’t enough, how much safer is an eight- or nine-run lead?
BOTTOM LINE: While they don’t steal a lot, the Cards seem willing to pilfer a base when they have a sizable lead. With all the explosive offenses out there, that’s not showing up the other team. That’s playing smart baseball.
RULE 11: LEFT AND RIGHT FIELDERS CONCEDE EVERYTHING TO THE CENTER FIELDER
While this maxim works for most teams most of the time, the 2015 Cardinals had rifle-armed Jason Heyward in right field and soft-throwing Jon Jay in center, which forced a bend in the rule.
With an opponent on third with less than two out, it made sense for Heyward to take the in-between fly ball and gun it to the plate. On at least one occasion, Heyward cut in front of Jay (with the center fielder’s acquiescence) and threw out a tagging-up base-runner at the plate.
BOTTOM LINE: Logic says a stronger-armed right-fielder should be allowed to reverse the Kelly Leak approach (referring to The Bad News Bears’ ball-hogging center fielder) and intercept fly balls that only he can turn into double plays at home or on the bases.
RULE 16: LEADOFF HITTER MUST BE A BASE STEALER
At one time, teams would toss a speedy middle infielder or outfielder in the leadoff spot regardless of his on-base average. Shortstops Luis Aparicio and Bert Campaneris had crummy career .311 OBAs but hit leadoff for years because they were fast and stole bases.
Tony La Russa employed a similar methodology in 2011, leading off with Ryan Theriot and Rafael Furcal, theoretically, fleet shortstops with poor OBAs (.321 and .316), except those two were rotten base stealers that year, combining for just eight swipes in 16 attempts.
Matheny, against all logic, batted Furcal (.325 OBA) leadoff through most of 2012. Why? The likely explanation is the 34-year-old shortstop used to be a base thief and looked the part of a back-in-the-day leadoff man. But in 2013 it became clear to everyone, even Matheny, that Matt Carpenter’s .392 OBP offset his desultory speed and made him a far more effective leadoff hitter.
BOTTOM LINE: With Carp and Dexter Fowler, the Cards have two seasoned leadoff hitters who, barring a 2020 bounceback, aren’t up to hitting first any longer. Kolten Wong, who led St. Louis starters in on-base average (.361) and steals (24 in 28 attempts) a year ago, would make sense in the leadoff role, but it’s concerning that in 85 career games in that role, he’s hit just .230 with a dreadful .290 OBA.
RULE 18: WITH RUNNERS IN SCORING POSITION AND FIRST BASE OPEN, WALK THE NUMBER EIGHT HITTER TO GET TO THE PITCHER
The Houston Astros set a record by going all last year without issuing a single intentional walk. Shildt’s Cardinals, on the other hand, permitted 41 intentional walks, tied with the Nationals for the second-most in the majors behind the Marlins, who issued 52 IBBs. “I don’t believe in putting baserunners on for free,” A.J. Hinch said at the end of last season.
Clearly, Shildt sees value in the occasional free pass, even when it’s offered to an eighth-place hitter, often the weakest position player in a lineup. He will reconsider, though, when it’s a bat-savvy hurler in the ninth hole. “If you have an accomplished eight-hole hitter or a good-hitting pitcher, someone like (Madison) Bumgarner, it can be a tossup,” Shildt told mlb.com’s Jenifer Langosch last year.
More from St Louis Cardinals News
- Cardinals: Former MLB GM calls Jordan Walker a superstar for 2023
- Cardinals: Cubs looking to make major moves this offseason
- St. Louis Cardinals: New CBA rule encourages Jordan Walker’s promotion
- Cardinals: These are the ways St. Louis can free up more payroll
- Cardinals: First offseason acquisition is minor but speaks volumes
The analytics view is that putting a bad No. 8 hitter on base in order to get to an even worse hitter is a mistake. An inning later, your team is facing the ever-deadly one-two-three hitters rather than starting with an easy-out pitcher.
BOTTOM LINE: Be it skill or luck, Shildt’s strategy often worked in 2019. Langosch reported that the Cardinals “allowed a run after an intentional walk 29.3 percent of the time, the 10th lowest such percentage in the majors.” Does that mean Shildt should continue giving opposing batters, often weak batters, free passes in order to face a pitcher? The old-timers say yes, the new-timers say no.
RULE 25: HIT BEHIND THE RUNNER AT FIRST
Broadcasters still squeal with delight when a batter advances a runner from first to second with a “productive out,” but most baseball analysts see little value in this practice. “Anybody who thinks you can win games by making ‘productive outs’ is delusional,” Bill James wrote in 2001’s The New Bill James Baseball Abstract.
More than anyone else, the old-time second-place hitter was supposed to be adept at bunting and hitting behind the runner, “productive out” skills that Ted Sizemore mastered in the 1970s. “Ted Sizemore, our second baseman, was probably the best number-two hitter I saw in my career,” former Cards reliever Rich Folkers said, quoted by Peter Golenbock in 2000’s The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns.
Hitting behind Lou Brock from 1971 to ’75, Sizemore batted between .240 and .264, rarely struck out, had a lot of sacrifice hits (he led the NL in ’73), and no power at all, averaging fewer than two homers a year.
That’s precisely what managers wanted from their No. 2 hitters — until La Russa, among others, started sticking power hitters in the second spot. In 2008, the Cardinals manager got ahead of the trend by occasionally plugging slugger Ryan Ludwick (37 homers, .966 OPS) into that spot.
In 2013, Matheny made switch-hitting Carlos Beltran (24 homers, .830 OPS) his half-time No. 2 hitter, and last year Shildt started 121 games with one of his power-hitting Pauls —Goldschmidt or DeJong — in the second position.
BOTTOM LINE: If you have to make an out, hitting behind the runner or bunting him to second is a good way to do it, but it’s far better to avoid the out altogether. As Bill James wrote, “The difference between winning teams and losing teams isn’t the difference between ‘good outs’ and ‘bad outs’; it’s the difference between ‘outs’ and ‘runners on base.’”
While Shildt’s Cardinals still employ intentional walks, the club seems to have shed many of its small-ball tendencies (hit and runs, sacrifice bunts, constant base-stealing) in apparent acknowledgment that outs are sacred and that micromanaging doesn’t win many ball games. That fits with one “Unwritten Rule” that still holds true: “If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get.”