Image credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In my last piece, I introduced a concept and accompanying metric that attempted to quantify a player’s approach at the plate based around the strengths of their swings. The driving idea was “where should this player be looking”—aka where in the zone was that player’s specific swing geared to make the best contact, and was that hitter tailoring his pitch selection correctly to match that. This idea can be taken a step further and applied at a team level for lineup construction and game planning as well. I’ve touched on the topic before, but I wanted to take a deeper dive into it using the player-specific “hot zones” I talked about last week.

Naturally, I picked the extremely topical example of a game in the second week of the season with a pitcher currently on the IL, but there is a good reason for it: the Cardinals have the widest range of hot zones within their lineup of any team in 2022, meaning they have players with a wide array of hot zones, specializing in hitting the ball high or low and inside or away in their zones.

Being anywhere on this plot isn’t particularly meaningful–just look at some of the offenses with tighter ranges–but it does show that the Cardinals have so much variation that they can populate their lineup with hitters capable of facing nearly any kind of pitcher. I wanted to see how a team with such a versatile set of hitters could leverage this advantage, so I found a particular example where they took apart an all-star starter featuring a particularly deep repertoire earlier this year.


Freddy Peralta exploded into the spotlight in 2021 with some of the most dominant stuff in baseball, and entered this season with the expectation of building on that performance. His repertoire includes a pair of devastating breaking balls in his slider and curve, a rapidly improving changeup, and a rising fastball that plays at the top of the zone because of his arm slot and atypical crossfire delivery. Look at where he’s placed these pitches in 2021 and this season:

The four seam is mostly on a righty’s hands in both seasons, with the change and both breaking balls being buried along the bottom of the zone. With an effective modern 4-seam and three secondaries he can place at a hitter’s knees, he can effectively use the entire zone north to south, something not a lot of hitters are able to handle. His main out pitch has been the fastball—he’s gone to it nearly 54% of the time with two strikes—followed by his slider. Last season, the change was Peralta’s least-used putaway pitch, while this season he’s seemed to favor it over his curve:

% of 2 strike pitches (via Pitch Info)
2021 2022
FA 53.7 53.8
SL 32.3 23.5
CH 5.6 15.8
CU 8.1 6.8

On April 15, however, the Cardinals didn’t have any of that information on a change in tendencies, as Peralta was making just his second start of the 2022 season. They were gameplanning based on what they’d seen from Peralta in 2021 and his only start in 2022, so they inserted Lars Nootbaar—whose swing is equipped to handle pitches inside, like where Peralta places his fastball—and Edmundo Sosa and Andrew Knizner—both of whom make their best contact near the bottom of the zone, where Peralta buries his secondaries—into their lineup. Together with the mainstays of the lineup, this gave the Cardinals a selection of hot zones that matched up especially well with Peralta’s arsenal:

After recording two quick outs to begin the bottom of the first, Peralta gave up a pair of singles and walked two batters before facing Knizner with two men on the bases. Knizner quickly fell behind on a pair of high fastballs—both out of his swing zone—then took another heater well above the strike zone to bring the count to 1-2. Thinking he had Knizner set up for the big punchout, Peralta went to one of his two trusted putaway pitches: the slider down and away. Unfortunately for him, that’s an area of the plate we know Knizner thrives in, and, armed with the knowledge that Peralta goes to his slider nearly a third of the time for the strikeout, and having already seen the high fastball that is his other out pitch, Knizner was able to get a base knock to plate both baserunners despite not making the flushest of contact: 

That brought the score to 4-0 after a single frame, and it wouldn’t get any easier for Peralta from there with the top of the Cardinals order due up again in the second inning.

Dylan Carlson was hit by a stray slider to begin the second, which brought up Paul Goldschmidt with a man on first. Goldschmidt excelling at hitting wouldn’t typically be noteworthy, but the way he got his RBI double was. Let’s look at Peralta’s changeup locations and Goldschmidt’s hot zones again:

There’s a particularly strong overlap down-and-in with where Peralta uses his changeup and Goldschmidt’s hot zone, so  it’s likely Goldschmidt was keeping an eye out for that pitch more than a hitter typically would for one Peralta used less than 10% of the time in 2021. Peralta had also just thrown eight changeups in two strike counts in his first start of 2022, so Goldschmidt and/or the Cardinals may have been especially alerted to the possibility of seeing that pitch. And that’s exactly what happened in his second at-bat. Once he got to two strikes, Goldschmidt was able to foul away a high curve Peralta tried to drop into the zone, and a fastball on the hands.  Goldschmidt’s patience was rewarded when the next pitch was something he knew he could do damage on: a changeup in his wheelhouse at the bottom of the zone, and fading back into his barrel.

He sends it the other way at a healthy exit velo of 99.8 mph—even taking a second to see if he had scorched a line drive over the wall—scoring the runner from first with a laser to right field. Nolan Arenado—another bottom half of the zone hitter—then drove him home on a similarly located changeup in another two-strike count.

All told, the Cardinals lit up the Brewers all-star to the tune of six runs in 77 pitches over three innings. They put together a lineup ready to capitalize on a great pitcher’s best weapons in their most common locations, and turned Peralta’s strengths into weaknesses. The repeated damage on changeups suggests they came to the plate with specifically scouted sequences in mind for the players capable of hunting that pitch. That kind of  tailoring of their gameplan to their opponent’s tendencies has maintained since the second week of the season, as the Cardinals have continued to surprise as an offense, ranking sixth in the majors in runs per game as of June 3. 

This was just one example of how a team structured its bevy of hitters in such a way as to have an explosive showing against one of the game’s best. It’s not the only way to go about manufacturing offense—having all-around studs that play every day remains king—but understanding these strengths in match-ups  is how a team can give the edge to every player on its roster. Those small advantages add up in a big way, as the Cardinals are proving.

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