On the heels of Ryan Ludwick’s somewhat innocuous 1-for-3 performance Sunday against the Reds, it might seem odd to focus on the Cardinals right fielder today. But there was a lot of intrigue in those few at-bats, and a lot of food for thought.
Ludwick's strong season to date has garnered some notice. He is batting .290, he's walking more than 10 percent of the time, and he has an isolated power above .190. These all are benchmarks he met back in the halcyon days of yore (aka 2008, when he also hit 37 home runs), but fell short of last year. So what has changed?
For starters, manager Tony La Russa has him hitting second this year after usually batting him fourth or fifth the past two seasons. The stated reason for the switch was to get Ludwick more fastballs while hitting in front of Albert Pujols. So far, so good. Thus far, Ludwick is seeing fastballs 57 percent of the time, which is the most he's seen in five years. In Sunday's win against Cincy, 10 of the 13 pitches Ludwick got were fastballs.
This would seem like a silly new strategy because Ludwick crushes fastballs. A statistic on FanGraphs measures a batters’ effectiveness versus each type of pitch and produces a runs above average figure for each offering. In his career, Ludwick has been most successful against the fastball, to the tune of 53 runs above average. Compare that to his success against the curve (plus-3 runs) and the change (plus-7.8 runs), and you get a sense of how much he enjoys the fastball. His run-producing single Sunday came on a fastball.
So why are pitchers throwing him the fastball? Convention wisdom says that Pujols lurking in the on-deck circle has something to do with it. Fastballs find the strike zone 54.1 percent of the time across baseball, compared to 44.7 percent of the time for curveballs and 42.9 percent of the time for changeups. (Thanks to Daniel Moroz of Beyond the Box Score for those numbers.) If pitchers are worried about Pujols coming up next, it makes sense they’d want to make sure not to walk Ludwick and use a pitch that they could command against him.
Lineup protection is an easy explanation for all the fastballs Ludwick is seeing, but there has been research that shows that lineup protection is a myth. Whether you are inclined to believe J.C. Bradbury or conventional wisdom of lineup protection, the bottom line is that Ludwick is seeing more fastball this year. And that's a boon to his bottom line.
Eno Sarris is a writer for FanGraphs.