CINCINNATI — There was a time in his career when Nolan Arenado “took a lot of pride” in hitting fourth, relished the RBI opportunities that spot offered, and was even kind of “adamant” about sticking there. That faded with the trade to the Cardinals, he said Saturday, and their plan to hit him third, not cleanup.
There is a way for him to be both.
When former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa hatched his lineup with the pitcher hitting eighth, a goal was to get Mark McGwire up in the first inning and then put three position players ahead him for every at-bat afterward. He would hit third to start, but when the lineup turned over he would be, effectively, the fourth hitter. It is a lineup layout manager Mike Shildt has considered and researched for several years, and he did again before pushing up Paul Goldschmidt to No. 2 and Arenado to No. 3 to open this season.
“Nothing that moves the needle says to do it, otherwise we would clearly do it,” Shildt said. “We’ve looked at it a fair amount over the last several years and come to the same conclusion.”
The appeal of cleanup, Arenado explained, was the chance to come up in the first inning knowing there was a runner on base or a home run had been hit.
Through the first two games of the season, batting third has given that desired view. His first at-bats as a Cardinal came with a runner in scoring position, and through two games he’s already had six at-bat with a runner in scoring position. Arenado’s first Cardinal home run came in the ninth inning of Saturday’s 9-6 loss, and again Goldschmidt was on base ahead of him.
As he came to the plate for his first at-bat as a Cardinal on Thursday, Goldschmidt was at second after a double and Arenado described it as a “pretty surreal moment, like I can’t believe I’m here right now and I’ve got Goldschmidt hitting in front of me.”
“I always loved hitting fourth,” Arenado said. “That’s always been the position I loved the most. I’ve hit a lot at third, so it doesn’t feel like something different or something I’m not used to. Either or, I don’t care. I used to take it kind of serious where I hit. Ever since I got traded, I don’t care anymore. Wherever they want me to be, I’ll be.”
In his career with Colorado, nearly half of Arenado’s plate appearances came at the No. 3 spot in the order. Shildt has pointed several times this past week to Arenado’s success there — a .300 average and a .928 OPS. At cleanup, he’s slugged higher (.571) and posted a .924 OPS. Arenado nailed a statistical reason for not hitting third when he said Saturday that the spot comes up often with two outs and no one. But in either spot he’s been a hitter to stack in front of him teammates with high on-base percentages and let the thunder roll.
If the National League had the DH this season, Shildt said he would have explored the idea of a double leadoff for that nine spot. La Russa borrowed from that American League notion when he hit the pitcher eighth. Essentially, the goal was to put one more hitter between the middle order and the pitcher on the second and third times through the order. Shildt asked the Cardinals’ analytics department to brew up some data about batting pitcher the eighth and what NL teams experience — especially as teams have utilized the setup more often.
“If you look at it from the front end, it does get your pitcher up there quicker, which is a strategy I don’t think you want to have,” Shildt said.
He also noted what happened in the first inning of Thursday’s opener when the Cardinals scored six runs, three of them on a home run from rookie Dylan Carlson. If Shildt put the pitcher’s spot in the eighth spot, that would have been right behind Carlson.
“I don’t know if that changes the trajectory of our first inning,” Shildt said. “If a pitcher is on deck, Dylan may not get the same pitches he got to hit the three-run homer. … Clearly, it’s not a mainstream way of doing it. We’ve looked at it a lot of different ways and there is nothing that generates any more runs — which is ultimately the end goal.”
Almost 22 months after his last pitch in a regular-season game, Jordan Hicks made his 2021 debut with a scoreless seventh inning Saturday. The righthander, part of the fracas on the field in the fourth inning when push came to shove for both teams before they were separated, cooled himself enough to recover early and get three groundouts.
He did so on sinkers that topped out at 98.7 mph.
The first batter he faced was pitcher Cionel Perez, who had never had an at-bat before in the majors. Hicks got him to skip a 98-mph fastball into an out.
“Great for him,” Shildt said. “It’s almost two years where this young man had not pitched in a game, and he comes out probably nervous. … Settled in. Really good stuff. Heavy ball. Good to get him out there. And, welcome back, Jordan.”
Kim, Mikolas updates
Kwang Hyun Kim will pitch a simulated game Tuesday in Florida and could rejoin the Cardinals’ traveling party as soon as Wednesday when it departs Miami for St. Louis. Kim (sore back) is set to throw more than five innings in the sim game, and it is possible that he does well enough in that outing that the club schedules his return to the rotation for the first homestand of the regular season, or soon after.
Miles Mikolas pitched a bullpen session Friday, and the Cardinals are eager to see how he recovers from his most aggressive throw in at least five weeks. The righthander, his spring halted by shoulder soreness, will move to the team’s alternate-site camp in Sauget so that his workouts and rehab are near St. Louis, or even at Busch Stadium. Mikolas will have to go through a throwing program like a monthlong spring training to build arm strength.
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