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Hochman: The art of ‘not hitting.’ Cardinals’ Lars Nootbaar walks better than most in baseball

The walk in baseball is actually kind of weird. In-game success is generally generated from a physical accomplishment — hitting a ball, throwing a ball, catching a ball — but the base on balls is a reward for not doing anything to the ball (or, really, at all).

OK, OK, obviously, these batters are, in fact, doing something. Earning a walk takes discipline and awareness and patience and, as any amateur optometrist screaming at a youth game would tell you, a good eye.

Well, the Cardinals’ Lars Nootbaar has mastered the art of walking — or, perhaps, the art of “not hitting.” He’s a vision virtuoso. He entered Wednesday with a 19.4% walk rate, second in the entire National League to just Juan Soto. And as the Cardinals claw their way back to relevance, a big part will be the consistent conquering of first base by their leadoff hitter. And in the past few series, finally, the guys behind “Noot” are following suit.

Nootbaar entered Wednesday fourth in Major League Baseball in on-base percentage (.434) for players with at least 120 plate appearances. And as the leadoff hitter, it’s even higher (.458 in 18 games). He has 25 walks in 29 games played (if you recall, he missed 13 games with a thumb injury).

And Nootbaar has established himself as indispensable. There are a lot of question marks regarding the Cardinals outfield — I say trade Tyler O’Neill — but one certainty is that Lars will be out there every night.

And at the top of the lineup, his accomplishments are reminiscent of another sharp-eyed lefty — Matt Carpenter. Now, Carpenter is a future member of the Cardinals Hall of Fame. This isn’t saying that Nootbaar will be, too. It’s just to say that Carpenter famously got on first a whole bunch, setting the table with the precision of a Tony’s busboy.

“I just want to beat the pitcher every time,” said Nootbaar, who played for Team Japan in the World Baseball Classic this spring. “And the more pitches that guys (on our team) can see, the better. And the faster you get those (starting pitchers) out of there, that’s important. And then, you know, just trying to put up competitive at-bats. I think at the end of the day, you don’t want to be an easy out. So working the count is where I’m at. … But it’s a dangerous spot, you know, because you don’t want to go up there expecting a walk.”

During a chat on Wednesday at his locker, Lars struggled at explaining how he became so good at earning walks — “It’s tough to try to train, I guess, the skill of it,” he said. But he’s sure refined that skill. Nootbaar has had help over the years from the team’s analytics gurus. And he said he’s been a “patient hitter” since his childhood (incidentally, he can name every team he ever played for in the El Segundo, California, Little League). And around teammates, he’s a sponge, a question-asker and an avid learner of the game. And, sure enough, there’s been quite a nice correlation between his hitting and walking since the All-Star break last year, when “Noot” worked on his approach and took off in the second half (he had a .846 OPS).

“It’s always good when you get to see a player have success — and then handle success,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said of Nootbaar, who is flirting with a .300 batting average this season. “I think sometimes we just talk about (a player’s) failure part, but not the ‘how do you handle it once you show that you’re capable of doing something — and everybody expects you to do it every night?’ So, I think he experienced success and then went to the World Baseball Classic and experienced more. So how he’s handled that it’s been good because he was in a little bit of a funk (early this year) where he wants to have the at-bats that he wanted (and didn’t), but was still taking his walks. Now we’re seeing him take really good at bats and walking. So anytime a second-year guy is able to make an adjustment to the league, that’s how you stay here for a long time. Like, you’re constantly having to make adjustments when the league’s making adjustments to you.”

As for a players’ pitch recognition, Marmol said it’s not as much about video study as it is watching pitches, over and over, from the batter’s box. Only swinging at certain pitches in batting practice. Or standing in the box and trying to identify pitches in bullpen sessions as quickly as possible. It is, Marmol said, a “hard skill to acquire.”

In the minors, Marmol was roommates and teammates with the great Carpenter. One time, during a day at the office, Marmol asked Carpenter how he got so good at pitch recognition.

“He said, ‘Born with it, man,’” Marmol recalled. “But then, five minutes later, he started kind of making his way over to me. He’s like, ‘Now that I think of it, when I was like, 6, 7, my dad was stand really close to me and he would throw at a pretty good speed. And there were consequences if I swing at a pitch that wasn’t in the zone.’ That’s the opposite of being born with it!

“The coach, his dad, gamified something skill-related. ‘He allowed you to work on something that over time, it was just part of your norm. Over 10 years of doing that, you don’t swing at pitches out of the zone.’ And here I am, icing my left shoulder because I’m chasing sliders down and away!

“So, yes,” Marmol continued with a smile, “he was not ‘born with it.’”

As for Nootbaar, well, he’s like both Carpenter a “carpenter,” utilizing the tool that is his developed eye.

The Cardinals' Lars Nootbaar is greeted in the dugout after scoring with Tommy Edman on Paul Goldschmidt's double in the sixth inning of a game against the Angels on Thursday, May 4, 2023, at Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals’ Lars Nootbaar is greeted in the dugout after scoring with Tommy Edman on Paul Goldschmidt’s double in the sixth inning of a game against the Angels on Thursday, May 4, 2023, at Busch Stadium.

Benjamin Hochman

@hochman on Twitter

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