Matheny got it right with NLDS rotation

Shelby+Miller+Atlanta+Braves+v+St+Louis+Cardinals+yc7I07JyDc_lThe July 31 trade that sent Joe Kelly and Allen Craig to the Boston Red Sox for John Lackey will be looked back on as the likely catalyst to helped propel the St. Louis Cardinals over the proverbial hill they seemingly couldn’t climb over the first half of the season.

But that trade ended up providing the Cardinals with an all-important auxiliary benefit.

Shelby Miller was the scheduled starter that day in San Diego, but before the game was stunned by the news that Kelly, his best friend, had been traded. It was at that point that Miller realized it could’ve been him who was sent out, and it was at that point that the right-hander from Texas grew up a little bit.

Rather than back down and go into a shell, he used it as an opportunity to blossom.

“I’m still a Cardinal and really wouldn’t want to have it any other way,” Miller told reporters following the trade. “I want to be that guy, that draft pick, who you hear about how he stayed, how he has a career with one team and does well. There is nothing that I want more than to pitch really well and have this team win and come to our park every day. I want to spend the rest of my career here. That is a true statement.”

He went out that day and pitched six innings and gave up two runs, three hits and no walks to earn a win.

It was the first of eight quality starts for Miller over the course of the second half of the season.

Manager Mike Matheny on Wednesday announced his starting rotation for the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, which starts Friday at 5:37 p.m. After much public debate over whether it would be Miller or the recovering Michael Wacha, it included Miller in addition to Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Lackey. Wacha will work out of the bullpen.

It was the right call.

Miller, who was on the playoff roster last season but was seldom used, surged in the second half of the season and became a more reliable pitcher than at any other point in his career. He did so at a time when the Cardinals were in desperate need of innings and stability from the rotation, particularly the back end.

Miller posted a 2.94 earned run average in 11 starts, going 3-1 with 51 strikeouts and holding opposing hitters to a .200 average from that July 31 start on.

Miller was even better in September and was a key factor for the Cardinals taking and maintaining the National League Central Division title. Miller went 2-0 in September while the Cardinals went 4-1 in games he started. His 1.48 earned run average during those starts was just a hair behind Wainwright’s September ERA of 1.38, and he held opposing hitters to a microscopic .189 batting average during that span.

Opponents scored just five earned runs off Miller the entire month of September and he only went less than six innings one time, his final start of the season. In fact, that was the only start following the trade deadline in which he didn’t last at least five innings.

Prior to the deadline, Miller was an ultra-talented, hard-throwing pitcher whose potential seemed sky-high. But there seemed to be a piece still missing, and that was him being able to confidently take the mound every five days and take the next step to being a great pitcher. Keep in mind he had struggled so bad that in July he spent a few days in the bullpen.

Wacha, on the other hand, is simply still recovering from a major shoulder injury that forced him to miss a significant amount of time this season. Wacha made four starts in September after missing half of June, all of July and all of August and posted a 5.40 ERA during that span. The most troubling thing, however, was Wacha’s inability to throw his ultra-effective changeup.

His first two starts after he returned, as the chart below from FanGraphs shows, he hardly threw his changeup at all. He lasted three innings and four innings, respectively, in those starts and racked up a 7.71 ERA. He threw his changeup more, and more effectively, in his next two starts and went 4.2 innings and five innings in those starts with a much more respectable 3.72 ERA.

WachaStats

Wacha’s pitch count rose each start and got all the way to 98 in his final start, an encouraging sign other than the fact he couldn’t get through four innings. His fastball velocity was up to 94 mph and he threw his changeup nearly 24 percent of the time, which is right around his average.

It was evident that Mozeliak and Matheny did everything they could to try and get Wacha ready to be in the rotation, and it’s obvious why. He was the NLCS for a reason last season. But there’s no sense in forcing a recovering pitcher into the rotation if he’s not fully healthy, especially when you have a guy like Miller who has been close to dominant in the second half.

Think back to when Jaime Garcia pitched hurt in Game 2 on the 2012 NLDS against the Washington Nationals. He barely got through two innings and forced the Cardinals to go deep in their bullpen to win that game. If Wacha started a game and had early shoulder problems, that could cost the Cardinals a game. In a short five-game series like the NLDS, you can’t take that risk.

Instead, Matheny is wisely opting to use Wacha out of the bullpen. He can be what Lynn was for the 2011 and 2012 teams or what Kelly was last season. A conditioned started who can go two or three innings if needed can be a huge advantage in the playoffs, and if his changeup is effective again, he can be extremely useful in shorter appearances.

The San Francisco Giants successfully employed this strategy in 2012 when they used Tim Lincecum out of the bullpen en route to a World Series championship.

Miller earned a chance to start in the playoffs. Matheny made the right choice by rewarding him with that opportunity.

 

You can reach Cole Claybourn at highsocksunday@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @HighSock_Sunday.

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