On Aces, Past and Present

The Cardinals ended their road trip last night but in a fitting bookend to the beginning of the trip it was the news that came out before the game that wound up dominating the conversation for a while.  Adam Wainwright was activated off the disabled list in preparation for making the start tomorrow in the home opener and Jack Flaherty was sent down to Memphis.

Apparently Flaherty wasn’t thrilled with the news and neither was a significant portion of Cardinals Twitter, it didn’t seem like.  After all, Flaherty was coming off that nine-strikeout, one-run, five-inning, should-have-been-a-win in his only start.  There’s excitement and newness and potential and, yes, perhaps a better chance of winning with the young righty.  In other situations, in organizations that weren’t so stocked with pitching, Flaherty would easily still be in the rotation.

All that said, and before we get to the Wainwright side of the equation, this is not a surprise.  Ten days or so ago, Flaherty was ticketed to Memphis and was going to start there on the season.  We expected that from the beginning of spring training.  While there’s a lot of talent, we also saw him struggle in the majors last year and while he’s developed a bit, it is not some outrage that the club thinks he needs a little more seasoning.  It’s not like he’s banished there for the rest of the year.  He’ll be back and probably fairly soon.  Expecting him to be the dominant force he was Monday on a regular basis, though, might be a little high of a bar right now.

However, this really isn’t much about Flaherty, it’s about Uncle Charlie.  Allen mentioned to me on Monday that he’d heard Wainwright was pushing to be the home opener starter still and I honestly didn’t think that was the case.  (Allen stays better informed than I do, it appears.)  Given Wainwright’s drive, I guess I should have been more open to the possibility.  This is a guy that wanted–and almost did–to come back at the end of 2011 after his Tommy John surgery.  This is a guy that returned at the end of 2015 after his Achilles tear.  When Wainwright gets focused on something, he’s going to do everything he can, including lobbying the right people, to make it happen.

As mentioned, this didn’t sit well with a lot of people.  People point–fairly–to his last two seasons where he’s struggled as a reason that he should just go away.  He’s not the Cy Young guy anymore.  He’s had trouble getting folks out (though he’s had some pretty good outings over that span as well).  He’s not the newest or the best or the guy to dream on anymore.  Why are we hampering our chances to win for this guy?

To that I say: this isn’t a computer game.  Yes, winning is very important for many reasons, but it’s not the only consideration that should come into play for us.  We don’t sit and watch Out of the Park simulations of the season.  We don’t take the projections, add them all up, and declare a winner.  The game’s the thing, to paraphrase the Bard, and the people that play it, the connections we have with them, are a big reason we stay fans.

Adam Wainwright‘s career predates my blogging one, which makes him one of the rare players on the roster that I can’t point to a post talking about when he came up.  Still, I vividly recall the J.D. Drew trade with Atlanta and knowing that the key to the piece was this young Wainwright pitching prospect.  I remember being excited when he was called up and watching him work out of the bullpen.  Back in those days, the Cardinals came through on an alternate channel on our cable provider and it showed up grainy and black-and-white on my TV (I thought it was because it was on that channel, which only existed from first pitch to last, but apparently it was issues with my connections.)  I remember watching him launch his first home run in San Francisco in those conditions, which made it almost like an old newsreel.

Everyone remembers the Carlos Beltran and Brandon Inge strikeouts that brought title #10 to St. Louis.  Everyone remembers his co-ace days with Chris Carpenter.  Everyone has seen his personality, what he’s given to the organization, and how much he wants to be a Cardinal.

In 1974, Bob Gibson was 11-13 with a 3.83 ERA (which, to put in context, was a 94 ERA+).  It seemed like Gibson might have been ending his career and, in truth, 1975 wasn’t any better and was his last year.  Perhaps people back then were clamoring for Gibson to retire, to go away, but would we do that?  If you could go back and see a Gibson start today, even in ’74 or ’75, wouldn’t you?

In 1978, Lou Brock hit .221 and stole 12 bases.  I imagine everyone thought he was washed up but if Lou wanted to play another year, do you think anyone objected?  And in ’79 he hit .304 and stole 21 bags before retiring at the end of the season.  Sometimes there still is more in the tank than we think.

Today we so often want to move on to the next new thing.  Harrison Bader was a guy a lot of folks were excited to see last year but now somewhat feels like an afterthought.  If Flaherty returned and struggled, would people move on to Austin Gomber or Dakota Hudson?  If you wanted to draw grand and likely erroneous conclusions, you could say it’s representative of the short attention spans of our current generation.  Heck, I’m almost 1000 words into this and I imagine the few people that actually clicked the link are mostly checked out.  (If you are still here, let me know and I’ll try to find you a gold star.)

I feel like we are selling Wainwright a bit short.  After all, for the fact that spring training stats don’t mean anything (unless Jordan Hicks throws four good innings), Wainwright sported a sub-1 ERA this spring.  That’s not going to continue, but if Wainwright is healthy and can get some velocity on his pitches, he should be acceptable.  Maybe not as great as Flaherty, but maybe so.  We don’t know where that bar actually is.

Winning is important and it should be the main driver in decisions.  However, if you were to tell me that the Cardinals would absolutely lose tomorrow’s ballgame because they started Adam Wainwright, I’d still start him. Letting him start what probably will be his last home opener–and I believe the reason Waino worked so hard and pushed so hard to get this is because he doesn’t plan to be around for another one–is respect, is honor, is sentiment.

That’s why we come back.  If it was all about winning, folks would be jumping on various bandwagons.  The Cardinals haven’t made the playoffs in two years, which feels like an eternity to most of us.  Yet folks haven’t become Cubs fans or Astros fans or Dodgers fans since they are having a better year.  Even if the team was bad for a decade, most of us would still be here because of the connection and the love we have for the franchise.  That connection and love is made with the players on the field, especially ones like Wainwright that have given so much enjoyment to our days past.

And then there was a game.  I didn’t expect the top portion to take as long as it did, but it’s not too hard to wrap up last night’s victory against the Brewers.  We can do it in four words.

Carlos Martinez was good.

As I mentioned on Twitter last night, it’s games like these, when Martinez shows us all he can be, where he gets into that rhythm and just overpowers batters, that make games like his opener so frustrating.  We know there’s talent there.  We know he can be one of the best pitchers around.  We just want to see him take that step and be there consistently.  So far, that’s eluded him but there’s still time, there’s still hope.

Last night, it was all there.  He allowed a couple of baserunners early but then turned on the lawnmower and started mowing the Brewers down like the weeds that are in my yard.  He gave up a total of four hits and walked two while striking out 10 and, if Yairo Munoz could field a ground ball, likely would have had his third career shutout.  Munoz, who was in for defensive purposes, bobbled what probably would have been a double play ball in the ninth which would have ended the game.  Instead, that left two on and that ended Carlos’s night.  It was a thing of beauty, though.

Here’s what I don’t quite get out of the ninth.  Well, there are a few things.  One, I’m not sure when Munoz developed this reputation of being a guy that should be your defensive replacement.  I’ll talk to Kyle Reis when he joins Allen and I on Musial tomorrow, but I always thought Munoz was bat-first, glove-second.  And while that could still put him ahead of Matt Carpenter, the guy that he’s been replacing on the regular, is the difference enough?  I would have thought that, especially since Munoz didn’t bat last night, you’d go with Greg Garcia as your defensive guy in the infield. (EDIT: I missed that Munoz had pinch-hit for Carpenter, but with a six-run lead, you probably could have let Garcia bat.  It’s not like it was a key situation.)

Secondly, Martinez leaves and Sam Tuivailala comes in, which is a great move.  Tui has closing experience but has struggled with his control so far this spring.  A 6-0 lead gives him a chance to come after folks and have a bit of a cushion if it doesn’t work.  He wound up working the count full on Jonathan Villar, who then singled to center.  Surprisingly, Travis Shaw, the lead runner, didn’t score but it left the bases loaded with one out.

Now, I know we just saw a bullpen meltdown on Tuesday, but even if the next batter (Manny Pina, who has done some damage this series) hits a grand slam, you still have a two-run lead with the eighth place hitter up.  Matheny doesn’t wait, though, and goes to get Bud Norris, who gets Pina to hit into a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning.

I’m fine with Norris there and it’s great that Matheny didn’t go with Matthew Bowman, but I’m a little surprised that he decided to pull the plug that quickly on Tuivailala.  It’s not like it was a matchup issue since both he and Norris were right-handed.  If you weren’t going to give him much leash, I’m surprised Matheny didn’t just go directly to Norris.  It’s not a huge thing by any means and I’m sure there was a factor of “we are NOT letting this game get away” but, again, if you are going to put Tui in at all, it’s surprising it was just for one batter.

Pretty solid night for the offense as well, putting up nine hits and making thing serious.  Yadier Molina hit his third home run of the season, which is amazing (and shows what the old veterans can do as well).  Marcell Ozuna and Paul DeJong both had two hits.  Dexter Fowler led off the game with a double and scored the first run, which is a good sign for improved offensive production.  We’ll see if his hitting was due to Brewer pitching soon enough, I guess!

Our Goat for the night has to be Jose Martinez, as we flip the script from the beginning of the road trip.  Martinez and Carpenter were the only starters not to get a hit, but Carpenter did draw a couple of walks.  Martinez had a runner on base each of the first three times he came up but wasn’t able to do any damage.  Going to be interesting to watch Martinez for a bit and see how much that glow he had after the first two games carries over.  The only extra-base hit Jose has so far is that homer in the first game against the Mets, after all.  He’s going to hit, I’m sure, but if he doesn’t how long will it be until we really notice?

Speaking of Carpenter, he had another awkward looking strikeout last night.  He’s up to five in 20 AB (25 PA, with his five walks) and for a guy that was talking pre-season about not worrying about homers because he hated the strikeouts, that feels like a lot.  Right now 40% of his plate appearances are ending in a walk or a strikeout and the team replaces him in the late innings because his throwing isn’t strong.  I’m sure it’ll turn around but remember that debate we had about whether a 75%-80% Carpenter is better than any other option?  That feels like where we are at.  If Jedd Gyorko was healthy, this might be more of a pressing concern.  With Gyorko out, there’s not really any other way the Cards can go except to play Carpenter, even if he is hurting.

Kolten Wong got a hit!  Sure, it was a weird play where the first baseman dived for it, the ball kicked up, the second baseman came in and then threw it away trying to get the runner advancing to third, but it counts as a line drive in the box score.  Getting Wong on track would do a lot of good not only for the team but for Wong’s psyche, I imagine.  Again, if Gyorko was healthy Wong probably is feeling a bit more pressure, but right now he should know he’s the regular starter for a while.

Today’s the home opener, which is at night for the second straight year.  It’s a little weird to not have day baseball as the Clydesdales are running around the track and the Hall of Famers are out in their red jackets, but at least it starts an hour early (6:15 PM) so it will still have some of that day feel, at least during the ceremonies.  As noted, Wainwright will be taking the mound, making perhaps his last season debut.  We don’t really have much idea what sort of Wainwright start we’ll get (and, even though he’s the veteran, he’s got to be feeling some pressure to be as good as Flaherty) but here’s what he’s done in the past.

vs. Batters Table
Paul Goldschmidt 15 14 4 1 0 2 2 1 3 .286 .333 .786 1.119 0 0 0 0 2
Jarrod Dyson 9 8 1 0 0 0 0 0 3 .125 .125 .125 .250 1 0 0 0 0
Jake Lamb 6 6 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 .333 .333 .500 .833 0 0 0 0 1
Chris Owings 6 6 2 2 0 0 1 0 1 .333 .333 .667 1.000 0 0 0 0 0
David Peralta 6 6 2 0 0 0 1 0 1 .333 .333 .333 .667 0 0 0 0 0
A.J. Pollock 6 6 3 1 0 0 2 0 2 .500 .500 .667 1.167 0 0 0 0 0
Jorge De La Rosa 5 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 5 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Daniel Descalso 5 4 2 0 0 1 1 1 1 .500 .600 1.250 1.850 0 0 0 0 0
Zack Greinke 5 4 1 0 0 0 1 0 2 .250 .250 .250 .500 1 0 0 0 0
Nick Ahmed 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Patrick Corbin 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Zack Godley 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Jeff Mathis 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .500 .500 .500 1.000 0 0 0 0 0
Ketel Marte 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Steven Souza 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1.000 0 0 0 0 0
Total 73 68 18 5 0 3 8 3 22 .265 .296 .471 .766 2 0 0 0 3
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/5/2018.

Paul Goldschmidt has seen him the most and has a couple of homers against him but otherwise, there’s not much here to draw from.  As I keep saying, there’s the sense of the unknown here.  Even last year, Wainwright had a number of good starts.  If he blows up today, I wouldn’t say that bumps him from the rotation.  I do think there’s a short leash and a painful conversation at the end of it but the leash isn’t non-existent.

Robbie Ray takes the mound for the Diamondbacks.  In his last start, he gave up seven runs (six earned) against the Rockies in five innings.  (He also got a win in that game, because baseball.)  He was much better than that last year, of course, and that first start was likely was a bit of an aberration, though if the Cards wanted to do similar damage today, no one wearing red–well, Cardinal red–will stop them.

vs. Batters Table
Dexter Fowler 9 8 5 1 0 1 1 1 0 .625 .667 1.125 1.792 0 0 0 0 0
Matt Carpenter 7 5 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 .200 .429 .200 .629 0 0 0 1 0
Yadier Molina 6 4 1 1 0 0 1 2 1 .250 .500 .500 1.000 0 0 0 0 0
Marcell Ozuna 6 6 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 .333 .333 .333 .667 0 0 0 0 0
Jedd Gyorko 5 5 1 0 0 1 2 0 2 .200 .200 .800 1.000 0 0 0 0 0
Tommy Pham 4 3 3 0 0 0 0 1 0 1.000 1.000 1.000 2.000 0 0 0 0 0
Kolten Wong 2 2 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 .500 .500 .500 1.000 0 0 0 0 0
Paul DeJong 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1.000 0 0 0 0 0
Luke Voit 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Total 41 34 14 2 0 2 5 6 4 .412 .512 .647 1.159 0 0 0 1 0
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/5/2018.

It would be great if those stats meant anything, wouldn’t it? That’s good stuff in a small sample.  We’ll see if it’s a representative one this evening!  Before first pitch, be sure to get in your picks for the Cardinal Six for this series.  I’ll be releasing the Brewer answers sometime this morning on Twitter so keep an eye out!

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Last updated: 10/06/2022