Cardinals Starting Rotation Is Turning a Corner

Starting pitching depth has long been touted as the strength of the St. Louis Cardinals. They entered spring with a group of 10 theoretical starting pitching candidates. While the quantity thinned out as Carlos Martinez had setbacks and Alex Reyes faced a slow build back to a starter’s workload, it was fair to be concerned about quality.

As the team broke camp with Mikolas, Flaherty, Wacha, Hudson, and Wainwright questions revolved around health, experience, and effectiveness. The first few turns only amplified the concerns as the surest members of the group, Mikolas and Flaherty, struggled and Hudson failed to pitch deep into games.

After 19 games and 4 trips through the rotation (Hudson was skipped once) the Cardinals starting staff ranked 13th in the NL in ERA (5.28), 13th in K% (21%), 14th in BB% (9.7%), and dead last in FIP (5.66) and WHIP (1.64). They were also averaging less than 5 innings (4.84) per start.

It was not a pretty picture and, unsurprisingly, the team was hovering around .500 with a 10-9 record.

But as so often happens in baseball, things changed quickly.

Over the last 12 games, the Cardinals starters are among the NL’s best, ranking 4th in ERA (3.17) and 1st in WHIP (1.07).

Here’s a breakdown of how things have changed in several statistics.

Stat 3/28-4/19 NL Rank 4/20-5/2 NL Rank Change
ERA 5.28 13 3.17 4 +9
FIP 5.66 15 4.77 12 +3
xFIP 4.45 12 4.18 7 +5
WHIP 1.64 15 1.07 1 +14
K% 21% 13 20.5% 12 +1
BB% 9.7% 14 6.9% 5 +9
AVG .296 15 .213 2 +13
OBP .370 15 .273 1 +14
SLG .556 15 .380 6 +9
wOBA .385 15 .279 2 +13
Hard% 42.2% 12 32.4% 4 +8
Soft% 16.3% 9 22.7% 2 +7

That is truly across-the-board improvement.

Although it’s still high, being nearly a full run better in FIP is significant. Hopefully that continues to trend downward. Keep in mind that the team has played really well on defense, so pitchers are trusting that. Pitching to contact as a strategy can elevate a FIP, even if you’re getting results. That’s why I note the Hard-Hit% percentage. In the first 19 games it was 42.2%, while it was just 32.4% in the last 12. Their 22.7% Soft-Hit% was the 2nd best in the NL over the last 12 games. So while FIP and xFIP do point towards some luck on batted balls, the Cardinals pitchers have been doing a good job at inducing much weaker contact.

The average innings per start has increased from 4.84 in the first 19 games to 5.92 in the last 12. The starter has thrown at least 5 innings in every game. They have pitched 6+ in 7 of the 12, compared to 6 in the first 19. Twice in the last 12 they have finished 7 innings, compared to 0 in the first 19.

The deeper starts have allowed the bullpen to settle into more defined roles and find greater success.

Although the overall results have remained similar across the two time periods (3.43 ERA vs 3.75, .175 AVG vs .183) the underlying numbers have seen vast improvement as result of less demand.

The Cardinals bullpen carried a 5.14 FIP, 25.6% K%, and 13.7% BB% through the first 19 games. Over the last twelve, those numbers are 3.46, 35.7%, and 7%, respectively. Over the last 12 games, the bullpen’s K% and BB% are both the best in the NL.

Some of that can be attributed to returning a struggling Alex Reyes to Memphis, but he was far from the only driver behind the early season numbers. The relievers are simply pitching better.

There is no doubt that asking for 3 less outs per game has a positive effect.

Suddenly, this staff is performing as advertised. When you pitch like that on both ends of the game — along with an offense that has been piling up runs from the start — it’s not surprising to reel off a 10-2 record over that time.

Two weeks ago on the Bird Law podcast, Adam Butler and myself were calling for the removal of Dakota Hudson from the rotation on the heels of a 3.2 inning, 6 run performance in Milwaukee. Since then he has pitched 5+ innings in 3 straight starts. In his last two starts, he has 3.07 ERA with an even better 2.52 FIP. Most important, he has cut down on walks. His BB% during his first 4 starts stood at 12.%. In his last 2 starts it is just 6.4%. He has also avoid the HR ball for 2 straight games, after allowing 8 in his first 4.

Perhaps an adjustment in approach has been made and is paying dividends.

Hudson actually being good is a very big development.

I was never particularly concerned about Mikolas or Flaherty, and they both seem to be settling in.

That is especially true for Flaherty, who holds a 2.77 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 29.2% K%, 4.2% BB%, 0.69 WHIP, and Opp. OBP of .188. He’s been dominant, outside of 3 HR’s allowed.

Adam Wainwright has been an expert craftsman at the back end, still leading the staff in season ERA at 3.73.

Michael Wacha is Michael Wacha.

It’s hard to make definitive statements based on 12 games, but the Cardinals pitching staff is trending the right way. Let’s hope it continues.

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Thanks to Fangraphs for the stats. Featured Photo Credit: Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

  • Matthew Bush May 3, 2019, 10:39 am

    From 4/20-5/2 the vastly improved staff was still 12th in the National League in FIP. They were very lucky even during that “turnaround” period.

    Hudson, Wacha, Wainwright are all below average pitchers by their projections and by Baseball Savant rankings w/r/t exit velocity, hard hit % and xwOBA. Mikolas is not missing any bats and while hes still firing strikes, they are getting hit.

    The bottom three in the rotation are not projected to be good and they havent been good. I am encouraged by the overall team but the rotation sure seems lousy!

    • Rusty Groppel May 3, 2019, 11:01 am

      True, but the FIP is still nearly a full run lower, which is pretty significant, even if the climb in the ranks wasn’t. Positive trend, have to see it continue.

    • Rusty Groppel May 3, 2019, 11:20 am

      I do appreciate you pointing this out. I went back and check the quality of contact numbers, and they are significantly better in terms of Hard and Soft contact. So while they are pitching to contact still, they aren’t getting squared up, so stuff/execution seems to be improved. This has been added to the post.

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