The Cardinals starting rotation has been, in a word, poor.
Through June 19th, the starters are mediocre in results (4.30 ERA ranks 8th in NL), bad in process (12th in FIP, 15th in K% & BB%), and bad in value (13th in fWAR). Some credit, their rotation ERA was 11th in Mar/April, 12th in May, and is somehow 5th in June (though their FIP is still just 8th). So to be fair, they have moved from purely-bad to somewhat-middling.
Still, the clear need heading towards the July trade deadline is for an impact starting pitcher that can help stabilize the situation. But that move won’t be coming for another month, if at all. So rather, I want to talk about the move that can be made in the here and now.
Leave Daniel Ponce de Leon in the rotation, indefinitely.
Look, Ponce isn’t a high-end (former) prospect like Alex Reyes. He doesn’t necessarily have the raw stuff of a Genesis Cabrera or the octane of Ryan Helsley — I would love to see a healthy Helsley in the rotation, by the way — and isn’t left-handed like Austin Gomber.
What he has been, is an effective starting pitcher. That is exactly what the Cardinals need on that side of the ball (we won’t talk about the paltry offense, right now).
Here’s a rundown of Ponce de Leon’s brief big league career:
|Stat||Overall||As SP||As RP|
He has shown greater effectiveness as a starting pitching. That isn’t an indictment on his relief work. Most of those appearances came at the end of 2018 when he was surely a little low on fuel after missing most of 2017. And despite that, he still got results.
But those numbers as a starter are sparkling.
Stacking the numbers from his 7 career starts against the other 6 pitchers that have made starts in 2019, he would be:
1st in ERA, 1st FIP, 1st in K%, 1st in WHIP, 1st in Opp. OPS, 1st in Opp. wOBA.
Actually, forget his 4 starts from 2018. He leads the 2019 staff in all of those categories through his 3 starts this year.
It’s an inexact measure, but his 0.3 fWAR divides out to 0.1 per start. Extrapolated over 14 or 15 starts to match the others, he would also lead the rotation in WAR.
By FanGraphs’ Game Score, Ponce produced a score of 75 in his start on Wednesday.
That score is Tied for the 4th best start by a Cardinal this year.
His April 23rd start, with a score of 57, is tied for the 23rd best start this year.
His June 14th start, with a score of 51, is tied for the 29th best start this year.
In 73 games, all three of his games rate in the top half among the Cardinals’ starting pitching efforts.
His average Game Score of 61 tops Cardinals hurlers.
This has all been a long way of saying that he has been more effective, through 3 starts, than any other internal option.
Now, this is all based on an incredibly small sample size. It could all fall apart 2 weeks down the road. But that’s my point. Why not find out? Why not roll with a guy that has now shown himself to be an effective starter in about 1/4 of a season’s worth of starts, especially when you consider the pitchers that you are currently tossing out there?
Yes, the walks are still high. Occasionally he seems to lose the strike zone, so it isn’t always pretty. But the walks haven’t hurt him, because his pitches are effective when he does get back in the zone. His fastball actually works up-in-zone (the approach Maddux loves) where some guys simply don’t. Yes, his ERA says he is outproducing his FIP, BUT even if his actual ERA regressed back to the level of his 3.39 career FIP, it would still stand as the best ERA in the rotation.
Fitting Him In
It’s a shame that I am spending 800 words advocating for a guy that might be optioned to AAA later today, when Adam Wainwright is activated from the IL. Fingers-crossed, they will be smart and option Genesis Cabrera instead.
However, with hoping Ponce gets to stick around, it’s pretty obvious where room can be made in the rotation.
Consider that Michael Wacha has a 6.00 ERA, 6.14 FIP, a 12.5% BB% (worse than Ponce), and Opp. OPS of .917 and Opp. wOBA of .379. And (according to Brooks Baseball) opponents are crushing his primary pitch, the 4-seam fastball, at a .650 SLG% and his curveball with a .818 (!!!!!) SLG%. Oh, and he’s lost 2 mph, on every pitch, from 2017. The team is expecting a pitcher to bounce back to career norms, when his stuff is no longer at the same level.
Is he not replaceable?
He had one good game against the lowly Marlins, but nothing in his numbers showed a change or an improvement. (I get the irony that I’m dismissing Wacha vs. Marlins, yet advocating Ponce after a good start vs. said Marlins. I think we have all seen enough of Wacha this year to understand my reasoning.)
Look, I’m not saying Ponce de Leon will make some grand discovery and rescue the entire rotation from the pits of mediocrity. I’m not saying that Daniel having a successful run in the lion’s den should justify not trading for a starter. But right here, right now…
..all I am saying, is give Ponce a chance!
Thanks for reading.
Stats provided by FanGraphs.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Brad Penner – USA TODAY Sports