Cardinals: Sunshine, Lollipops, and Starting Pitching

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports // All stats provided by FanGraphs

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I’m in the minority opinion on this, but I like the 2023 Cardinals starting rotation. A lot.

The caveat, of course, being health.

We don’t have to discuss the offseason approach to the rotation in great detail. Most fans wanted and are still adamant that the team needed to add another starting pitcher. The team could have laid down big money and pursued a top flight starter this winter, there were a few available. That would have helped the team, for sure. But logistically, based on the guys under contract for 2023, simply adding a starter for the sake of adding a starter never made sense. It had to be a major upgrade or leave it as is, in my opinion.

And to circle back to my point, I think “as is” is pretty good.

First, the projected starting five as of now — in order of tenure:

Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz, Jordan Montgomery

Pushed out of the rotation and the most obvious “next man” is Dakota Hudson. The likes of Woodford and Liberatore likely follow him in terms of guys with MLB experience, then Connor Thomas (40-man roster), then Gordon Graceffo (not on 40-man, most advanced rising prospect). Zach Thompson slots in ahead of Thomas, if he isn’t exclusively cast as a reliever. This is all my own assumptions on the pecking order based on watching the team operate for many years.

Back to the main five.

For some of you health is the main concern, maybe the only concern. For others, it is performance, as well.

It isn’t a sexy rotation, admittedly. But it is a group that I, personally, don’t doubt from a performance standpoint. If they are taking the mound, I feel good about what they are going to do. Again, the caveat is health. But with health, I see a group that can roll out winnable starts night after night without significant drop-off 1 thru 5. Optimistically, I see a healthy Flaherty emerging — again — as the clear best pitcher on the staff and giving them the true #1 that the consensus says they don’t currently have.

Now, if you were to copy/paste this rotation onto a different team, my opinion might be different. But I really like THIS rotation within the construct of THIS team. More on that soon.

I see a ton of value in a rotation that is consistently good at each individual spot, even if not outstanding overall. In baseball, you can win a lot of game with a top heavy rotation and you can also win a lot of games with a balanced rotation. The Cardinals have the latter.

The make-up, combined with the fairly low expectations, reminds me a lot of a rotation from yesteryear: the 2004 rotation. That rotation had a clear ace in Chris Carpenter and a solid 2-5 in Williams, Marquis, Suppan, and Morris that could roll out winnable starts, night after night.

And keep in mind, the 2004 rotation was not highly touted going into the season. Carpenter was returning from a couple lost seasons, he was not thought of as an ace, yet. Williams was an older, solid veteran. Marquis was bulldog, groundball pitcher. Suppan was more of a veteran #4 starter than anything. Matt Morris was considered the ace, but he had regressed in 2003 and dealt with some injuries. There aren’t perfect parallels, but you can loosely fit current Cardinals with some of those descriptions. Overall, the rotation was slept on, until they proved otherwise.

Now, I know what you are thinking… “Whoa there, buddy. The historically great 2004 team? You know they had the MV3, right?”

First of all, I’m not saying the 2023 Cardinals are going to win 105 games. But the construction of the team is similar enough to compare the units.

Defensively, the 2004 Cardinals were strong. They ranked 3rd in MLB in DRS and 9th in Defensive WAR, per FanGraphs. The 2022 Cardinals ranked 4th in MLB in DRS and 3rd in Defensive WAR.

Offensively, the 2004 Cardinals had 3 players in the MVP race. The 2022 team had 2, with Goldschmidt winning. As recently as 2021, Tyler O’Neill was a contender. That’s the anecdotal comp. Statistically, the 2004 team ranked 1st in the NL and 4th in MLB in the all-encompassing wRC+. The 2022 team ranked 3rd in the NL and 5th in MLB. With a significant upgrade at catcher and hopeful progression/bounceback from young players, there is no reason to think that the Cardinals can’t maintain that kind of overall team success.

The 2004 bullpen was elite, leading MLB in reliever ERA. The Cardinals 2022 bullpen ranked 11th in reliever ERA. The same cast returns with a few intriguing additions and hopefully more health from Jordan Hicks. The bullpen is a topic for another day, but it’s not hard to see them maintain or improve, and hold as a top 10 bullpen in the game.

So that’s the context that I am referring to. The 2004 rotation had a top defense, top offense and a top bullpen. The 2023 unit is set to be similarly flanked by the defense and offense, with a solid or better bullpen backing them up.

Now, I will breakdown the make-up of the two rotations.

I’ll present the graphic and then explain it:

Ok, so what I have done is compared the members of the rotation to the league average starting pitcher of their respective era and highlighted where each pitcher is better than league average. For 2004, it is the ’04 numbers vs the ’04 league average. For the 2023 rotation, I have combined 2017 through 2022 to provide a larger, more projectable, body of work and compare it against the 2022 league average SP. That allows us to compare the rotations within the context of the game they are playing, which has changed quite a bit over the last 2 decades. I included Hudson with the 2023 group for reference, because of the “what if” factor. If health, comes into play and he is in the 5, does it blow everything up? Not totally, which is why I wanted to display him as well.

ERA- is a measurement that puts league average at 100 and the smaller the number, the better. You will notice that the average SP has a slightly higher than average ERA, in both cases. We can see that individually, those numbers — which again, are relative to the league — are comparable. Both had a couple guys in the 80’s, a couple in the 90’s and 1 below average.

K% is a big topic. That is, decidedly, what the Cardinals lack. Their starters ranked 24th in baseball last season in K%. It needs to go up to compete. All else aside, I think it will go up simply through attrition. Flaherty was mostly absent last year, and he is the biggest strikeout pitcher on the staff. Montgomery is next in K% and he was only on the team for 2 months. Matz holds the 3rd highest K% for this sample and he was limited to 48 innings because of injury. Full seasons from all three — again HEALTH is key — will naturally raise the K% from where it stood in 2022. Will it increase enough? I don’t know, but it will be better.

Back to the comparison, I invented some stats. I called it K%+ for simplicity. As with all “+” stats, I normalized league average to be 100 and then factored the rest of the numbers accordingly. For this and all subsequent “+” states, the larger the number, the better. The comp is favorable in that 3 starters should — given health and based on past performance — meet or exceed league average in strikeout rate. Each rotation only has one outstanding strikeout pitcher.

Again, I invented a stat to compare BB%, that being BB%+. Same concept. The 2004 rotation was adept at not walking people, with all 5 members besting the league average walk rate. The 2023 should have 4 members that can do the same.

Then there is the factor of going deep into games. This has been a significant change in the game since 2004, so again I invented a stat to normalize it and make it easier to compare Innings per Start, calling it IP/S+. Again, the entire 2004 rotation bested league average for length of start. The 2023 team has 4 that track to do the same and Matz is just a hair below average.

To summarize all of this and make my point, both of these rotations are solid top-to-bottom, despite having only one true standout. Both are above average in run prevention, just ok in terms of strikeouts, above average in terms of limiting walks, above average in length of starts.

To reiterate. I am not saying this rotation is going to get us 105 wins. The 2023 rotation is not the 2004 rotation. The 2023 team is not the 2004 team. All of this is for frame of reference.

Again, this isn’t a group that will jump off the page, neither was the 2004 group. That rotation was arguably the weakest aspect of a ridiculously great team. But it was a solid unit that provided a consistent baseline, night in and night out. It was a unit that could prevent long losing streaks and support overall consistent team performance. It was, ultimately, a very healthy group, which will be the key in 2023.

That’s the potential I see in the current rotation. Couple it with the offense and defense that we expect and bullpen that shouldn’t blow leads, and it could be a recipe for 95+ wins, which puts them in the conversation for one of the top 2 seeds in the NL playoffs.

Post Script:

I won’t dwell on this, but it’s a valid concern. The worry is that a rotation such as this can be fine in the regular season, but if they meet an elite 1-2 punch of starting pitchers — Nola/Wheeler, Scherzer/Verlander — in the playoffs, then there is no hope. In continuing the 2004 comparison, that team ran into that exact thing. They met Clemens (2004 Cy Young) and Oswalt in the NLCS, and won without their ace, as Carpenter missed the playoffs. That was a 7 game series, which is a different dynamic than a 3 or 5 game series, yes. But I think the bottom line is that the Cardinals haven’t failed to pitch in their recent playoff appearances as much as they have failed to hit. The regular season offense has to show up, regardless of the pitcher. That’s a topic for another day.

But again, I like this rotation.

Thanks for reading.

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