Few would argue that the Cardinals have had their fair share of struggles to start the year. The team is 1.5 games back in the NL Central as this is written, have formerly potent bats under performing, and question marks surrounding key members of the bullpen. One thing they have not had to worry about is a starting rotation that continues to rank among the league’s best, despite a revolving door at the 5th spot. I would suggest that they should have their open Sports Illustrated cover, but we all know how that worked out last time.
The Cards pitchers have compiled an ERA over 7+ weeks of play in the low 3’s. If you only include the starters, that drops to the high 2’s and is inclusive of some ERA-bloating performances from Tyler Lyons and Jaime Garcia (the latter coming from just one start this past Sunday in which he allowed four runs).
Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and the apparently permanently injured Joe Kelly have particularly excelled with 1.85, 2.54, and 0.59 ERAs respectively. Of course Joe Kelly’s numbers were cut short at only three starts, but a spectacular season start like that ought not be ignored. It should also be noted that Wainwright’s microscopic .86 WHIP leads the team, and Wacha’s isn’t that far behind at 1.14. Wacha leads the club in SIERA at 3.06 ranked 17th in both leagues, and Wainwright comes in 24th at 3.20.
I’ve not yet made much of a stir over the three and four starters Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller, but they’ve been OK to good as well. Miller’s ERA is sitting at 3.18 after Friday’s game, where he allowed four runs in just five innings. Shelby started strong, but when the wheels came off, they landed with a thump, to the tune of a three run homer.
Lynn posts the worst showing (3.67) of anyone who’s started the whole season, but it’s improving…down to 3.60 after Thursday’s game where he racked up six strikeouts. Lynn only tossed six, but at just 89 pitches, he could have easily gone longer if he weren’t pulled for Jon Jay in a high leverage situation (spoiler alert: Jay grounded out).
Possibly the bigger pitching story is Miller. He finally made it into the 7th inning (and in fact completed it) for the first time this year last Saturday, and allowed no earned runs. For Miller, in particular, not getting past the 6th has started to become a real concern. Prior to Saturday, his outings lasted 5.1, 5.0, 6.0, 5.2, and 5.1 innings. The fact that he followed that up with a five innings outing is not encouraging, but his ERA is still respectable, especially for a fourth starter. Clearly, extending his starts is a work in progress.
Part of the bullpen’s woes can be blamed on starters (particularly Miller, and the revolving 5th starter) not making it deep into games, but another part of the problem is the makeup of that pen. Both aspects got a little better this week with Miller starting to stretch out his appearances, Jason Motte returning, and Jaime Garcia back on the mound. Garcia’s return will allow for Joe Kelly to return to the pen. Motte will provide another late-innings option to back up the big three (Rosenthal, Martinez, and Siegrist).
As good as the rotation has been, there is always room for improvement. With the relatively low number of runs allowed, aiming to be sharper isn’t likely a reasonable goal. Instead, the staff (outside of Wainwright) needs to focus on pitch efficiency so they can make it deeper into games. It would also help their cause for the Cards bats to continue to hit as they have the past week or so. That will reduce the number of times the starter gets pulled for a pinch hitter and no other reason, as Lynn was on Thursday.
There are other pitching bright spots beyond the starting rotation. Pat Neshek has been a very pleasant and unexpected surprise. Sporting an ERA below 1 in over 19 innings pitched. In fact, he’s allowed just 3 walks and 2 earned runs the whole season. Trevor Rosenthal has steadily improved and returned to 2013 form. Despite Sunday’s high-profile loss, he’s becoming (again) a reliable option when not over exposed.
The St. Louis Cardinals face struggles like every other team does. However, their starters look very good almost two months in. The recent return of two veteran pitchers, and Shelby Miller hopefully figuring out how to be more efficient, will likely make the rotation (and indirectly, the bullpen) even stronger. If that comes to fruition, and the team’s offense can keep rolling, the NL Central has much to fear from the Redbirds.