Comparing the Cardinals and the Contenders: Playoff Rotations

Yesterday I took a look at which starting pitchers the Cardinals could expect to see in a Wild Card game along with a quick hit on how I viewed the match-up. Today, I will expand that to look at how the rotation for a playoff series would look for the Cardinals, up against the teams that they could face if they make it that far.

As we know, the Cardinals rotation has carried them for much of the season. Despite being bitten hard by the injury bug, the rotation has a 3.36 ERA that ranks 3rd in baseball behind the Astros and Dodgers. By the numbers, their rotation stacks up favorably. But the interesting aspect of the Cardinals rotation is that its success has been rooted in it’s incredible depth, whereas other rotations may be top heavy. When it comes to the short-series nature of the postseason, a top heavy rotation becomes more dangerous than it would have been over the course of a 162-game season. Depth doesn’t always play out if the opponent can run a Kershaw or MadBum out there 2-3 times in a series.

And so that’s what leads me into this leg of the exercise. How do the Cardinals look? They are super deep. Tyson Ross is a viable major league starter that has been an All-Star in the past, yet he finds himself in the seldom used long-relief role. Note: I find him very valuable in that role because he protects you if a starter blows up early, a vital need in September when every game is magnified. This would also serve them well in a postseason series. However, along with the depth, the Cardinals have two very good — although, perhaps not top-tier — pitchers at the top in Mikolas and Flaherty.

To the Comparisons…

There are two scenarios that can occur for the Cardinals: reaching the NLDS via the Wild Card game or winning the Central Division. The Wild Card is the most likely outcome, and therefor is the one I will spend the most time on.

To prevent this from being a complete mess, I’m going to be a little presumptive on how the races play out. I am going to eliminate all of the NL West teams from the running for the NL’s top seed. Currently, Colorado is the closest to the best record, and they are 4 games behind that with 17 games to play. Crazy things can happen, but I’ll wipe that division out for this particular installment. That leaves the Cubs, the Brewers (1.0 back), the Braves (2.5 back), and the Cardinals (3.5 back) in the running for the #1 seed and the right to host the Wild Card winner in the NLDS. I’ll be honest, the Cardinals are basically in the same boat as the Rockies when it comes to the top seed, but I’m playing the homer and clinging to some hope.

Obviously, in this situation, I’m putting the Cardinals in the position of the Wild Card team. That means that Jack Flaherty will have been used in order to reach this point, pitching just 2 days before Game 1 of the series. And so this is how the rotations would *likely* set up for a first round series.

Game Cardinals Cubs Brewers Braves
1 Mikolas Lester Chacin Foltynewicz
2 Gomber Hamels Davies Teheran
3 Flaherty Hendricks Gonzalez Gausman
4 Gant Quintana Anderson Sanchez
5 Mikolas Lester Chacin Folynewicz

Much like in the Wild Card game, the Cardinals would have the truest advantage in a series with Milwaukee. Mikolas and Gomber can match any Brewers pitcher, regardless of how they order them. Mikolas has been touched for a few HR’s by the Brewers, but in a matchup with Chacin (6.10 ERA vs STL in 2018) he is still a good draw. For Gomber, Milwaukee has hit just .243/.314/.394 against LHP this season. They are a bottom 6 team in the NL across the board vs. LHP. Flaherty facing their 3rd option in Game 3 is an advantage to the Cardinals that could swing the series, especially considering that Flaherty has a 1.00 ERA in 3 starts against the Brewers this year, striking out 42% of the batters he’s faced.

I would rate the Cubs as the next best situation for the Cardinals. Lester and Quintana have both shown cracks at times this season. But all 4 pitchers have been rolling over the past month. Cole Hamels arrived and turned this into a really tough 4-some. However, since the managerial change, the Cardinals lead all of baseball in batting average, OPS, wRC+, and wOBA vs. LHP. Bader and Gyorko are significantly better hitters against lefties, and Carpenter and Wong would represent the only LH batters in the lineup. While these are all above average pitchers, this platoon split helps neutralize some of their advantage.

On the Cardinals pitching side of this, Mikolas and Flaherty have both been good in 2 starts, each, against the Cubs. The pitchers that have struggled the most with the Cubs are Martinez and Weaver, both of whom would not be starting in this series. Gant has not faced the Cubs at all in 2018, giving him the “unfamiliarity” edge. Gomber has allowed 2 doubles to the Cubs in 2.2 IP, but no earned runs. The Cubs are nearly even when it comes to platoon splits, so being LH doesn’t bring any advantages.

The Braves have a sneaky good rotation. Folty is great and Kevin Gausman was a low-key pickup who has thrived away from Baltimore. The Braves can throw 4 RHP’s at the Cardinals, something that the other two teams cannot do. This decreases the offensive impact of Gyorko and Bader — though both can hold their own — and lowers the offensive upside for the team. I wouldn’t give the Braves a big advantage, but I think that their four is better game-to-game than the Cardinals four. I like John Gant, but the 2018 version of Anibal Sanchez is a tough draw.

The Braves are a better hitting team against LHP than they are against RHP, which helps Mikolas and Flaherty but hurts Gomber. Mikolas had a very good start against Atlanta earlier this season. Gant didn’t fare as well, but he also seems to be a different pitcher these days. Weaver struggled mightily, but once again, he will not be a part of the rotation in that series.

And now the other scenario…

This scenario sees the Cardinals making a huge push in the final weeks, overcoming the Brewers and the Cubs, taking the Central Division and the National League’s best record. It’s a stretch, but I’m not giving up hope. As such, I will lay the options out as well. Now, this situation pulls the NL West teams back into play, as they are still in the Wild Card hunt. I won’t go into the in-depth analysis for all of these match-ups, but here are how the rotations would *likely* setup with the Cardinals playing host to the Wild Card winner. (For a reference point, I have included each team’s NL rank for rotation ERA, as of 9/12, in parentheses)

Game Cardinals(2) Cubs(6) Brewers(7) Rockies(12) Dodgers(1) Diamondbacks(4)
1 Flaherty Hamels Davies Gray Hill Corbin
2 Mikolas Hendricks Gonzalez Marquez Buehler Ray
3 Gomber Lester Chacin Freeland Kershaw Greinke
4 Gant Quintana C. Anderson T. Anderson Stripling Buchholz
5 Flaherty Hamels Davies Gray Hill Corbin

In this situation, the Cardinals benefit the most against the NL West clubs. Getting any of those teams off-rotation is huge. All three have solid rotations, but have a clear-cut #1 that is superior to the rest. Not having to face that pitcher twice in a 5-game series is big.

As for the the NL Central clubs, its much of the same situation as it would be with the Cardinals coming in as the Wild Card team. The difference is, they can get Flaherty 2 turns if it goes to 5 games. I think that would be huge in a series with the Brewers. I also won’t discount that impact in a series with the Cubs, as Flaherty has, to-date, a 0.90 ERA in two starts vs. Chicago this season (it’s only 10 innings, but they’re promising).

If the Cardinals can reach the NLDS, there is no easy rotation to face. But, they are no chumps themselves, so the series would be as a playoff series should be, tightly contested. I can’t say how it would turn out, but I hope we get to find out.

Thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for my next entry in this series, when I slide into the Bullpens.

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Last updated: 10/06/2022