Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Cardinals' rotation is killing it

A couple of years ago, when Jaime Garcia was considered the first or second best starting pitcher on the St. Louis Cardinals, I thought they had a problem. And with the career demise of Chris Carpenter and the rebuilt elbow of Adam Wainwright, the team's rotation was a concern heading into the 2013 season. But now, Jaime Garcia is the fourth or fifth best starter on this team and (albeit) early this season, the Cardinals' rotation looks like a beast.

The St. Louis Cardinals' rotation leads baseball with a 75% rate of quality starts. And while not an overly popular statistic, that combined with another not entirely popular stat, the Game Score Average, the Cardinals lead that category in baseball too with a score of 59. 51 is average. They are also tied for the Major League lead in innings pitched per start.

The easy question to ask here is if this early season performance can last. Have the starters been lucky thus far? That does not appear to be the case. The rotation's ERA is 2.38, the best in baseball. But their collective FIP is only 2.74, also the best in baseball. Let us look at each starter and try to answer that question:

Adam Wainwright: Wainwright has been downright nasty. How he has even lost a game is beyond imaginable. He is 4-1 with an ERA of 1.93. But his FIP is an amazing 1.11! He is doing this well despite an unlucky BABIP of .340. And I just love this set of stats: In his starts thus far, he has struck out 8.95 batters per nine innings while walking only 0.24. Wainwright has walked one batter in 37.1 innings pitched. One! His ground ball rate is fantastic at 56.7 percent. He just has it going on right now.

If Wainwright stays healthy, this kind of pitching is not a stretch. Wainwright is fantastic.

Shelby Miller: Miller has made three starts and is 3-1. His ERA is 2.16 and his FIP is only 2.42. Miller is striking out 9.36 batters per nine while only walking 2.52. His home run rate is low. The only concern with Miller is that he is young and if he will run into a wall at some point. So far, Miller's BABIP against is insanely low at .226 and his strand rate is high at over 78%. I think he regresses just a bit. But he has a great arm and a great future.

Lance Lynn: I was surprised again to look and see that Lynn won 18 games last season. He is 3-0 this season with a very similar start to his season of a year ago. Looking back at Lynn's month to month stats in 2012, I think the Cardinals pulled the plug too quickly after a really tough month of June. If you look closely at that month, he actually had his best strikeout rate of any month except the last one when half of his time was split coming out of the bullpen.

My one problem with Lynn is the walks. His strikeout rate is great at 10.3 strikeouts per nine, but the walks increased in the second half of last year and are sitting at 4.1 per nine this year. This leads to too much stress with runners on base (1.273 WHIP). When he throws strikes, he is really tough to hit and batters are batting only .217 against him.

Even so, his FIP is 39 points below his ERA and his ERA is league average or just a little better. Lynn should be left in the rotation this year and do not be surprised if he wins another eighteen games.

Then you get to Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook. Westbrook's impressive numbers are a mirage as his FIP is a good three runs higher than his ERA. But he will keep the Cardinals in games he pitches, get his share of ground balls (64.8%!) and double-plays and that is all you want from a fifth starter.

Garcia is always a bit of a stress factor. He will have his good games and his bad games. He is not as reliable as Westbrook, but again. for a fifth starter, you will take whatever Garcia offers. Put it this way, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook should be .500 pitchers. If that is what they are and what they do, the Cardinals are in great shape.

Rotations starters one to three can rival any top three in baseball right now. Whether it stays that way or not is the big question as to how far the Cardinals go this season. If they keep up this current pace and Westbrook at Garcia finish at the .500 mark, this could be a very fun year for Cardinal fans.

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