Friday, May 25, 2012

St Louis Cardinals: Can Their Rotation Help Them Repeat?

The St Louis Cardinals are the reigning WS Champs, and look in some ways to be stronger this year than last. That’s something of a strange statement given that they lost Albert Pujols to the Angels via free agency. However with largely the same team returning and very strong contributions from new acquisition Carlos Beltran, and an increase in productivity for David Freese the Cards seem to be doing just fine offensively. So, about that rotation...

Lance Lynn has come out of the gate hot in only his 2nd year in the bigs with 6 quality starts in his first 9 attempts. Lynn has faltered a bit lately, with his last 3 starts being his weakest efforts, though two of them were quality starts none were more than 6 innings, and he gave up 3 or more runs in each of them. This could signal something of a return to earth for the 25 year old who has been almost too good to be true for the Cards so far. Lynn’s 34 & ⅔ innings from last year don’t make the greatest set of benchmarks, but he’s struck out 52 batters so far in 56 & ⅔ innings, which is good for over 8 per 9, which is only a little bit lower than his rate from last year, and he’s walked 19 batters so far, good for a about 3 per 9. Lynn is doing pretty well with his overall stat line, giving up very few homers, and getting just better than 50% ground balls with 17% of balls in play going for line drives. Unless his dominant start is as much a product of the league’s unfamiliarity with him, he’s clearly got the stuff, and the makeup to be a successful pitcher in the majors.

Jake Westbrook has looked... great in the early going, he has looked a bit more hittable through May, but has still been relatively reliable over his starts this month (last night’s 6 run dumpster fire excluded). He has managed to keep his walk rate quite reasonable having walked only 16 batters in 56 innings, while his strikeout rate is at a 10 year high at 6.1 per 9. He has above all else been able to avoid the long ball, having given up only 3 homers in his 9 starts. Having always been a groundball pitcher, and this year is no exception, he’s garnered over 60% ground balls and has limited line drives to only 13% of balls in play. This all bodes well for Westy, who despite a down year last year, and a track record of being less than exceptional, could certainly be looking to repeat something like his ‘08 performance. Westbrook is looking good in a lot of regards, and there’s very little reason for me to believe that he’s absolutely going to fall off. Of course as he’s not a strikeout pitcher he can get into trouble giving up a lot of contact, but conservatively it looks like Westbrook is going to turn in a solid if unspectacular year, probably a bit better than league average when all is said and done.

Adam Wainwright looked to be struggling to shake off the rust after a year on the shelf but has flashed a bit of brilliance periodically, including his complete game shutout of the Padres in his most recent start. His strikeout rate is good at 8.4 per 9 though his walk rate is up (marginally) at 2.9 per 9 and he’s giving up a little more than a homer per 9 which, is atypical of Waino to say the least. He’s getting ground balls more than ever before, but not by a huge margin, and his Line drive percentage (18% of all balls in play) is pretty much in line with his career line. Coming back from Tommy John surgery isn’t an easy road for most pitchers, so it’s to be expected that Waino has some rough starts while he re-adjusts to pitching in the majors. Overall he looks to be turning the corner with that shiny new elbow ligament, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a few hiccups here and there. Waino is better than his ERA indicates so far, but he’s not quite back up to All-star/Cy Young level yet.

Jaime Garcia is solid, if unspectacular, but has actually looked quite steady so far. He has amassed 6 quality starts in his 9 attempts, and has only given up more than 3 runs twice so far. Garcia has been an effective innings eater for St. Louis so far, and that’s not an unappealing quality for the back of your rotation. in 58 & ⅓ innings so far he has struck out 43 and walked 15, so while he’s not walking anybody, he isn’t striking them out either. He is the owner of a rather ugly 1.406 WHIP so far, and has managed to stay out of more trouble than most who are letting batters so readily take to the base paths by only giving up 1  homer so far. His BABIP is an absolutely disgusting .361, and while last year it was .324, a 40 point jump is quite a bit, especially given that he’s more effectively limiting line drives (only 16% of balls in play) than over the past 2 years. Garcia might be a victim of some less than stellar luck to this point, and could look to see his WHIP drop a bit as that BABIP corrects itself. Garcia may despite a diminished strikeout rate be able to provide better value to the Cards this season if he is able to keep his line drive and flyball rates at or near their current levels.

Kyle Lohse has looked like something of the staff ace so far, and while that’s not necessarily fair to throw on Lohse, who’s never been looked upon as deserving of such a role before, his productivity in the early going has certainly been a boon to the Cards. Unfortunately for Lohse and the cards he’s been having some trouble making it through the 6th inning this month, having only done so once, when he was stung for 5 runs against the Cubbies. Lohse has been able to limit damage effectively, and has the exact same WHIP now that he finished last season with (1.168) though that’s due this year to more hits and less walks than last season, he’s been very good about keeping the ball in the yard so far having given up only 4 homers over his first 9 starts. Lohse looks to be more lucky than good overall so far, he’s never been a groundball pitcher, and this year is no exception. He’s giving up 22% of balls in play for line drives, which is not far off of last season’s mark at all. I’d worry about Lohse’s ability to return to the kind of effective pitching he put together last month, and he may revert to the type of ERA that we expect out of him more than what he has provided so far.
Chris Carpenter has been sidelined with a shoulder injury all year and hasn’t made a single start for the Cards this season. The glass ace has been effective over the past 3 years, and was a huge boon to the Cards while Wainwright was out last season, but looks to be back to old habits. With any luck this is a flukey injury and Carp can return around the All-star break and provide a bit of a pick me up for the Cards who are already seeing pretty solid production from the rotation, but giving the team leverage to move someone for a need elsewhere in the team is never a bad thing.

Overall the Cards pitching staff is ranking in the middle of the pack for the NL, but it looks more or less like that can be attributed to a less than perfect bullpen, which looks at a cursory glance to be a target for improvement. Jason Motte is pitching effectively, as are Mitchell Boggs and  Marc Rzepczynski (I understand after having finally typed that why you folks refer to him as “Scrabbles”), however the rest of the ‘pen has not fared quite as well so far. That said, the team is sitting on a very solid rotation, and has the best offense in the National League so far with 59 total homers and 240 runs. They also rank first in batting average, OBP, and SLG. They have been taking their walks and stealing bases effectively as well (6th and 5th respectively), so regardless of what could be happening with Pujols, the team is scoring runs just fine. With their very effective rotation, and their dominant offense (despite rather significant losses), the Cards are in position to make a nice post season run.

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