Better Know An NLDS Opponent: Cardinals Pitching

When Mike covered the Cardinals offense yesterday, he stole all my snark points about the team, but he did leave out references to Adrian Gonzalez and Mickey Mouse or Yasiel Puig and probably the best celebration-while-still-running-for-a-triple we’ll ever see. And so as we review the Cardinals pitching staff, let’s just hope that we’ll be able to be blessed with more moments like these this series:

Because remember kids, hilarious celebrations paired with a winning team allows us to harvest the tears of those who don’t deserve happiness in seeing the Dodgers fail (like Bill Plaschke).

As for the Cardinals pitching staff, it’s still scary. Much like their lineup, though, it’s not quite as scary as last year since the Cardinals do seem to be in a bit of a transition phase (they don’t really … decline or rebuild ever), but the upside gives ample reason to worry.

Rotation

CardinalsRotation2014NLDS

In a potential five-game series, the Cardinals will throw Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, Shelby Miller, and Adam Wainwright against the Dodgers. I haven’t read any rumblings that Wainwright could go on three days rest, but anything is possible if the Cardinals are on the brink. Regardless, even sticking with that rotation schedule, it’s not gonna be an easy road for any team they face.

Any discussion about this rotation starts with their ace, Wainwright, who probably would be a multiple Cy Young winner if Clayton Kershaw just never existed. Wainwright has a 2.38 ERA and 2.88 FIP this year, but he actually regressed from last year, which should say it all about his talent. That regression wasn’t necessarily a talent decline though, as a large part of it was due to a bout with “dead arm”, during which he went seven starts from Aug. 1 to Sep. 2 where his ERA was 5.28. However, he since righted the ship JUST IN TIME FOR THE DODGERS, giving up two runs in his last 33 innings.

GREAT

On the plus side, Wainwright’s strengths with the breaking ball is also the strength of the Dodgers’ lineup, and he has to go against Kershaw. Unfortunately, when your second-most optimistic reason for success against a pitcher is “well our pitcher should be better”, it’s safe to say not to expect offensive fireworks.

Lance Lynn is next up, and while his 2.74 ERA is easily the best number he’s ever posted, he’s generally been the same type of pitcher as he’s always been. In 2014, he’s posted about the same walk rates, the same strikeout rates, the same homer rates, and even the same batted ball distribution types as the previous two seasons. That’s not a negative, not when it all adds up to a rock solid 3.2-3.4 ERA type of starter, but the narrative that he’s suddenly become this front-line guy is going overboard when his ascent has primarily been a combo of batted ball fortune and a great Cardinals defense.

John Lackey, the third starter in line, is an interesting case. Lackey came over as a mid-season acquisition as part of a deal that saw Joe Kelly and Allen Craig shipped out of St. Louis. Overall, he’s been an above-aveage starter on the year with a 3.82 ERA and a 3.78 FIP, but in 10 starts with the Cardinals, Lackey has posted a 4.30 ERA and a 4.27 FIP. And while that may just be a sample size issue, when paired with a 1.5 mph drop in velocity, there’s reason to think there might be more downside than up.

Finally, there’s Shelby Miller, the man who Twitter was about to send out an ABP for during last year’s NLCS and World Series when he was left unused despite his stellar rookie campaign. Well, coming off that experience, the resurrected zombie Miller stunk to start 2014, seeing his walks rise and strikeout rate plummet. For a period, he was only being kept respectable by fortune, which is what led to his 3.74 ERA/4.54 FIP disparity. That said, the problem for the Dodgers is that Miller finished the year with a flurry, posting a 1.48 ERA and 2.77 FIP in September. While he didn’t necessarily solve his swing-and-miss issues, he did find his command again, and that could be bad news in a matchup with somebody like Dan Haren.

Bullpen

CardinalsBullpen2014NLDS

There’s eight pen arms listed, but the Cardinals may opt to go without Marco Gonzales and carry an extra position player, but we do know Michael Wacha will be a part of the relief corp.

But let’s start with their best, and that was arguably Pat Neshek this season. The 1.87 ERA/2.37 FIP speaks for itself, but he has absolutely owned righties this year, holding them to a ridiculous .199 wOBA against. Expect him to face the heart of the order with Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in there, at least if Mike Matheny plans it out right (probably not). Neshek also isn’t much of a risk to let face lefties, and has handled them well despite his release point.

Next, let’s go with the would-be starters, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Both of them are rotation prospects and probably will be again in 2015, but for now, their stuff has (Martinez) and should (Wacha) play up in the pen, which bodes well for the hard-throwing duo against a team in the Dodgers that struggles with heat. Wacha was demoted to the pen coming into the postseason despite him crapping all over the Dodgers last year in the NLCS, primarily because he was dealing with scapular stress injury and might not be in form. Martinez, on the other hand, lost his rotation battle to Joe Kelly and has been in the pen all year. In terms of handedness split, Wacha doesn’t have much of one, but Martinez does, giving up .363 wOBA against lefties but limiting righties at .275.

Trevor Rosenthal is still the Cardinals’ closer and he’s still good, but he’s not anywhere near the guy he was last year. His strikeouts are down, his walk rate doubled, and the ball is being hit harder against him. Furthermore, he has a weird reverse platoon split, where he’s giving up a .330 wOBA against righties and a .242 against lefties. So that’s somewhat encouraging, but he still has a 3.20 ERA and 2.99 FIP, and he still sits 95-97 mph.

Seth Maness is their unspectacular but solid/consistent groundball and control guy (2.91 ERA/3.38 FIP). Maness also has a significant platoon split, giving up a .249 wOBA against righties, but .363 wOBA against lefties. So he’s sort of like Brandon League of the Cardinals if League had better control.

Randy Choate … wait he’s like 90, right?

But he’s the first lefty listed here, and he’s a specialist, and everybody needs those. Remarkably, Choate is still effective for what he’s supposed to do. He has limited lefties to a .171 wOBA this year, so expect him to see a lot of time against Adrian Gonzalez (or Dee Gordon) in key situations if Matheny knows what he’s doing. And if Matheny knows what he’s doing, he won’t let him face Yasiel Puig or Matt Kemp or any righty with a pulse, because he has given up an impressive .415 wOBA against them.

Sam Freeman is the second lefty out of the pen, but the problem with using him in handedness situations is that he actually has a reverse split, giving up a .368 wOBA against lefties and .249 against righties. He’s a hard thrower that will sit 92-94 mph, but has command problems. And that reverse platoon split for Freeman is where 2013 first-round pick Marco Gonzales comes into play. Gonzales only has 34.2 innings in the MLB (4.15 ERA/4.75 FIP), and only has five appearances in relief, but he’s a top prospect with a devastating changeup that can provide upside out of the pen. And while he has been rocked by righties so far in the majors, he has limited lefties to a .189 wOBA against.

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At the end of the day, the Cardinals pitching staff was 11th in ERA and 13th in FIP for 2014. They were safely above average and nothing necessarily impressive jumps out, but yet there’s a ton of upside in there and plenty of reason to be wary. Unlike last year, though, when I thought the Cardinals were the better team, this Cardinals team does appear to have a few more openings for the Dodger hitters to do damage. Hopefully they take advantage.

About Chad Moriyama

Chad Moriyama
"A highly rational Internet troll." - Los Angeles Times