By: Chris Larson
Going into play today, the St. Louis Cardinals are part of a close three-team race in the NL Central, which also includes the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs. As of right now, St. Louis sits in third place with a 32-26 record, are 3 and 1/2 games back from the division leading Brewers, and have a +24 run differential on the year.
A big reason behind their success hasn't necessarily been the offense, which is headlined by guys like Marcell Ozuna, Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez, but rather by a starting rotation that features five true workhorses, when all healthy, and a rotation that can compete with the best of the best. Granted, the Cardinals starting rotation doesn't feature the most star-studded names ever, but it's powerful enough to give the Cardinals a legitimate shot to play into October and deep into the postseason.
Compared to the rest of the league, the Cardinals currently have the third best starting rotation ERA, second best in the National League, with a 2.95 ERA over 332 innings of work. Over that span, Cardinals starting pitchers have allowed the fewest earned runs (109), have the third lowest Opponent Batting Average Against (.225), and the fourth lowest WHIP (1.16) in all of baseball.
Certainly, tremendous stats for a starting rotation that includes the likes of Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, and Luke Weaver. Much of the success can be placed on each individual pitcher, but you also have to give first-year Cardinals pitching coach, Mike Maddux, who was formerly the Washington Nationals pitch coach, and the catching tandem of Yadier Molina/Carson Kelly credit as well. Molina just returned from the DL yesterday, but he has proven that he is the game's most durable catcher over the last 10 years and continues to provide a tremendous amount of value with each passing season.
Among the group of five mentioned above, the starting pitcher that has been the most influential on this year's starting rotation has been Michael Wacha. So far this year, Wacha has a 2.41 ERA over 71 innings of work and leads the team with 61 strikeouts. Wacha has allowed 27 walks on the year through 12 games started, but has been durable in the fact that he is averaging 97 pitches per start and has a 1.7 WAR thus far. What's amazing about Wacha is that he will be 27 in July even though it feels like he should be much older than that considering that he made his MLB debut at the young age of 21.
What's been even more impressive than the season that Wacha is having is the story of Miles Mikolas. Mikolas, who the Cardinals signed to a two-year deal out of Japan this past offseason, has provided more than enough value to the team so far. There was probably no one in baseball who saw this type of season coming for him and you could make a case that Mikolas could be a sleeper NL Cy Young Award candidate. Thus far through 72.1 IP, Mikolas has a 2.49 ERA with 53 strikeouts and an Opponent Batting Average Against of .234.
Mikolas features a five-pitch repertoire which includes a fastball, fastball sinker, changeup, slider, and cutter. Here is a chart showcasing the percentage of time that Mikolas throws each pitch compared to how often he threw each one during his three seasons with the San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers from 2012-2014.
Certainly impressive, but the secret behind the success of Mikolas this season has likely been his ability to throw all of his pitches at a faster velocity compared to 2014 when he last pitched in the MLB. Here are the velocity changes for Mikolas:
If that doesn't impress you enough, the Cardinals have another workhorse in Carlos Martinez who has a long track record of success over his big league career both in the regular season and postseason. Over the span of his 6-year career, Martinez has a 3.30 ERA over 751.2 innings of work with 735 strikeouts, a 1.26 WHIP, and a career .240 Opponent Batting Average Against. More recently, so far this season, Martinez has a 1.83 ERA over 54 IP and who knows what his ERA would be if he didn't miss the past three weeks with a right lat muscle strain.
Here is the batting average against chart for Martinez so far this season:
As you can see based on the chart, Martinez has experienced a lot of success throughout the zone, but when he throws in the middle-to-lower part of the zone to left-handed hitters, he gets lit up. Still though, through 108 at bats against left-handed hitters this season, Martinez has a .176 batting average and 30 strikeouts.
Beyond the talent that Michael Wacha, Miles Mikolas, and Carlos Martinez bring to the Cardinals, St. Louis also has two young starting pitchers, Jack Flaherty and Luke Weaver. Starting with 22-year old, Jack Flaherty, Flaherty has shown flashes of brilliance this year. Over 34.1 innings of work, Flaherty has a 2.62 ERA along with a strikeouts-per-9 rate of 9.44. Flaherty has proven that he can be successful in any situation that he is faced with against the opposing team. Here is a breakdown by situation:
Coming up through the minor leagues, Jack Flaherty always got positive scores on his fastball (55/55), slider (50/55), curveball (55/55), changeup (40/45), and command (50/55). However, so far this year, Flaherty is throwing his fastball (59.4% of the time compared to 55.3% of the time last year) and his slider (28.2% of the time this season compared to 24.6% of the time last) more often. Those two changes have allowed Flaherty to see a decrease in his ERA and develop the confidence to throw both pitches for strikes.
In addition, Luke Weaver, who has experienced somewhat of a mixed bag of success since making his MLB debut during the 2016 regular season. Weaver finished the 2016 season with a 5.70 ERA over 36.1 IP before lowering it to a 3.88 ERA over 60.1 IP last year. So far this season, Weaver has a 4.41 ERA over 63.1 IP with a 3.74 FIP and a 1.25 WHIP. Furthermore, Weaver has 57 strikeouts so far this season compared to 45 during his rookie year in 2016, but that doesn't translate when you look at his strikeouts-per-9 rate of 11.1 compared to 8.1 for this season.
Although the numbers haven't necessarily worked out in Weaver's favor, he still possesses a tremendous ceiling and many believe that he will come into form within the next few seasons. After all, Weaver is still only 24 and hasn't quite reached his peak yet which gives some promise to the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans.
In the end, as they say, pitching wins championships and the St. Louis Cardinals certainly have a starting rotation talented enough to compete with the best of the best and give the Cardinals a legitimate shot at clinching a postseason berth and playing deep into October. Now, all of the ingredients have to come together to make that happen and if it does, this is likely one starting rotation that no team wants to face in the postseason.