In 2019 the Cardinals flapped their wings at the right time. They won 33 of their final 49 games to put an end to a three-year absence from the MLB postseason. Their 91-71 finish put them atop the NL Central for the first time since 2015.
Their starting pitching led the way back. After struggling a bit in the first half (4.33 ERA) the rotation kicked in and became the best in baseball down the stretch. Their overall second-half ERA (3.15) was second in the majors, but Cards starters saved their best for August and September. In going 33-16 in a closing stretch that began Aug. 9, the St. Louis rotation flipped the season with a superb 2.77 ERA that disarmed opponent lineups.
Stability was the key in 2019, with Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright and Dakota Hudson combining for 128 of the 162 starts. And if we include Michael Wacha’s 24 starts that season, as we should, the Cardinals had all but 10 of their 162 games started by five men.
I went back in time for a reason. If you have a consistent, stress-free rotation producing reliable assembly-line starts, anything is possible. The ‘19 Cardinals captured the division title despite ranking 10th in the NL in runs per game, 11th in OPS and 12th in slugging.
It’s possible to defeat Atlanta in the five-game NLDS and advance to the NL championship series by relying on your starters, who held the dangerous Braves to 10 earned runs in 30.3 innings. (It was not possible, however, to avoid being swept by Washington in the NLCS because of a rancid St. Louis offense that batted .130, struck out 48 times and scored six runs in four games.)
Now, let’s fast-forward to Spring Training 2021.
Of the five starters that made 93.8 of the Cardinals starts just two years ago, only Flaherty and Wainwright are present and viable right now.
Wacha moved on after 2019, pitching for the NY Mets in 2020 and signing with Tampa Bay for 2021. Hudson will almost certainly miss the 2021 season as he rehabs in the aftermath of elbow surgery.
Mikolas didn’t pitch at all in 2020, and underwent surgery to repair a flexor tendon in his right forearm. He was said to be ready to go for ‘21, but hasn’t thrown since Feb. 25. Mikolas is having his cranky right shoulder inspected by the medics today but at this point it’s foolish to assume that he’s fine and can be counted on to pitch in the near future. As is, Mikolas won’t be ready by the opening of the regular season.
That leaves Flaherty, Wainwright, K.K. Kim and Carlos Martinez. Kim had a 1.62 ERA in eight games (seven starts) in the shortened ‘20 season but isn’t exactly a fixture. He’ll have the chance to validate his rotation presence. Martinez has mostly pitched out of the bullpen since the second half of the 2018 season but seems primed for a reset in the rotation.
And it makes sense to go with Martinez for several reasons, including an obvious one: the Cardinals have a lot of arms but a dwindling number of options. This is not — repeat, not — shaping up as a replica of the 2019 rotation.
Cautious Cardinals management took a pass on Jake Odorizzi, who signed a two-year deal with Houston. It includes a third year in the form of a player option. The Astros’ rotation attrition prompted a rush to Odorizzi — but the Cardinals were never going to make an aggressive offer to Odorizzi, anyway.
Cautious Cardinals management has declined to sign or acquire a starting pitcher for 2021. Perhaps that will change, but as of Tuesday morning here’s the list of available free-agent starters: Rick Porcello, Cole Hamels, Anibal Sanchez, Homer Bailey, Jeff Samardzija, Zack Godley, Mike Leake and Edwin Jackson. (Please try to control your excitement.)
Cautious Cardinals management has also placed eternal prospect Alex Reyes in the limited-innings protection program for 2021. He’s been assigned to the bullpen. I understand management’s reasoning here; there’s no need to increase the risk of another Reyes breakdown. But bullpen duty isn’t easy. Not with multiple appearances each week, and emergencies that arise during games. Relief outings can be scheduled to an extent … but not as easily as setting a schedule for starting pitchers. The Cardinals want to schedule Reyes to start — but in 2022.
The next man up is John Gant. Unless he sets off alarm bells with performance or physical problems, Gant figures to grab the No. 5 spot in the rotation. But other candidates in the hopper include Daniel Ponce de Leon, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo.
For now I’m going to focus on Gant because he’s first in line. And it makes sense to look at his 2018 season, because it’s most relevant to the present set of circumstances.
For multiple reasons including injuries, turmoil required the 2018 Cardinals to use 11 pitchers as starters. They had seven pitchers start at least 11 games: Mikolas, Flaherty, Martinez, Wacha, Luke Weaver, Austin Gomber and Gant.
The 2020 Cardinals could be heading that way, with management and the dugout staff scrambling to deal with turmoil. We’ll see.
The right-handed Gant made 19 starts in 2018. Despite Gant’s fine 3.61 ERA as a starter, the Cardinals went 8-11 in his 19 assignments.
There was a lot to like: Gant’s 3.61 ERA ranked 40th among 128 MLB starters who worked at least 97 innings in 2018. Opponents batted .219 against Gant with a .312 onbase percentage and low .344 slugging percentage. He kept the ball in the yard, allowing an average of 0.7 homers per nine innings. And Gant was effective against LH batters; they hit .212 against him with a .674 OPS.
On the downside: Gant lasted fewer than five innings in eight of his 19 starts and logged 6+ innings in only five starts.
The problem: Not enough strikeouts. Too many walks. Gant had a strikeout rate of 19.6 percent, and a walk rate of 11.6%. The walks rapidly inflated Gant’s pitch counts and prevented him from working deeper into games. A high walk rate is part of the Gant profile. Starter, reliever, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Here’s all we need to know about that: since Gant came to the Cardinals in 2017, his walk rate of 12.1% is the fifth-highest among 211 MLB pitchers that worked at least 212 innings over that time. And his strikeout-walk ratio of 1.7 is tied for the 10th worst among the 211 pitchers.
When Gant starts, have the bullpen ready before he takes on a lineup for the third time in a game: when Gant runs out of gas, the tank empties quickly. manager Mike Shildt and pitching coach Mike Maddux surely are aware of this. But when Gant made his 19 starts in 2018 here’s what happened as he made his way through the other team’s lineup the first, second and third time.
- 1st time through: 2..53 ERA, .191 batting average, .571 OPS.
- 2nd time through: 3.03 ERA, .236 average, .662 OPS.
- 3rd time through: 8.04 ERA, .254 average, .857 OPS.
Opponents had a .275 onbase percentage against Gant the first time through; the OBP was .365 in the third excursion. Same with the slugging percentage: .296 first time thru; .492 the third time. When Gant faced hitters the third time, his strikeout rate plummeted to 15 percent, with a 13.5% walk rate.
What about the bullpen? Wouldn’t that be better for Gant? Well, it depends. Gant pitched well in relief last season, with good numbers (except for the walks) in his 15 innings. But there is a pattern: Gant is an excellent reliever until the innings pile up.
Gant’s 2019 season was a glaring example.
- First 34 relief appearances: 1.54 ERA, .147 batting average, .448 OPS, 25.3% strikeout rate, 6.8% walk rate.
- Final 30 relief appearances: 7.11 ERA, .313 batting average, .881 OPS, 18.6% strikeout rate, 19.5% walk rate. That’s right; Gant had more walks than strikeouts over his final 30 relief stints.
Despite the obvious evidence of burnout — Gant’s best pitches (sinker and changeup) became very hittable, and he abandoned the slider — Shildt kept running him out there. Gant had a 9.64 ERA over his final 13 relief gigs of the regular season and was excluded from the 2019 postseason roster.
Lessons? As a starter, beware of Gant’s third-time exposure to the opposition lineup. And as a reliever, be careful to avoid wearing him out.
Thanks for reading…
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