While Matt Carpenter’s two-run triple received most of the postgame attention, it wasn’t the most important facet of Monday’s 5-3 win by the Cardinals at San Francisco.
What mattered more than anything was the excellent start by Kwang Hyun Kim. Outperforming Giants ace Kevin Gausman, K.K. pitched seven shutout innings and was nicked for only three hits and two walks by a Giants offense that ranks 2nd in the NL in average runs per game (4.92.)
Kim’s determined effort kept this standoff scoreless through six innings, giving the Cardinals an opportunity to spring a late surprise on Gausman and the Giants.
Gausman may have taken a no-hitter into the seventh, but the Cardinals were able to get to him. Kim? He didn’t crack. The Giants had eight plate appearances with runners on base Monday and Kim gave them nothing. Not a base hit. Not a walk. Not a hit batter. Nothing.
Kim’s performance continued a mini-streak of superb pitching by St. Louis starters. Over the last 10 games the Cards rotation ranks 9th in the majors with a 3.34 ERA. It’s been even better (1.79) over the last eight games.
Say what you want about the quality of the Cards’ recent opponents leading into the San Francisco series (Pirates, Diamondbacks, Rockies), but desperate teams need positive results — without the nitpicking.
Going forward, starting pitching is the team’s most crucial area. But you may be thinking: hold on, now big fella. What about the St. Louis offense that strains to score runs? Isn’t that a more consequential factor? You can’t win by scoring no more than two or three runs in a high percentage of your games.
Well, I agree with the second part; the low-scoring STL offense is a burden. But the Cardinals can pitch around that and have a chance to rebound from two months of losing baseball.
The Redbirds may not have much of a chance. As is, it’s slim. But for the Cardinals to lurch back into contention, their starting pitching must be resolute. Is that reasonable? Probably not. But it is the reality, with or without the timely return Jack Flaherty … and the bonus return of Miles Mikolas.
That makes starting pitching the most essential attribute for a flawed team. If the offense continues to sniffle and cough and gasp, the Cardinals must be rigid in preventing runs. Otherwise, there is no way out from the pile of weak lumber that’s kept the Cardinals down.
And come to think of it, even if the Cardinals surprise us by evolving into a more explosive offense, the procession of runners crossing home plate wouldn’t mean much if the starting pitching collapses. The 2016 Cardinals ranked 5th in the majors in runs scored per game but finished 14th in the majors at preventing runs.
If the Cards have a low-scoring offense that cannot be fixed, then it’s up to the pitchers — especially the starters — to compensate by suppressing the other team’s hitters. This may not be fair, but it’s St. Louis baseball in 2021. Can’t score many runs? OK, then give up fewer runs. If your guys score three, then allow two. And so on.
That’s always been the most reliable formula for winning. Some things about baseball never seem to change. Starting pitching backed by a solid bullpen, is the most reliable of all baseball hallmarks.
Let’s return to 2015.
The 2015 Cardinals won 100 games despite a lethargic offense that ranked 23rd in slugging, 25th in homers and 26th in average runs per game.
How in the world did that group go 100-62 and hold off the Pirates (98 wins) and Cubs (97) in the NL Central? Well, 2015 pitching staff was mean and miserly … and freakish in the ability to strand runners on base. And the starters led the way.
The Cardinals permitted only 3.24 runs per game, best in the majors. The ‘15 Cards ranked 1st in rotation ERA (2.99) and 3rd in bullpen ERA, 2.82.
Their total runs allowed (525) were the fewest yielded by a major-league team in a 162-game season during the post-expansion era (1961-present.)
That parsimonious St. Louis pitching staff allowed four runs or fewer in 115 of 162 games, winning 89 and losing 25.
In 2015 MLB teams averaged 4.25 runs per game, a standard that St. Louis batters struggled to hit. The ‘15 Cardinals scored four runs or fewer in 109 of 162 games. Only Atlanta, with 112, had more below-average scoring games than the Cardinals that year. But the Cardinals’ strong arms held the other side down to win 53 of the 109 games.
That may not sound like much, but the 53 victories when scoring four or fewer runs led the majors that season — as did the .486 winning percentage. No other team was even close; the Cubs were next with 40.
When the 2015 pitching staff received exactly 3 or 4 runs of support in a game, the Cardinals went 42-21. And because of the stringent pitching, the Cards were 9-8 when scoring exactly two runs in a game. That’s just crazy. And really, really, good.
In the 100 games won by the 2015 Cardinals their starting pitchers had a preposterously low 2.06 ERA. The rotation was led by John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia. (Adam Wainwright started only four games in 2015 before suffering a ruptured achilles.)
“Scoring a lot of runs is great — but just scoring runs is not a successful plan over the course of the season,” Matt Carpenter said at the end of the ‘15 regular season. “You have to play tight defense and save runs. You have to pitch well, and limit the runs scored by your opponents. Do that enough, and you can win a lot of close games, and you can lead the league in victories.”
I would be loony to suggest that the 2021 Cardinals could come close to matching the run-prevention brilliance we witnessed in 2015. But the 2021 starters don’t have to be historically good. They just have to be good. Consistently good. And that will be a difficult challenge for Adam Wainwright’s rotation mates including Kim, Johan Oviedo, Carlos Martinez, and Wade LeBlanc.
After winning Monday at Oracle Park, the Cardinals are 42-44 on the season.
With that in mind, consider the value of quality starting pitching. If a team gets a positive start, it can overcome its own negative offense.
⟹ In their 42 wins this season, the Cardinals have an exceptional starting-pitcher ERA of 2.30.
⟹ In their 44 losses, the starter ERA is a dreadful 6.46.
⟹ When the Cardinals benefit from a starting-pitcher Game Score of 50 or higher, their record is 34-16.
⟹ When their starting-pitcher Game Score is below average (49 or worse) the Cardinals are 8-28.
⟹ What about all pitching, starters and relievers and the total runs allowed in a specific game? OK. When the Cardinals as a team yield no more than five runs in a game this season, they’re 39-21. If they give up more than five runs in a game, they’re 3-23.
It’s hardly a lightning-bolt of enlightenment for me to point out the obvious — hey, good pitching helps you win! — but my intent is to quantify the impact.
And in doing so with the 2021 Cardinals, I think it reveals just how many more games this team can win on the strength of above-average pitching from starters. And for sure, the relievers figure into this too. But the bulk of the foundation is set by starting pitching.
Effective starting pitching can compensate for an ineffective offense. The numbers show that, and prove that. And this applies to the 2021 Cardinals.
Even if their offense drags, the Cards will win more often if the rotation pitches well more often. K.K. Kim highlighted the lesson on a gorgeous Monday afternoon in San Francisco.
Thanks for reading!
(More on the way) …
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For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.