A big part of the Cardinals’ late-season turnaround is the calming of the starting rotation. Which, of course, coincided with the arrivals of Jon Lester and J.A. Happ at the July 30 trade deadline.

Wade LeBlanc was first on board, debuting in the rotation in late June. But his season was terminated by a damaged elbow; LeBlanc hasn’t pitched since Aug. 12 after working only eight innings for the month.

The Cardinals were marred by a sequence of starting-pitcher injuries to Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Kwang Hyun Kim and Carlos Martinez. The worst of it began in June, and the Cardinals struggled to stay upright in the standings.

In June and July, the Cardinals went 22-28 and ranked 16th in the majors and 10th in the NL with a rotation ERA of 4.63. With the rotation broken, much of the burden shifted to a wild, walk-plagued bullpen, and the Cards had an overall ERA of 4.48.

Their worst pitching came during the first five innings of games with a 5.23 ERA that ranked 23rd in the majors for June-July. It’s difficult to win when the staff is so thin, getting into trouble early in games, and frequently strained by stress from the beginning to the end.

The front office added relievers Luis Garcia and T.J. McFarland in July, and Lester and Happ made their first starts for the Cardinals over the first few days of August. That’s when the rotation began to settle down. A more stable cast of starting pitchers — accompanied by the reliable arms of Garcia and McFarland — made it possible for manager Mike Shildt to reset his bullpen and put relievers in custom-fit roles.

The Cardinals stopped scrambling and began pitching better in all stages of the game. Since Aug. 1 the Cardinals rank fifth in the majors with a 3.70 ERA in the first five innings of games, and have a 3.45 ERA (7th) from the sixth inning on.

Overall since Aug. 1 the Cardinals have a 3.56 ERA that’s fourth in the majors. Their rotation ERA (3.68) ranks fourth, and the bullpen ERA (3.39) is fifth. And with the pitching firmed up and giving the Cardinals the best performance across any two-month period of their season, their record has improved accordingly. Having a booming offense obviously helps too.

Since Aug. 1 the Cards’ 35-17 record is No. 3 in the majors behind the Dodgers (37-13) and Giants (37-15.)

For the remainder of this column, I’m going to put the bullpen aside and focus on the starters.

In the context of present-day trends and philosophies, the St. Louis rotation is an unusual mix for several reasons. And to reflect the additions of Lester and Happ, I’m using only the statistics since Aug. 1.

The Cardinals have been going with a rotation of Adam Wainwright, Happ, Jake Woodford, Mikolas and Lester, and they represent the bulk of these stats. If the Cardinals make it to the wild-card game and advance from there, Flaherty could reenter the rotation.

Here’s why the current STL rotation is different than just about every other rotation in the majors:

Jul 6, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (50) pitches the ball against the San Francisco Giants during the second inning at Oracle Park. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

1) Three starters are age 37 or older: Wainwright, Lester and J.A. Happ. They’ve made 52 starts for the Cardinals this season. The other 29 MLB rotations — combined — have 52 starts from pitchers 37 or older. But that’s misleading;  seven of the “starts” were made by older relievers that were given the baseball to handle the first inning or two in a bullpen game. The Cards legitimately have 52 starts from starting pitchers age 37 and up.

2) Cards starters have been hit for an overall contact rate of 82.5 percent, highest in the majors.

3) When they throw strikes, the contact rate on pitches in the zone is 88.9 percent — highest in the majors. I mean, wow.

4) Naturally the STL starters have the lowest swinging-strike rate (8%) by a big-league rotation since Aug. 1.

5) And in a related note, the STL starters have the lowest strikeout rate — only 16.2 percent! — in the majors since Aug. 1.

6) The Cardinal starting pitchers have an average fastball velocity of 90.9 mph since Aug. 1. That’s the lowest in the majors — but hey, at least Woodford and Mikolas can crank it up to 93, 94 mph.

There are a few other things that you should know.

The Cards starters limit hard contact; the hard-hit rate against them since Aug. 1 is 35.4%, which is tied for the fifth-lowest figure in the majors.

Opposing hitters may have alarmingly high contact rate against Cardinal starters, but that doesn’t mean they’re connecting at the sweet spot. The 7.5% barrel rate against Cards starters since Aug. 1 is tied for 10th-lowest in the majors. And the average exit velocity against STL starters (88.2 mph) is the eighth-lowest. And the fellas do a good job of keeping the ball in the yard; the starters have yielded the seventh-lowest home-run rate since Aug. 1.

You want to make contact? Well, the St. Louis starting pitchers will make it easy for you. They aren’t exerting themselves in the pursuit of strikeouts; not with 90 mph fastballs. So you will make plenty of contact. You will not swing and miss very often. You will have a low strikeout total. You will put many, many baseballs in play. That’s the good news.

But there’s the other side of the baseball …

When you face the St. Louis starting pitchers, you will make a high percentage of soft or medium contact. You won’t barrel up many pitches. Hitting homers won’t be easy.

And worst of all, when you swing and put all of those balls in play, you will encounter the St. Louis defense. It’s second in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved, and first in the majors in Outs Above Average.

The Cardinals’ men with the gloves have converted 71.5% percent of batted balls in play into outs this season, the second-best defense efficiency rating in the majors. That goes a long way in explaining why STL starting pitchers have given up the second-lowest batting average on balls in play (.256) since Aug. 1.

The Cardinals’ starters are pitch-making slicksters, and this is why I appreciate them so much. They aren’t worried about inflating their own egoes by seeing how hard they can throw a fastball. They have no desire to keep up with the current generation of wild-boy throwers that obsess over high-velocity readings of 95 miles per hour and higher.

Too many velocity-charged throwers don’t know how to pitch. really no how to pitch. Their wicked velocity can overwhelm batters, yes. And some of these dudes will last for a surprisingly long time before they break. But what happens if the 95+ mph fastballs fade? What happens when the intimidation factor goes? How will you keep hitters from knocking you around?

Are you capable of evolving into a Wainwright, Lester or Happ by continuing to make changes and altering your approach in ways that keep you viable and effective? Lester and Happ figured this out — again — after joining the Cardinals at their world-famous pitching institute, headed by Dr. Yadier Molina.

“I think that’s buying into the changes I need to make or needed to make,” Lester said after a recent start. “You feel uncomfortable because it’s not what you’ve done. You just have to buy in and try to execute pitches.”

Smart man. Because when the fastball no longer frightens anyone, and you don’t have a backup plan, and you aren’t fortunate to have a great defense behind you — as the Cardinals do — then you’re likely headed for hard times.

“We’ve done a really good job of modifying our staff a little bit to create a little bit more of an advantage — to take advantage of our advantage, our defense,” Shildt said recently. “You prepare for the black and the white. Then the season starts, the games start, and the gray takes place. You adapt and adjust.”

It’s interesting — and a whole lot of fun — to see the Cards’ starters defy the present norms with their low-power fastballs, 17% strikeout rate, miniscule swing-miss rates, and messing with bewildered hitters who don’t know what’s coming or what to do with it. That leads to all of the soft contact, easy ground balls, soft line drives, or routine fly balls.

There’s still room in this game for the art of pitching, and three old pitchers in St. Louis are happy to show you how it’s done. But these guys will also tell you they’d be having a more difficult time without the substantial aid provided by this defense.

The evidence can be seen in the difference between the standard ERA and the fielding-independent ERA, aka FIP. Since Aug. 1, the STL starters’ differential between their baseball-card ERAs and FIP is the widest in the majors at minus 0.82 runs.

Their FIP is 4.50, compared to their defense-assisted 3.68 ERA. Lester has the most significant gap, with a 4.13 ERA and 5.30 FIP.

That tells us something: There’s a lot to be said for letting your exquisite defense make outstanding plays behind you. If you can’t muscle pitches by hitters, then you can coax the hitters into slapping the ball into the vast defensive trap set afield.

That’s also part of the art of pitching, and it hasn’t been lost in St. Louis.

Thanks for reading …


Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.

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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.


Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.