Good afternoon. Here’s Part Two of my look at the 2021 Cardinals, player by player. In the first installment I assessed each position player. In this chapter, we’ll review the relevant starting pitchers. In the next inspection, we’ll analyze members of the bullpen.
So let’s begin!
Adam Wainwright: The second greatest starting pitcher in franchise history had another age-defying season, going 17-7, pitching 206 and ⅓ innings and ranking 10th in the NL with a 3.05 ERA. When Waino started a game for the Cardinals this season the team’s winning percentage was .687. In all other games the team’s winning percentage was .523. The difference was even more profound from June 3rd until the end of the regular season; the Cardinals went 18-4 in Wainwright’s starts and were 41-43 otherwise.
Wainwright started the year at age 39 and ended it at age 40. In franchise history he’s third for most innings in a season by a pitcher age 39 and up. Pete Alexander pitched 268 innings in 1927 at age 40, then came back in 1928 with 243 and ⅔ innings at age 41. Wainwright is also second in team history for most wins in a season by a pitcher 39 or older; Alexander had 21 wins in 1927 at age 40.
Just a fantastic — and unique — 2021 season for Wainwright, who added to his legend.
Jack Flaherty: Including the May 31 outing in which he suffered a torn oblique, Jack was 8-1 with a 2.90 ERA in his first 11 starts of the season. Before suffering a torn oblique during his May 31 assignment at Los Angeles, Flaherty was 9-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 10 starts. After returning he was shut down again, this time by a shoulder strain. Over the final two months he appeared in only six games (four starts) and had a 4.41 ERA.
That makes two consecutive troubled seasons for Flaherty. His 2020 season never gained much traction and he’s pitched only 118 and ⅔ innings (with a 3.79 ERA) after his big 2018 breakout season.
Three thoughts: (1) the Cardinals really missed the max version of Flaherty this season — he would have made a world of difference; (2) hopefully he can put together a durable, dominating 2022; and (3) he’s at a stage of his career when he’s still young, but much is expected. So Flaherty must get his career back on track.
Miles Mikolas: After missing all of 2020 while recovering from forearm surgery, Mikolas had multiple interruptions on his way to full pitching health in 2021. The results were mixed: a 4.23 ERA in nine starts, but a better 2.45 ERA over his final three starts. What does it mean? I’m really not sure. I have no idea how to set expectations.
Mikolas was fabulous in his first season with St. Louis (2.83 ERA) but has compiled a 4.17 ERA and 4.30 FIP since then. He’s 33 and will turn 34 next August. The Cardinals will stick with him because Mikolas is due a guaranteed $31.5 million, total, over the next two seasons. The contract hasn’t paid off so far. But should we be, as they say, “guardedly optimistic?” I’d like to feel that way. But I can’t assume anything.
Kwang Hyun Kim: He couldn’t stay healthy in 2021, and his stamina weakened as the season went on. Kim had a 2.88 ERA as of July 27, but averaged only 4.9 innings per start. After that he had a 5.64 ERA in his final 22.1 innings. Kim really labored to hold it together but was pulled from the rotation. In his final 10 appearances, which included two starts, he allowed opposing hitters to bat .307 with a .386 OBP and .545 slug. That’s terrible, obviously. His contract is up, and I’d be surprised if he pitched for the Cardinals in 2022.
Johan Oviedo: There’s a lot to like about him. The size, the natural talent, the velocity, his willingness to listen and learn from the right people, including Adam Wainwright. But the results haven’t reflected his talent or his potential. The Cardinals gave him a great opportunity this season, and Johan couldn’t regulate his control. His 4.91 ERA was inflated by a horrendous 13 percent walk rate and 1.57 WHIP. He has swing-miss stuff, but only struck out 18% of hitters faced. All of the walks messed with his head and his confidence. Oviedo was dispatched to Triple A Memphis to sharpen his pitching — but only got worse down below with a 6.19 ERA and 12% walk rate in 54 innings. He’s 23, and even the idea of writing him off is ludicrous. Here’s hoping that Oviedo can clear his mind, and become the pitcher that he should be. If so, the Cardinals can look forward to having OV serve in a prominent role.
Carlos Martinez: We’ve seen this before, and in all sports. A young star, rising to the top of his profession, only to slip and have everything change for the worse. Blame it on injuries, blame it on fuzzy focus. Blame it on his distractions, and his lack of discipline while rehabbing injuries. Blame it on his inability to settle down and maximize his considerable talent.
Martinez has been a non-factor for three consecutive seasons — only 151 total innings — and his Cards career will end with a 5.23 in 16 starts for 2021. A broken finger ended his ‘21 season early. Now you have to wonder if his career is broken and cannot be repaired. He’s still only 30 years old, so there’s time.
Jon Lester and J.A. Happ: It was fun for them to be traded from also-ran teams to a weirdly mediocre team that was about to take off on a memorable run. And the two veteran lefties — with 75 birthdays, 31 big-league seasons, 779 big-league starts and 333 big-league wins — helped the Cardinals bust loose from the pack to earn the No. 2 NL wild card.
Lester had a 4.36 ERA in 12 starts — but a 3.40 ERA in his final 10 starts, with the Cardinals winning seven of the 10. Happ had a 4.00 ERA in 11 starts — but a snazzy 2.88 ERA in 10 starts if we give him a mulligan for a bad day in Cincinnati. As was the case with Lester, the Cards had a 7-3 record in Happ’s final 10 starts. This worked out very well — much better than any honest person expected. The old warhorses made an impact by steadying the rotation, yes. But their veteran presence inspired confidence for a team that struggled to overcome an unreliable rotation.
Wade LeBlanc: he belongs right there with Happ and Lester. He was the first lefty to arrive for an emergency rotation rescue. After a few relief appearances to tune up, LeBlanc made his first start for the Cardinals on June 28.
The lefty instantly delivered low-key but efficient pitching that was soothing for eyes made sore by watching so many damn walks. LeBlanc had a 3.61 ERA in eight starts, and never allowed more than three runs in an assignment. He was clicking with a 2.94 ERA in seven starts before suffering a season-ending elbow injury on Aug. 12 in Pittsburgh.
LeBlanc won’t be forgotten. From the time he made his first start until the end of the regular season, the Cardinals had the third-best rotation ERA in the majors (3.58) and went 53-31. He didn’t do all of that, of course. But this total pro, age 37, definitely played a significant role in reinforcing a rickety rotation.
Related question: What about 2022 for LeBlanc, Lester and Happ? Part of it is up to each pitcher, and their desire to give it a go in ‘22. If they choose to pitch, will they seek the best offer? Or do they want to reconnect with the Cardinals because of the fit?
The other part of this — of course — is up to the front office? Will John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch want any of the lefties back for 2022? If so, who and how many? It is simply too early to speculate.
Rotation fixtures and potential in-house candidates for next season:
Jake Woodford: The young righthander was one of the more underrated Cardinal pitchers in 2021. He started eight games and had a respectable 4.14 ERA. He relieved in 18 games and had a 3.82 ERA. The dugout staff was slow to embrace him as a starter but eventually turned to him in September.
In Woody’s final five starts of the season, he had a 3.04 ERA and the Cards went 4-1. He limited hard contact and line drives and leaned on his defense. Woodford got a load of fly balls during the final month (a rate of 46%), and the outfielders liked the action. In September, when Woodford coaxed a fly ball by a hitter, they got only three hits in 33 plate appearances. In other words: Woodford learned a lot about how to pitch instead of throw, and it made a difference. I would think this puts him in position to win a rotation spot next season. We’ll see.
Dakota Hudson: The righthander looked swell in his return from Tommy John elbow surgery. But there wasn’t much left in the season, so let’s consider his 8 and ⅔ innings and 2.08 ERA as a preview of coming attractions. That’s something to look forward to.
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.
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.