[Note: Through some scheduling mishap this post was set to go live on June 15 instead of June 14. I caught the problem, but not until bgh posted a replacement. Bonus VEB follows.]
Kyle Lohse has been the best pitcher on the St. Louis Cardinals for two-and-a-half months, now, and the rotation hasn't been terrible. That is, itself, a major victory for a team whose rotation felt a little thin going into this season primarily because Kyle Lohse was penned in at the fifth spot. In spite of his recent slide he's been almost exactly as good this year as he was terrible last year; per Baseball Reference he's at 2.6 WAR today and -2.6 in 2010, throwing 90 innings in each year despite taking five fewer starts to do it in 2011.
But the fact remains: Through 13 games, he's been the most effective pitcher in the Cardinals' rotation. For the first month or so it made this team feel weirdly invincible; if Lohse looks this great, what's the worst that could happen? After a while, though, that started to feel stale—now I've moved on to worrying. If Lohse looks this great, what's going to happen when he doesn't?
I've ended this week's Lohse Cycle feeling basically decent about the Cardinals rotation, its recent struggles aside. Here's why:
Chris Carpenter's doing what he did last year and not catching a break for it. If you only had Chris Carpenter's Baseball-Reference page to go on it would be hard to spot the significant decline in offense we've seen so far this year. His strikeout and walk rates are basically identical to last year's marks, his home run rate has begun to moderate, and the result has been two more hits per nine innings and an ERA that makes him, in this environment, a replacement-level pitcher.
His May was comically unfair, some minor god of baseball's petty revenge on Voros McCracken—Carpenter improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 32:9, allowed just two home runs in six starts, and his ERA went up by a full run from his April numbers, hitting 5.12. He allowed 56 hits in 38 innings.
I don't expect Carpenter to go into John Tudor mode for the remainder of the season—this season will probably go into his entry in the encyclopedia looking strange, if not as strange as it does now—but if current trends continue Carpenter will be striking out every batter he faces and somehow posting an ERA of undefined by August. The rotation we see now is dragged down by Carpenter's ineffectiveness, and Carpenter's ineffectiveness is unexplainable.
Jaime Garcia is doing even more than he did last year, and has caught every break but one for it. I don't normally do this kind of thing, but if you turn Garcia's full-on blowup against the Rockies into a regular bad start (I gave him three innings and five earned runs, instead of 11) his ERA is 2.42; his FIP is 2.60, which is why that might not feel as far-fetched as his 2.70 ERA did last year.
Last year Garcia looked like a good pitcher and got results like a great pitcher; now the stats, the peripherals, and the experience of watching him are all in agreement. He's 24-going-on-25 and another year removed from elbow surgery and a major increase in innings pitch, which means he's less terrifying than he used to be. Like Wainwright before him he's earned the highest honor a pitcher, in this post TINSTAAPP world, can receive: We can take him for granted, right until the moment we can't anymore.
Kyle McClellan and Jake Westbrook—No idea. From McClellan, Westbrook, and their possible replacements—mostly Lance Lynn at this point—I think we can reasonably hope for at least one average or above-average half-season's worth of starts. It's a disappointment after the Cardinals paid retail for league-averageness from Jake Westbrook, but he and McClellan are united in their inability to avoid contact and their capacity for pissing off Chris Carpenter every time he looks at the decision line in the box score. I'm glad McClellan's keeping his walks in line, and I'm glad Westbrook's groundball rate is as good as ever, but at some point adequacy is going to require a second trick of both of them.
Two solid starters and three question marks isn't great, but it's exactly where the team was heading into the season—and two months in the starters have outperformed our admittedly meek expectations for them. If Lohse is still a candidate to fall apart down the stretch, it's taken him two months, and in the meantime he's more than made up for Westbrook's mediocrity; if Carpenter and McClellan have briefly switched places there's at least the inkling that Carpenter will eventually be Carpenter and McClellan might still be something more than McClellan.
In its particulars this rotation inspires more undirected dread than most with an ERA of 3.88, which is just a little above average. But the results have been at least what we expected in aggregate, and nothing specific has happened so far to make me any less optimistic about the rotation than I was in April. If anything, I'm more optimistic, because Kyle Lohse didn't catch fire in his first start, or his second, or his thirteenth.