The St. Louis Cardinals are 13-8 in July. It's a good record, their first over-.500 month since April, but when I read it I was surprised to learn that it wasn't higher. It's not that the Cardinals have been charging up the standings, or anything, or that they've looked great all month, it's just that I didn't remember getting angry about baseball very much over the last three weeks, relatively speaking.
I think this might be why: Of the Cardinals' 13 wins so far, 10 of them have gone to starting pitchers. The pitcher win is an absurd stat, but large numbers of them can tell stories, or describe certain kinds of baseball and certain kinds of baseball seasons; this is what those wins say about the Cardinals in July:
1. The Cardinals actually had a lead early in the game. There's no use of the pitcher win that can avoid this fact: It means, most of all, that the other guys in the lineup drove in runs—more than the other team would score all game—while the starter was in the game.
This is, obviously, both relaxing and a recipe for success in baseball.
2. The starters pitched at least pretty well. This one, too—a pitcher can win 20 games in a million different ways, and starters can win 10 out of 13 games in even more permutations than that. That is, there's a stacked, dependable rotation like the one the Philadelphia Phillies had last year—a Hall of Famer and three guys with Hall of Fame peaks and a rookie of the year candidate—and there's a stacked, dependable rotation like the one the Cardinals had in 2004, which featured broken-down Matt Morris, erstwhile broken-down-ace Chris Carpenter, and Woody Williams as himself.
Very different rotations, and very effective; the Cardinals' staff won 72 games, the Phillies' 70. The strength of the Cardinals' staff that year was just that they always pitched, and they always pitched pretty well; they didn't have a rookie to break in or Roy Oswalt to accommodate. They always could win.
So I get why Al Hrabosky whines about the quality start on a regular basis, and it's true that 35 six-inning three-run quality starts would give a pitcher a distinctly below-average ERA. But a quality start, I think, is an attempt to define this characteristic of uncomplicated, pleasant baseball. It's the starter leaving the game and the score at least being close. It's Jeff Suppan baseball, and that's what the Cardinals have managed to play this month; it's why they're winning again, and why they might not be knocked around into trading for a starting pitcher.
Lance Lynn's been dominant—he's allowed one run in 19 innings, on 14 hits and five walks—but it's Kyle Lohse, with five starts, who's at the front of this July could-be-winning streak. He's got three wins, one no-decision that led to a win, and one no-decision loss, the 3-2 game against the Reds that Victor Marte blew.
All year he's been hovering just over the Jeff Suppan Baseball line; when he leaves the game and the Cardinals are down you think, well, they should win this one, not just they could. The difference between maybe and ought-to, I think, is the extra half-a-walk per nine innings he's cut from even his career years of 2008 and 2011. In July he's got five quality starts, none of which brushed up against three earned runs, and he's thrown seven innings four times.
A lot of this is by design; Lohse and Jake Westbrook, certainly, were brought in so that at their best they might toss a bunch of seven inning, two-run games in a row, and Lance Lynn at least began his prospect life with the same aspirations.
Some of it is luck, which is still worth worrying about—Joe Kelly's gone six innings a start, but I worry about his ability to keep doing it, let alone doing it effectively, once his BAbip creeps up, unless his walk rate creeps down. But the Cardinals are interested in keeping it up—their supposed interest in James Shields seems to point toward a desire to make this kind of stressless baseball easier to replicate.
These aren't the 2011 Phillies, but this is a pitching staff I can celebrate—the kind of pitching staff that makes you think about the offense scoring four runs and the game coming in a little bit under three hours, and not much else at all.