On Starting Pitchers

Jason Arnold

After a frustrating start from Jake Westbrook where he was bested by Reds' rookie Tony Cingrani, there's some interesting parallels to be drawn with another Cardinals starter.

After taking the night to sit and watch the game between the Reds and Cardinals in an uninterrupted fashion, I found myself wildly disappointed. Bunting in early innings, egregious walks by Jake Westbrook and a second tier relief corps that looked eminently hittable. Some of that is forgivable -- everyone's second tier relief corps are going to suck from time to time -- and some of it is consistent tactical errors -- all of the bunts -- but the Cardinals also outpitched in a general sense that led to a rather sour overall game.

It's hard to complain about Jake Westbrook too much given his reasonable contract and role on the team. Westbrook needs to go out and "keep the team in the game" on any given night. There's no expectations for complete games or massive strikeout numbers or dominance. Westbrook is the quintessential innings eater. He's battled injuries in 2013 and has generally been less effective than previous seasons. With a 4.37 FIP, he's pitching like a replacement level player.

To the extent that the Cardinals have needed stability, even the intermittent variety a sometimes injured Westbrook provides, he's done his job in a season that saw the total loss of Chris Carpetner and Jaime Garcia. It's certainly not obvious that a young player like Michael Wacha or Tyler Lyons could seamlessly reporduce Westbrook's performance. But Westbrook's contract will be up at the end of the season (there's a mutual option for 2014) and the team should think long and hard about a re-sign. In addition to his tepid performance, he's lost velocity off his already marginal sinker.

A rotation of Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly certainly could use another consistent performer but the Cardinals also have a host of players on the verge of being available for major league duty including the forementioned Garcia, John Gast, Lyons, Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Whether that justifies another $8.5M of Jake Westbrook should be a difficult decision for someone though the Cardinals have consistently shown themselves to err on the side of caution and re-sign the veteran for depth as much as performance.

But, I'm ahead of myself. 2014 rotation aside, there was another interesting aspect to last night's game that was playing out of the Reds. Tony Cingrani has a 92 mph fastball that he throws a whopping 80% of the time. He follows that up with a breaking ball (curve or slider depending on which pitch system you ask) and an occasional changeup. If that sounds familiar, it should Cingrani is the Reds version of Shelby Miller.

Miller mixes in that second pitch with a higher frequency but with almost 75% of his pitches being a fastball, variety is not something that Miller exceeds at right now. Typically, this kind of repertoire is better suited to the bullpen but both Cingrani and Miller have excellent fastballs that let them defy the odds.

At 22 (Miller) and 24 (Cingrani) there's nothing to say that they won't develop a more efficacious third pitch as the opposition demands. If they want to be elite pitchers, it's probably something they'll have to do. A quick look at the top 30 pitchers in the league by FIP this year (100 IP min) reveals very few two pitch pitchers. To be more specific, here's a list of pitchers in the top 30 that throw two pitches for 90% of their offerings:

  • AJ Burnett - #13 - 3.06 FIP - FB 60.8%, CB 33.5%
  • Shelby Miller - #16 - 3.09 FIP - FB 73.6%, CB 21.0%
  • Justin Masterson - #23 - 3.25 FIP - FB 72.2%, SL 27.6%
  • Bartolo Colon - #25 - 3.29 FIP - FB 84.6%, SL 9.4%

That's a pretty short list but obviously not one that says player's can't survive with that kind of repertoire at all. One of the limitations of the dataset is the lack of granularity regarding the type of fastballs. Former minor league pitching coach Dyar Miller was fond to point out that a fastball at the knees and a fastball at the shoulders might be the same pitch on paper but they certainly didn't feel the same to hitters. Miller is the kind of player, with good control and a 93 mph fastball, that can give a hitter very different looks with just a single pitch. He's not the same kind of pitcher as, say, Justin Masterson who is a sinker baller through and through.

Again, Miller is 22 and Cingrani is 24. Clearly they are both having success as rookies in 2013. Clearly they both have time to adapt and grow as players. While much of the focus for Miller will be whether he can develop his changeup into a more potent weapon, it's worth noting that more than one pitcher has picked up the cutter after joining St. Louis to tremendous effect. The Cardinals love the cutter.

If you go back to that leaderboard and toss out the second pitch and just look at players who are reliant on their fastball, you'll find Bartolo Colon (he of the stem cells and steroids) as well as Miller and Masterson as pitchers who throw their fastball 70+% of the time. There's one other name on the list that fits that bill too. It just happens to be today's St. Louis starter, Lance Lynn. Game time is 12:10 CT.

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