The Cardinals finished April just one game over .500 and looking up at the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. As the offense struggled along, the pitching staff has kept the Cardinals afloat as the offense searched for its bearings. The staff has been steady at the top with Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha, as he did down the stretch and into the playoffs last season, has asserted himself as the Cardinals' clear number two starter. The Cardinals have had a decent amount of impressive tandems in their history, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton in 1969 leading the way, but they have never had two pitchers combine to have an April like the one Wainwright and Wacha just completed.
Cardinals' starters were second in the National League in April with a 2.48 ERA. Their 3.41 FIP, not as impressive as the ERA, is still a very good fourth place in the league. Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn and Tyler Lyons have put together solid performances, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha have been a rung above. In 81 1/3 innings pitched, the pair combined for 86 strikeouts against just 21 walks and three homers. Wacha's early-season ERA sat at 2.48 while Wainwright had a spectacular 1.20 ERA as April concluded. While Wainwright's ERA is unsustainable, it currently sits at 2.02 after last night's gem, rather than look forward, looking back can help bring about an appreciation for the month the Cardinals' top two pitchers just completed.
According to Baseball Reference, no Cardinals pitcher since Jesse Haines in 1927 has pitched at least 35 innings in the month of April and has had an ERA lower than Wainwright's 1.20. Lowering the innings level to 30 adds Woody Williams (1.09 in 2003) and Steve Carlton (1.16 in 1969). The Cardinals have had a handful of solid great Aprils from their pitchers, but to have two pitchers combine ace performances is rare. To narrow the field, I used the play index at Baseball Reference and looked at prior April statistics from Cardinals pitchers. I looked for pitchers who had at least 30 innings pitched, an ERA below three, and a strikeout to walk ratio of at least two.
The above parameters, when looking across the last one hundred years, do not control very well for era. Pitchers are striking out many more players now than they did in the past and the run environments have ebbed and flowed. As a result, I further narrowed the field by looking at the sOPS+ at Baseball Reference. sOPS+ plus takes the split (s), in this case April stats for that year, then looks at the OPS against for the pitcher, and then sets the scale to 100 (lower is better). I eliminated all pitchers with an sOPS+ above 75. Given the randomness of batted balls early in the season that can effect OPS, fWAR, which uses FIP, can control somewhat for that randomness. Eliminating all pitchers who did not have at least one win under fWAR left only three possibilities.
In 1969, Steve Carlton and Bob Gibson had incredible seasons. Carlton ended with an fWAR of 5.6 while Gibson nearly doubled that with 9.8, a figure only surpassed by six players since that time (seven if you include Gibson's 10.9 in 1970, a figure only surpassed three times in the last one hundred years). Gibson had an excellent April in 1969, putting up a 2.36 ERA in 42 innings, striking out a batter an inning against just 12 walks. It was not Carlton that had the excellent April that year, but Dave Giusti with a 1.93 ERA. April splits for fWAR were not available in 1969, but it is safe to assume both pitchers would be at or near an fWAR of one for the month. In addition to 1969 and 2014, the only other pair to meet the criteria set out above happened in 2010 when Brad Penny and Adam Wainwright had good first months of the season. (All stats from Baseball Reference with the exception of fWAR from Fangraphs).
While the duos in 1969 and 2010 had excellent Aprils, Wainwright and Wacha this season have the highest fWAR and the lowest average sOPS+ of the groups. They also combined for the most innings, although they did have the advantage of making the most starts. If Wainwright and Wacha continue this pace they will have the opportunity to be one of the best Cardinals' tandems in history. In the last one hundred years, there have been 38 Cardinals' seasons where the pitcher exceeded an fWAR of five (there have been 48 five fWAR seasons in the past five years so these are ace seasons), but to have two such players on the same team has been very rare for the Cardinals.
Only four times in the past one hundred years have two Cardinals pitchers exceeded five fWAR in the same season. The first time happened in 1944 when Mort Cooper (5.6) and Max Lanier(5.7) combined for 11.3 wins. In 1953, Harvey Haddix (6.0) and Vinegar Bend Mizell (5.7) put together ace seasons. Aside from the Cardinals greatest tandem ace season of Gibson and Carlton discussed above, the only other time the Cardinals had two great pitching seasons was 2009 when Adam Wainwright (5.3) and Chris Carpenter (5.2) competed for the Cy Young. Wacha and Wainwright have a long way to go to match those two seasons, but their starts keep alive the possibility.