The Cardinals have the best starting staff in the majors right now (prior to yesterday's game) with their starters accumulating 66 RAR. They've recorded a 2.97 ERA to date and a 3.59 FIP. That FIP trails only the Padres and I'm inherently mistrustful of pitching stats in PETCO as I was of hitting stats from the 90s in the Rockies ballpark.
With the #2 (Garcia), #4 (Wainwright) and #20 (Carpenter) ERAs in the majors, only the Yankees have more than one pitcher in the top 20 with the #15 & #16 slot. The Cardinals have assembled an impressive collection of defenders and pitchers but time and again, as evidenced by Wainwright's first complete game shutout on Friday, it comes back to the troika of those three starters as they scythe through the league.
With the exception of Carpenter allowing an unusual level of HRs, that is one dominant trio of starters. Wainwright and Carpenter combine that ability to shut down the opposition with the ability to go deep into games. Carpenter is averaging just under 7 IP a game with Wainwright averaging 7.1 IP. They have to be considered a significant part of why the bullpen has been as good as it's been this year and can absorb outings like Ottavino's 5 IP yesterday to pitch 6 innings.
As Jaime Garcia continues to emerge this season, there seems to be some confusion about why he's this good and why no one recognized it in the minors. I consider myself among the group that's somewhat surprised by how good he's been thus far though I thought he could be more than a simple innings eater. In the minors, control was an issue. While that hasn't been corrected (he's still walking nearly 4 batters per 9 IP), the command of pitches has been very much improved.
If Garcia has a weakness thus far in the majors, it's been right handers who, unsurprisingly, strike out less and walk more often. Garcia's weakest pitch is his changeup and the curveball, both of which are key weapons against opposite handed hitters. The curveball in particular can be better than what we've seen so far this year. It was, by far, his best pitch when I saw him in minors. To wit, Garcia was actually better against right handers throughout the minors.
Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the most valuable of them all? If you want an estimation of how things have corrected themselves on the team as of late, your most valuable position players are Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday according to Fangraphs WAR. There's an argument to be made for Rasmus depending on how you want to value his defense (UZR is displeased currently though +/- is more neutral) but the point stands in large part. The Cardinals brought Holliday on to be a substation part of this offense and he's done that. With the additions of Colby and David Freese (.370 wOBA), the offense has a healthy collection of superstars and well above average offensive players.
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Back to yesterday's game for a moment. Adam Ottavino pitched reasonably well across 5 innings culminating in a questionable decision to remove him in the 6th. For various reasons, I think that was a defensible decision. 1) He had struggled through the previous two innings needing 20+ pitches in the 4th and the 5th to finish off the inning. 2) He was coming up against a pair of left handers (Fielder and Edmonds) who should be susceptible to a LOOGy.
Aside from that though, I want to show a couple of interesting graphs from his game yesterday. The first pitch is simply the clusters of pitch types - fastball, changeup, slider. The second shows the outcome of those pitches - strike, ball, in play.
Take a look at the fastball cluster. Besides the fact that he's throwing quite a few of them (over 66%), they're getting put in play often as well. The changeup is fairing better with just thee of 15 in play and a healthy number of them going for strikes. The other noteworthy item is the lack of sliders. Ottavino has long been billed as a fastball/slider pitcher, leading some to believe he should be in the pen, but he's thrown considerably more changeups in yesterday's game. It's likely nothing more than a blip (the slider was more prevalent in his first outing) but I'm curious to see how the slider is used moving forward.
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Tomorrow is the Rule IV draft and the Cardinals will have the chance to restock a weak farm system. At pick 25, there are too many unknowns to do more than guess at who the actual pick will be. We can say with some certainty that the team has some players it likes but whether those players will reach the Cardinals is a huge unknown.
Admitting that uncertainty, I'd peg three players as the most likely outcome for Monday. They are Austin Wilson, Matt Harvey and Stetson Allie . For the Cardinals to get Wilson, my personal favorite, they'll need to have the feeling that they can sign him and they'll need about a dozen other teams to be unwilling to take on that risk. If Wilson falls out of the first round, it's entirely about signability and whether a team thinks they can offer him enough to keep him from going to college. There's really no way to be angry if they don't pick Wilson and they or someone else does.The pitchers are a pair of power arms, the former in college the latter in high school. Both have command issues but feature the raw stuff and velocity that get teams excited.
The draft is, unfortunately, heavy in pitching this year. Pitching is extremely difficult to predict and, historically, those picks have the lowest rate of return. With the Cardinals having three top 50 picks this is something of bad timing given the composition of their system right now. The farm system has a significant number of arms in the minors that project well and are performing well particularly the Quad Cities staff led by Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly. The position players throughout the system are quite the opposite with a large contingent of fringe role players and toolsy players who aren't producing.
Expect some additional vague statements about the Cardinals' intentions for Monday. The truth is that they're an extremely tight lipped club and the media has difficulty predicting them or eliciting meaningful information. But that's part of what makes it so fun.