Maybe it's because he finished with thoroughly unstriking numbers—4-4, 3.48, 6.6, 2.3, among other distinctly invisible stats—but I don't think I always remember just how much better Jake Westbrook was than usual after he joined the St. Louis Cardinals. It wasn't Brad Penny or Joel Pineiro turning into completely different pitchers after prolonged stints under Dave Duncan's eerie gaze, or Woody Williams becoming an ace just because, or even Todd Wellemeyer showing up briefly as a noteworthy member of the rotation. Westbrook was good before, and he was better after.
I think it has something to do with the state of the Cardinals' rotation last year. They'd started Blake Hawksworth and Jeff Suppan around Chris Carpenter immediately prior to the trade deadline, so Westbrook, a real, live starting pitcher, became a rotation anchor by default. In the offseason he became a free-agent rotation stabilizer—a pitcher who'd made five starts in 2008 and zero in 2009—again, by default.
But now that cooler heads have prevailed, and the Cardinals are starting Kyle McClellan and Kyle Lohse instead of a career reliever and a shaky, formerly average starter, it's worth looking at the way in which the Jake Westbrook the Cardinals saw in 2010 was unlike the one the Indians had seen since 2004. Namely, his realization that three strikes, when thrown to the same batter, result in an automatic out.
Dave Duncan must have been really disappointed about this one. A year after turning Joel Pineiro into Christy Mathewson and mere months after Brad Penny into the world's only flamethrowing junkballer, he got his hands on one of baseball's premier sinkerballers and proceeded to send Jake Westbrook's strikeout rate, under five for his career to that point, all the way up to 6.6.
Westbrook had never pitched quite like that before, even in his All-Star 2004. Over a full season 6.6 would top his previous K/9 career high by more than a full strikeout, and the 2.29 K:BB ratio would have been just the second time he'd ever pushed his strikeout to walk ratio over that middling milestone.
It would have also been only the second time he'd managed to avoid allowing more hits than innings pitched. Groundball pitchers are ostensibly able to avoid hard and damaging contact by way of their Duncan-issued sinker and cutter, but for all that grounder hoodoo—Westbrook's career GB:FB ratio is, at 1.45, almost double the MLB average—his career BAbip is .301, completely standard.
Westbrook allows an average number of hits on balls in play, and he allows a lot of balls in play. That extra strikeout, then, is a big deal—with an average number of balls going into play the advantages he does possess, consistently below-average line drive and extra-base hit rates, make him a good pitcher, instead of fighting his strikeout rate to make him an average one.
Westbrook's ugly first start was an aberration—he walked five batters a few times last season, but he usually gets a few GIDPs and weak ground balls out of the deal, and some help from the relievers. But throughout this season I'll be wondering whether we get the Jake Westbrook we expected, or the Jake Westbrook we came, almost passively, to expect.