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Anatomy of a Start

The Cardinals find themselves in first place in the National League Central Division. They're a half game up on the Reds who were favored by most projection systems to win the division. The Cardinals hitting, lauded as a strength, has not been the catalyst for their success so far.

Jimmy Rollins laments the burrito he ate for lunch.
Jimmy Rollins laments the burrito he ate for lunch.
Rich Schultz

While the Cardinals find themselves tied for 4th in the National League overall, they remain alone atop the Central Division. The oddity of the Cardinals start in 2013 is not the success but the nature of the success. Coming into the season, the Cardinals strength was supposed to be their offense. A deep lineup with a roster that could sustain injuries and backfill with an equally capable player.

Instead, the Cardinals have found themselves heavily reliant on their less ballyhooed pitching staff. With just 17 games on record, the statistics for either pitchers or hitters are largely meaningless for projection when compared to the totality of each player's career. They do, however, describe the nature of the Cardinals start and it is not the start that most expected.

1). Yadier Molina is leading the team offense.

After a career high in 2012 where he posted a .375 wOBA, Molina again finds himself as a crucial cog in the offense. His regression has, thus far, been limited as he maintains the new plateau of power, which he discovered in 2011. The sustained offensive output is encouraging and the Cardinals may need Molina badly to play an outsized role for a catcher on offense again because, thus far, Molina leads all starting position players in wOBA.

With the exception of Matt Adams and a pass to Carlos Beltran who is hitting reasonably well, the Cardinals offense is currently on hiatus. Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter are at least hitting above league average. The next starter to be found is David Freese clocking in at a .284 wOBA. With players like Freese, Jon Jay, Allen Craig and Pete Kozma all hitting well below league average -- not to mention career norms -- the Cardinals offense is top heavy.

That isn't inherently a bad thing. The Cardinals offense has long been top heavy with its dependency on Albert Pujols. This was supposed to be a different team though. A team that had a more balanced attack. And it may still be that team. Freese, Jay and Craig are all hitting into some bad luck with cratering BABIPs. Those players should bounce back from their slow starts (and Matt Holliday should heat up after his routine slow start) to provide more depth to the lineup and support their star catcher.

As a whole, the Cardinals have seen a drop in their walk rate relative to 2012 (down from 8.4% to 6.7%) and their ISO (down from .150 to .137). This has put them in the bottom third of production (23rd with a .295 wOBA). When you walk less and hit for less power, that tends to happen.

2). Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller are dope.

It's a disservice to Wainwright not to put him in a category all his own right now. Over four games, Wainwright has pitched 29.1 innings, struck out 28 and walked 0. He has a 1.09 FIP. That ranks as the best FIP in the majors. Adam Wainwright is simply playing an another level right now.

Part of what makes Wainwright so enjoyable to watch is that he does all this with a fastball averaging 90.3 mph. He can still dial it up (he's hit 94 this season) but Wainwright's strength is that he throws at least 4 different pitches and likely more than that depending on how you divide his variety of fastballs. He's one of a few elite pitchers who throws their fastball less than 50% of the time.

Contrast that with teammate Shelby Miller who is off to a hot start himself. Miller's fastball has averaged 92.7 but he's eclipsed the 95mph threshold for his peak velocity. More to the point, Miller is incredibly reliant on his fastball throwing it over 70% of the time with his curveball being the predominant secondary pitch. Nonetheless, Miller has backed up Wainwright with a 2.75 FIP.

This has been about as good a start as one could have hoped for with Miller including an elite strikeout rate, good control and and the ability to get through the 6th inning (18.1 innings in his first three starts). Combine that with a seemingly (and shockingly) healthy Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn and the middle of the rotation has been strong. Both Lynn and Jaime have struggled with command but the Cardinals new found strikeout propensity has helped mitigate that.

The starting pitching has been a clear strength; even Jake Westbrook (who has an upside down K/BB ratio) has managed to keep runs off the board -- weather permitting.

3). The Cardinals made the right call for their bench.

Much of Spring Training was spent agonizing over the possible inclusion of Ronny Cedeno on the Cardinals roster. Another light hitting middle infielder amid a sea of light hitting middle infielders seemed remarkably unpalatable.

Matt Adams proceeded to upend that decision.

And the Cardinals took notice. After making the team, Adams has been perfect in three pinch hitting opportunities with a walk, a single and a home run. He's gotten 5 starts at first base and rewarded the Cardinals with the best offensive output of any player on the team.

Adams will never be a stellar first baseman but the bat, which has carried him through the minors and set records along the way, is clearly his calling card. Once the Cardinals hit interleague games, Adams will make it abundantly clear why the Cardinals kept him in the system and on the team.

No comment on Ty Wigginton.

4). Do we really need to talk about the relief pitching?

The Cardinals have the 12th ranked bullpen by FIP. The Cardinals have the 27th ranked bullpen by ERA. Mitchell Boggs, the titular closer, has an 8.64 ERA. Trevor Rosenthal has combined with Boggs to blow 4 saves in the young season. If the bullpen is going to be a strength, it is going to need a swift turn around by Boggs and improvement from the likes of Joe Kelly and Fernando Salas.

Some of this is bad luck. The relievers have been unlucky in stranding base runners especially relative to their strikeout rates. (Statistically, high strikeout pitchers strand more batters.)

It's always difficult to parse reliever performance and even more perilous to do so when the bullpen has thrown less than 50 combined innings. Thus far, however, they have not proven themselves adept at keeping runs off the board.

The Cardinals start has not been unexpected in its results so much as in its process. A stronger than expected pitching rotation with a weaker than expected lineup has flipped the script if not the punchline. The Cardinals we've seen in the first 10% of the season probably won't look like what we've seen in the next 90% -- or at a minimum, we shouldn't project them to do so. Then again, this is baseball.