With the Cardinals stagnant, inconsistent offense, the Cardinals starting rotation has proved the strength of the team over the first third of the season. After Jaime Garcia's excellent start Sunday, he lowered his ERA to 3.72 with a 3.73 FIP in 38 2/3 innings this season. If Garcia had enough innings to qualify for the ERA title (he's roughly 30 innings short), that would place him solidly in the middle of the pack among starters in the majors. For the Cardinals, however, his ERA places him last in the rotation with his FIP ahead of Shelby Miller. Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Lance Lynn have paced the Cardinals this season with all three in the top 25 in the National League in both FIP and ERA (Shelby Miller is 26th in ERA), but when a rotation starts this well it is reasonable to wonder how long the good times will last.
While the Cardinals have suffered injuries to Jaime Garcia, Joe Kelly, Tyler Lyons, and now Adam Wainwright, the rotation as a whole has been very durable. Each of the Cardinals top four starters heading into the season have more than 84 innings in 14 starts this year, making all of those pitchers good for an average just above six innings per start. Jaime Garcia has been equally impressive, also averaging more than six innings per start this season since making his season debut following shoulder surgery. Good starters make for a good bullpen, and the Cardinals' rotation has delivered thus far this season.
To examine whether the Cardinals' will continue their success as the season goes on, looking at preseason projections and rest-of-season projections can be helpful. Last week, a similar examination of the offense showed an underperforming group likely to get better as the season moves forward. The rotation is dealing with no such issues. The concern for the Cardinals is that the team will regress and the staff will move closer to their career averages than the performance they have provided thus far. From Fangraphs, here are the statistics the Cardinals have delivered up to this point as well as their preseason projections.
The Cardinals have outperformed their expected ERA by close to half a run thanks to Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha while the average FIP is pretty close to projections due to Shelby Miller's poor peripherals up to this point. Projections now have more information than they did before the season started so it can be instructive to see how, if at all, the projections have responded to this season.
The ERA number went up slightly, mostly due to concerns about Shelby Miller. FIP moved just a bit the other way, as the perceived improvements of Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha outweigh the step back Shelby Miller has taken. Miller has had an interesting season. He began the season with his ERA vastly outperforming his FIP and the difference is still visible in the chart above, but over his last eight starts his numbers have aligned. Covering fifty innings beginning May 5th, Miller has a solid 3.60 ERA and a 3.58 FIP, numbers not too far from his preseason projections. His strikeout rate is down, but he has limited home runs and still struck out more than twice as many hitters as he has walked during that time.
Here is a chart showing the Cardinals current statistics compared to the rest-of-season projections.
The Cardinals ERA is expected to go up compared to the fantastic first in the National League 3.05 ERA for all starters. The good news is that the team is still expected to put up excellent peripheral statistics according to the projected FIP numbers. One way for a team to outperform its peripheral numbers is to have excellent defense. The Cardinals currently boast the best defense in the league up this point. If those numbers continue, the Cardinals could continue to produce a lower ERA than might typically be expected.
The loss of Adam Wainwright would be a big blow to the Cardinals. He has been the best pitcher for the Cardinals, and arguably the best pitcher in baseball this season. Losing him for a start or two would be easy enough to withstand, but his production over the rest of the season could not be replaced. However, the season would be far from over if Wainwright were to go down. The Cardinals have a group of number two and number three starters, and Carlos Martinez (preseason and rest of season FIP and ERA are all around 3.80) can be projected as the same. Even if he or Joe Kelly, Tyler Lyons, or Tim Cooney could not produce at a high level the Cardinals have a stable of established pitchers at the front end to field an above average staff. With an improving offense, a very good defense, and an excellent rotation, the Cardinals are well-positioned to repeat as NL Central winners.