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St. Louis Cardinals rotation: John Lackey and the dead arm you know versus the one you don't

The Cardinals' recent history of zombified arms gives reason for concern regarding John Lackey.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The term "dead arm" isn't a medical one. You won't find it in a medical text book as an orthopedic diagnosis made only of baseball pitcher's arms. It's more a term of art, used by Baseball Men, in the dog days of summer and infancy of autumn, to describe a pitcher who is not quite himself. Like Playing The Game The Right Way, the term is a nebulous one that means different things to different folks. But that doesn't make it any less concerning when the term is bandied about in regards to a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher. The performances of past Cardinals pitcher dead-arm sufferers give fans a reason for concern with John Lackey, the latest Redbird hurler to have the term used in reference to his moneymaker.

Kyle McClellan, 2011

In 2011, Kyle McClellan stepped into the starting rotation when Adam Wainwright's throwing arm actually died during spring training. The righty's history of arm trouble might even suggest that his arm was zombified long before he became a starter. But at any rate, McClellan made 17 starts before the Cardinals acquired Edwin Jackson at the trade deadline to replace him in the rotation. By October, McClellan had tallied 43 appearances totaling 141 2/3 innings—nearly double his previous career high of 75 2/3. That work load caused McClellan to come down with a bout of the dead arm that kept him off the Cards' NLDS roster, something the right-hander was none to happy about. From the Joe Strauss in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Moments after voicing confidence that he would be part of the team's seven-man bullpen for the series, Kyle McClellan learned in a closed-door meeting with general manager John Mozeliak and manager Tony La Russa that he would not be part of the best-of-five series.

Earlier Friday Mozeliak and La Russa had divulged concerns over McClellan having a "dead arm." They followed up by moving starting pitcher Jake Westbrook to the bullpen, ostensibly in a long relief role, while subtracting McClellan after a difficult September.

"I don't have any comment. Anything I say isn't going to do me any good," said McClellan, who dressed hurriedly after the meeting. He left the clubhouse saying nothing, his tie still undone beneath his suit.

McClellan's bulldoggedness earned him a place on the St. Louis NLCS roster against the Brewers. He made one appearance, in Game 1, and retired just one Brewer (on a sacrifice bunt) while allowing two hits (a double and a single) and one run. It was the only time then-manager Tony La Russa called on McClellan in the NLCS. The Cardinals left McClellan off the World Series roster.

Edward Mujica, 2013

Like McClellan, Edward Mujica replaced a pitcher who suffered a fatal arm injury. Mujica wasn't manager Mike Matheny's first choice to take over the closer duties from Jason Motte, whose season ended before it began due to a snapped ligament that required surgery, but the righty ultimately won the job. Matheny rode his new closer hard, as he is wont to do with his closer, and ultimately rode Mujica into the ground. In an August 19, 2013 article on that used "dead arm" in the subheadline, Jenifer Langosch reported:

Mujica pitched two innings in each of his last three appearances before Monday, something he had done this season just once in 48 outings prior. The 29-year-old right-hander said he approached Cardinals manager Mike Matheny on Friday -- the day after throwing two scoreless innings against the Pirates -- with concern for his arm.

"Mike and me have very good communication," Mujica said before Monday's game. "I just talked to Mike Friday and he decided to give me a couple days off and just get ready to go for this series. You know, I'm ready to go today."

Matheny said he hoped the "last few days here have worked and we got [Mujica] to a better place."

"He's just done more than he has all season," Matheny said. "He's one of the guys that I trust to be very honest, and when we started talking, and realizing things weren't right, had to make a move and slow him down. It's no fun going into a few games in a row knowing it's without your closer."

Before the dead-arm report, Mujica had made 43 appearances, tallying 53 2/3 innings, while allowing opposing batsmen to hit .195/.206/.303 (with a .220 BABIP). After, Mujica totaled a mere 11 innings in 14 appearances with opponents slashing .440/.475/.840 (with a .432 BABIP). The Cardinals carried Mujica on their NLDS, NLCS, and World Series rosters, but Matheny called upon the veteran for just two innings of work (NLDS Game 2 and NLCS Game 5).

Adam Wainwright, 2014

Since Roy Halladay's pitching arm stopped working, Adam Wainwright has emerged as the consummate workhorse ace. In 2013, Wainwright led the majors with 241 2/3 innings pitched. His workload totaled 276 2/3 by the time the Red Sox recorded the final out of the World Series. This season, Wainwright set out at the same workload pace before forearm tendinitis caused him to received a cortisone injection in his pitching arm and miss a start. The wagonmaker's performance since the injection and day off was not particularly sharp. (Even so, Matheny selected his trusted ace, elbow tendinitis and all, the start the All-Star Game.) Not particularly sharp devolved into rather bad during the month of August, when Wainwright divulged that he had been afflicted with the dead arm, but that his arm was near its resurrection. St. Louis Post-Dispatch scribed Derrick Goold tweeted as much.

Waino posted a 1.61 ERA and 3.45 FIP in July; a 5.17 ERA and 3.70 FIP in August; and, so far, a 2.31 ERA and 3.86 FIP in September. How much is due to peripherals evening out versus a throwing-arm renaissance is up to you to decide, dear reader.

John Lackey, 2014

As Craig noted on September 8, John Lackey's fastball velocity had dropped off with the Cards and this was reason for concern. On September 14, Matheny announced that the Cardinals were skipping Lackey's next scheduled start (which was set to be Tuesday, September 16 versus Milwaukee) in order to get the veteran a breather. The reason, as reported by STL Baseball Weekly's Brian Stull, was a case of the dead arm:

"Getting him a little more rest–hopefully the rest will help him get it right," explained Mike Matheny. "John Lackey is a big game pitcher and we know he is a guy that we want ready as we head down the stretch and finish this up and hopefully have him for later on. He’s been one to say these last couple starts just haven’t felt quite right–for us, that’s an opportunity to maybe just take a couple extra days."

Lackey was ejected in the third inning of his last outing, but in his two prior starts he allowed 11 runs (8 earned) on 18 hits in 12.1 innings. The right-hander mentioned working through some stiffness.

"He mentioned something about a little dead arm," said Matheny. "Those kinds of things you can throw through, but if you don’t have to. There’s a chance that little extra time will help–he’s not real excited about this. And I get that too–the guy wants the ball. We’re in September and we’re pushing down to the end, he should want to be in there–every single one of these guys should. We get that, we’ve just got to try and figure out what’s gonna give us the best chance and sometimes it’s helping a guy take a rest when he doesn’t even want it."

We don't know that what feels like a dead arm to Lackey is the same condition that was labeled such for McClellan, Mujica, or Wainwright (think "pipe shots"). But Post-Dispatch columnist Joe Strauss writes that Lackey is suffering from shoulder stiffness and that the righty has had some trouble getting to where he feels loose on the mound. In the nebulous world of dead-arm diagnoses, I don't know whether such specificity is good or bad. Regardless, the Cardinals have opted for a cautious approach to Lackey's dead arm—for however long.

Like the Cardinals did with McClellan and Mujica—but in contrast to Wainwright, who pitched threw his dead arm phase (perhaps without notifying the coaching or medical staffs—the club is giving Lackey a one-start breather in the hopes that life returns to his throwing arm and, consequently, his fastball. Lackey is currently on track to start Friday against the Reds. Starting against Cincinnati was a part of the Cardinals stated tentative plan at the time Matheny announced Lackey would not pitch against the Brew Crew. I'll be watching Lackey's fastball velocity and sharpness closely. Because if recent history is any indication, a case of the dead arm often doesn't clear up with a short break in pitching duties and that may leave the Cardinals one starter down in October, if they qualify for the postseason.