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How the repertoires of St. Louis Cardinals starting pitchers match up against National League Central hitters

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With the National League Central being so competitive of late, how do the Cardinals starting pitchers match up against the hitters within the division?

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The National League Central has been both internally and externally competitive in recent years—providing down-to-the-wire divisional races and placing at least two teams in the playoffs and one team (the Cardinals) in the NLCS in each of the last four seasons. Since 2011, the starting rotation has been the backbone of continued success for the Cardinals as they have the fourth highest fWAR in the National League with 52.6, and they are at least eight wins higher than the rest of the Central (the Brewers are second with 44.6).

As we look toward 2015, it appears that the starting rotation will again play a pivotal role in the overall success of the Cardinals. With ~47% of games being of the divisional variety, how does the projected starting rotation match up against NL Central hitters? Thanks to the wonderful Brooks Baseball, we are able to find out.

Pitch Type Adam Wainwright Lance Lynn John Lackey Michael Wacha Carlos Martinez
Fourseamer 9.26% 52.17% 43.72% 61.20% 44.24%
Twoseamer 37.42% 21.88% 15.17% N/A 23.68%
Changeup 5.38% 4.07% 3.87% 22.25% 7.68%
Slider N/A N/A 18.90% N/A 24.16%
Curveball 25.60% 12.74% N/A 10.08% N/A
Cutter 22.26% 8.89% 18.32% 6.43% N/A

As a whole, the starting rotation goes with a "hard" pitch (fourseamer, twoseamer, cutter) ~73% of the time, with Lynn and Lackey significantly raising the staff average, at 82.94% and 77.21%, respectively. Each pitcher has a breaking ball (three curves, two sliders) that he throws at least 12% of the time, with Wainwright's likely being the best on staff (but don't forget about Martinez's) and a pitch he uses once in every four pitches. Each pitcher has the ability to flash a changeup. However, at present, Wacha is the only starter that uses the change regularly. Yet, a few weeks ago, I made my case for Martinez's, and I strongly believe that he should go to it more often in 2015, especially as a starting pitcher.

So, how does the NL Central perform against "hard," "breaking (curveball/slider)," and "offspeed (changeup)" pitches? Let's have a look:

Team BA Hard ISO Hard BA Breaking ISO Breaking BA Offspeed ISO Offspeed
Cubs .280 .169 .217 .123 .257 .189
Brewers .293 .189 .258 .160 .260 .181
Pirates .288 .170 .231 .133 .245 .115
Reds .287 .189 .230 .141 .237 .163

In terms of batting average and ISO, NL Central opponents have predictably enjoyed their most success against "hard" pitches. Of note, I only included the players from Roster Resource's projecting starting lineups to calculate the averages included in the table above. In Chicago, Anthony Rizzo (.268 BA/.212 ISO) and likely Jorge Soler (.339/.323; "likely" because of a small sample size from 2014) enjoy "hard" pitches most, and in Milwaukee, it's Ryan Braun (.317/.238) and Khris Davis (.265/.277). In Pittsburgh, Andrew McCutchen (.321/.210) and Pedro Alvarez (.287/.242) have had the most success against "hard" pitches, and finally, in Cincinnati, it's Joey Votto (.346/.256) and Devin Mesoraco (.267/.215).

When looking at breaking balls, the projected starting lineup of the Brewers is the class of the division (.258/.160), and it's no surprise that the lineup has had a decent amount of success against Wainwright in the past, producing an overall slash line of .284/.321/.448. Breaking balls appear to be an issue for the Cubs (sample size is an issue here, though, with the sheer amount of rookies set to make an impact on their big-league roster), so it might be prudent for Lynn, Lackey, and Wacha to throw theirs more often when facing the North Siders. Both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are more successful against breaking balls than Chicago, but their numbers don't necessarily set the world on fire, and they're considerably lower than what they are against "hard" stuff.

Finally, it's time to discuss how the NL Central has performed against changeups. Well, each team, except the Pirates, has experienced more success against changeups (in both BA and ISO) than they have against breaking balls. While the Pirates saw a bump in batting average, they have been especially powerless against them, compiling an ISO of .115 (in between "poor" and "below average" according to Fangraphs). Despite having more success against changeups than breaking balls, there is still a considerable drop-off in performance when compared to how the NL Central has done against fastballs, so it's appears to be a pitch the starting rotation can look to more often in divisional matchups.

Bottom line

Success against "hard" pitches by the NL Central doesn't seem to bode well for the starting rotation as they are fastball/cutter heavy (~73%), but this was the case with last year's starting rotation as well (and possibly even more so given Shelby Miller's propensity to throw fastballs). Thus, as long as some minor adjustments are made (i.e. more changeups for Martinez, more breaking balls by the staff as a whole against the Cubs), I envision continued success for the starting rotation. I realize that pitchers, especially at this point in their respective careers, are going to stay in their comfort zone by going with their strengths (i.e. Lynn's heavy use of fastballs) and that is a perfectly logical thing to do, but any possible advantage, however slight it may be, can be influentially beneficial in a tight divisional race, that may or may not happen in 2015.

Credit to Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball for the data used in this post.