If Jenifer Langosch is correct, and I believe she is, the Cardinals will likely not be adding a new starting pitcher to the roster this offseason. They’re already stock full of them, especially with the assumption that the club picks up Jaime Garcia’s option. Now whether they’re stock full with the right pitchers is a bit of a different issue, but no one should argue that the rotation has a hole, and even if it did this thin free agency market would lend little relief.
Here’s how Langosch put it in a recent mailbag column on MLB.com:
In my opinion, the Cardinals' biggest deficiency this season was related to run prevention. And, of course, that includes two components -- pitching and defense. Now, I don't foresee a seismic shakeup with the pitching staff, so what you saw in 2016 will largely be what you get in '17 (plus the notable addition of Lance Lynn). The offseason focus, then, should shift to the defensive side, where the Cardinals need to improve at several positions. Most importantly, they need to address this year's deficiencies up the middle.
How big a difference can the defense make with a mostly static pitching staff? Quite a significant one, actually. Consider that while the Cardinals ranked 19th in the Majors with a 4.08 ERA in 2016, they jumped up to seventh with a FIP of 3.88. The Fielding Independent Pitching statistic estimates a pitcher's run prevention independent of the performance of the defense. It's evidence of how much this year's staff was hurt by the defense behind it.
Remember that the club will be adding Lynn back into the rotation after a missed season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, Alex Reyes, Michael Wacha and Luke Weaver are all returning. Marco Gonzales, Tim Cooney and Tyler Lyons are expected to be back on the mound after injury-plagued seasons. And the Cards have not officially declined Jaime Garcia's option yet either.
In December 2015, you may have heard, the Cardinals lost out on both David Price and Jason Heyward, but the most crushing blow may have occurred a month prior when the club announced that Lance Lynn would be missing the entire 2016 season as a result of Tommy John surgery. Missing a full season of Lynn, a $7.5 million bargain by today’s standards, likely cost the team a playoff spot.
Adam Wainwright has said before his goal heading into a season is to lead the league in innings pitched, his indicator that he pitched well and did his job. Between 2012 - when Lynn first became a full-time starter - and 2015, Lynn didn’t pitch the most innings in the National League but he was close. Only eight players pitched more innings, including Mike Leake (more on him in a second).
A search of NL pitchers between 2012-2015 who threw at least 600 innings returned 22 results. In this span, Lynn was 9th in ERA (3.38), 10th in FIP (3.39), 7th in K% (22.6%), and 10th in fWAR (13.0) and bWAR (11.3). Those with a higher WAR were as follows: Clayton Kershaw, Zack Grienke, Wainwright, Cole Hamels, Madison Bumgarner, Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Johnny Cueto. Everyone in front of Lynn except for probably Gonzalez has been considered an “ace” in some capacity.
Lynn is not an ace, and most of the numbers above probably aren’t too surprising to anyone who paid moderate attention to the NL during those four seasons. But had he been available last season and pitched true to form, he would have been a big help for the simple fact that he’s good at missing bats - a skill that hopefully didn’t diminish during his year on the shelf.
Returning to Langosch’s quote from above, just like the best way to beat the Cubs and their elite defense is to take it out of their hands and hit the ball over the fence (seems easy enough), the Cardinals’ pitching needed to excel at limiting balls in play to thrive. This is certainly true for any team but especially one as defensively-challenged as the Cardinals were in 2016.
And excel at it they did not. For starting pitchers, no team collectively allowed a higher contact rate than the Cardinals’ staff (81.3%), and of those balls that went into play, only the Diamondbacks allowed a higher batting average (opposing hitters had a .317 BABIP against Cardinals starters in ‘16). The NL average for both in ‘16 was 79.3% and .299, respectively. Five Cardinals starting pitchers threw at least 100 innings in 2016 (Wainwright, Leake, Garcia, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez), and all were below league-average contact rate (Martinez was closest at 79.7), and only Martinez had a better than league-average BABIP (.286).
Lynn has never had a ton of luck on balls in play. Looking at the ‘12-’15, 22-sample from above, his .310 BABIP was last (league average for starters hovered around .293 before spiking to .300 in 2015) although still well below the Cardinals starters average of .317 in 2016. But his contact rate of 79.9% ranked near the middle of the pack (but better than the league average for starers (80.4%) during that span), which seems impressive for a guy whose repertoire consists of an inordinate amount of fastballs.
Between ‘12-’15, Lynn threw 77.0% of fastballs, easily the most when returning to the sample from earlier, with Gio Gonzalez second at 67.7, a difference of 9.3%. As you go through the list of 22 and wind up at the bottom with Wainwright at 41.0%, you won’t find a bigger disparity than 3.1% from one player to the next. Someone better versed than I in the art of pitching can explain why so many batters were fooled by a pitch they likely knew was coming. And whether that mystery is unlocked, the main takeaway is that this skill was badly missed by the Cardinals last year.
The wheels set in motion by Lynn’s injury likely paved the way for the signing of Leake, who allowed the highest contact rate on the staff (84.9%) and the second highest in the NL in 2016 behind Bartolo Colon for starters with at least 150 innings pitched. He also to his credit threw 176.2 total innings and only missed a single start in late August. It was often said that Leake ended up being exactly who the Cardinals thought they were paying for and he probably was, but the Cardinals didn’t have the right defense behind him. And per Langosch’s quote from above, an improved defense, or at the very least the return of Lynn in 2017, should make things a bit easier on everyone especially if he continues to throw his deceiving fastball by everyone.
Credit to the Baseball-Reference Play Index and FanGraphs Leaderboards for the stats in this post.