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The Cardinals’ rotation is high risk, but built to handle it

Evaluating the injury risk for the Cards’ rotation in 2016

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Pitchers get hurt a lot. We’ve already been reminded of that this year, in almost the worst way. We’re also reminded of it in a less painful way every year though, as Jeff Zimmerman does some great work with projecting the chances that a Starting Pitcher will hit the D.L. Here’s the guidlelines for his system:

• Age: The older the pitcher, the more the injury risk (+1% point increase each year older)

• Injury history: Nothing predicts future injuries like past injuries (+10% points for each season of the past three on the DL).

• Games Started: A pitcher needs to show they can throw for an entire season without breaking down (-3% points for each full season up to three).

The average tends to end up at about a 40% chance for the average pitcher, with the average D.L. trip lasting 66.3 days. And here is how the Cardinals’ current five starters project for 2017:

Ouch. Four of the five project for higher than average injury risk. At least the only pitcher with below average risk is the team’s best pitcher. Adam Wainwright “leads” the pack, due to his advanced age and recent injury risk. Lance Lynn is right behind, due to back-to-back years on the D.L.

They grade out with higher than average risk, but where does that put them among the 30 teams? I grabbed the current Fangraphs Depth Charts, and took the five starters projected for the most projected Games Started for 2017. For those five, I totaled up the individual chances of each getting hurt. Here’s how all 30 teams grade out:

The Cardinals rank 8th, and that kind of stinks. Still, we’re talking about a small range here. The difference between the Giants in first and the Rangers in last is less than half of a D.L. trip. Working with 66.3 days for the average D.L. trip, we’re talking about a difference of one more month of one pitcher on the D.L. For the Cardinals, we’re talking about 1/10th of an injury more than average. In other words, the team would only expect one pitcher to miss one more turn than the average team.

Averages are important, but maybe a better context will help. A pitcher will either get hurt or not. So I wrote some code to find the chances that only one or no pitchers get hurt for each team. Here’s the results:

The Cardinals rank eighth again, but we gain some understanding of what that means. The rotation has a 28.5% chance of getting through the year with zero or one D.L. trips in 2017. That falls only a bit shy of the 31.5% average. So they only have a little better than a 3 to 1 shot of needing only six starters, but it should be smooth sailing if they can pull it off. Again working with the projections, I ranked every pitcher projected for at least one Game Started by FIP for every team projected. I did this before back when Alex Reyes first went down, but now Zips projections has been incorporated into the numbers along with Steamer. Here’s how every team’s sixth best starter matches up:

With the exception of the Dodgers, who have much more financial muscle to stockpile useful depth, the Cardinals have the best sixth-best starter in the league. That’s Mike Leake by the way, as Weaver projects to be better at this point. Of course, Weaver has experienced some issues in Spring Training, but we’re going to assume he gets the rest he needs and comes back healthy.

If you notice, the Rangers, Mariners, and Yankees all have at least some hope of contending this year, but combine high-risk rotations with weak replacements. Those teams have the most risk.

The ranks wonn’t change much at all, but let’s add some more context. We’ll do the same thing, but for three or more D.L. trips:

Here, the Cardinals’ 39.4% chance of losing three or more pitchers is higher than average, which is 34.5%. That makes the team 14% more likely than average to suffer that fate. That’s unfortunate, but it’s also a risk I can live with. It’s not set in stone that the Cardinals would even need three replacement pitchers. Chances are the injuries would be far enough apart that two pitchers could cover it. Even if they couldn’t, chances are that the third option would only be needed briefly. Now we’ll look at each team’s seventh-best starter:

The Cardinals rank right around the middle of the pack, and that’s while being represented by Mike Mayers. The team does have depth behind him in terms of John Gant, Tyler Lyons, Marco Gonzales, Austin Gomber, Sandy Alcantara, and Jack Flaherty. Neither of those six are very likely on their own have an extended cameo in the rotation in 2017, but chances are one of those will emerge as a useful option.

So what have we learned today? The rotation is indeed riskier than average, but the overall change isn’t that intense. It’s not like the Cardinals are doomed to experience significantly more injuries than most. At the same time, they have one of the best 6th starters in the game, and an OK seventh starter as well. If it gets past that, they could easily still turn to a pitcher who is below-average overall, but not a terrible option. These numbers have high error bars though, and anything can happen in this crazy game. For instance, maybe Weaver’s back thing ends up being a bigger deal than it looks right now. Still, even in Alex Reyes’ absence, the team’s rotation has a more than adequate plan for making it through the marathon that is the 162 game season.