After a scalding 20-10 start to the season, the last few weeks have seen the Cardinals come crashing back to earth. They’re 3-11 since the final game in the Nationals series. You might think that the 20-10 start was an aberration held up by dumb luck and one-run wins, but that’s not really true. Their pythagorean record at that point was 18-12 and they were 5-3 in one-run games. If anything, the opposite is true. Before last night’s debacle, they were 3-10 in their last 13 but their pythagorean record had them between 5 and 6 wins over those games. They’re 0-4 in one-run games, which is not sustainable. They’ve been undoubtedly bad, but it looks worse because of dumb luck. Still, bad is bad, and they need to correct a tailspin that has seen 25% shaved off of their playoff odds. Fortunately, help is on the way.
There are quite a few culprits for the current stretch. Marcell Ozuna has a 38 wRC+ since May 2nd. Matt Carpenter is at 87, Kolten Wong is at 81, and Harrison Bader is at -7 in his limited playing time. Thankfully, Ozuna, Carpenter, and Wong all started showing signs of life in Atlanta, so we should focus on another culprit. This one goes even deeper than the last few weeks. The starting pitching has struggled for most of the season, as Ben Godar detailed earlier this week.
What makes the struggles of the rotation doubly frustrating is that most of them show signs of a potential turnaround. We’ll exclude Miles Mikolas, who has clearly regained form. As for the others, Adam Wainwright fluctuates wildly between tremendous and torched from start to start. Jack Flaherty is brilliant every time out except for approximately 3 or 4 pitches, which have managed to sting him every time. Whenever Dakota Hudson finds a rich vein of righties, he can chew through a lineup until the next batch of lefties bludgeon him. Michael Wacha is the outlier here, having truly struggled for most of the season.
Too frequently, Wacha, Hudson, and Wainwright get knocked around early. Here’s a nasty little table that shows how many times Wacha, Hudson, and Wainwright have yielded a certain amount of runs through either the first three our four innings.
Wacha/Waino/Hudson, Early Runs Allowed
That trio has started 25 games this season, and allowed four or more runs through the first four innings in eight of those games. Ten times, they’ve given up three or more runs through the first three innings. About once every four games this season, one of those starters has either wasted a positive offensive output or simply put the team in a hole. The ramifications for any game where that happens are gnarly, but it’s more sinister than that.
The Cardinals’ bullpen has been very solid this year, at least the high leverage portion. You can feel reasonably confident in the late innings with a lead thanks to Jordan Hicks, John Brebbia, John Gant, and Giovanny Gallegos, and cross your fingers that you’ll get Good Andrew Miller on any given day. However, when the rotation gets knocked around early, skipper Mike Shildt is forced to make something of a Sophie’s choice. Either he can leave the starter in, hoping beyond reason that they can figure things out for a few more innings, or he can call on the lower leverage relievers. When you’re down 4-0 in the first three innings, it’s awfully hard to justify using Brebbia, Gant, Hicks, or Gallegos. Instead, he has to turn to Dominic Leone, Luke Gregerson (for now), or Tyler Webb. Earlier in the year, it was Mike Mayers. Suddenly, the opposition has a chance to put the game out of reach, which they’ve frequently done against those pitchers over the last few weeks.
The situation compounds itself when Wainwright, Wacha, or Hudson get torched early. It puts extra pressure on the bullpen. While the Cardinals have sufficient depth in the bullpen, there’s no guarantee the depth is as good as the high leverage options. Moreover, any bullpen, no matter how deep, has its limits on how far it can be stretched. One bad loss spins into a thin bullpen the next night. Get two of those blowup starts in a row and suddenly half of your week is sunk trying to manage with half of your bullpen unavailable.
There’s a Solution
Carlos Martinez is on the brink of being activated from the IL. All I want to hear now is, “You ain’t got no problem, John. I’m on this. Go back in there, chill VEB readers out and wait for the cavalry, which should be coming directly.” Let’s get down to brass tacks. Now that we’re informed correctly, the clock is ticking. Playoff odds are slipping. If we reach the end of May with odds slipping further, I was led to believe the fans wouldn’t appreciate it none too much. You’re sending El Gallo? That’s all you had to say!
In a vacuum, it makes a lot more sense for Carlos Martinez to start than it does to use him out of the bullpen. Unfortunately, that appears to be off the table because some combination of the team’s medical staff, the front office, and Martinez himself aren’t comfortable with stretching him out to a starter’s innings. On the other hand, using him only in high leverage leaves the possibility he gets put under glass while the rotation continues to take a beating. Nor is he needed especially at the back end of games, at least not right now. If you look, a clear role has emerged.
Martinez may not be able to pitch multiple days in a row, but he can certainly throw two to three innings a few times per week. It just so happens that’s about how often the Cardinals need someone to stop the bleeding early in Wainwright/Hudson/Wacha starts. With a few days rest, you can even have him fresh as he rips through the opposing team’s order for a single turn, giving the offense a chance to claw back into the game in the 4th through 6th innings. It’s a lot like the Tyson Ross role from last August, except this time the role of Tyson Ross will be played by one of the fifty or so best starters in the game.
That makes El Gallo a change agent. The Cardinals still have some issues to smooth out, but deploying Martinez correctly gives them a fighting chance to reverse some of these ugly losses until the one-run losses start bouncing their way. Short of drastic changes in the rotation, this is their best shot over the next few weeks to reverse the slide.