Spring Training this year was an optimistic time for the Cardinals. The bats would be so potent that the home runs would block out the sun. The pitchers could throw in the shade -- and there were many pitchers who might fill that role. John Gant, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Austin Gomber had all made at least a handful of starts for the team in 2018, and none of them were projected to be in the rotation to start the year. That’s before we get to Alex Reyes, who was the most electric pitching prospect in the majors before a season-ending injury last May.
With such a talented mix of pitching, you could be forgiven for letting Gomber slide a little in your brain. His spring was, to put it lightly, uninspiring. In only eleven innings of spring big league work, he efficiently torpedoed his chances of starting the year in St. Louis. How does three strikeouts and five walks grab you? Not particularly well, obviously, but that might have been the *encouraging* part of his spring. He also gave up six home runs in those eleven innings on the way to a 10.64 ERA. There aren’t really spring training FIP constants, but if you use the 2019 constants, that works out to an 11 FIP, give or take. Yikes.
Demoted to Memphis, Gomber has become the forgotten man of the Cardinals pitching staff. Ponce de Leon made a scintillating spot start earlier this year. Reyes pitched himself into the minors from the bullpen with a wild few appearances, but he’s well on his way back to the majors. Gomber, a 4th-round pick of a non-prospect who has less than 75 major league innings at the not-so-tender age of 25 (26 this year), was easy to pass over. He shouldn’t be so forgettable! He’s 6’5”, an imposing presence on the mound. He throws his fastball hard -- he sat 92 mph last year, well above average for a left-handed starter. He even throws a signature pitch -- a beautiful, 12-6 heartbreaker of a curveball that he throws early and often with no regard for platoon matchups.
The big league Cardinals rotation has been horrific this year. Adam Wainwright is a lion in winter, but winter has come, and his time in the major leagues is winding down. Dakota Hudson’s 4.4 ERA would be disappointing by itself, but the fact that he’s second to Jack Flaherty among Cardinals starters is truly distressing. Michael Wacha -- well, when I wrote about Wacha’s curveball being unplayable last weekend, Ben Humphrey and Joe Schwarz, two esteemed voices of Cardinal analysis, replied to the story. “Now do his fastball,” said Humphrey. “And then his cutter,” Schwarz chimed in. That’s a pretty sad summation of a once-great Cardinals pitcher, but it’s hard to argue too much given the current state of that fastball.
With the pitching staff in St. Louis burning, Gomber must be having a pretty disastrous 2019 to justify keeping him down in Memphis, right? Right? Well, haha no joke’s on you! Gomber is having a splendid 2019. He’s striking out 28% of the batters he faces and walking only 8%, proving that his 2017 and 2018 strikeout numbers were no fluke. He’s running a sub-3 ERA while pitching 5 ⅔ innings a start, and the Cardinals can use all the inning-eating they can get at the major league level. What’s not to love?
Well, if you want to be a real stickler for advanced metrics, maybe you think you could pick on his FIP and xFIP. FIP, which is scaled exactly to ERA, thinks he’s a 3.85 pitcher, still good but significantly worse. xFIP, which regresses to league-average home runs per fly ball, is even more unimpressed -- Gomber sits at 4.31. Does a pitcher who, in the absence of batted ball and home run luck, “should” be running a mid-4 ERA in the minors really warrant a callup?
In a word, yes. I’ve been doing some research into AAA statistics this year for an unrelated FanGraphs piece, and sweet Jiminy Christmas, AAA has changed with the introduction of the major league baseball. The ERA of the PCL this year is a staggering 5.32. There have been 1082 home runs in the league this year, a rate of 1.5 per nine innings. It’s hard to look at minor league stats and make that adjustment.
In 2018, with the minor league baseball, the PCL had a league-wide 4.6 ERA and was already considered offense-heavy. Home runs left the park at a rate of 1 per nine innings. In the whole season, only 2097 balls left the park, a number the league will absolutely shatter this year. In other words, minor league stats don’t remotely mean what you think they mean anymore. Gomber’s 3 ERA in AAA is actually pretty phenomenal when you look at it that way. His fielding-independent stats still show a pitcher who’s tremendously more effective than league average.
Here’s another way to think of it -- Gomber’s 2018 AAA stats were a smidge better than league average. His FIP and xFIP both sat around 4, his era around 3.4. If he brought the same skill level to the table in the new run environment, he’d be running FIP’s and xFIP’s in the high 4’s, an ERA over 4. The ball has completely changed the game. Instead, he’s getting better. ERA’s aren’t stable this early in the season, but FIP and xFIP both show a pitcher who’s getting better relative to his competition.
It’s honestly pretty wild that I need to write this article. The Cardinals pitching staff makes tire fires look attractive at the moment. Mike Shildt has said that the pitching failures are on him, that he needs to lead better. Unless he can lead Wacha to figure out a breaking ball and fastball command, unless he can lead Wainwright to Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth, I’m not exactly sure what he’s getting at. Leadership, real leadership, doesn’t mean sticking with the five guys you started with, giving them endless chances because they won a competition in March. It means finding the best way for your team to win, and it’s obvious to me that Gomber is part of that equation.
Free Austin Gomber, Shildt. The team needs him, and whether they know it or not, Wacha and Wainwright need him. There’s no excuse for inaction. The Cardinals hitters are doing their part this year, and they need support. Maybe it’s a front office thing rather than a manager thing, but if it is: convince the front office that you need reinforcements. Every game Gomber pitches in AAA is a start the Cardinals could use.