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Best of the 2020 Season: Pitching

Plenty of highlights and analysis as we break down the best overall and single-game pitching performances by the Cardinals this season.

Cleveland Indians v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

All season long I’ve posted the “best of” the Cardinals season. It’s my go-to, light-hearted Saturday post when all we want are some highlights and positive stats. For the next few weeks, I’m bringing those “best ofs” to this more analytical Thursday space, where we’ll dig a little deeper into the best overall and single-game performances for the Cardinals this season. Last week we tackled offense and defense. Next, we’ll handle pitching – rotation and bullpen. We’ll finish the series with a look at “others” – baserunning, stat lines, and maybe even coaching.

Best Starting Pitcher: Adam Wainwright

Who saw this coming? Oh, come on now. Don’t lie to yourself or the rest of us. At age 38, no reasonable fans could have predicted that Adam Wainwright would be the best starter on the Cardinals. Not with Jack Flaherty around and talent throughout the rest of the rotation. After a solid ’19 campaign, Waino was brought back for one more ride as the team’s undisputed 5th starter.

Instead, COVID happened and he spent most of the season as the team’s ace. When the club returned to action following their quarantine, the veteran Wainwright was the only pitcher that Shildt and Maddux allowed to remain on a normal pitch count. He did not disappoint. Wainwright went 6.0 innings or more in 7 of his 10 starts, allowing 3 ER or more only once. The Cardinals spent most of the season desperately trying to manage a pitching-depth crisis, and Wainwright came through for the club time and time again.

How did he do it? At age 38/39? Smoke and mirrors was at least part of the equation. Wainwright’s FIP was a full run higher than his ERA. He also had the lowest BABIP of his career. Was he lucky? Yes.

He was also good. His BB/9 rate was back in the low 2’s after climbing steadily from his prime years. His K rate was steady with his career numbers. All of this was built on the back of the best curveball in baseball. That’s right! Waino’s Uncle Charlie rated out as the best curve by value in the game. By Fangraphs’ pitch values, Wainwright’s curve was the seventh-best pitch overall.

That, plus continued questions about the health of the rotation, leads me to believe that Wainwright will be back for one more run with the Cardinals, finances allowing. Wainwright has not been one to let a few bucks get in the way of playing.

Here are some highlights from one of his better games and a great piece from MLB Network featuring Waino’s good friend, John Smoltz.

Best Relief Pitcher: John Gant

What was a “relief pitcher” for the Cardinals in 2020? Normally this is an easy breakdown – starters start, relievers relieve. With the pitching staff in such a state of flux all season, the line between relievers and starters is vague at best. Take Austin Gomber. He started four games. He appeared in 14. He had more innings out of the rotation than out of the bullpen. Seven of his 10 relief appearances were over an inning in length. That kind of exposure affects his stat line. He’s not going to show up in any of our categories today, largely because 2020 required the Cardinals to blur the line between starter and reliever.

But, the format of this article demands a solution. Here’s my method: I cut out anyone below 10 innings and chose just relief stats. I then compared the remaining choices by K and BB rate, ERA, FIP, WPA, and WAR. Here’s the custom list:

The Cardinals’ relief core was incredible in 2020. Truly. You can make a solid argument for five pitchers – Gallegos, Reyes, Gant, Miller, and Webb – to win this category. Gomber – whose praises I sang above – is only out because I cut half his innings.

Who do we choose? It’s a matter of preference.

If you prefer FIP over ERA, then Gallegos is your likely choice. He had the lowest FIP in the pen. He also had the highest K/BB ratio – something that I consider to be one of the most important factors in evaluating a reliever’s effectiveness. Still, he wasn’t used for multiple innings as frequently as some of his counterparts and it’s hard to ignore his lower WPA.

If old-school ERA is your thing, then you probably want to make an argument for Webb. Webb had the lowest ERA among the relievers and the second most innings pitched It was an incredible performance from a lefty-specialist, who many fans view as roster filler. He wasn’t used in high leverage situations, but he was counted on more than any other reliever.

Andrew Miller warrants a mention here. He was very good. Look at the stats, friends!

My choice, though, is John Gant. In a competition among rough equals, he checks a few more boxes for me. He had a solid K/BB ratio. He didn’t give up a homer all season. He was routinely asked to get multiple innings. And that hair! His FIP and ERA match up pretty well in the low 2’s. That’s really what clinched it for me. Gant held the fort down in those vital middle innings and there was little noise in his game. That’s a reality I greatly appreciate in a reliever. Gant is second-year arbitration-eligible next season. He’s due for a raise and he’s earned one.

Here’s some video of a Gant pitch. And of my favorite celebration of the year from Mike Shildt.

Best Single-Game Performance (Starter): Wainwright’s Birthday Complete Game

You knew what game was going to be in this spot! It was one of the best, most emotional games from a Cardinals starter in recent memory: Wainwright, on his 39th birthday, goes the distance in a Complete Game win. It’s probably better to just allow Wainwright himself put words to this outing. The highlights are in the first video. He gets emotional in the second, talking about how long it has been since he even thought about going nine full innings. Enjoy.

Best Single-Game Performance (Reliever): Alex Reyes, Sept. 19 @ Pittsburgh

How do you measure the best single-game relief performance of an entire season? It’s an inexact science to be sure. In this space during the season, we stuck with WPA – Win Probability Added. I went through game logs of the Cardinal relievers who were frequently used in high leverage situations. That resulted in three candidates for this category:

Alex Reyes – Sept. 19 vs. @Pitt - .34 WPA

Alex Reyes – Sept. 10 vs. Det - .30 WPA

Genesis Cabrera – Sept. 18 vs. @Pitt - .28 WPA

On September 19th, with the Cardinals fighting for playoff position in another double-header, Genesis Cabrera entered the 5th inning with the Cardinals clinging to a one-run lead, 6-5. Cabrera gave up a single to Gregory Polanco and walked Kevin Newman, with a flyout in between. A fielder’s choice put runners on the corners with two outs. Shildt went to the pen to bring in Reyes, hoping the young right-hander could get out of the jam. He did, coaxing a flyout from Jose Ozuna on a full count. Reyes then took the 6th, walking a batter but striking out two.

Wanting to get as much mileage as possible out of a sharp Reyes, Shildt brought him back out to start the 7th. Reyes got another fly out and yielded the mound to Ryan Helsley. In all, Reyes threw 39 pitches across three innings and the Cardinals won a pivotal late-season game.

Shildt did a lot of things well in management of this pitching staff during the extreme circumstances presented by this season. Making liberal use of Reyes, Cabrera, and Gomber in extended relief outings was one of his best. Reyes, in particularly, routinely came through for the club when it really mattered.