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Is the Cardinals Pitching Among the Worst in Baseball?

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Fangraphs says that Cardinals’ pitching is pretty bad. Here’s some Saturday stream-of-consciousness about the problems with projections.

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game One Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Cardinals had a pretty decent pitching staff last season. They finished 9th in ERA. Their WAR totals were lower – 21st in the game – but they also had 10% fewer innings pitched than everyone else. WAR calculations are cumulative, so all those 7-inning doubleheaders and canceled games cuts into their totals.

They also were forced into an extremely difficult roster situation. They dug deep into their stable of minor league arms to cobble together a staff that could survive the most rigorous schedule MLB has demanded of a team since the Dead Ball era.

Yes, there are statistical concerns among the 2020 data, but all things considered, the Cardinals’ coaching staff should be commended for getting pretty good production from a rag-tag staff.

It’s also a staff that should be trending up, assuming a more normal playing environment in 2021. Jordan Hicks and Miles Mikolas are set to return, with high-end production in their recent history. Projections should be optimistic and more stable for players poised to fill key roles, including Kwang-Hyun Kim, Austin Gomber, Alex Reyes, and Gio Gallegos.

Yes, the club currently projects a (for now) subtraction of Wainwright and the loss of Hudson, but neither greatly affects the computer outlooks.

The Cardinals’ projections should also benefit from who the club won’t have to throw – at least not at the same high rates. Johan Oviedo, who only had part of a AA season, was forced to start five games at replacement-level production. That’s the equivalent of 18 starts in a normal year. Jake Woodford brought his negative WAR into 21% of the Cardinals’ games. In nearly 1/3 of their games played, the Cardinals had to give innings to Nabil Crimsatt, Ricardo Sanchez, Rob Kaminsky, Ryan Meisinger, Jesus Cruz, Max Schrock, and Roel Ramirez – none of whom remain on the Cardinals 40-man roster.

Subtracting the high number of innings the club was forced to give to replacement and sub-replacement level players should swing the projections significantly up. Right?

Nope. Not even remotely.

Instead, Fangraphs thinks the Cardinals’ staff will tank hard.

Steamer/Depth Charts gives the Cardinals’ staff just 11.2 fWAR in 2021. That ranks 21st in the game. The Cardinals are a key injury (2.9 fWAR) away from matching the Giants with the worst pitching projections in the game. They would need two more Jack Flaherty’s on the squad to match the highest projection – 18.5 fWAR from the Mets.

For historical context, an 11.2 fWAR would be the 17th worst level of production from the Cardinals pitching staff since 2000. It’s just a bit better than the forgettable 2007 club.

WAR, though, is just one stat. Fangraphs also has the club regressing to a 4.43 team ERA. That would be a collapse of half a run over last year.

Think about that in practical terms. To reach that total, every pitcher on the Cardinals needs to be at least half a run worse than they were last year. OR half of the pitchers on the Cardinals would be a full run worse. With no one improving.

While all of that sounds bad, the 4.43 projected ERA is kind of the good news here. Based on last year’s data, that would still rank 15th in baseball.

That begs a question, though. How can a league-average pitching projection by ERA end up with one of the worst pitching WAR projections?

It’s because Fangraphs doesn’t care about ERA.

They prioritize FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching. It’s a stat modeled to look like ERA but it’s calculated in such a way as to normalize defense.

It’s a useful tool, especially when used in connection with WAR – wins above replacement. Defense has a pretty significant impact on a pitcher’s performance. A pitcher on a poor defensive team will have poor stats, partially because of the poor defense. Move the same pitcher to a team with good defense and their stats will improve significantly, even if the pitcher throws the exact same stuff.

That’s valuable when comparing one player to another as it removes factors that are out of the player’s control. It’s not so valuable when considering the overall value of a team and using it to project win totals.

By calculating pitching WAR based on FIP and ignoring ERA (and also heavily regressing it for offensive player projections), Fangraphs effectively removes a significant chunk of the Cardinals’ measurable talent from their computer models.

The Cardinals had a 4.58 FIP in 2020 – almost .7 runs higher than their ERA. The Cardinals had a great defense last year and that defense provided a great deal of value to the club.

What about 2021? The loss of Kolton Wong might impact that, though I fully expect Tommy Edman to be well above average with the glove at 2b next season. We also don’t know yet who will be manning 3b. Carpenter starting every day at 3rd would not be good for the pitching staff.

The club’s cumulative outfield defense is among the best in the league and that’s not likely to change too much with Carlson and Bader likely to start, and O’Neill in line for plenty of defensive innings, possibly at Dexter Fowler’s expense.

Yadi Molina might or might not return. Andrew Knizner might or might not be about as good as Yadi (based on stats and not reputation).

Regardless, Steamer/Depth Charts isn’t done playing games with the relative value of defense to the pitching staff. Since they went to all that trouble to minimize the impact of defense on pitchers, they have to then force ERA to line up with FIP.

This first happens on an individual level. Kwang-Hyun Kim, for example, had an ERA of 1.62. He had a FIP of 3.88. Doesn’t matter that he doesn’t allow hard contact and has a great groundball rate (with a great infield defense), that ERA isn’t neutralized, so up it goes.

Kim’s projection? 1.62 ERA/3.88 FIP becomes a 4.32 ERA/4.39 FIP.

That’s not a bad projection for Kim. What happens, though, is that Fangraphs does that same procedure for everyone on the Cardinals roster.

Yes, Jack Flaherty had an up-and-down 40 innings in a most unusual 2020 season. Still, he has two full seasons before that as one of the best pitchers in baseball. His career ERA/FIP is 3.37/3.77. His projection? 3.97/4.06 ERA/FIP.

Flaherty is just going to be over half a run worse than his career by ERA and a third of a run by FIP? Because of what reason, exactly?

Austin Gomber goes from 1.86/3.54 to a 4.55/4.78 ERA/FIP projection.

John Gant goes from 2.40/2.19 ERA/FIP to 4.35/4.58.

Andrew Miller goes from 2.77/2.58 ERA/FIP to 4.30/4.53.

Gio Gallegos goes from 3.60/2.06 (career 3.06/3.13) to 3.96/4.03.

On and on it goes. The whole projection sheet looks like someone just when CTRL+C/CTRL+V (copy and paste) for every pitcher on the team.

All of that regressing and neutralizing for park and defense while seemingly ignoring historic production kills any hopeful projections from the Cardinals pitching staff.

In the end, Fangraphs believes that each of the following Cardinals pitchers will essentially be “replacement level” (which I’ll define today as +/- 0.4 fWAR of 0.0): Jordan Hicks, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Ryan Helsley, Andrew Miller, Genesis Cabrera, Angel Rondon, Junior Fernandez, John Gant, Jake Woodford, Seth Elledge, Johan Oveido, Tyler Webb, and Kodi Whitely.

Alex Reyes and Gio Gallegos barely squeak above that line with a whopping .6 fWAR each.

They believe only one Cardinals pitcher will produce a FIP under 4 next season. The club had 10 such players last year.

Sorry, Fangraphs. I am not buying it. Not at all.

There is a point to be made, though. The Cardinals’ pitching staff is probably more vulnerable than the club wants to admit. They’re defense-dependent and there are some reasonable questions about how they’ll get innings from their rotation. That’s why I believe Wainwright will return. The club will need him.

What I don’t believe is what I’m seeing from Steamer/Depth Chart. Maybe ZiPS, when it comes out, will have some better news.

Have a great Saturday.