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How is the layoff affecting Cardinals pitchers?

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What the numbers say about St. Louis’ return from a 17-day hiatus

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago White Sox - Game One
Adam Wainwright posted a solid line (5 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 3 K) in his first start in 21 days.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Good morning, y’all. I’m writing this post during the first intermission of the Blues game. After getting clarification on the NHL’s rules, a team is, in fact, allowed to shoot the puck on a power play. Some might go so far as to say it’s recommended!

Before that, however, I was watching the nightcap of a doubleheader with some...questionable decisions by both teams. If it wasn’t already clear, it became abundantly clear today just how big a blow the Cardinals’ COVID-19 outbreak dealt to their pitching staff. St. Louis was without Jordan Hicks, John Brebbia, and Miles Mikolas—and then also lost *takes deep breath* Junior Fernandez, Carlos Martínez, Kodi Whitley, Austin Gomber, and Ryan Helsley to the IL. That’s just the pitching side of the roster depletion.

For anybody keeping score, that’s eight pitchers, including three of the first-in-line options for closer, two members of the original rotation, and another potential innings eater in Gomber. Keep in mind that the updated schedule calls for a doubleheader once every 15-20 minutes with just—and this part isn’t a joke—two off days for the rest of the season. I’m trying to think of a good chess analogy for the task facing Mike Shildt because apparently baseball writers are required by law to compare managerial tactics to chess. In his defense, imagine if you suddenly had to switch out a bunch of your more valuable pieces for pawns and, on top of that, there was a limit on how often you could move your remaining power pieces. Sure, we’ll go with that. You get the point.

Obligatory health>baseball reminder, but the Cardinals will hopefully get reinforcements as players are activated off the IL. Either way, this team is going to be running on fumes for however long their season lasts. But I want to focus on a more immediate aspect of the Cardinals’ return to play.

17 days passed between the Twins series and White Sox series. When Jack Flaherty takes the mound on Wednesday, he will have gone nearly four weeks without any official game action. Unsurprisingly, pitcher trips to the IL are way up in 2020 even after removing COVID-19 cases from the data. Pitchers weren’t as ramped up on Opening Day as they would be in a normal year, and it’s showing. Combine that with, for the Cardinals, an extended pause midway through the season, and what do you get?

I used the Baseball Savant Statcast database to see if there were any major differences in the numbers from before and after the team shutdown. (Sorry, but the website hasn’t added data from either of Monday’s games at the time I’m writing this, so we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got from the White Sox games.) Five pitchers, those being Tyler Webb, John Gant, Dakota Hudson, Andrew Miller, and Adam Wainwright, met the following two criteria: 1) appear in a game pre and post quarantine, and 2) throw at least one type of pitch 10+ times this year.

Here are the changes in fastball and breaking ball velocity and spin rate after 2+ weeks off.

Velocity and Spin Rate Changes (Fastballs)

Pitcher Pitch Type Velocity Change (mph) Spin Rate Change (rpm)
Pitcher Pitch Type Velocity Change (mph) Spin Rate Change (rpm)
Average Fastball 0.4 47.5
Adam Wainwright 4-Seam -0.5 11
Adam Wainwright Cutter 0 -6
Adam Wainwright Sinker -0.6 3
Andrew Miller 4-Seam 0.4 91
Dakota Hudson Sinker 1.2 277
John Gant Sinker 1.4 -5
Tyler Webb 2-Seam 1.3 69
Tyler Webb 4-Seam 0 -60

Velocity and Spin Rate Changes (Breaking Balls)

Pitcher Pitch Type Velocity Change (mph) Spin Rate Change (rpm)
Pitcher Pitch Type Velocity Change (mph) Spin Rate Change (rpm)
Average Breaking 0.9 77
Adam Wainwright Curveball 0.7 52
Andrew Miller Slider 0.1 19
Dakota Hudson Curveball 1.1 329
Dakota Hudson Slider 0.6 374
Tyler Webb Curveball 2 -389

I should provide the disclaimer that these are incredibly small sample sizes and errors in Statcast data collection can and do occasionally occur. The good news is that what little data we do have at our disposal suggests pitchers aren’t lobbing 60 mph softballs the moment they come back. With the exception of Wainwright’s sinker and 4-seamer, every single pitch type for every pitcher remained at either the same velocity or saw an uptick. The spin rate data is more scattered, but the averages for both fastballs and breaking balls work out to positive numbers.

So the arm strength might still be there, but that can only take you so far without the command to back it up. We can include Giovanny Gallegos in this data pool (he met criterion #1 from above but not #2) by using first pitch strike percentage as a proxy. The sample sizes are still take-all-of-this-with-a-grain-of-salt minuscule, but these six are averaging a 16.2% decline in first pitch strike percentage since the layoff, with Wainwright again the lone outlier at +7.5%.

Any MLB pitcher will tell you there is no substitute for real opponents stepping into the batter’s box, so it’s to be expected that pitchers won’t be as sharp after an elongated period without games. However, rust is more or less a temporary issue, albeit an important one in a shortened season where every game is 2.7 times as important. The lingering concern is the tightrope act to get enough quality innings out of the pitching staff without running key arms into the ground.