You may have heard that 2020 was an odd year. The pandemic shortened the baseball season, including a giant vacuum between mid-March and July 1st in which players didn’t play any organized baseball. The break, and the unique way that games were eventually played, had ramifications. Players missed time either from contracting Covid or from contact tracing. Teams like the Marlins and especially Cardinals missed giant chunks of games as outbreaks ravaged their rosters, then had to make up missed games with outrageous sums of exhausting doubleheaders. The league ran up the lowest batting average on balls in play in 33 years. Even without all of the starts and stops, the 60 game sample offers only guesses as to whether or not players improved, declined, or something in between. One of the biggest ramifications was the rash of injuries that depleted pitching staffs. Theoretically, next season should be a little more normal. However, teams still must be mindful of the health of their pitchers. They’ll need deeper rotations and pitching staffs for 2021. Enter Johnny Wholestaff, the most important Cardinal pitcher in 2021.
The Cardinals are no strangers to the injury bug that wiped out pitchers in 2020. Dakota Hudson’s season ended with Tommy John surgery that will keep him out most or all of 2021. Miles Mikolas was first sidetracked at the end of the truncated Spring Training, then lost the whole season when he had surgery in late July to repair his flexor tendon. John Brebbia was about to return when baseball activity resumed, but a tear in his UCL was discovered. He had Tommy John surgery in late June, which led to the Cardinals non-tendering him this off-season. The Giants took a flyer on him.
There’s a common misperception that teams need five starters to fill out a rotation. That was true if you were trying to make the playoffs in 2005, but it’s no longer the case. Even before accounting for the unique challenges of 2020 and 2021, teams have been trending toward deeper staffs and fewer innings for starting pitchers for years. VEB writer emeritus Ben Humphrey tackled this a bit all the way back in 2014. Even at the time, the number of innings going to starting pitchers was collapsing. That decline has accelerated even since then:
Every year since 2014, the percentage of innings thrown by starting pitchers has dropped at least 1.37%. It’s fallen 2% or more each of the last three seasons, dropping to an all-time low of 55.52% in 2020. While teams surely were trying to protect their starters last season, that this is part of a larger trend should tell you that protecting starters was only a small part of the story.
Despite fewer innings going to starters, teams are using more starting pitchers to bridge the gap from Opening Day through the end of the season. Here’s the rolling three-year average for the average number of starters per team. I’ve set my end points as 1980 and 2019, since the shortened season in 2020 offered fewer chances for new starters.
That number has exploded, with the rolling three-year average increasing by at least .22 starters every year since 2013. By 2019, it had jumped .61 starters.
Teams are requiring more starting pitchers, but those starters are eating up fewer innings than ever before. The advent of the Opener has surely accelerated this effect, but it’s also an indication that teams are decreasing the number of times their starters go through a lineup a third time.
This brings me back to the Cardinals and 2021. We already know that teams were limiting innings for starters in 2020 and will do the same in 2021. Nobody wants to ramp up their valuable young starter from 45 innings one season to 200 the next, risking their 2022 and beyond. Teams were already trending towards more starters and fewer innings per start, and 2021’s unique challenges will only compound that. It also means having an effective bullpen enters the equation. This means pitching depth is going to be a major factor.
The quandary in St. Louis is that they’re already missing Dakota Hudson, third on the team in innings in 2020. Adam Wainwright led the team in innings and is unsigned to date for 2021. Miles Mikolas is coming back from an injury. Carlos Martinez pitched atrociously in 2020 and hasn’t been an effective starter since early in 2018. Jack Flaherty and Kwang-Hyun Kim have some reliability (and upside), but that’s just two starters. The good news is that they have insurance. A list of potential starters in 2021: Genesis Cabrera, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber, Johan Oviedo, Alex Reyes (maybe?), Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson, Jake Woodford, John Gant (if you have to), and maybe Angel Rondon. That entire list of names also serves as bullpen insurance.
Pitching in 2021 is going to be a numbers game, and the Cardinals can throw option after option at the problem to fill up the innings. They almost have to just to survive, like a lot of other teams. The game was trending that way anyway, and it’s time for the Cardinals to go all-in on the strategy. Piggybacking starters, as they’ve done in the minors, would be a fine solution for the back half of the rotation. Or rather, simply thinking of the pitching staff as an army of multi-inning, one-time-through-the-lineup pitchers that allow skipper Mike Shildt to mix and match would give the Cardinals a leg up. Adding an inexpensive swing man off the non-tender and free agent heap wouldn’t hurt, either. However it’s done, it’s time to stop thinking of a starting rotation as five guys who carry a team through a whole season. It’s time to turn to Johnny Wholestaff.