Since Wade Leblanc made his first start of the year for the St. Louis Cardinals, every starting pitcher has made a strong start. In the last six games, the Cardinals rotation has allowed eight earned runs in 35 innings. That is good for a 2.06 ERA and nearly six innings per start. In this stretch Johan Oviedo, Carlos Martinez, and Adam Wainwright made quality starts while Kwang-Hyun Kim pitched well and Wade LeBlanc had a pair of solid outings. For a Cardinals rotation that had been struggling, this is great progress.
All of these starts have things in common. To begin with, walks have been limited. The rotation combined for just 11 walks through its last six starts. This is important, because the group does not record a lot of strikeouts, with just 22 in the same time. As a result it is going to be important that the rotation limits the amount of free passes it allows, because more base runners and plenty of contact by opposing hitters can be a dangerous combination.
The rotation has also generated a lot of ground balls. This is going to be important because it will keep the ball in the yard and limit the amount of extra base hits the opposition can record. The only starter in the last six days who did not finish a game with more groundouts than flyouts was Kwang-Hyun Kim. In two games, Wade LeBlanc has generated 12 groundouts and five flyouts. Wainwright generated ten of the former and four of the latter while Oviedo had nine ground ball outs and five flyouts.
For a team with an infield of Paul Goldschmidt, Tommy Edman, Paul DeJong, and Nolan Arenado, the Cardinals should have no problem dealing with plenty of ground balls. Since the Cardinals rotation does not strike out many batters, it is important to prevent extra base hits from accumulating. Since there will be more balls put in play, the rotation needs to keep those balls on the ground to minimize damage.
Finally, the rotation must generate weak contact. This is especially important for somebody like Kim, who allows a lot of flyballs, because hard-hit flyballs are much more dangerous than hard-hit groundballs. As a result, pitchers who generate a lot of groundballs can get away with allowing harder contact sometimes, especially if they have a good infield defense, like the Cardinals’, behind them. Thus, it is unsurprising that Kim had the lowest average exit velocity allowed by a starter in the last six starts.
This is certainly not an ideal rotation. It would certainly be better with Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas, or an external acquisition. While there is still a chance for a trade, Flaherty and Mikolas are not coming back for a while, so the rotation must learn how to consistently get outs. Since this is not a group of pitchers capable of generating a lot of strikeouts, they must focus on limiting walks and managing contact. This is a necessary strategy, but it is one that can be dangerous.
The last six starts, made against a pair of NL West opponents, have been encouraging for the Redbirds. This does not mean that the rotation is fixed, or that it does not need to be improved. However, it does show that, when things go well, it can keep the team in games.
It is not yet known if the rotation will be able to continue pitching well, but there are signs of hope this recent success can be somewhat sustained. To begin with, Adam Wainwright has been solid all year, and his ability to go deep into games is important. In fact, he has thrown nearly as many innings in the third time through the opposing lineup (30 1⁄3 IP) as he has in the first time through it (34 1⁄3 IP). The 39-year-old has posted a better ERA in the third time through the order (1.48) than he has in his first (2.88) or second (6.12) times through it.
Wainwright’s ability to pitch effectively deep into games gives the bullpen a bit of a rest. This is important because the bullpen will likely be needed to cover more innings for the rest of the rotation.
Another positive sign is from Carlos Martinez. After his last start, Martinez said that his increased pace on the mound helped him stay focused. He admitted to losing focus at times during his starts, but if he can stay locked in by pitching quicker, then he might be able to show some improvement as the season continues.
Kim has been a reliable back-end starter when healthy this year. This has plenty of value, especially for the Cardinals.
Finally, after his last start, Johan Oviedo discussed the influence that Wainwright has had on him. This positive influence combined with him adjusting to MLB hitters could lead to improvement. Oviedo certainly looked better in his last start as he was working efficiently and pumping in strikes. If he can learn how to do this consistently, then he could turn into a solid starter as early as the second half of this season.
These last few observations are not statistical, so there is not concrete evidence that they will lead to success. Regardless, there have been positive signs from the rotation recently which have helped the Cardinals stay in games and have chances to win. This is a change from the month of June and a positive development for the Redbirds as they chase down the Brewers in the division.