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How Sustainable Are the Cardinals’ Pitching Improvements?

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There may be some risk involved, but the pitching staff may be able to continue outperforming its more advanced stats.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds - Game Two Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

It is no secret that the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff struggled in the first half of the season. Injuries, combined with a lack of control, led to the team having just the 17th best ERA (4.27) in the first half of the season. The staff also finished 21st in FIP (4.42) and dead last in xFIP (4.85) while also allowing the highest walk rate in the league.

Things have improved for the Cardinals pitching staff in the second half of the season, following a few key acquisitions. Players like Luis Garcia and TJ McFarland have developed into key relievers and the deadline acquisitions of J.A. Happ and Jon Lester have been better than expected. This has allowed the Cardinals to improve to 7th in ERA (3.80), 12th in FIP (4.19), and 19th in xFIP (4.47). These improvements are part of the reason why the Cardinals have gone 29-23 in the second half of the season, after finishing the first half with a record of just 44-46.

Clearly, these improvements are crucial for the Cardinals success. The question is whether or not these improvements can be sustained for the rest of the season and the postseason, if necessary.

The bullpen does not appear to be of much concern as the group of Giovanny Gallegos, Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera, Luis Garcia, and TJ McFarland is strong. Of this group, Reyes appears the most suspect as his 2.95 ERA is well below his 4.26 FIP and 4.70 xFIP. Besides Reyes, the other four pitchers have strong profiles and appear to be capable of being relied upon to close out the year.

The real question marks begin to arise in the starting rotation. J.A. Happ, Jon Lester, Jake Woodford, and Miles Mikolas all have plenty of question marks. Currently, Mikolas is really the only starter who has had a difficult time preventing runs from crossing the plate, but each of these pitchers have peripheral numbers that suggest possible danger in the future. Of this group, Mikolas is the only one with a FIP below 5.00 (4.91) and Woodford is the only one with an xFIP below 5.00 (4.85). Of the group of Happ, Lester, and Woodford, though, the highest ERA is Lester at 4.30 (with the Cardinals).

The question then becomes, can the starting rotation keep over-performing? One of the problems with Happ, Lester, Woodford, and Mikolas is that they all allow home runs at a high rate. Additionally, none of them strike out opposing hitters at a high rate. As a result, each pitcher is highly dependent on results on contact. While this can be a dangerous scenario, it plays to the advantage of the Cardinals, since the team has one of the best defenses in the entire league. In fact, the Cardinals have accumulated the most defensive runs saved as a team with 70. They are also just one of three teams above 60. The Cardinals also lead the league in outs above average with 41, making them one of just two teams with more than 26.

Thus, the Cardinals, more than anything other team, can afford to have a starting rotation that pitches to contact. Additionally, with Busch Stadium playing as a pitcher’s park, that should be another bonus to pitchers who pitch to contact.

Generally, these pitchers do not hurt themselves with walks, which is necessary if these pitchers are going to surrender hits. The Cardinals’ rotation has the 11th best walk rate in the second half of the season. Jon Lester, for example, could stand to improve his 10.1% walk rate with the Cardinals, but overall, the rotation has done a good job of avoiding free passes. If the rotation is going to trust the defense to make plays in order to collect outs, then it cannot take the opportunity away from the defense by giving away free bases.

With an improved bullpen, the Cardinals are now able to pull starters earlier and hand the ball to relievers who can hold the lead. The additions of Luis Garcia and TJ McFarland have deepened the Redbirds ‘pen, allowing manager Mike Shildt to be more aggressive with pitching changes. There have been multiple occasions where Shildt has let a pitcher start an inning and then pulled him as soon as a runner reached base. With a strong bullpen, and a rotation that is prone to home runs and a little more suspect in general, this is a good strategy. It lets Shildt give his starter the chance to pitch deeper into the game while pulling him before he gets into any real trouble. This is an option that Shildt was not willing to use when his bullpen was not as deep.

This is a safer strategy than leaving the starter in too long and letting him get into trouble. It helps to have Adam Wainwright take the ball every fifth day as he generally saves the bullpen by pitching deep into games. Wainwright’s ability to do this frees up the bullpen to cover for potentially shorter outings by Happ, Lester, Mikolas, and Woodford.

The Cardinals do not have the most convincing rotation, but it has been effective at preventing runs in the second half of the season. Pitching to contact and limiting walks with arguably the best defense in baseball allows the pitching staff to outperform its higher FIP and xFIP, while having the ability (and willingness) to pull the starter earlier in the game prevents him from getting into trouble as his pitch count rises. This may not be the most effective strategy, but for a team that cobbled together a pitching staff in the middle of the season, it has proven to be effective enough to keep the team in the Wild Card hunt.