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Observations From the First Two Times Through the Rotation

The rotation looked better the second time through with Matz and Mikolas tossing gems. Let’s look at some early talking points.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Hey guys! I’ve had a busy Easter weekend between traveling and seeing family, so this article won’t be as long or in-depth as usual. Hopefully it will still give you a brief and entertaining read whenever you have some down time. I will be back to my normal programming on Tuesday, but, for now, I apologize for the brevity of this piece.

There’s been some great baseball to discuss in recent games, so let’s get to it!

Remember when the St. Louis Cardinals rotation was in crisis and was bound to sink a good team? Well, since then Miles Mikolas tossed 6 23 innings of one-run ball and Steven Matz threw 5 23 scoreless innings. Yep, that’s two strong starts in a row from pitchers not named Adam Wainwright. Maybe it’s time to pump the breaks a little bit. We’re seven games into the season. A lot can still happen — good and bad — but it’s a bit early to be be pronouncing the rotation a failure. It could be better, that much is obvious, but it’s way too early to say it’s bad.

Every starter has had a good outing except for Dakota Hudson, who may well join the club today. Waino opened the season with a gem against the Pirates and Mikolas and Matz helped the Cardinals over their biggest intra-division threat this season. With Hudson the only starter yet to make a second start (the Cardinals haven’t yet needed a second starter), I will highlight one thing from each member of the rotation that has stood out to me so far.

Adam Wainwright - Sinker Effectiveness

Through two starts, Adam Wainwright is averaging less than 89 mph on his sinker and less than 88 mph with his four-seamer. Among qualified pitchers, he has the fourth slowest four-seamer, ahead of only Dallas Keuchel, Kyle Hendricks, and Adam Cimber. His velocity may tick upwards a bit as his arm gets more conditioned, but he’s not going to touch 90 very often anymore. Last year he averaged 89 mph, but he will pitch even slower this year.

In 2021, Waino yielded just a .228 wOBA and .293 xwOBA against his sinker. He got away with a sub-90 velo because he threw the pitch on the edge of the plate 46.1% of the time and he threw it over the plate 54% of the time. He rarely left it over the heart of the zone where it could be crushed.

He also threw more curveballs than any other pitch which helped his sinker change speeds on the hitter. Command and pitch mix has been the story for Waino for at least a few years now, but with his velocity (potentially) continuing to drop, he will be even more reliant on keeping hitters off balance and living on the corners. Wainwright’s sinker is hittable if he doesn’t do these things.

Miles Mikolas - Pitch Mix

Miles Mikolas has made two starts this season, and no pitch has made up 25% of his arsenal. Rather, he has thrown all five of his pitches between 13% and 24% of the time. This is usually the case with Mikolas but it’s the first time his primary offering has been thrown less than a quarter of the time and his least-used offering (changeup) has broken 10%.

Do I expect this to stick over the course of the season? Probably not. But it is interesting to see how Mikolas has increased the use of his changeup. In 2021, when healthy, he threw it 7.2% of the time. His previous high as a Cardinals was when he threw it 4.4% of the time in 2018. Currently, 13.1% of his pitches have been changeups. Again, this is a really small sample size, emphasis on really small, but it’s possible that we could see an uptick in his changeup usage after he broke it out more last year.

Also notable is that Mikolas’ sinker has overtaken his fastball for the first time in his career. I’m not sure if this will stick, but with what the Cards have been emphasizing this year, it’s certainly possible. Both fastballs are down a full mile per hour from last year, and Mikolas was never going to blow people away with his velocity. The velo could come back up, but it’s the 33-year-old’s pitch mix that will determine how well he performs this year.

He will need to be able to command five pitches this year and mix things up and not be afraid to pitch backwards if he is going to overcome age, past injury, and below-average velocity this year. If you’re a fan of old school pitching and you value command and craftiness over velocity, then you’ll enjoy watching Mikolas throw this year.

Steven Matz - Strike Percentage

Steven Matz cruised through his first two innings as a Cardinal before weirdly falling off a cliff (not literally, but it kinda felt like it) in the third inning. Well, it turns out that the weirdness was a blister that developed as he was pitching.

That doesn’t give him a free pass, but if we removed that one bad inning, then he has thrown 7 23 innings of scoreless ball. Yes, I know that’s a bit ridiculous but pitching through a blister isn’t exactly easy or fun. We can’t wipe away the seven runs allowed by Matz in his first outing, but just don’t let them cloud your judgement of him, especially this early into his Cardinals career.

One of the most impressive things about Matz so far has been his ability to throw strikes. Over two-thirds of his pitches have been called for strikes and he has walked just one batter in two starts.

Matz is very much a pitch to contact kind of pitcher. He has been with the Mets and the Blue Jays, and he has been through his first two starts with the Redbirds. This is what the Cardinals wanted — Pitch to contact, utilize the defense, and don’t hurt yourself with walks.

Matz appears ready to provide that. He fills up the zone and that works to both his benefit and his detriment. He won’t walk many batter, but he’ll occasionally get BABIP’ed. When a pitcher allows a bunch of contact, sometimes that becomes a bunch of hits. That’s what happened to Matz in his first start.

Minus a blister, he’s been about as expected. Strikes and contact. We’ll see how it plays the rest of the season.

Dakota Hudson - Sinker Movement

Again, let me just caution you here. Hudson has made exactly one start, so let’s not get carried away with conclusions here. I am simply making an observation based on an extremely small sample size that could provide us something to pay attention to as the season progresses.

One thing I noticed about Hudson, was the his sinker was a little different in his first start. It averaged more vertical break than ever in his career and it had less horizontal break that ever. His sinker average 26.1 inches of drop, which is 4.2 inches more than the average sinker. The tradeoff was less run. Hudson’s sinker has three fewer inches of horizontal break than the average sinker at 11.6 inches.

In 2020, Hudson’s sinker averaged 20.7 inches of drop while getting 14.4 inches of run. The movement of the pitch has fluctuated from year to year, but it has never reached the marks that it found in his first start.

It remains to be seen if this will make the pitch more effective or even if the pitch will retain this shape over the full season. It is something I will be watching for. Either way, continue to expect plenty of groundballs from Hudson, especially if he gets career high sink on the pitch.

Conclusion

These a few things I will be looking for this year. Can Waino’s sinker continue to be effective? Will Mikolas continue to mix in all of his pitches without one pitch breaking 25% usage? Will Matz continue to fill up the zone without get burned? And will Hudson’s sinker continue to move in a unique way?

The rotation has looked much better after the second time through with Steven Matz and Miles Mikolas showing that they can still be effective. They will need to build off that success to help Wainwright anchor the rotation as it waits for Jack Flaherty to get healthy. Who knows what the third time through the rotation will bring, but the more success the rotation has, the more confidence Cardinals fans will have because the team can hit and field, now it just needs to pitch.

Thanks for reading! Enjoy your Easter Sunday!