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What is a “Contending” Rotation?

Let’s take a look at “contending” rotations since 2000 and see how the 2022 Cardinals measure up.

St. Louis Cardinals Spring Training Workout Session Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

I set out today to learn something. I’ve been considering the state of the Cardinals rotation for a few weeks now. It’s had its high points and its lows. And its real lows.

I’ve heard a constant barrage of complaints about it from fans everywhere. And while I definitely understand the frustration, I kept looking at the names and stats and thinking to myself, “this should work. Shouldn’t it?”

After all, Miles Mikolas should have gotten some consideration for the All-Star game. Adam Wainwright isn’t that far behind him. Hudson is crazy frustrating and hasn’t been good lately, but before that, he was awful solid. Then there was Pallante and Liberatore, who aren’t awesome… but every year the Cardinals end up with guys like that in their rotation. Even in years where they win a ton of games.

It was that last thought that inspired today’s article. What makes a “contending” rotation? The Cardinals have gone through an amazing run of quality baseball that we can track back for over 20 years. That provides an awfully solid sample size of “winning” rotations to look at. Surely by examining the Cardinals’ rotations over the last quarter-century I ought to be able to learn something about what a truly “contending” rotation looks like.

Armed with that knowledge, I should be able to match it up with this season and learn something about where they sit and what they need or don’t need.

Choosing Our Sample Size

The key to his study is the concept of “contending”. I don’t just want any old rotation. I want the starters for Cardinals teams that won a lot of games in the regular season and won at least one playoff series. We’re going to set that as 90-99 team regular season wins and they had to at least get past the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

(I intentionally decided to cut the 100-win teams in ’04 and ’05 because they represent outliers in the data set. They are too good in the sense that it’s extremely difficult to create a team that is expected to win 100 games. Unless you’re the Dodgers. They’re not just a “contending” team. Those kinds of teams are expected to win a championship, which is simply a higher standard than I want to measure today.)

Here are the teams that I chose (in descending order by win total):

2013 Cardinals – 97 wins
2002 Cardinals – 97 wins
2000 Cardinals – 95 wins
2019 Cardinals – 91 wins
2014 Cardinals – 90 wins
2011 Cardinals – 90 wins

Methodology & Statistics

For this method, I went to Fangraphs and selected the pitcher leaderboard by team: “Cardinals” and category: “starter”. I then customized the data with the stats I wanted. I started with the obvious categories: games started, innings pitched, and ERA. Then, to try to get a better sense of the actual value of the pitcher while keeping my stat count low, I chose FIP or Fielding Independent Pitching, K/BB ratio (the number of K’s generated for every walk given up), and fWAR. I won’t end up using a lot of these stats, but they are there if we need them.

I then sorted the data not by production but by innings pitched to give me a 1-5 list by usage. And since almost every season includes multiple injuries to the rotation (as we’ll see below), I went 7-9 starters deep.

Expectations Pre-Data

Before I dig into the data, let me tell you what I expect to find – my “working” theory on rotation construction. We often divide starters up into classifications by where we think they might slot into a rotation. I have done this kind of work before around here and this is how I’ve generally considered the 5 slots in a rotation:

#1 – A very good starter who is likely to get All-Star and Cy Young consideration annually. 4+ fWAR. Examples: Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty.

#2 – A good starter who is occasionally excellent but always better than average. 3-4 fWAR, give or take a little. Examples: Matt Morris, Lance Lynn, Miles Mikolas.

#3 – A perfectly average starter. 2-3’ish fWAR. Examples: Kyle Lohse, Jeff Suppan, Jaime Garcia.

#4 – A starter who will frequently tick up to average but probably sits a little below. 1-2 fWAR. Examples: Jason Marquis, Mike Leake, Jake Westbrook

#5 – A starter who will sit just above replacement level. 0-1 fWAR. Examples: Edwin Jackson, Kyle McClellan, Joe Kelly.

Conventional wisdom is that a team needs a strong starting rotation to be a legitimate “contender” that can go deep into the postseason. Such a rotation probably needs to be on the upper end of that list. Maybe it needs at least a #1 and a #2, a couple of #3’s, and a couple of #4 caliber guys to slide in and cover for injuries. Too many #5’s would surely sink it, right? That’s my assumption entering this study.

Now to the data! What did I find? Let’s just go year-by-year, starting with the highest win totals and working our way down.

2013 Cardinals

Forget for a second that you already know how many games this team won and how far it went in the postseason. Does that look like the rotation of a World Series caliber team? Wainwright was brilliant, of course. He adds 2 fWAR more than what I would call a #1. That “ace” level of production cures so many ills. Lance Lynn never got the credit he deserved. He’s always been a solid #2. Then Shelby Miller provided quality #3 production, especially when considering his ERA. A pitcher that can outperform his FIP all season is like runs in the bank for a ballclub.

That’s just three arms. The rest of the rotation was hit and miss until the club plugged in Michael Wacha for 9 starts. Combined, though, they got 28 starts out of Westbrook + Wacha at .9 fWAR and Kelly + Garcia at 1.1 fWAR. That’s close to #4 and #5 starter production by my chart above.

This rotation suffered through injuries and poor performance. Outside of Wainwright’s Cy Young-caliber performance it still barely fits the categories described above. Yet, it is one of the best overall rotations that we’ll see on this list.

2002 Cardinals

The 2002 Cards, who also won 97 games, experienced injury, and tragedy and still managed to build a rotation that fits well with the model above. Morris was peaking, with 4.2 fWAR. Behind him, you have to do some math. We should probably put Darryl Kile together with Chuck Finley to get 2.8 fWAR. That’s below #2 production but solid enough. Then Woody Williams slides it at 1.9 fWAR, also just below #3 production. Then Andy Benes at .8 fWAR – just below #4 caliber. And Jason Simontacchi, second in the team in innings, with above replacement level #5 stats.

Is this a great rotation? I would argue not. It barely fits the model presented above. However, it got the depth that it needed to make up for loss and held up to lead the team to a crazy high number of wins. (Offense plays a huge role in the number of wins provided by these rotations.)

2000 Cardinals

The 2000 Cardinals are probably the best overall rotation on this list. Kile is solidly in the #1 category. Ankiel fits nicely in the #2 slot, despite finishing 4th in innings. Then it’s a pick ‘em between Pat Hentgen and Garrett Stephenson as 3 and 4. Round that out with Andy Benes, who was disappointing but was still much better than a #5.

The key to this club? Health. Staying healthy can make a world of difference for a rotation. With Britt Reames and his 4.66 FIP sitting in the #6 spot, it was needed because the early 2000s ballclubs lacked rotation depth from the system. As we have seen and will continue to see, though, health is by far the exception rather than the rule for a rotation. Even a good one.

2019 Cardinals

We are getting now to more “normal” contending teams. The 2019 squad remains, in my opinion, underrated by fans. They reached the NLCS, which is no small feat. And it feels like that disappointing performance against the Nationals soured what was a solid-for-Cards-standards season.

Again, the club relied on a #1 performance. Flaherty provided it this time with 4.7 fWAR and a second half for the record books. After that? Mikolas came in a little low for a #2 with 2.4 fWAR. Wainwright was acceptable as a #3, if only barely. Repeat that sentence for Hudson but substitute in the number 4. The club got just above replacement-level production from the fifth spot with the combination of Wacha and Ponce de Leon.

Here we see the benefit of healthy again, especially at the top of the rotation. Even though four-fifths of the rotation underperformed the standards above, the top 4 starters made over 30 starts each. Reliability is almost as important as actual ability.

2014 Cardinals

The 2014 Cardinals are a classic example of how much productive depth can mean for a rotation when inevitable injuries or poor performance strike.

Again, the club followed the now-proven formula. Wainwright was the club’s ace. Lynn was, again, a more-than-solid number two. After that it gets rough.

Wacha + Lackey can probably slide into the #3 spot with 2.4 fWAR combined. That’s quality production for the middle of the rotation. Then the club cobbled together a #4 starter from a three-headed monster in Garcia + Kelly + Martinez. Those three combined for 1.1 fWAR.

Shelby Miller, lastly, had an ERA that didn’t match his FIP and provided quality #5 starter stats with better than #5 run prevention.

The lesson here? Depth matters. Having solid, developing arms that can provide above replacement-level production is huge.

2011 Cardinals

One more. Stop me when this sounds familiar? The Cardinals had a quality #1 in Chris Carpenter. They had a solid #2 in Jaime Garcia, who had one of his best seasons. Lohse is close enough as a #3.

Then it gets uglier. Westbrook is the number four, and was pretty terrible from an ERA perspective; he did manage to stay above replacement level. Then the club got better-than-replacement-level but not-very-inspiring stuff from the combination of Kyle McClellan and Edwin Jackson.

What would this club have been if Adam Wainwright had been healthy? It might have won the World Series! Oh, wait. Having David Freese helps, too!

Conclusions & Applying this Data to 2022

When looking at these rotations it’s apparent that there is no one formula. I could pull out any of a dozen different points from the data above. I think, though, that two things caught my eye as essentials:

First, it is abundantly clear that a “contending” team needs to have a #1 or high #2 caliber pitcher. The rest of the rotation can fluctuate quite a lot, but that stable, high-impact performance at the top seems to be the most consistent factor for a “contending” rotation.

Second, if you want to win, the rotation needs to have one of the following two things: a) remarkable health, which is the exception, or b) quality depth that can step in and fill the production lost through injury. How good the depth needs to be depends almost entirely on who is missing.

Now, let’s apply what we’ve learned. The Cardinals are just past the halfway mark. How are they lining up? It’s not surprising considering their injuries and up-and-down play, but the 2022 rotation is a real mixed bag. It should be quite good but is going to fall short in both of the critical categories that I just named.

If we stick with the model presented above, we have to fudge a bit to get the first-half rotation to slide in where they’re supposed to.

Miles Mikolas is on pace for something between 3-3.5 fWAR. That’s more #2 than #1 production. However, his FIP is quite a bit higher than his ERA, though, so he’s probably providing #1 levels of runs allowed even if it’s not fully deserved. As we’ve seen multiple times above, having players outperform their FIP is one key to success for an under-performing rotation. But that FIP gap matters. The Cards are missing Flaherty at the top and while Mikolas deserves to be commended for his season, he can’t quite fill the gap.

That critical absence slides everyone else up and creates a host of new problems that are further compounded by injury and depth issues.

Wainwright fits ok as a #2, but like Mikolas, he’s a few tenths shy by fWAR. He’ll need to be even better in the second half. As a number three, he would be ideal.

Steven Matz, meanwhile, should be in the #3/4 role. But his early-season struggles followed by an injury leaves the club short. Andre Pallante has filled in ok, but his poor K/BB ratio and rising FIP simply aren’t good enough to cover the lost production. That said, Matz’s peripherals were pretty good before his injury. With his return set to come soon and three months to go, I’m not giving up on him yet.

It’s Hudson, then, who has to slide up to the #3 spot, with a production expectation that he simply can’t match. Let’s give him a little credit, though. He’s on pace for 1-1.5 fWAR. If he was in the #4 or #5 role he was planned to be in, he would be an asset. Alas!

The fifth spot has been inconsistent as the Cardinals have opted for a by-committee approach and haven’t stuck with one guy. I think this is a mistake, for what it’s worth and I hope they rectify it with Liberatore going forward. The result is a bunch of guys with a handful of games started but very little positive production. It’s probably fair just to call the 5th spot “replacement level” and leave it at that. They should get more from Liberatore if they leave him alone and give him 15 consecutive starts there.

From a design perspective, the guts of a contending rotation are clearly evident. Flaherty should have been the #1 and earned that right in the past. Then it was fair to hope for #2-#4 production from Mikolas/AW/Matz in some order. Hudson draws a lot of fan ire, but he’s an asset in the #5 role. Beyond them, the club had 4-5 arms who should have been able to provide serviceable depth, ranging from Liberatore to Hicks, VerHagen, or even Connor Thomas.

An injury at the top, in the middle, and struggles at the bottom are a trifecta of trouble for a “contending rotation”. Unless something changes soon with either the guys they have or acquiring guys they don’t have, you can probably file this club alongside all those other 87-92 win Cardinal teams who couldn’t get out of the Wild Card or win a Division Round series.

What about moves? Well, you can see above how much the right additions at the right time can mean for a ballclub. The Cards could use another Chuck Finley, Woody Williams, or John Lackey.

It’s on Mo to find that arm. Or settle for something less than this club was designed to be.

With Flaherty heading to the 60-day IL but the rest of the lineup and rotation working itself back into form, I think this is the perfect time for the club to strike, use their large quantity of high-caliber prospect depth and go for it.

Acquiring a #1-#3 starter would be expensive in prospect costs this season where pitching is at a premium. But it would stabilize a team that just needs consistency from its rotation to take this division.

Mo won’t do it. But if ever there was a year where he should, it’s this one.