How the Cardinals Rotation Can Fix Itself Using These Simple Tricks

Editor's note: This week for Fanpost Friday LawBird has given us a look into starting pitching production from the St. Louis Cardinals and their various starting pitching options going forward. It delves into a lot of stuff you might have been wondering yourself about how the pitchers are faring. If you are interested, check out Devin's article breaking down Miles Mikolas's start to the season. I believe he comes to a similar conclusion that Lawbird has. And of course, if you are interested in writing a Fanpost of your own, here is a handy guide to get you started! I look forward to reading them!

Look, everyone knows that I have planted my flag on the opinion that the Cardinals rotation will be average to slightly above and that, by being average to slightly above, the bullpen and position player strengths of the team are good enough to carry them to the playoffs. Now, everyone also knows that this first 23 games of the season have seen the team lose an incredibly frustrating 61% of the games of the season, with a lot of the blame for those losses rightfully directed at a rotation that has performed at below average rates. Despite the rough start, I’m going to outline (1) why I think the rotation can be above average and (2) how they can fix the current struggles of the rotation.

Let’s start with the pre-season projections. I’m using the pre-season Zips projections, adjusted for playing time, mainly because they’re my favorite and have been proven to be very good at what they’re intended to do. It’s not perfect, though, as admitted by its creator so I’ll tell you where I disagree.

Jordan Montgomery

Zips Proj. – 157 innings, 15.4 k-bb%, .286 BABIP, 3.56 FIP, 3.38 ERA, 2.6 fWAR

Again, these are the 50th percentile rankings and disproportionately discount his innings total due to injury issues over 2018-2019 and the shortened 2020 season, during which he made 10 starts out of a possible 12 and was obviously building stamina on the fly. He hasn’t had any injury issues over the last 2 years and averaged 168 innings over that time. That informs my projections:

LB Proj. – 170 innings, 16.1 k-bb%, .275 BABIP, 3.40 FIP, 3.25 ERA, 3.2 fWAR

How does he get there? Well, this projection actually discounts his current production. He’s on pace for 182 innings, a 2.76 FIP and 3.5 fWAR. But hey, if I’m going to regress Mikolas, Flaherty and Matz back towards their mean career production levels (spoiler alert), then I need to do the same with Monty.

The Trick – Keep doin’ what you’re doin’, Monty! Let it ride!!!

Not a bad number 1, even if he’s not at the level of Justin Verlander or Carlos Rodon. He is, you know, healthy though.

Miles Mikolas

Zips Proj. – 156 innings, 13.0 k-bb%, .295 BABIP, 4.13 FIP, 3.75 ERA, 1.6 fWAR

Those are Mikolas’ 50th percentile projections and are heavily influenced by him missing 2020 entirely and only having pitched 44 innings in 2021. I completely understand why Zips factors those years into the equation, especially considering the fact that Mikolas is now 34 years old, but I’m taking the over on the innings total. Why? Glad you asked. In Mikolas’ three healthy years with the Cardinals (2018, 2019 & 2022) he averaged just over 190 innings per season and he’s, by all accounts, fully healthy this season. In those three healthy seasons, Mikolas’ rate stats were as follows:

3/yr AVG – 195 innings, 14.5 k-bb%, .276 BABIP, 3.80 FIP, 3.42 ERA, 3.2 fWAR

That’s, well, that’s probably a bit optimistic (even for me, noted rainbows, unicorns and awesome sauce drinker), so we should discount those numbers due to age and how long ago his best year (2018) was. For the analytically inclined, let’s call these his 80th percentile projections. So, where do I think he’ll land? Man, you’re asking great questions today. Kudos.

LB Proj. – 185 innings, 13.7 k-bb%, .280 BABIP, 3.95 FIP, 3.60 ERA, 2.5 fWAR

Since there’s nothing troubling in his pitch metrics and his k-bb% (which are two of the fastest stabilizing and best metrics for predicting future performance) has only marginally dropped from 14.2% to 12.9% as compared to last year, what the heck has gone wrong for him so far? We should dig in and find out. The first thing that jumps off the page for me is the .402 BABIP and 10.8% barrel rate. That’s…umm…not good, Clark. In fact, that would be 120 points above his career BABIP, and over 4 percentage points above his career barrel rate, which takes into account his pre-Japan years as a pretty bad middle reliever, and would be the worst BABIP allowed in the last 15 years, at least (I stopped looking after that). Not just the worst, mind you, but the worst BABIP allowed by a pitcher in a season by about 50 points! To put that in perspective, Patrick Corbin’s worst BABIP allowed is a .365 in a season in which he allowed a 11% barrel rate.

So, even if Mikolas is going to give up as much hard contact as Patrick Corbin from now on, we can reasonably say that he’s been unlucky to the tune of 35 points of BABIP. It’s just luck then? Actually, probably not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s mostly luck (and shaking off the WBC rust) but he’s also only got a GB% of 33.7% compared to a career 46.4%. Okay, so I buried the lede here a little bit but that’s my big reveal. His ground ball percentage has gone down and his line drive percentage has gone up a corresponding amount. Since line drive percentage is a notoriously fluky stat, it’s reasonable to assume that it’ll go back down while his ground ball percentage goes back up to career norms.

The Trick – Wait out SSS variance and let the ground ball percentage rise while the line drive percentage, barrel rate and BABIP fall.

Typical Mikolas is a perfectly capable, innings-eating number 2-3 in the rotation. Let’s hope the ground balls start coming for ole Miles soon.

Jack Flaherty

Zips Proj. – 103.2 innings, 16.6 k-bb%, .264 BABIP, 3.98 FIP, 3.47 ERA, 1.1 fWAR

Entirely understandably, the Zips pre-season projections saw injury risk here and lowered his projected innings accordingly. None of us had any idea what he would be able to do this year. Sure, some (ahem, like myself) hoped that the last few healthy starts of the 2022 season portended to a healthy 2023 but it’s understandable that others put him in the Jaime Garcia anything-we-get-from-him-is-gravy bucket prior to the season. I will say that the Zips rate stats are pretty dang encouraging, and back up the assertion that Flaherty is a mid-rotation starter at worst. He definitely has the potential to be an "Ace" that would be pretty fun to have, but I think it’s probably a little unfair to project that onto him right now. Still, I’m going to spray a bit of unicorn-rainbow dust mixed with awesome sauce on his innings totals and project what I think he’ll do this year.

LB Proj. – 150 innings, 19.5 k-bb%, .289 BABIP, 3.45 FIP, 3.35 ERA, 3.0 fWAR

Whew…I just said it wasn’t fair to project him to be an Ace and then I go out and do something like that? What in the heck am I thinking? He’s walking like, pretty much everyone right now (17 bb%), he’s got a 5.15 FIP and isn’t he having a velocity issue? Well, yes and no. Yes, he definitely has a 17% bb rate and a 5.15 FIP, but those are greatly skewed by the first 2 starts of the season in which he walked a total of 13 hitters and struck out 7. Two rusty starts to begin a season after spending the majority of two seasons on the IL should be expected, really. And the velocity issues? Well first off, he said that he backed off his fastball in that first start because his mechanics were drifting and he couldn’t locate it. Secondly, he’s also added a cutter to his 4SM/2SM mix and the result is Statcast misclassifying a bunch of 2SM and cutters as 4SM, drastically pulling his average velo down. If we look at the pitches with similar spin rates and movement profiles, his cutter averages around 88 mph, his 2SM averages around 90-91 mph and his 4SM averages 94 mph. That’s…well that’s the same average velocity as pre-injury. "So, he’s back! LB said Flaherty is back!" Whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m not saying he’s back to June-September 2019 levels, but I’m saying that over his last three starts he’s looked like:

Last 3 – 17.1 innings (5.2/start), 19.4 k-bb%, 4.59 FIP, 4.15 ERA

Hmm, now that’s still not as good as LB’s projection. What gives? Well, his HR/FB% is nearly 19% over the last 3 starts and I’m projecting that that goes down quite a bit. With an average HR rate, his xFIP is 3.81 over that time and, well, I think he’s going to continue to get better as the season goes on. Plus, his career HR rate is way down at 15% and is still influenced by some SSS variance where he gave up 10 HRs in 60 innings over his first 20 MLB innings and the crazy 2020 COVID year. He’s been just a tick above average at limiting HRs the rest of his career.

The Trick – Keep your mechanics in synch and pitch more like the last 3 games. But, like, don’t give up so many HRs, will ya?

As mentioned before, Jack has the potential to entirely transform the rotation, season and moods of all Cards fans all by himself. I don’t know if he’ll do it or not but he’s a pretty darn good number 3.

Steven Matz

Zips Proj. – 97 innings, 16.1 k-bb%, .296 BABIP, 3.91 FIP, 3.71 ERA, 1.1 fWAR

Very similarly to Flaherty, Zips (also entirely understandably) saw injury risk here and lowered his projected innings accordingly. Unlike Flaherty, however, Matz has never pitched more than 160 innings in a season. What he has done, however, is stay healthy in 2018 (154 innings), 2019 (160.1 innings), 2020 (30 innings in a COVID year), and 2021 (150 innings). Have I mentioned that I hate using the COVID year stats in these projections? They really mess up the innings projections and it seems like there was so much other stuff going on that year that we should just throw them out. We can’t prorate them over a full season or use them as equal components as a full season’s stats in projections, that’s for sure. Anyway, because this is my article and I can do what I want, I’m throwing them out and using the average of 2018, 2019 and 2021, discounted for 2022’s injuries in my projections.

LB Proj. – 130 innings, 16.5 k-bb%, .310 BABIP, 3.65 FIP, 3.45 ERA, 2 fWAR

Alright, so I like Matz. I like him a lot, in fact, and think that he’s underrated around here. His stuff ticked up and his pitch usage changed in Toronto the year prior to Mo signing him and he’s maintained those changes in STL. It’s a shame he got injured, twice, last year before he could really show them off but he did give us a glimpse of what he’s all about, with a 3.78 FIP, 3.15 xFIP and ugly 16% HR/FB rate. That HR rate is pretty much in line with his career rates, too, so an argument could be made that that’s just who he is. Since you’ve made it this far in the article, you know (and love) that I’m not the guy to make the pessimists argument, though. See, the optimist would go back to the fact that Matz upgraded his pitch mix and shape in 2021 and look at that season’s HR rate (it was 12.3%). And that’s not because the Blue Jays play in a HR suppressing ballpark, either, they played in Dunedin (which was MLB’s worst ballpark in HR rate allowed), Buffalo (2nd worst ballpark in HR rate allowed) and Toronto (top-7 in HR rate). Given that his BABIP is at an unsustainably high .373 and HR rate is currently sitting at 25%, I’m betting those come down to his career averages or better.

The Trick - Wait out SSS variance and let the hard hit and HR rates drop.

We’ll see whether I’m right or wrong about how meaningful those pitch shape/mix changes he made were, but you could do a lot worse than Matz as a number 4.

Jake Woodford

Zips Proj. – 98 innings, 7.6 k-bb%, .281 BABIP, 4.32 FIP, 3.95 ERA, .8 fWAR

Yeah, so I don’t have much to say about Woody. I didn’t like him last year, was fooled into holding out hope that his pitch-shape changes over the offseason would lead to solid results, and hoped he could hold the fort together until Waino got back. How’s that going? Ugh.

Current – 19.1 innings, 6.8 k-bb%, .339 BABIP, 7.36 FIP, 6.05 ERA, -.4 fWAR

Dude. Not cool. Not to fire more strays at Patrick Qorbin, but Woody’s been worse than even his worst seasons. It’s bad. Thank goodness it’s likely only one more start (tonight) and then he’ll be replaced by Waino. So, how do we get through tonight with Woody? Limit the heck out of him. That’s how. And I mean limit him so much that he’s an opener. He shouldn’t face the lineup more than once tonight. At which point JoJo and Stratton should come in for multiple innings apiece. Then option Woody and JoJo down to Memphis for fresh arms. Insert Waino into the rotation at it’s next turn.

LB Proj. – None. I don’t like his stuff nor do I think he’s a productive major leaguer. Keep him in AAA or use him as a long-man out of the pen until you need a roster spot.

Upgrade ASAP. Fool me once (this spring) shame on you. Fool me twice…well, that’s not gonna happen.

Adam Wainwright

Zips – 154.2 innings, 10.6 k-bb%, .287 BABIP, 4.41 FIP, 3.96 ERA, 1 fWAR

I get it. He’s 41 years old and dropped velocity both at the end of last season and during spring training. That’s definitely concerning, don’t get me wrong, but he did see steady velocity gains in every start of the WBC and, if the reports are true, was sitting anywhere from 87-90 mph in his first rehab start last week. He’ll throw another tonight and I hope to see more improvements – or at least sustained velo throughout the start – in order to really trust these projections, but here they are anyway.

LB Proj. – 150 innings, 13.7 k-bb%, .275 BABIP, 3.70 FIP, 3.45 ERA, 1.5 fWAR

The Trick – Stay healthy, Waino! (And keep that fastball velo above 87 mph)

Like I said, Waino could do a lot to assuage my "worry" about him tonight. We’ll see. Here’s my favorite part, though. Even if Waino can’t get his velo back or, baseball heaven forbid, has to go back on the IL, we have another option. No, I’m not talking about Hudson. He’s injured right now and it looks like his pre-injury velocity and pitch profile aren’t coming back regardless. What we do have, is a perfectly cromulent Matthew Liberatore sitting right down there in Memphis. And folks…he is raring to go.

Matthew Liberatore

Zips – 77 innings, 12.4 k-bb%, .284 BABIP, 3.95 FIP, 3.83 ERA, 1 fWAR

Pre-season, that was an optimistic projection considering he hasn’t had a FIP that low since he was in the Tampa organization (and also in A-ball), but it looks downright quaint at the moment. Let me show you what I mean. And by that, I mean what he’s done so far in AAA.

AAA – 27.2 innings, 24.3 k-bb%, .313 BABIP, 2.77 FIP, 2.60 ERA

Did I call it or did I call it? Not really, no. (Lol, gotcha) I said that his fastball wasn’t "unplayable at the MLB level" and that he just needed to improve his command in order to be a fifth starter in MLB. He’s improved his command alright, but also improved his fastball shape and is now maintaining the 96-98 mph velocity he was touching before throughout his starts. That’s no longer a number 5 starter, folks, that’s a mid-rotation at worst starter. He’s ready to fill in now and, assuming the innings totals and typical injury issues, will pitch meaningful innings this year.

LB Proj – 100 innings, 18 k-bb%, .295 BABIP, 3.65 FIP, 3.40 ERA, 1.5 fWAR

The Trick – Keep maintaining that velocity. Stay aggressive. Promote anytime there’s a need for a starter.

Well, that's it for me. I look forward to the comments and seeing whether these are anywhere near accurate at the end of the season, especially now that I've utilized the ignore button for the few undesirables among us. Oh, and if you add up the fWAR in my projections here, and subtract Woody's -.4 fWAR, you get a total of 13.3 fWAR. Which, if I'm not mistaken, would put the Cardinals rotation in the top-12 of the league. This ranking is also known in some circles as being "above average."