Coming into the season, I think the narrative for the 2015 Cardinals was fairly well known. Some variant of, "Well, we think the offense should be somewhat better than it was in 2014, given the improvements in right field and from some of the team's youngest players, but it's the pitching that is going to have to carry this team," seemed to be the overall consensus on what the Redbirds would be this year.
It makes sense, too, right? You look all the way back to that amazing bumper crop of prospects the Cards had a few years ago, when they possessed the number one farm system in all of baseball, and the vast majority of the talent that led to that ranking was on the pitching side. Even over the offseason, the Cardinals' willingness to part with Shelby Miller and the talented but not yet ready for prime time Tyrell Jenkins was less cause for concern about the club's decision-making and more affirmation of just how much pitching talent this organisation has amassed. Very few of us worried the club would be unable to replace Miller's production, or that we would look around in a few years and see a big, Jenkins-shaped hole on the roster; it was pretty obvious the Cardinals were trading from a position of strength, trying to fill a need, and would be able to figure out some way of keeping the pitching up to snuff even without two arms nearly any team in baseball would covet.
They added to the bullpen, also, in an interesting way. After years of largely scrap-heaping it and cobbling together workable bullpens from prospect arms and retreads, the organisation made it a seeming point of emphasis to deepen and upgrade the relief corp this offseason. Jordan Walden was brought in as part of the Shelby Miller/Jason Heyward deal, and the club was careful to push him as a vital part of the deal, a contention I'm actually willing to take at face value. They further deepened the talent pool by signing Matt Belisle, recently escaped from the pitcher's purgatory that is Coors Field, to both strengthen the 'pen and help ease the potential transition of Carlos Martinez out of the eighth inning. Watching the Birds take deliberate steps to solidify the back end of the bullpen was a slightly odd experience, as John Mozeliak and Company have been mostly content over the past several years to figure the relief situation out on the fly. Perhaps it was an internal shift in thought. Perhaps it was watching how effectively the Royals were able to ride their relievers to the World Series last year. Or, perhaps it was simply the somewhat amazing lack of holes elsewhere on the roster that allowed the focus to shift to such luxuries as shoring up the short relief.
So it would seem, looking from the outside, that pitching should be the story of this season. The Cardinals have transitioned over the past few years from a run-scoring juggenaut to a run-prevention monster of a club, and the 2015 club looked poised, at least when trying to predict how things might go ahead of time, to be a new peak of that direction. Of course, the best laid plans, and all that, so what was planned and billed as a pitching powerhouse could very well turn out to be something else entirely.
Then again, sometimes things work out exactly as they were planned.
The Cardinals have now made three complete turns through the rotation (I'm writing this on Saturday afternoon, ahead of game two of the series against the Brewers, so if anything earth-shattering happened in the night's game, forgive me for not knowing it), and so far the results have been nothing short of spectacular. In fact, at least by certain measures, the Redbirds are downright lapping the field.
- The Cardinals, as of this writing, rank first in all of baseball in ERA, with a 1.92 mark. That numbers is over one full run better than the second-place club, the Kansas City Royals. The Royals come in with a 2.98 ERA, followed by Houston and the BEST ROTATION ANYONE HAS EVER SEEN!!!! New York Mets, tied at 3.02. The Nationals, with their hugely hyped starting five, rounds out the top five with a 3.09 mark.
- The Redbirds' OPS against mark of .567 is also first in baseball, a full 51 points better than, yep, you guessed it, the Kansas City Royals. Oakland, Houston, and Pittsburgh follow up as the top five.
- The Cards are first in the league in batting average against, at .206, followed by Tampa Bay, Oakland, Houston, and Kansas City. There's also a full ten point gap between the Birds and the Rays.
- The Cardinals are only third in shutouts, with three, trailing the Athletic with five and Detroit with four, and just ahead of a huge group of teams that have thrown two.
- They're tied for the second-most quality starts in baseball, with twelve, just one behind San Diego and tied with the Mets and Nationals.
- Somewhat surprisingly, the Cards rank only ninth in strikeouts per nine, with an 8.36 mark. The Cleveland Indians lead the pack with -- and this is not a typo -- 10.75 K/9. For the whole team. Again, that is nearly eleven strikeouts per nine innings, over the entire pitching staff.
- El Birdos are fifth in strikeout to walk ratio, at 3.15. The Chicago Cubs, of all clubs, lead the league in K/BB at 4.30, followed by the Dodgers at 4.18, the Mets at 4.15, and the Pirates at 3.50. Those top numbers in particular are shocking, and at least a little bit frightening, in terms of watching baseball that's enjoyable and exciting.
- The Cards are first in WHIP, first in both on-base and slugging percentage against (which is kind of cool, as their huge lead in OPS against isn't based on being otherwordly good at one or the other, but rather excelling at both), and have allowed the fewest total bases in all of baseball by a wide margin. The Cardinals have allowed only 148 total bases to their opposition this year; the second place club, in this case the Atlanta Braves, have allowed 185. That 37 base difference is a full quarter of the total number Cardinal pitchers have allowed. It's also nine times as many bases as the four separating the Braves from the third place Indians.