Last night, the St. Louis Cardinals improved their 2015 record to 81-45 (.643) with a 3-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. Per Fangraphs, the Cardinals' playoff odds stand firmly at 100.0%, but I don't consider the coin-flip "play-in" game as truly reaching the playoffs, so it is comforting to see that they have the Cardinals at a 77.1% chance of winning the division. For perspective on just how good the National League Central actually is, the 70-56 Mets have an 85.6% chance of winning the East, and the 69-56 Dodgers have an 88.2% chance of winning the West.
As we all know by now, the backbone for Cardinals' success has been a tremendous pitching staff (and in reality, the offense has not been as bad as it's made out to be, either)—which has accumulated 19.0 fWAR up to this point. This is a total only three teams (the Nationals: 23.1, the Indians: 20.4, and the Yankees: 19.5) reached in 162 games last season. What's fun is that the Cardinals still have 36 games to go, and the very crude method of adding up the ZiPS rest-of-season projections for the pitching staff puts them right around 23 for the 2015 season.
Of the five, on a production per outing basis, Garcia has clearly been the most effective pitcher on staff, tallying an impressive 1.8 fWAR in roughly half the starts of his rotation mates. Manager Mike Matheny could hand the ball to Jaime for game one of a playoff series, but for whatever reason (and I am probably overvaluing the "Mike's guys" theory here), I just do not see this happening. That being said, if it does indeed happen, count me in as a firm supporter of the decision because if I was of the political nature, the title of this article would have read "Lance Lynn (or Jaime Garcia) should start game one of any potential playoff series."
So, why do I believe Lance Lynn should get the ball for game one? First, I must note that this article was largely predicated on the fact that I saw more than a handful of people demoting Lynn to the bullpen for the playoffs, stating that the other four starters have outperformed him this season. This is simply untrue. Despite being unlucky on balls in play all season (.323 BABIP versus a league average of .296), Lynn has still managed a sub-3.00 ERA (as with the rest of the rotation) and has put up the second most fWAR of the staff at 2.8.
Breaking it down on a game-by-game basis, Lynn has allowed one run or less 13 times (54% of his starts) and two runs or less 18 times (75% of his starts). I hate that I am bringing this up because I don't value pitcher wins all that much (read: very little), but if Lynn had been given better run support (3.04, 3rd fewest in baseball) this season and posted a better record than 10-8, would he be respected a little more?
But, Joe, the table above shows that Wacha has better statistics (ERA, FIP, fWAR) than Lynn, why not go with him for game one? Despite his cool, well-beyond-his-years demeanor, I just do not consider having the 24-year-old toe the rubber in game one a very good idea, especially considering how the 2014 playoffs ended for him. Sure, by that time, the home run by Travis Ishikawa will have been over one year ago, but baseball is largely a mental game, especially for pitchers, and I simply cannot discredit what happened as useless information. Plus, (and remember, this is not a new concern for me whatsoever,) Wacha's lack of fastball command worries me, especially in the playoffs.
After quite the roundabout, let's finally nail down why I think Lynn should pitch in game one. In the playoffs, strikeouts are abundantly important (heck, in the regular season, strikeouts are also very important). Lynn has proven to be the rotation's best strikeout pitcher at 24.2%, and other than Martinez (who just may find himself in the bullpen for the playoffs), it's really not all that close. Game one is where teams set the tone for the rest of the series, and to be honest, I would much rather have a pitcher striking out seven, eight, or nine batters than being subjected to batted ball luck, even considering the fact that the Cardinals have been fantastic on defense.
Of course, it is only August 27th, and the Cardinals still have more than one month of baseball left to play. In time, situations such as this one tend to work themselves out on their own, but it doesn't hurt to at least start the discussion. Please complete the poll below and explain your thoughts in the comments as well.
Prospect News Addendum
Do you remember Sasha Kuebel, the 38th round draft pick out of the University of Iowa? As you may recall, I hosted an in-depth Q&A with him after the draft. Well, he is being promoted to the Low-A Peoria Chiefs today. As far as I know, nothing is completely official yet, but I can confirm (from multiple sources) that the 6'1" left-hander has been promoted. Plus, our own John Nagel already tweeted the news last night after hearing from one of his sources. Much of Sasha's time in the minors has been devoted to the reliever role, but southpaw relievers tend to find a way to be around the game for a very long time. Here is to hoping that this is the case with Sasha. Take a look at his 2015 stat line with Johnson City:
Beyond rookie league results (which, in general, don't mean all that much), let's talk about the process. I have been told that Sasha's fastball is sitting 90-91 MPH, with the capability of topping out at 93 MPH—the fastest he has ever thrown (it obviously helps that he is now coming out of the bullpen). If he can command his fastball throughout the zone and couple it with his slip pitch/breaking ball, I could see the 23-year-old lefty climbing the organizational ladder rather quickly in the 2016 season.