The Cardinals’ 2017 Rotation: Better Defense Means Better Pitching

No one put in a request, but … as we prep for the April 2 season opener, I offer some quick thoughts on the Cardinals’ five-man rotation heading into the 2017 season:

The Overview

In 2016, Cards starters ranked 13th in MLB and 7th in the National League with a 4.33 ERA. They weren’t bad early on, but the rotation quality eroded after the All-Star break, and that damaged the team’s postseason push.

Adam Wainwright had a 4.61 second half ERA in 2016.

The Cardinals’ second-half 4.80 starting pitching ERA ranked 13th in the NL and 27th overall. And take a look at a few second-half ERAs: Adam Wainwright 4.61, Jaime Garcia 5.37, Mike Leake 5.62, Luke Weaver 5.70, Michael Wacha 7.44. Not good.

That said, defense played a role in the demise. Just about every one of these guys would tell you they were capable of performing better. But Cards pitchers, especially the starters, had to labor and get extra outs too many times because of a clunky defense that ranked 26th in defensive efficiency.

You can see the impact of the inferior defense just by looking at the rotation’s standard ERA (4.33) and Fielding Independent ERA (3.96.) And this was significant. And consider this: opponents had a .320 batting average on balls in play vs. Cardinals starters in 2016 — the highest BIP against a St. Louis rotation in the 55 seasons of the post-expansion era. Wow.

There was a disconnect between several starters’ regular ERAs and their FIP ERA:

Wainwright:  4.62 ERA … 3.98 FIP

Leake: 4.69 … 3.87

Wacha: 5.09 … 3.95

Weaver: 5.70 … .4.37

GM John Mozeliak made defense a focal point over the offseason, and manager Mike Matheny and the coaches have done their part by setting up drill stations to give players’ individual instruction during spring training. The defense should have more range, and be more reliable, in 2017. But how much? That’s the question. A more athletic outfield should be able to run down more fly balls, and get to line drives. If Kolten Wong plays extensively at second base, his defense will help the pitchers. The Cardinals expect Aledyms Diaz to settle down (and improve) defensively. Matt Carpenter seems to handle first base with more skill than his other positions; we’ll just have to wait and see how it goes. The same applies to third baseman Jhonny Peralta.

And don’t forget about the importance of aligning the defense. As I wrote during the offseason, the Cardinals saved only one run defensively last season when using shifts. That was terrible … the worst mark in the majors.

Now compare the Cardinals +1 when using shifts to the Defensive Runs Saved on shifts by the five NL playoff teams in ’16:

Nationals  +14

Cubs + 12

Giants +12

Dodgers  +12

Mets +5

Mozeliak addressed that problem by promoting Class AAA Memphis manager Mike Shildt to the St. Louis coaching staff. Shildt, one of the smartest baseball minds in the organization, isn’t allergic to advanced metrics. He sees the value in them. I have to believe the Cardinals will do a more intelligent job of lining their fielders up in 2017.

Moving on …

Obviously, there’s one major change from last year’s rotation: Garcia was traded to Atlanta, and Lance Lynn is back after a 2016 lost to Tommy John elbow-repair surgery. That’s a boost for the Cardinals, to have the big man rejoining the band.

Martinez posted a 16-9 record with a 3.04 ERA in 2016.

Before closing this writing session down, I’d like to offer an opinion on each starter:

Carlos Martinez: He’s already emerged as one of the best starters in the game, having ranked 10th in ERA among all MLB starters over the last two seasons. But by giving him a new contract and the honor of starting on opening night, the Cardinals sent a clear message to Martinez. It’s his time. He’s the No. 1 starter. Go out and be special. Capable of punching out hitters and inducing a great many ground balls, Martinez pretty much has everything going for him. What’s next? Well, he just has to walk fewer batters and use his offspeed stuff more frequently to stifle LH hitters. Those LH batters had a .742 OPS against Martinez over the last two seasons.

Adam Wainwright: An enhanced defense should help him. Yep, he’s 35 … and Waino will be pushing back against age in 2017. But he figures to be sharper this season after strengthening his legs and base after a below-standard 2016 season.

After missing all but a small portion of 2015 with a ruptured achilles, Wainwright should be sturdier this time around. That’s the theory and the hope. He’s a determined, intensely competitive man …. and extremely proud. Wanwright had a couple of very good months last season, crafting a 2.67 ERA in June-July. Obviously, the challenge is reestablishing consistency and command. His fastball velocity has gone down, but Wainwright’s pitch variety gives him lots of ways to get hitters out. But those secondary pitches have to have more crispness and snap in 2017. Waino needs to cut down on his walk rate (which went up in ’16). He needs to find a way to lower his home run per flyball rate (12%) and raise his ground ball rate (44%).

Lance Lynn: I’ll keep this one brief … Lynn is a horse. He had an extra-long rehab period after TJ surgery and shows no signs of missed-season vulnerability. Between 2012 and 2015, Lynn was tied for sixth among MLB starters in wins. But since win totals can be awfully misleading, let’s do this another way: over those four seasons Lynn ranked 13th in most starts made, 17th in strikeouts, 20th in ERA (3.35) and 21st in innings. He’ll become a free agent after the season. He’ll be in line for an enormous contract. All indicators are favorable; the big man is poised to have a big year.

Mike Leake: It was funny to see so many people upset with Leake, steaming as if the dude was a diminished, weakened pitcher compared to his seasons in Cincinnati. Part of that was based on stupidly off base expectations after he signed a five-year $80 million contract. Yo: Just because you sign a large contract, it doesn’t add 7 miles per hour to your fastball, or suddenly turn you into Max Scherzer. The truth: Leake’s pitching was closely in line with what he did for the Reds. His Fielding Independent ERA (3.87) was the second-best of his career. Compared to 2015, Leake got more swings and misses. His strikeout rate went up. His walk rate went down. His homers-allowed rate was lower. Leake just needed a more supportive defense behind him. And if that happens in ’17, then good things will follow. I also think Leake will be more comfortable and confident in his second season with his new team.

Michael Wacha: There isn’t much to say here. It’s been encouraging to watch Wacha pitch in exhibition games because he looks physically strong, and he’s delivering fastballs and changeups with full extension, and that elevated arm angle is essential to his success. It just makes it hard for hitters to see the ball coming out of Wacha’s hand, and that’s a big factor in throwing a changeup. But this year’s question is the same as last season: will Wacha’s stamina hold? Or will his shoulder blade wear down again? Over the past two seasons Wacha had a 3.64 ERA before the All-Star break — and a 5.06 ERA after the break. So we don’t know what to expect here. You just hope for the best.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie 

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