If the Rotation is a Big Bust, a ‘Big Bat’ Won’t Save the 2018 Cardinals

As the Cardinals’ eternal search for a BIG BAT continues, it’s probably a good time to remind everyone of the most essential asset a team must have to be successful at winning baseball games.

Good starting pitching.

Deep starting pitching.

Consistent, durable, sustainable starting pitching.

Absolutely, the St. Louis lineup would become menacing with the addition of BIG BAT hardware. But if the starting rotation fragments and disintegrates,  the biggest BIG BAT can’t save the season. You could modify a DeLorean, and power it up with plutonium stolen from Libyan terrorists and transport Ted Williams (circa 1941) to Busch Stadium to bat cleanup for the 2018 Cardinals, but his .406 average, .553 onbase percentage and .735 slugging percentage wouldn’t matter if the STL rotation cracks.

You could go all H.G. Wells and take Babe Ruth’s 59-homer season of 1921, magically transport it to 2018, and hit the Bambino third in the lineup behind Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler … but if the rotation goes thermonuclear, then the lineup card is smithereens. Irrelevant.

How do I know this?

Because the hulking presence of one Giancarlo Stanton blasted an industry-leading 59 home runs into orbit this past season, and his Miami Marlins won 77 games. They won 77 games because of a starting rotation that ranked 13th in the 15-team National League with a 5.13 rotation ERA.

Since breaking into the bigs in 2010, Stanton has triggered a home run every 13.4 at-bats, and his ISO (isolated power) of .286 is the best in the show over an eight-season stretch. Stanton has taken live swings in 986 major-league games. He’s stepped into a major-league batter’s box for 4,120 plate appearances. He’s converted 267 MLB pitches into home runs.

That’s just the regular season.

And when Stanton has walked onto the postseason stage, toting the BIG BAT …

Oh, that’s right.  Stanton has never participated in an major-league postseason game.

It isn’t easy for even the most fearsome of all the extra-large bats (Stanton) to reach a coveted place on MLB’s October platform when his team’s rotation ranks 26th among 30 teams in quality starts, and 21st in ERA, during his eight seasons.

We should know all about this here in The Lou.

In the 1998 and 1999 seasons combined, future Cardinals Hall of Famer Mark McGwire boomed a home run at the preposterous rate of one every 7.63 at-bats. He led the majors with a two-season total of 135 homers. He slugged .724. McGwire wasn’t just a BIG BAT. He was a BIG BAT infused (injected?) with extra, extra strength and muscle and power.

And where did McGwire’s astonishing average of 67.5 homers per season get the Cardinals over the 1998 and ’99 seasons? Well, this:  158 wins and 165 losses, for a .489 winning percentage that ranked 9th in the NL over two seasons. The 1998 Cardinals finished third in the division, and the ’99 Cardinals came in fourth. The Cards rotation was 11th in the league in quality starts across the two seasons, pitched the fourth-lowest amount of innings, and was 9th in the NL with a 4.58 ERA.

McGwire hit a staggering number of home runs. But those Cardinals probably would have needed three McGwires in the lineup to overcome a rotation that had too much Kent Mercker, Juan Acevedo, Jose Jimenez, Manny Aybar, Darren Oliver — plus the remnants of Donovan Osborne.

The 2016 Cardinals whacked 225 homers and had a .187 ISO to lead the NL. They also ranked second in the league in slugging percentage and extra-base hits. Seven of their eight lineup spots (pitchers excluded) produced at least 24 home runs.

Of course, the ’16 Cardinals dropped to 86 wins after winning 100 games the year before.  The Cardinals only missed a wild-card playoff spot by one game, but their rotation did them in. Over the final 66 games of the season the Cardinals ranked 13th in the NL and 27th overall with a 5.10 rotation ERA. The Cardinals crushed 91 homers, 117 doubles and nine triples in their final 66 games but the power was wasted. With the rotation crashing, the Cardinals went 34-32 in the closing 66 contests.

The two teams that edged the Cards out for the two wild cards — the NY Mets and San Francisco Giants — finished third and fourth (respectively) in NL rotation ERA. Cardinals’ starters were 7th with a 4.33 ERA, which doesn’t seem awful until you factor in the extreme late-season rotation decline that cost the team a playoff spot.

I mentioned the 2015 Cardinals earlier. Let’s follow through. The ’15 team was a meager bunch offensively, finishing 9th in the NL in slugging, 11th in homers, and 11th in runs. So how did that team win 100 games with such a dead-bat offense? The starting rotation led the majors with 106 quality starts and a 2.99 ERA … it was (and still is) the third-best St. Louis rotation ERA in a season since the National League expanded 56 seasons ago, in 1962.

The 2017 Cardinals were somewhere in the middle. But this is the bottom line: despite being ranked fifth in the league in slugging and runs per game after the All-Star break, the Cardinals were doomed by a hideous downturn in their rotation. In the final 45 games (record: 22-23) Cards’ starters had a 5.16 ERA (12th in the NL over that time) and managed only 14 quality starts. Just dreadful. And in the final nine games of the season, the Cardinals destroyed their faint playoff hopes with a 5.16 rotation ERA and no quality starts while wheezing through a 2-7 record. The Cards’ total of 83 wins relegated them to third place in the NL Central.

Is it better to have a BIG BAT offense or a quality rotation?

The obvious answer: both. And sure, I absolutely would love to see the Cardinals acquire the BIG BAT that our baseball town is obsessing over.

I’m just making a point here.

Powerful armaments are nice.

Powerful arms are more important.

— The Cardinals have made the postseason 12 times since the start of the 2000 season. In nine of the 12 playoff-bound seasons, they had a top-five NL rotation in terms of ERA. The 2006 rotation wasn’t good (12th in the NL, ERA) and the Cardinals went on for an improbable win the World Series. How did they pull that off? Easy: the 2011 Cardinals needed only 83 victories to win the division and make the playoffs. The bar was set awfully low in ’06. And don’t forget, the Cardinals benefited from the significant late-season rotation addition of Jeff Weaver.

The 2011 Cardinals were 8th in rotation ERA, and won the World Series, so what gives? After drifting well off the pace in the division and wild-card races the Cardinals kicked in late. Stalled at 67-63 with a 4.00 rotation ERA on Aug. 24, the Cardinals made a bold run, going 23-9 over the final 32 contests to claim a wild card on the final night of the regular season. The lagging 2011 pitching staff was reinforced (rotation and bullpen) by John Mozeliak’s daring three-team trade that sent young center fielder Colby Rasmus to Toronto. A key figure in the transaction was starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, and he made a difference. The Cards’ rotation had a superb 3.06 ERA over the final 32 games, with Chris Carpenter (3.00 ERA), Kyle Lohse (1.74), Jaime Garcia (2.64) and Jackson (2.96) coming through with strong performances under pressure.

As for the 2002 Cardinals … the did win 97 games with a rotation that ranked 7th in the NL. So how did they win so much? Rotation stability was impossible for much of 2002. Darryl Kile died in his sleep on June 22. On a much lesser scale, Woody Williams went on the DL twice with a strained oblique. Andy Benes had a bad knee that kept him sidelined for three months. The young lefty Bud Smith was a non-factor because of the shoulder problems that ended his career. The Cardinals had to use 14 starting pitchers in ’02, but the rotation came together beautifully with the return of Benes and Williams, a trade for Chuck Finley, an unexpectedly fine season from Jason Simontacchi, and the usual goodness from Matt Morris. The 2002 campaign was unusual, to say the least. I don’t think it can be compared to the rotation work turned in during a normal season.

— Of the six Cardinals’ teams that posted the most homers in a season since Bill DeWitt Jr. became the franchise owner in 1996, three failed to make the playoffs. That would be 2003, 2016 and 2017.

— Since the revised postseason format that added a second wild card for the 2012 season, 30 NL teams have made it to the postseason. Fifteen of the 30 finished in the league top five in slugging and/or home runs.

—  OK, 15 of 30 isn’t bad. It shows the need for power. That’s one way to look at it. I look at it a different way. Of the 30 NL teams that qualified for the playoffs from 2012 through 2017 starting pitching was a primary strength, with 26 of the 30 ranking in the top five for rotation ERA.

Let’s review: 15 of the top power-hitting NL teams made the playoffs over the six seasons; that’s 50 percent. But 26 teams with top-five rotations advanced to the postseason; that’s 86.6 percent. I’m thinking that while it would be fantastic to have the homers and the slugging AND the elite rotation AND a reliable bullpen … what’s wrong with having it all? … the rotation remains a top priority.

I have a reason for droning on about this. Just so we understand each other … I’d like to repeat my enthusiasm, which we share, for finding a galvanizing bat for the middle of the Cardinals lineup.

But when I look at the Cardinals’ potential rotation for 2018 — as of now — it’s too thin and vulnerable.

Lance Lynn almost certainly will leave as a free agent. Mike Leake was traded in late August. I’m not second-guessing the Leake trade. But fact is, when Lynn (as expected) walks, the Cardinals will have subtracted two starting pitchers who could combine to give the team about 65 starts and about 380 innings per season. That’s a lot to replace.

Still left are …

Carlos Martinez: good to go, good to have — even if he’s pathetically and bizarrely unappreciated by the most ignorant segment of an otherwise knowledgeable fan base. Last season Martinez was tied for 4th in the NL in quality starts, finished second in most innings pitched (205), was 4th in strikeouts, had the third-highest ground-ball rate and was 12th in ERA (3.64). In his three seasons as a starter, Martinez ranks 6th among qualified NL starters in quality starts, 5th in innings pitched, 7th in strikeouts, 6th in ground-ball rate and is tied for 15th in ERA (3.24.) For the win counters, Martinez is 6th in the NL since 2015 with 42 wins.

Over the past three seasons only six big-league starters have put up a combination of at least 550 innings, 575 strikeouts, 42 wins, an ERA below 3.25, and at least 60 quality starts: Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta and Carlos Martinez.

If you want to throw in another standard — a ground-ball rate of at least 54 percent — to go with the the specifications I just cited in the paragraph above … well, there is only one MLB starting pitcher since 2015 to meet all of those standards.

His name is Carlos Martinez … but he sucks, right? Isn’t that what your idiot neighbor says?

Martinez is only 26 years old.

Adam Wainwright, age 36, coming off elbow surgery and a two-season decline (2016-2017) in which his ERA was 4.81 over 56 starts. Only 46.4 percent of Waino’s starts over the past two seasons qualified as quality starts. Before 2016, Wainwright’s quality-start rate was 70.1 percent. Draw your own conclusions. And don’t tell me about the 12-5 record on 2017 or how Waino just “knows how to win.” Most pitchers would “know how to win” if they received the highest run support in the Natioal League. Cardinals hitters provided a huge average of runs per start (6.82) for Wainwright in 2017. And that includes only the runs scored while he was in the game. Over the past 10 seasons, only three qualifying NL starters benefited from a run-support average that topped Waino’s 6.82 RSA in 2017.

Yup, that’s correct … on a list of 588 individual starting-pitcher seasons in the NL since 2008, Wainwright’s 2017 run support ranked 4th among the 588. But please … don’t let me bust a narrative with a dose of facts and reality here … I ain’t trying to ruin anyone’s mood. I’m thinking that the peeps who don’t think run support is a critical component to a pitcher “winning” would also believe it isn’t important for a title-contending boxer to have fists and arms and vision and stuff like that.

Michael Wacha: He’s a fine starting pitcher as long as he’s fresh. But because of the shoulder-blade fatigue that will always be part of Wacha’s annual challenge the stamina doesn’t hold. Wacha has averaged 150 innings over the last two seasons; that relatively low count puts a burden on the bullpen. And Wacha fades during games. Over the last two seasons, when Wacha goes against the other team’s lineup for the third time during a start, hitters have punished him for a .310 average, .375 onbase percentage, and .524 slug. That .899 OPS (third-time through) is the third-worst against a qualifying MLB starting pitcher since the start of 2016.

Luke Weaver:  He had an outstanding stretch last season, crafting a 1.49 ERA over six consecutive starts. And that was certainly encouraging. But Weaver was gonged for 14 earned runs over 7.2 innings in his last two starts. As much as you want to believe that Luke is here to stay and can be counted on as a dependable starter, the truth is we just don’t know enough. He’s made only 18 big-league starts and has a 4.35 ERA.

As for the fifth spot …

It won’t be Alex Reyes, who will be used in the big-league rotation when he returns on May 1. That, according to Mozeliak via multiple media reports. Reyes is immensely talented, but he has five starts, 46 innings, one Tommy John elbow surgery and one lost missed season on his major-league resume. It’s simply too soon to write Reyes in as a rotation solution or fixture. Maybe Jack Flaherty. Maybe John Gant. Maybe another prospect gem from the system. Maybe a veteran plug-in to be added later. Or, as Mozeliak terms it, “a swing guy” who can spot start and pitch relief.

On the surface …

This is flimsy, yes?

Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch continue to downplay their club’s obvious need to strengthen the rotation to protect against young pitchers breaking down, old pitchers flaming out, young pitchers getting shipped back to the minors.

Recent MLB history tells us — firmly — that it is wise to enter a campaign with a talented and girded starting rotation that can get you through slumps and hard times.

I’ll take the BIG BAT too. But if the Cardinals bring in the big hitter and fail to bolster the rotation, they’ll be in for some big pain in 2018.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie

More: Miklasz – 13 Rumor-Free Thoughts on the Cardinals and Giancarlo Stanton