Entering Crisis Mode: Cardinals Take Another Big Hit in Losing Wacha

The Cardinals’ starting rotation is in such a sickly and weakened conditioned right now, maybe the pitchers should go check into the hospital for treatment.

But that won’t solve the problem. The medics can get to work on healing the injuries but can’t do a thing to fix the swollen earned-run averages, the enlarged walk rate, and the lower strikeout count.

Michael Wacha was the latest to go down, lasting only 3.2 innings at Philadelphia yesterday before a strained oblique on his left side took him out of the game — and put the Cardinals on the bad side. The visitors lost the game, 4-3. And the visitors lost the series to the Phillies, 2-1. But worse than that, the Cardinals lost an axle of their team strength: A quality starter, an emerging leader, and the pitcher who leads this team in wins since the start of the 2014 season.

There’s never a good time for an injury, but the Wacha comes at a terrible time. The Cardinals played three games at Philly and all were decided by one run. The Cards dropped two of the three, in part because their starters were smacked for nine earned runs (and four homers) in 13.2 innings and put the team in deficit positions in all three contests.

The Phillies are a legit playoff contender, and the Cardinals whiffed on the chance to take the series. Now they head into a 13-game stretch against four teams that reside in first place this morning: four games at Milwaukee, three at home against Cleveland, three at home vs. Atlanta, and three at Arizona. And the series after that — four at San Francisco — isn’t a picnic, either.

Even if the STL rotation was clicking, this would be a strenuous test for the Cardinals. But as you know, the rotation isn’t clicking now. It’s cracking. Cardinals’ starters have a 4.47 ERA in June, with only five quality starts in 18 games. And their starters have lasted fewer than six innings in 13 of 18.

The erosion in effectiveness has intensified since June 5; in the Cards’ last 15 games their starters have a 5.35 ERA (11th in NL, 25th overall) and are bogged down by an awful strikeout rate (19%) and alarming walk rate (12.3%.) The shortage of innings is acute, with starters supplying less than six innings in 12 of 15 games, and not making it through five in four assignments.

In their last nine starts combined, Wacha, Luke Weaver and Carlos Martinez had a 7.18 ERA, allowed 94 of 213 batters to reach base (.441 OBP) and were pelted for a .529 slugging percentage. That’s heavy carnage.

Now what?

— Unless they want to rearrange the rotation procession in Milwaukee, the Cards don’t have to fill Wacha’s spot until Monday’s game against Cleveland at Busch Stadium. This gives them a chance to put another arm in the bullpen for the weekend, then promote a starter from Memphis to handle Monday’s slot.

— The options, obviously, are three right-handers at Triple A Memphis: John Gant, Dakota Hudson and Daniel Poncedeleon. Gant is 5-1 with a 1.65 ERA in eight starts and did a solid job as a Cards’ fill-in earlier. Gant has given up one run in his last 19 innings. Hudson has the lowest ERA in the Pacific Coast League; he’s 9-2 with a 2.13 ERA. Hudson has allowed one run in his last 20 innings. Poncedeleon is 5-3 with a 2.57 ERA and a popping 27% strikeout rate. One potential problem: his walk rate, 13% … way too high.

— If the Cardinals prefer experience, Gant.

— If they prefer to turn to a heralded prospect who looms as a big part of their future, then Hudson’s the one.

— If the Cards are looking to add Poncedeleon’s strikeout punch, and get him acclimated to the majors by making a few starts, that’s a possibility. Because he could easily relocate to the bullpen. If for whatever reason the organization thinks Hudson needs a couple of more starts at Memphis, this is one way to build that bridge. The same applies to Gant, who can start or relieve.

— Carlos Martinez must get himself together, hone his control, and get back to being a dominant starter. Like … right now. Tonight in Milwaukee. This is the time for Martinez to lead this rotation. I’ve repeatedly defended him against silly and unfair criticism, but if Martinez can’t settle in and pitch in a way that honors his talent, then I’ll have no patience. He’s had three starts after leaving the DL, and there are no excuses now.

— As you will read later on in this block of copy, if you look for it, Luke Weaver has been struggling for a long time now, and some of his issues are concerning — most of all a huge drop in strikeout rate, and his inability to put hitters away on two strike counts. Weaver shouldn’t be in the big leagues right now, but I suppose the Cardinals will keep him here after losing Wacha. They probably were going to stay with Weaver, anyway. Could someone identify the problems and fix him? Or are we supposed to sit back and watch him regress?

— The depth is deteriorating, so at some point Adam Wainwright could resurface as an option as long as his elbow heals in time.

The Cardinals are in the survival mode now. It isn’t just about the starting pitching; after all this team is 18-22 in the last 40 games. Other areas of the team are lacking. No matter what position a player has on this team, if he’s capable of delivering a better performance,  it’s time to do it.

Thanks for reading …

-B

Note from Bernie: This was written previously, before Wacha’s start on Wednesday in Philadelphia: 

1. The Cardinals need an effective start from Wacha to help restore order to the rotation. The starting rotation has been the Cardinals’ unquestionable bedrock this season, but the recent trend is troubling. As Wacha goes into Wednesday’s 12:05 p.m.  game (STL time), the St. Louis starters  have a 5.50 ERA and only three quality starts in the past 14 games.

2. Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas are doing fine. Since June 5, both right-handers have started three games, with Flaherty posting a  2.67 ERA and Mikolas coming in with a respectable 3.50 ERA. But during this 14-game stretch that preceded Wednesday’s game at Philadelphia, the Cardinals have gotten a combined 7.64 ERA in eight starts from Luke Weaver, Carlos Martinez and Wacha. And the three right-handers have combined to walk 35 batters and get punched for seven homers in 37.2 innings.

3. At the end of May the Cardinals ranked third in MLB to Houston and Washington with an rotation ERA of 3.00. Cards starters had allowed the second-lowest OPS (.627) by a major-league rotation, and their strikeout-walk ratio was in the MLB average range  at 2.68.

4. In their first 17 games of June  (through Tuesday) the St. Louis rotation ranked 21st in the majors and 10th in the NL this month with an ERA of 4.55. Their .750 opponent OPS was 11th in the NL and No. 21 overall. And the starters’ K-BB ratio was sinking; at 1.78 that figure ranked near the bottom of the NL (14th) and the majors (28th.)

5. The Cardinals have to hope the rotation gets back in form. They need their starters to pitch like it’s April and May, because the schedule has taken a perilous turn. This Philadelphia series is followed by four at Milwaukee, three home games against Cleveland, three home games vs. Atlanta, three on the road at Arizona, and four in San Francisco.

6. With the Cardinals trailing first-place Milwaukee by four games as play began Wednesday, the four-game series at Miller Park has added importance. The Cardinals can’t afford to let the deficit grow, and allow the Brewers to open a significant lead. And Miller Park is the wrong place to visit with a shaky rotation. The Cards have lined up (in order) Martinez, Flaherty, Mikolas and Weaver to go against the Brewers. Wacha’s next start is scheduled Monday against Cleveland; he’ll be matched up against Indians ace Corey Kluber. And if you don’t pay much attention to the American League, here’s a brief report on Kluber: He’s really, really, really good. And he’s having a special season: 15 starts, 14 quality starts, 2.24 ERA, 27 percent strikeout rate. Yep … tough schedule for the Cardinals. And the rotation must shine again.

7. Does Luke Weaver need a timeout, and perhaps a stay in Memphis? It sure seems like it. Weaver has only two quality starts in his last 12 games. Weaver’s 12-start ERA is 5.43, and he’s logged a minimum of six innings only twice. More signs of trouble: over the last 12 starts Weaver’s strikeout rate has fizzled to 18.5 percent, and his walk rate has perked to 9%. (Weaver’s K rate had been elevated at an impressive 27% during his early MLB career before this 12-game skid.And left-handed batters have hit Weaver hard, swinging away for a .319 average, .396 OBP and .504 slug.  In the last 12 games, LH bats have homered off Weaver six times in 119 at-bats.

8. The top candidate for promotion is Dakota Hudson, 23, who is rolling at Triple A Memphis. Hudson has a 2.13 ERA in 13 starts this season, with the Redbirds going 10-3 when he pitches. And over his last nine starts Hudson’s ERA is 1.38 over 58.2 innings. Great sinker; many ground balls. And his strikeout stuff is coming.

9. In his last 11 relief appearances John Brebbia has allowed eight hits and walked four with 13 strikeouts in 11.1 innings. Touched for only one earned run, Brebbia’s ERA in the last 11 appearances is 0.79, and he’s averaged 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Opponents haven’t done much harm to Brebbia in the last 11, batting .195 with a .244 slug and .505 OPS.

9a. Greg Holland’s clean and commanding inning on Tuesday?  Interesting and encouraging, but we have to see him repeat it a few times. Then, maybe, it’ll be time for about five minutes worth of  “Well, I’ll be damned — I sure as hell didn’t see that coming from this good ol’ boy Holland. I figured he was burnt pie,”  kind of talk with your neighbor Larry.

10. Back to Weaver: some of the inside-baseball numbers should raise concern. Here’s a sampling of what I’m referring to, with the data culled from my personal account at Inside Edge:

–Weaver is struggling to finish off hitters. In his last three stars, opponents are hitting .310 against Weaver on two-strike counts; that’s the worst in MLB and well above the league average of .161.-

–Sticking with the last three starts: Opponents have a .394 OBP against Weaver after two strikes; third worst in the bigs. (League average: .232.) The two-strike slugging percentage of .448 against Weaver in his last three starts is the second worst in the majors. (League avg: .253.)

— Weaver has hit the strike zone on only 40 percent of his pitches over the last 12 starts. But when he does throw strikes, they’re getting smashed too often. Example: Over his last three starts opponents are hitting .396 against Weaver on pitches in the strike zone; that’s tied for 2nd worst in MLB and is more than 100 points above the league average  .286.

–Using a wider view, opponents are hitting .378 against Weaver on pitches in the strike zone over the last 30 days; that’s fourth worst among qualified starters. (League average: .276.)

–Weaver’s breaking pitches aren’t helping him. Over the last 30 days opponents are hitting .400 against his low curves and sliders; worst among qualified starters (.168 league average.) And he’s been pounded for a slugging percentage of 1.100 on low breaking pitches over the last 30 days; worst among starters (league average .262.)

— Weaver has been penalized by some awful batted-ball luck, having been hit for a .392 batting average on balls in play over his last three starts. But that’s one part of it. If Weaver still had a healthy strikeout rate and was making hitters swing and miss more often, he wouldn’t be as vulnerable to batted ball luck.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: To Fix this Bullpen, Cardinals’ Front Office Must Be More Aggressive