Tonight, the Giants and Cardinals play one game for the National League pennant. The Giants have Matt Cain rested and ready to go, and he’ll likely be called upon to carry a significant workload to get through the right-handed heavy Cardinals line-up. On the opposing side, the Cardinals will start Kyle Lohse, who simply isn’t as good as Matt Cain. However, for this year at least, he did a pretty amazing impression of the Giants ace.
Cain’s M.O. at this point in his career is clear – he’s going to pound the strike zone with high fastballs, generating a lot of fly balls but few home runs, making it hard for opponents to string together any kinds of sustained rallies. With his improvement in command over the last few years, he’s become more than just a guy who succeeds through stranding runners – now he just doesn’t put anyone on base to begin with.
Lohse’s 2012 success is a carbon copy of Cain’s style, though he does it with a bit more contact and even fewer walks. The similarity of the results are obvious, though – opposing batters hit .234/.274/.368 versus Lohse in 2012, compared to .217/.274/.361 against Cain. Lohse trades in a few walks for some extra singles, but the end result was pretty much identical: a .277 opponents wOBA for Cain and a .279 for Lohse.
Interestingly, Lohse credits his own success to buying into Dave Duncan‘s “Two-Seamers! Nothing But Two-Seamers” approach to pitching, while Matt Cain threw more four-seam fastballs than any pitcher in the National League this year. And yet, while they hold their fastballs differently and call them different things, both have ended up generating a lot of fly ball outs.
While Duncan has a long track record of turning marginal pitchers into effective starters by getting them to generate a ton of grounders, Lohse’s adaption of the two-seamer hasn’t really had the same effect. While with Minnesota from 2002-2007, Lohse compiled a 40.8% GB% – as a Cardinal, he’s at 43.0%, and his ground ball rate has gone down every year since his arrival in St. Louis. So, chalking Lohse up as another Joel Pineiro-style experiment isn’t really accurate, as he was basically a strike-thrower with a similar batted ball profile before he ever met Dave Duncan. In fact, by xFIP- (which is just his BB/K/GB rates adjusted for average and league), Lohse hasn’t changed much at all.
Excluding 2010 because he was hurt and only threw 91 innings, here are his xFIP- by season:
Essentially, all of Lohse’s improvement over the last two years can be tied to a .265 BABIP and a 7.7% HR/FB rate. Cain, by the way, has a career .264 BABIP and 6.8% HR/FB rate. They might not have the same approach to pitching, but Lohse has spent the last 400 innings emulating Cain’s success through limiting hits on balls in play and keeping his fly balls from sailing over the fence. This is Matt Cain’s playbook, not Dave Duncan’s.
History says that Cain is an outlier, and that this probably isn’t a path that most pitchers want to follow. It’s probably in the Cardinals best interests to not assume that Lohse has become Matt Cain 2.0, and remember that he threw 1,600 Major League innings from 2001 to 2010 where he didn’t limit hits on balls in play or home runs. The larger body of work still supports the idea that Lohse’s results are due for some regression, and that he’s not as good as his ERA would have you believe.
But, of course, we know that some pitchers can succeed the way Lohse is succeeding. There aren’t many of them, but it is possible, and it remains possible that Lohse has figured out the key to hit and home run prevention without really changing his batted ball profile in a significant way. The question for Mike Matheny today is whether he wants to bet his season on it.
Because of the off-day on Saturday and the fact that they dug a big hole yesterday, the Cardinals bullpen is extremely well rested. Trevor Rosenthal, Mitchell Boggs, and Jason Motte have had two full days off, while Edward Mujica threw a grand total of three pitches yesterday. And, since Adam Wainwright started Game Four, he’s also available out of the bullpen today, giving the Cardinals manager five seriously good arms that he can use in relief of Lohse. In an elimination game, allowing your starter to go deep is usually an unnecessary risk, and I’ve been a loud advocate for the bullpen game strategy in these high leverage playoff games.
However, the Cardinals probably have less motivation to deploy that strategy today than most teams. A big advantage of the bullpen game is the ability to avoid letting your pitcher hit, but with Matt Holliday‘s back likely making him unavailable again, the Cardinals potential pinch-hitters are pretty terrible. In Game six, the duties fell to Skip Schumaker and Shane Robinson, a pair of light-hitting reserves who you don’t really want up there in a critical at-bat. They’re an improvement over a pitcher, but it’s not like they’ve got Lance Berkman sitting down there ready to grab a bat when the opportunity presents itself.
And, while the focus tonight has to be on winning Game 7, there’s also the reality that this isn’t the World Series, and having Wainwright available to start Game 1 against Detroit has significant value. The best case scenario for St. Louis involves winning the game without using Wainwright, and while having him throw a couple of innings to bridge the gap from Lohse to Rosenthal in the middle innings would likely represent an improvement, it’s not so clear that the impact is great enough to push Wainwright back to a potential Game Three start if the Cardinals advance.
As we discussed last week, Motte is capable of giving the team two innings, and Matheny has used him in that role enough that it should no longer be considered an unusual role for him. In an elimination game, that’s a weapon you should count on using, which allows you to push the three hard-throwing setup guys into the 5th/6th/7th. Matheny doesn’t really need Wainwright to make this a pseudo-bullpen game, as Lohse can probably be asked to just give them four innings before turning it over to the flame-throwers.
That’s not a bad plan. Using Lohse for two, then Wainwright for two, then going to Rosenthal wouldn’t be a bad plan either. That would make it likely that no Giant hitter would face the same pitcher twice the entire game, and would likely maximize their chances of keeping San Francisco off the board in a must-win game. Either way, Matheny has options, and you should probably expect a parade of pitching changes from St. Louis tonight.
Unless, of course, Lohse just keeps his Matt Cain impression rolling. Which pitcher can more successfully pitch like Matt Cain might just determine how this series ends, and which team will represent the NL against Detroit on Wednesday. The original has a longer track record, but the impostor seems to have gotten pretty good at playing the part.
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