Archive for Cardinals

The Real Work Is Just Beginning in St. Louis

On Saturday evening, the Cardinals made the necessary — though arguably tardy — decision to fire manager Mike Matheny. The now-former Cardinals skipper was at the helm of some successful teams, but after two consecutive playoff misses and a mediocre 2018 season, Matheny was shown the door. While managers often receive too much praise for success and too much criticism for a club’s failures — Matheny certainly benefited from inheriting a World Series champion and might ultimately have been fired for piloting this year’s club to just a .500 record — the last few weeks shined an unwelcome light on the Cardinals due to communication issues with Dexter Fowler and the defense of Bud Norris and old-school antics.

While Matheny’s poor bullpen management and recent internal troubles will get a lot of attention, his biggest deficiencies as a manager were (a) an inability (or refusal) to discern his players’ present talent levels and (b) his related preference of managing with his gut. While the latter quality might function as a virtue in some situations, it most famously caused Matheny trouble in the 2014 NLCS when he turned to Michael Wacha after weeks of rest. It has also forced the Cardinals front office to make roster moves around Matheny’s weaknesses instead of playing to his strengths.

When Matheny was provided with depth, he would neglect it, exiling useful players to the bench. When he was provided with clear starters, those starters would receive so much playing time that they were exhausted by late summer. Prospects were sent to Memphis not because they had something to prove in Triple-A but because playing time was at a premium in the majors. Veteran relievers were required because younger options were ignored, and Matheny’s need for fixed roles led directly to the acquisition of Greg Holland, whom Matheny persisted in using even when all indications suggested that such a thing was hurting the club. Mike Mayers drew raves in spring training but, due to Matheny’s insistence than an eighth reliever ought to be reserved for emergencies, was ignored once the season began. The front office is, of course, complicit in accommodating Matheny’s wishes, but they apparently desired to be free from the restrictions the manager put on their decisions. Now they can turn to other, fundamental questions.

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Mike Matheny Fired by the Cardinals

“And just like that, as mysteriously as he arrived, he was gone.”

– Oscar Martinez, The Office

It wasn’t quite Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, but after the Cardinals lost to the Cardinals 8-2 Saturday night, dropping to just a skosh above .500 at 47-46, manager Mike Matheny was dismissed from his managerial duties. The Cardinals remain in the playoff race, but it’s been a tumultuous month behind the scenes in St. Louis, from normal run-of-the-mill struggles to public friction with right fielder Dexter Fowler to the latest report — written by the tireless Mark Saxon of The Athletic — of Bud Norris’s old-school clubhouse antics with rookie reliever Jordan Hicks.

While Matheny’s role in the Norris-Hicks situation probably wasn’t the main factor behind his dismissal, I have few doubts that it was a contributing factor. Saxon received a lot of pushback publicly about his reporting on the issues, but these types of wagon-circling denials from teams when a story becomes embarrassing isn’t just common, it’s practically de rigueur. That doesn’t necessarily negate the veracity of the original reports.

In the end, though, it usually comes down to winning. Like most managers, Matheny lived by the win before he died by the win, the extremely successful Cardinal seasons at the start of Matheny’s tenure making him as unassailable at the time as he was vulnerable by 2018.

In a piece for ESPN in 2013, Anna McDonald reported on the relationship between the analytics-friendly front office headed by then-general manager John Mozeliak (who’s since been promoted to team president) and the more traditional Matheny.

“I believe how [Matheny] puts a lineup together is that he is utilizing things we give him from upstairs, but we don’t want to bury him with having to overthink things. Most importantly, we hire a manager to make that lineup. I do think one thing that Mike and his staff have done a very good job of is embracing anything we can put together as far as advanced scouting for them. Trying to eliminate small sample sizes and make them accept larger ones for probabilities has been helpful. Mike, he is a young manager that is very interested at looking at the best ways to be successful, so that’s always a good sign when you have that in an employee.”

Few analytics types, myself included, really thought much of Matheny as an in-game tactician. But that’s only part of the job of a manager. I’ve talked a lot about admiring Joe Torre as a manager for the Yankees not because of his in-game acumen but simply because, unlike a lot of managers, he didn’t stand in the way of his team’s success. Sometimes, keeping the team from killing each other is what a manager is there for, which is why I praised Dusty Baker’s hiring by the Washington Nationals as the right move at the right time for that particular club.

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The National League’s Most Balanced Pitcher

When I think about control artists, I think about pitchers who consistently hit their spots, particularly on the edges of the strike zone. These thoughts are further associated in my mind with low walk totals. So when I look at the National League leaderboard in walk percentage and see Miles Mikolas at 3.9%, I assume, he is good at painting corners. Then I look at his heat maps, and I don’t see that at all.

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Yadier Molina’s Climb Towards Cooperstown

Yadier Molina was added to the NL All-Star team on Monday, replacing the injured Buster Posey, who’s been slowed by a bout of inflammation in his right hip and recently received a cortisone shot. Molina’s addition is just the first of a wave that will dull some outrage over the most obvious snubs from Sunday’s roster announcement; on the AL side, Jed Lowrie was named as Gleyber Torres’ replacement on Tuesday. As Molina is a Star Player of a Certain Age, his ninth selection to the Midsummer Classic in a 10-year span (he missed 2016) set off another round of everybody’s favorite parlor game, Is He a Hall of Famer?. You know I can’t resist buzzing in for that one.

But first, the selection. Molina, who turns 36 on July 13, is having a pretty good season, particularly for a guy who missed a month due to [crosses legs uncomfortably] emergency groin surgery necessitated by a foul tip. He’s currently hitting 274/.317/.484 with 13 homers in 240 plate appearances, and while his on-base percentage is nothing to write home about — how is it a guy who spends half the game minding the strike zone for his pitchers can walk just 5.4% of the time? — his slugging percentage is his highest since 2012, his best offensive season. His 115 wRC+ is his highest since 2013, and it’s lifted his career mark to an even 100. Of the 23 catchers with at least 200 PA this year, that 114 wRC+ is tied for sixth overall. Both MLB leader J.T. Realmuto (149) and fourth-ranked Willson Contreras (122) are already on the NL All-Star squad, with the latter elected the starter.

While Molina’s offense is in a good place in 2018, his defense appears to be off, and not only because he’s thrown out just four out of 19 stolen-base attempts (21%, nearly half of his 41% career mark). Via FanGraphs’ version of catcher defense (which isn’t UZR), he’s 2.4 runs below average, including two below average in the stolen-base component of Defensive Runs Saved. Via the non-pitch-framing version of DRS, he’s four runs below average, while via the framing-inclusive version, he’s two below average. Via Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average, which includes framing, he’s 2.3 runs above average overall and 3.7 above in the framing component. Via our version of WAR — which, again, does not include framing — Molina’s 1.3 WAR is tied for ninth among catchers overall. Some of that is the impact of his injury; prorate all of the catchers with at least 200 PA to 600 PA and he’s a rounding error out of fifth:

Top Catchers by 2018 WAR, Prorated to 600 PA
1 J.T. Realmuto Marlins 290 .317 .368 .551 149 3.5 7.2
2 Francisco Cervelli Pirates 231 .247 .381 .468 132 2.3 6.0
3 Willson Contreras Cubs 332 .279 .367 .453 122 2.5 4.5
4 Yasmani Grandal Dodgers 291 .243 .340 .450 118 1.7 3.5
5 Kurt Suzuki Braves 239 .275 .343 .455 116 1.3 3.3
6 Yan Gomes Indians 258 .251 .314 .447 104 1.4 3.3
7 Yadier Molina Cardinals 240 .274 .317 .484 115 1.3 3.3
8 Wilson Ramos Rays 303 .291 .340 .479 127 1.6 3.2
9 Buster Posey Giants 326 .282 .362 .404 113 1.7 3.1
10 Gary Sanchez Yankees 265 .190 .291 .433 97 1.2 2.7
Min. 200 PA.

Thus it’s fair to say that his selection isn’t just about 2018 performance but about his reputation and bigger-picture productivity, and as I noted in Monday’s reaction piece to the NL starting outfield of Bryce Harper, Nick Markakis, and Matt Kemp, I’m not one to sweat that.

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Dexter Fowler and the Cardinals’ Foul-Up

While Matt Carpenter has turned his season around after a dreadful start, and Marcell Ozuna and Kolten Wong made strong showings in June after struggling previously, Dexter Fowler has yet to get going. In fact, the Cardinals’ 32-year-old right fielder ranks among the league’s worst hitters and least valuable players, and lately he’s been losing time to younger alternatives — all of which is surprising given his recent track record. He wound up in the headlines earlier this week when Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak singled him out publicly in a weekly podcast spot with a team broadcaster, questioning Fowler’s level of effort and energy in a manner rarely seen these days, at least from the type of model organization that the Cardinals fancy themselves.

It was bush-league stuff, particularly given its timing, as Fowler was preparing to go on paternity leave for the birth of his second child and thus unavailable to respond directly.

Speaking to Dan McLaughlin for the Scoops with Danny podcast, Mozeliak said of Fowler:

“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and question his effort and his energy level and those are things that I can’t defend. What I can defend is trying to create opportunities for him, but not if it’s at the expense of someone that’s out there hustling and playing hard. I think everybody just needs to take a hard look in the mirror and decide what they want that next chapter to look like. In Dexter’s case, maybe taking a brief timeout, trying to reassess himself and then give him a chance for a strong second half is probably what’s best for everybody. I’m hopeful to touch base with him in the near future to really just decide what makes the most sense, but clearly he’s not playing at the level we had hoped.”

Ouch. Within that statement, Mozeliak didn’t identify whether it was teammates, coaches, managers, front office personnel, or angry fans — a cross-section of observers, not all of whose opinions should carry equal weight — complaining about Fowler. Nor did he cite instances where Fowler failed to hustle, the discipline for which would generally fall upon manager Mike Matheny. Think Nationals manager Matt Williams pulling Bryce Harper for failing to run out a ground ball to the pitcher circa 2014 or Dodgers manager Dave Roberts benching Cody Bellinger earlier this season — two cases of a manager transparently using a young star to set an example for a slow-starting team. And in saying “I’m hopeful to touch base” with Fowler, Mozeliak all but admitted that he was airing laundry publicly instead of first going to the player to discuss whatever problems had arisen. This isn’t the way well-run 21st century baseball teams typically function.

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Matt Carpenter’s Turnaround

On Tuesday night against the Indians in St. Louis, Matt Carpenter enjoyed one of the best nights in the history of a Cardinals hitter, going 5-for-5 with a double and a pair of homers. Given a chance to become the first Cardinal to hit for the cycle since Carlos Beltran on May 11, 2012, and the 19th since 1908 — all he needed was a triple — Carpenter instead capped the team’s 11-run outburst with a 399-foot homer off reliever George Kontos. He had collected a 368-footer off Corey Kluber in the first.

As colleague Craig Edwards pointed out in the wake of that performance, Carpenter has been the game’s hottest hitter this side of Mike Trout lately:

Admittedly, May 16 is an arbitrary endpoint, but it not only coincides with the offensive nadir of the 32-year-old infielder’s season, it happened to mark the halfway point between Opening Day and his big night. The Cardinals had played 39 games up to the point when Carpenter broke out by going 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles against the Twins at Target Field, and his 5-for-5 showing came during the team’s 78th game. Here’s the split through Wednesday’s game:

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What Was Marcell Ozuna Thinking?

With two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning on Monday, the Cardinals found themselves up by one run. Matt Bowman, the Cardinals pitcher, put himself in a little bit of trouble when Rhys Hoskins hit a single and then advanced to second on a groundout. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny put Bowman in considerably more trouble with the dubious decision to walk Carlos Santana and put the winning run on base in order to try for the double play. Bowman did not get the double play, instead striking out Jesmuel Valentin. That brings us to Aaron Altherr, the game’s final batter.

The win-expectancy chart provides a pretty good idea of what happened on that play.

Source: FanGraphs

If the graph doesn’t help enough, here’s a small clip of what transpired.

Marcell Ozuna dove for the ball and, by missing the catch, allowed Hoskins and Santana to score and win the game for the Phillies. Mike Matheny defended the aggressive play, because that’s what a manager is supposed to do. That doesn’t prevent us from asking the question, though: just how badly did Ozuna screw up by trying to dive for a catch he wouldn’t end up making?

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Jordan Hicks, Now with Command

Jordan Hicks once deserved our attention because he was the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball. He later commanded more of our time because he couldn’t get any strikeouts despite that incredible velocity. Hicks is once again being highlighted at FanGraphs because he has appeared to resolve his previous issues. Over the last three weeks, in fact, he’s been the best reliever in baseball.

Hicks is still fascinating because he throws the ball really hard. His 99.7-mph average on his fastball still tops MLB with a healthy lead over Aroldis Chapman, per Baseball Savant. He’s thrown 180 pitches of at least 100 mph with Chapman’s 103 the only pitcher within 125 of him. He’s thrown more fastballs above 102 mph than below 97 mph this season as the graph below shows.

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Michael Wacha Is Pitching Like It’s 2013

In most cases, a player’s end-of-season statistics provide a pretty decent sense of how his campaign went. Are his numbers good? Then he was probably good for most of the year. Below average? Chances are, he was generally weak.

This isn’t the case with Michael Wacha, however. Since the beginning of the 2014 season, Wacha has put up at least 100 innings and a FIP below four every single year. The fraternity of pitchers who’ve done the same is pretty select. Chris Archer, Madison Bumgarner, Carlos Carrasco, Jacob deGrom, Gio Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw, Dallas KeuchelCorey Kluber, Jose Quintana, Chris Sale, Danny SalazarMax Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Justin Verlander are the only others ones to do it. The Cardinals right-hander has joined that group, however, not by means of consistently strong performances, but rather due to a combination of brilliant periods offset by decidedly poor ones.

After taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning on Sunday, Wacha appears to be in the midst of a good stretch currently. Wacha gained notoriety in 2013 when he finished off September with five good starts followed by an excellent run in the postseason before the Boston Red Sox got to him in the World Series. Since then, Wacha has had stretches of being a very good pitcher, but inconsistency and injuries have prevented Wacha from becoming the ace many hoped he would be after his late-season success in his first campaign. The chart below depicts Wacha’s 10-game rolling FIP since the beginning of 2014.

If there’s a pattern, it is that, at some point in every season, Wacha pitches really well for a time before things fall apart and he ends the season poorly. Wacha suffered a stress reaction in his scapula back in 2014, and has worked hard to strengthen his shoulder over the years, but he hasn’t yet found a solution to make it through the season unscathed. Last year was arguably Wacha’s best as a pro, but before a strong September, he struggled in August with a 5.24 FIP and a 6.04 ERA. While it is probably pretty easy to chalk up Wacha’s struggles to injury, breaking down his successes might be more useful in assessing his current talent level.

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The Underwhelming Jack Flaherty Is Overwhelming Hitters

Between 2012 and 2014, the Cardinals had six first-round picks. They spent five of those picks on pitchers, three from college and two from high school. The strategy — overseen by scouting director Dan Kantrovitz, now assistant general manager in Oakland — is an interesting one, as most franchises attempt to load up on cornerstone bats to contend. Of the five pitchers selected, though, only Rob Kaminsky — traded for Brandon Moss — has failed to reach the majors thus far. Marco Gonzales is also gone from the Cardinals organization, departing in a trade last season for “a dense pillar of meat” in Tyler O’Neill. The other three picks are current employed as members of the Cardinals rotation.

  • Michael Wacha – The top Cardinals selection in 2012, Wacha made the majors about a year after being drafted. Only health has prevented him from making more than the 121 starts and producing more than the 11.5 WAR over the last five years.
  • Luke Weaver – The first pick by the Cardinals in 2014 out of Florida State experienced some ups and downs in his debut during the 2016 season, overcame some hurdles in a promising run during 2017, and has recorded solid numbers this season, now totaling 2.9 WAR in just 144 big-league innings.
  • Jack Flaherty – Picked seven slots after Weaver, the high schooler has zoomed through the Cardinals system without much fanfare despite considerable success. He made his debut at 21 years old in 2017 and, in 2018, is proving he belongs.

Not included in the group above, but acquired during that time period for a near-million dollar bonus, is Alex Reyes, who was signed out of the Dominican Republic at the end of 2012 after moving from New Jersey to avoid the draft. With those four pitchers, plus Carlos Martinez (currently on the disabled list) and the surprising Miles Mikolas, the Cardinals have enviable depth and maybe the right situation for a six-man rotation. While acknowledging the influence of recency bias on such a claim, Flaherty’s dominant 13-strikeout performance on Sunday nevertheless suggests the great potential possessed by the 22-year-old.

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Tommy Pham Is Continuing His Breakout

Last year was one of many great stories for baseball. Leading the way was the ascendance of the Houston Astros, fulfilling the prophecy made three years earlier. Max Scherzer attempted to wrest the “Best Pitcher” title from Kershaw, and Aaron Judge obliterated pitches on the way to giving baseball one of its most exciting new faces in years. Yet, despite all of this, possibly the best story on the year was the breakout of St. Louis outfielder Tommy Pham, rising from being blocked at all three outfield positions to being the best player on the Cardinals.

What Pham did was virtually unprecedented. It took him eight years to reach the majors, and he became a regular player 11 years after his draft season. Then he put up over six wins’ worth of value in that first campaign of regular at-bats. Over the offseason, the Cardinals traded for Marcell Ozuna, envisioning him to be their new best position player. Despite this, with a quarter of the season done, we still see Pham leading the Cardinals offense. He has built on his breakout 2017, continuing onward with an astonishing consistency.

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Baseball’s Hardest Thrower Gets the Second-Fewest Strikeouts

I’m going to show you two clips, featuring right-handed rookie relievers around their top fastball speeds. One of these relievers has struck out almost a third of the batters he’s faced. That’s good! It’s not exactly Josh Hader good, but then, nobody is. Hader is on another level. Anyway, the other one of these relievers hasn’t struck out even a tenth of the batters he’s faced. Absent any other information, that’s bad! It should at least make success very difficult to achieve. I know I’ve kind of ruined it with the headline, but I don’t care, we’re still doing this. I’m the one in control of how this goes.

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Molina’s Injury More Painful for Him Than Cardinals

Yadier Molina inspires considerable debate. Debate about his importance to the the St. Louis Cardinals. Debate about his value in terms of wins, more generally. Debate about his place among the best players both of past and present.

Buster Olney himself stirred up considerable debate last week when he asserted that Molina was “the best catcher of his generation” and asked fans to vote whether they believed the Cardinals’ catcher would make the Hall of Fame. While the precise magnitude of his impact will continue to be a matter of some dispute, there’s less disagreement that Molina is both (a) a good player right now and also (b) important to the current edition of the Cardinals, even at 35 years old. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they’re about to lose Molina for at least a month after the catcher suffered a painful injury over the weekend.

Before hitting the disabled list, Molina paced all MLB catchers with 256.1 innings behind the plate this season — or nearly 20 more innings than second-place Yasmani Grandal. The Cardinals’ Gold Glover had started 29 of the team’s first 31 games. Since the beginning of the 2015 season, Molina has started 435 games at catcher and recorded 3,750 innings in that capacity, roughly 50 games and 400 innings ahead of any other backstop. Now, Molina heads to the DL for first time since 2014 — and only for the fifth time in his 15 big-league seasons.

Most of Molina’s injuries over the years have been more of the freak variety rather a product of physical deterioration. He tore thumb ligaments in 2014 while diving into third base. He fractured his had in 2005 and his wrist in 2007. He did miss a couple weeks with a sprained right knee that had been bothering him during the 2013 season, but that’s the closest thing to a chronic problem.

This injury, what has been called a “pelvic injury with traumatic hematoma,” is most definitely a freak sort, although it’s among the risks to which catchers subject themselves daily.

Here’s how it happened:

Out of respect for readers, I haven’t reproduced Molina’s entire pained reaction. Basically what happened, though, is Jordan Hicks threw the ball at 101.5 mph according to the Statcast Gamefeed. Kris Bryant deflected the pitch just enough to divert it away from Molina’s glove. The ball ricocheted into an extremely sensitive area of the male anatomy. Molina immediately fell over, was tended to, and, shortly thereafter, underwent surgery.

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FanGraphs Audio: Eric Longenhagen Has Good Information

Episode 810
Eric Longenhagen was told by a source before publishing his Astros list that right-hander Josh James, a former 34th-round pick and generally obscure prospect, had been recording higher fastball velocities in camp. Given James’ age and modest numbers as a professional, Longenhagen omitted him from the Astros list anyway. In the meantime, however, James has cobbled together one of the best starts in all the minors. Should it have been obvious? Would Longenhagen do anything differently? Those are questions the host of FanGraphs Audio fails to ask explicitly.

Don’t hesitate to direct pod-related correspondence to @cistulli on Twitter.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or other feeder things.

Audio after the jump. (Approximately 51 min play time.)

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Sunday Notes: Trey Mancini Kept His Kick

Trey Mancini did some tinkering prior to the start of the season. Hoping to “limit a bit of pre-swing movement,” he decided to lower his leg kick. The Baltimore Orioles outfielder hit that way throughout the offseason, and he continued the experiment in spring training.

Then, about a week and a half before opening day, he returned to doing what feels natural.

“I am who I am,” Mancini told me last weekend. “The leg kick is just something that works for me — there’s a comfortability factor involved — so once I realized what I was trying didn’t feel totally right, I went back to my old one.”

Mancini felt that the lower kick disrupted his timing. Read the rest of this entry »

The Cardinals Should Utilize a Six-Man Rotation

Jack Flaherty has been too good to languish at Triple-A.
(Photo: Charles Edward Miller)

Before the season began, I noted some possible concerns regarding the Cardinals rotation — namely, that the team might have better, more talented starting pitchers in Triple-A than those on their major-league roster. At the time, the issue was only a potential problem: the season had yet to start. The potential became a reality even sooner than I expected, however.

A brief timeline:

  • On March 28, the Cardinals place Adam Wainwright on the 10-Day DL retroactive to March 26. Wainwright had injured his hamstring running sprints.
  • On April 3, Jack Flaherty, taking Wainwright’s place in the rotation, pitches five innings, giving up one run while recording nine strikeouts and just one walk.
  • On April 5, the Cardinals rush back Wainwright for the Cardinals’ home opener even though the latter hasn’t pitched in a competitive game since March 14, when he went five innings. Wainwright struggles in his debut, recording more walks than strikeouts, failing to finish the fourth inning, and losing more than 5 mph on his fastball during the game.
  • On April 11, Jack Flaherty strikes out 11 batters with no walks in seven innings, giving up just one run.

Wainwright alleviated some fears in his second start, pitching seven innings and maintaining decent velocity throughout his appearance. That’s a positive development, but that doesn’t really address the entirety of the problem. Jack Flaherty is sitting down in Triple-A right now despite having a possessing a better projection than Miles Mikolas, Michael Wacha, or Wainwright himself. It seems wasteful to let Flaherty keep pitching in the minors; at the same time, none of the Cardinals’ five starters is an obvious candidate for demotion. It’s an issue in need of a creative solution — namely, a six-man rotation.

On The Bernie Miklasz Show last week, Miklasz and co-host Michelle Smallmon discussed this very topic. (Go to 34:45 of the 7 am hour to listen to their conversation.) Smallmon noted Flaherty’s success, as well as Mike Matheny’s penchant for demanding eight relievers despite never having much use for the eighth reliever. The pair discussed the Cardinals’ bullpen depth which would help with a six-man rotation and Miklasz stated that, “Every pitcher has some sort of vulnerability or reason to be careful with their innings.” He then went down the list of Cardinals starters providing reasons why a six-man rotation might be beneficial.

  • Adam Wainwright: “Old… question of whether he can maintain his velocity over a full season.”
  • Luke Weaver: “Good pitcher, but I know they don’t want him throwing 200 innings this year.”
  • Michael Wacha: “Runs out of gas every year.”
  • Miles Mikolas: “In Japan, shorter season.”
  • Carlos Martinez: “He pitched 205 innings. He can do it, but again, do you really want to keep pushing him too hard?”
  • Jack Flaherty: “Twenty-two years old. They aren’t going to want to ride him too hard. They definitely want to limit his innings.”
  • Alex Reyes: “The plan is to have him be in the rotation, maybe not right away, but you know they are going to limit his innings.”

Smallmon pushed back on Carlos Martinez, making the argument that losing Carlos Martinez starts wouldn’t be a positive and Miklasz noted that, when the Cardinals had considered a six-man rotation three years earlier, the players strongly objected. Before getting to potential player objections, let’s first evaluate Miklasz’s — and presumably the Cardinals’ — logic for wanting to add an extra pitcher to the rotation.

We can start with Wainwright, who is — in baseball years, at least — relatively old. The 36-year-old pitched poorly and faded badly due to injuries last season. As noted, his velocity was poor in his first start of the season but better in the second. The difference between those two? The latter followed five days rest as opposed to the normal four. His start tonight will also be on extra rest. 

While in Japan, Miles Mikolas started 62 games over three years. Last year, Mikolas made 27 starts during a 26-week season, getting roughly six days off between appearances. In 2016, Luke Weaver made 21 starts and pitched 119.1 innings between the majors and minors. In 2017, he made 25 starts and pitched 138 innings between between Triple-A Memphis and the big club. He’s going to blow past that right after the All-Star Break at his current pace. Jack Flaherty made 23 starts and pitched 134 innings in High-A during the 2016 season and upped that to 30 starts and 170 innings last year between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors. The Cardinals might not want to push too much beyond that this season. Alex Reyes is coming back from Tommy John surgery, so limiting innings and providing more rest seems self-explanatory.

As for Wacha, here’s how he has pitched the last three seasons through July compared to August and September:

Michael Wacha’s Annual Fade, 2015-17
Months K% BB% ERA FIP
April-July 21.1% 7.2% 3.79 3.54
August-September 18.8% 9.5% 5.19 4.70

Wacha did pitch well last September, but it was also after a poor August. To top it off, his velocity has been down so far this season, which raises concerns about his health.

With Carlos Martinez, I tend to side with Smallmon’s argument against giving him extra rest. As Miklasz noted, he pitched 205 innings last year. Since the beginning of the 2016 season, Carlos Martinez’s 426 innings is sixth in MLB behind only Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and Corey Kluber. His 7.1 WAR during that interval is 17th in baseball and his 9.9 RA9-WAR (which uses run allowed and not FIP as the main input) is eighth. He’s just not a guy for whom the Cardinals should be limiting starts.

I went through the St. Louis schedule and kept the Cardinals’ five pitchers on a normal schedule to see how many starts they were scheduled to receive before the All-Star Break under the present schedule. I also noted the number of days off between starts the pitchers were set to receive.

Cardinals Starter Rest in Five-Man Rotation
Starts Days of Rest Between Starts
Wacha 16 5, 5, 5, 6, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 4, 5, 4, 6
Weaver 16 6, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 4, 5, 4, 6
Mikolas 15 5, 6, 5, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5
Martinez 15 5, 6, 5, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5
Wainwright 16 6, 4, 6, 5, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 5, 4, 4, 5, 4, 6
Through the All-Star Break.

When we hear about objections to a six-man rotation, it is often related to a pitcher’s routine and normal schedule. That was Cole Hamels’ main point of contention this spring:

“I know that’s the new analytical side of trying to reinvent the wheel, but I was brought up in the minor leagues on the five-man [rotation], and that’s what I’m designed and conditioned for.”

What is striking about the table above is that there really is no typical routine. In two-thirds of the starts above, pitchers are pitching on five or six days rest, with only one third of the starts on the supposedly normal every fifth day. Due to the rainout on Monday, the next time Michael Wacha will pitch, he will be on seven days rest because the team preferred to have the emerging Luke Weaver pitch against the Cubs rather than the struggling Wacha.

To modify the schedule, I left Martinez’s starts as is and inserted Flaherty into the rotation just ahead of the first start currently scheduled to be on four days’ rest (in this case, Adam Wainwright’s on April 29). Here’s how many starts each pitcher would get as well as the number of rest days in between starts through the All-Star Break.

Cardinals Starter Rest in Six-Man Rotation
Starts Days of Rest Between Starts
Wacha 13 5, 7, 7, 6, 6, 5, 7, 6, 5, 6, 6, 7
Weaver 13 6, 6, 7, 7, 6, 5, 6, 7, 5, 5, 6, 8
Mikolas 13 5, 8, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 5, 7, 5, 7
Martinez 15 5, 6, 5, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5
Wainwright 13 6, 6, 6, 7, 6, 6, 6, 5, 7, 5, 6, 6
Flaherty 11 7, 7, 5, 7, 6, 5, 6, 6, 6, 5
Through the All-Star Break.

Just as with the current, more traditional arrangement, two-thirds of the starts here would be made on five or six days of rest. The starts with four days rest before — just five or six per starter before the break — are now replaced by seven-day periods. The non-Martinez starters miss just two or three starts apiece and Jack Flaherty gets to prove he belongs in the majors. We don’t know that this approach would lead to better health or performance, but given the makeup of the Cardinals rotation and the desire to limit innings, this setup makes a lot of sense. If a starter gets injured before June, the typical five-man rotation will make more sense. Once the end of May arrives, the Cardinals will have another candidate for the rotation in Alex Reyes.

The scheduling for this rotation is a little difficult to pull off due to the desire to keep Martinez on somewhat normal rest, but it is certainly not impossible. St. Louis doesn’t actually need an eighth pitcher in the bullpen, and never actually use one when they have an extra guy. They might as well do everything they can to maximize the talent they have available to them in Memphis and St. Louis. That means getting Jack Flaherty back to the majors and getting creative with a rotation that can make the most of a sixth man.

Sunday Notes: Yonny Chirinos is Quietly Putting Up Zeros

If you’re not a Tampa Bay Rays fan, you probably aren’t too familiar with Yonny Chirinos. That would be understandable. The 24-year-old right-hander has never been a highly-ranked prospect, and prior to a few weeks ago he hadn’t set foot on a big-league mound. As a matter fact, were it not for a dinged-up Rays rotation, he’d probably be facing Triple-A hitters right now.

Instead, he’s flummoxing big-league hitters. Over his first three MLB outings — two starts and one relief effort — Chironos has thrown 14-and-a-third scoreless innings. Facing formidable Red Sox (twice) and White Sox lineups, he’s allowed just eight hits and a pair of walks, while fanning a dozen. His ground ball rate is a solid 50%.

His two-seamer is his bread and butter. Chirinos started developing the pitch in 2015, per the urging of his coaches, and the following year it became part of his arsenal. It’s now his best pitch, which makes him atypical among Tampa Bay hurlers. As manager Kevin Cash put it, “A lot of guys on our staff throw the fastball at the top of the zone and utilize the carry, and he’s kind of the opposite of that. He sinks the ball.” Read the rest of this entry »

Jordan Hicks Is the Hardest-Throwing Pitcher in Baseball

Before we begin in earnest, here is a table showing the hardest thrown pitches of this young baseball season through Sunday’s games.

Hardest-Thrown Pitches in 2018
Player Pitch Velocity (mph) Date
Jordan Hicks 101.6 3/29
Jordan Hicks 101.0 4/1
Jordan Hicks 100.9 4/1
Jordan Hicks 100.9 3/29
Jordan Hicks 100.8 3/29
Aroldis Chapman 100.8 3/30
Aroldis Chapman 100.5 3/30
Tayron Guerrero 100.3 4/1
Jordan Hicks 100.3 3/29
Aroldis Chapman 100.3 3/30
Aroldis Chapman 100.2 3/30
Tayron Guerrero 100.2 4/1
Aroldis Chapman 100.2 3/29
Luis Severino 100.2 3/29
Luis Severino 100.1 3/29
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Right now, St. Louis right-hander Jordan Hicks is throwing harder than Aroldis Chapman. When he did it the first time, it drew some attention, but he repeated that performance on Sunday.

His hold on the title might not last, of course: Chapman could begin throwing harder, and Hicks might not be able to maintain this level of velocity all season. For example, the 21-year-old righty averaged only 98 mph on his fastball in his performance yesterday, getting four outs in what was the first appearance of his professional career without a day of rest.

Hicks was a starter throughout the minors, during which he recorded only 165.1 innings and never worked above High-A. There were indications during spring training that he might have the talent to deal with major-league hitters, but the team sent him to the minors after some issues with tardiness. Despite that, he made his way back to major-league camp and was added to the Opening Day roster even though it required the Cardinals to place Josh Lucas on waivers. Jeff Zimmerman discussed Hicks’ talent and scouting reports after Hicks made the team. We are beginning to see why the Cardinals believed he could impact the club at the highest level in potentially important spots.

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The Cardinals Are Finally Signing Greg Holland

For a very long time, Greg Holland was available as a free-agent closer. For a very long time, the Cardinals appeared to be in some need of a closer. Oh, at certain points, they expressed faith in Luke Gregerson. At certain other points, they expressed faith in Dominic Leone. But Holland was always going to find some sort of job, and the Cardinals have had the best opening. And so it’s unsurprising that we’ve wound up here: Holland and the Cardinals have agreed to a one-year contract worth $14 million. Holland only has to pass his physical, and then he’ll get back to being a ninth-inning weapon.

The Cardinals have never needed Greg Holland. This isn’t something being done out of necessity. I believe the Cardinals really would’ve been comfortable going into the year with the relievers they’ve had. Yet Holland and Scott Boras also apparently backed off their multi-year wishes. The Cardinals have a new reliever now at a cost lower than that of the qualifying offer. While this means the Cardinals might now have less midseason trade flexibility, this is like making a midseason trade ahead of time. And the Cardinals are right in position to make the most use of this upgrade.

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The Cardinals’ Potential Rotation Problem

The Cardinals don’t have a rotation problem. Which is to say, they don’t have a rotation problem right now. What they do have — as the title of this post suggests — is a potential problem in the first few months of the season if the current members of the rotation underachieve. For most teams with fine rotations — like the Cardinals — the cause for concern is a lack of depth. That is not, however, the Cardinals’ issue at the moment. The Cardinals’ potential issue is that their current sixth and seventh starter might be significantly better than the pitchers in their starting five.

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