St. Louis Cardinals Lack of Pitching Ace Was Ultimate Downfall in 2012
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If one phrase could describe the 2012 Cardinals, it would be, "Jack of all trades, master of none."
Well, OK, their outfield defense was one of the worst in the National League primarily due to the all-bat, no-glove duo of Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran. Apart from that, though, the Cards excelled in most areas.
They finished second in the NL in both batting and runs scored, had five 20-homer players for the first time in team history and finished a very respectable fifth in team ERA at 3.71 (just behind the San Francisco Giants, ironically).
The Cards had four 13-game winners for just the third time since 2000—a 13-year span in which the team made nine playoff appearances, won three NL pennants and two World Series titles.
But the truth of the matter is, the Cardinals did not have a true ace in 2012.
The team has two standard-bearers on the pitching staff and both were compromised for all of 2012.
Chris Carpenter was lost for almost the entire year to a nerve compression issue while Adam Wainwright had a thoroughly uneven season, finishing with a 14-13 record in his first year back from Tommy John surgery.
Thankfully, the club received surprisingly good work from Lance Lynn (3.78, 18-7), Jake Westbrook (3.97, 13-11) and the team's de-facto 2012 ace Kyle Lohse (2.86, 16-3).
Much has been made of the fact that Lohse pitched well even in his no-decisions and that he could have easily been a 20-game winner. That's all well and good, but the biggest favor he did the Cardinals was pricing himself out of their tax bracket and into a likely 4-year, $60 million deal.
Here are some advanced metrics of the Cardinals' starters during the regular season, courtesy of Fangraphs.com. This chart ranks all eight pitchers who started a game in 2012 for the Cards and is ordered by tERA.
I am by no means a sabermetric guru, but I find the "numbers behind the numbers" fascinating. ERA is, of course, the runs allowed average we all know. Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) helps define, somewhat, how lucky a pitcher is if hits find a defender's glove or not.
xFIP and tERA are defense-independent pitching stats. xFIP defines a pitchers performance without any help from the defense, while tERA shows how "hard" a pitcher gets hit, taking into account the type of batted ball allowed—grounder, line drive, pop up, etc.—as well as strikeouts, walks and home runs.
Who will be Cards' Ace in 2013?
We know, of course, that Shelby Miller and Chris Carpenter's sample sizes were very small this year. Miller pitched well in his first 13 big-league innings, while Carp, who came back from major surgery, did not. At age 37, guts only go so far.
Jaime Garcia and Joe Kelly started 20 and 16 games, respectively—roughly half a season, which gives us a reasonable sample size.
Garcia allowed a very high batting average on balls in play yet a very low xFIP and tERA, indicating that he wasn't as bad as his 3.92 ERA indicated.
Kelly, on the other hand, ended up being one of the hardest hit pitchers on the staff. He was very effective early on and quickly became a fan favorite as one of the team's "mini-saviors" mid-season, but as the year went on, he was less and less effective.
Which leaves us with the four hurlers who started at least 28 games each for the club.
Clearly, Jake Westbrook is the fourth-best starter of the group, a back-of-the-rotation veteran innings-eater who fills that need perfectly. He's a ground ball pitcher who will allow about four runs per nine innings, and his metrics across the line support that.
Lance Lynn had good numbers overall. He probably deserved to win about 15 games this year, but due to a great offense behind him, he banked 18 W's and a spot on the All-Star team. His xFIP and tERA are noticeably better than Lohse and Westbrook which makes sense, given his superior stuff.
Which brings us to Lohse and Wainwright. Take note of the statics in bold above.
Lohse had the best ERA on the team as well as the lowest BABIP of any starter, which was in fact tied for 14th in the majors with Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. However, his xFIP and tERA are much closer to those turned in by Westbrook, which is telling.
Lohse's .262 average allowed on batted balls shows he was fairly lucky this year. How many times did Jon Jay bail Lohse out with a spectacular catch at the warning track this year?
On the flip side, Wainwright's metrics show he was probably the best pitcher on the team. His xFIP of 3.23 was actually better than what he produced in 2009 (3.32) on his way to 19 wins.
But while his 3.72 tERA was the best of any Cardinals regular starter, it was still one of the worst marks of his career and highest since 2008 (3.79).
When Wainwright allowed contact this year he was hit pretty hard.
And yet his tERA was still 20th-best among all MLB starters this year, placing him between A.J. Burnett and Cole Hamels. So on the bright side, there is a good chance a stronger Adam Wainwright in 2013 will return to his Cy Young-finalist form from 2010.
But in the end, the stats show that the Cards had no single starter who was effective across the board.
Not one starter was able to pitch well independent of the defense behind them—which was average, at best—while limiting the damage against them when batters were allowed to make contact.
The rotation was good enough to bring the Cards' a Wild Card berth, but really was never good enough to carry them back to the World Series.
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