Through the first three weeks of the 2013 baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals' starting rotation has been among the best in baseball.
In 18 games, Cardinals starters have combined for 13 quality starts, but does that mean they will continue their dominating ways throughout 2013?
With only one starting fielder batting over .300 (Yadier Molina .328), the Cardinals have been left to win games in interesting ways.
The ability to manufacture runs and string together hits have paid off for St. Louis, who now have an MLB-leading .383 RISP average. But scoring runs is only half of the battle.
Preventing runs is the other half.
The starting rotation has been holding up their end of the bargain so far in 2013.
In a total of 114.2 innings, Cardinals starters have surrendered only 30 runs.
One interesting change from previous years seems to be the difference in pitching philosophy. Under the leadership of former pitching coach Dave Duncan, the staff took more of a pitch-to-contact approach.
In 2013, the focus seems to be more strikeout heavy. Through April 21, the Cardinals' starters have combined for 101 strikeouts.
Of course, that change likely has less to do with a change in philosophy and more to do with a change in pitchers.
With the absence of Kyle Lohse, who along with Jake Westbrook, led the team in contact pitching, the shift should be expected.
The addition of Shelby Miller in Lohse's place likely makes the contrast more obvious. Miller, who has had only eight runs of support so far in 2013, has 18 strikeouts to date. Interestingly, he only ranks fourth in strikeouts on the team behind Wainwright (28), Lynn (25) and Garcia (22).
Several other factors have played into the rotation’s early-season success.
Aside from the already mentioned poor run support for Miller, the Cardinals have backed their other four starters quite admirably.
Currently, Lynn (29) has seen the best run production, and it’s benefited him greatly during a pair of weak starts. Cardinals ace Wainwright (28) has also seen his share of strong run support.
While Jaime Garcia (15) hasn’t received a lot of help from his offense, his 1-1 record is not indicative of the quality of his starts. If he keeps it up, his numbers should even out.
Though there have been a few hiccups for the Cardinals’ starters, there are signs that point toward their continued success.
First and foremost, they are getting solid production from top to bottom. In this rotation, the No. 4 and No. 5 pitchers are more than simple placeholders the front office hopes will keep them in games long enough for the offense to keep up.
Westbrook and Miller are both legitimate threats against any team and each is pitching beyond their early-season expectations.
No one doubted that Miller is capable, but to expect a 1.96 ERA through three starts is a pleasant surprise. The right-handed rookie has also held opposing batters to a .169 average–the lowest of all active Cardinals pitchers.
Westbrook has also gone above and beyond any predictions. After not allowing a run in either of his first two starts, one of which was a complete game, he finally came back down to reality in Sunday night’s start against the Philadelphia Phillies after a two-run first inning.
He won’t keep up this pace all year, but he’s shown good consistency that played a major role in the Cardinals’ decision to re-sign him in 2012.
Another good sign for the Cardinals is the return of Jaime Garcia.
After struggling through shoulder issues in 2012 and questions surrounding his health throughout the offseason, Garcia appears to be on a mission.
Long believed to have some of the nastiest pitches on the starting corps, he looks extremely healthy and, despite a bad outing in Philadelphia, looks as good as he has in two years. A healthy Garcia has the potential to be a difference maker for the 2013 Cardinals.
The same can be said for Adam Wainwright.
In his first season as the undisputed ace of the staff, Wainwright is quickly leaving his mark. Opponents are actually hitting him quite well (.279), but he’s kept his run total down and so far that’s translated into winning.
Starting the season at 3-1, Wainwright will look to show that his elbow problems and recovery from Tommy John surgery are a thing of the past.
With a new contract and all of the medical issues behind him, most of last year’s pressures are gone. That’s good for Wainwright and the Cardinals.
To expect the St. Louis starters to continue at their current pace might be a stretch, but there is little reason for concern at this early day in the season.
Consistency—combined with a little more help from the bullpen—will be the top need for the Cardinals' rotation in 2013.