Back in 1948 a sports editor for the Boston Post coined the enduring phrase (“Spahn and Sain and two days of rain”) adopted for more than half a century by teams that don’t seem to have enough starting pitching to safely make it back to the top of the rotation (in 1948 baseball teams used four-man rotations).
It seems a little strange to be adapting the ancient ditty to the 2019 St Louis Cardinals. Questions certainly abounded as the team came out of spring training. Mostly questions about offense and defense. More than a bit of insecurity regarding the bullpen. But where most felt the team would certainly be the strongest was in the rotation.
Jack Flaherty emerged through the midst of the 2018 season as one of the most exciting young prospects in baseball. Joining him in the rotation was Dakota Hudson – who had been one of the top starters in AAA last year until he spent the last half of the season pitching with great effectiveness out of the Cardinal bullpen. And, of course, there was Michael Wacha – finally healthy.
In fact, if there were questions about the rotation at the beginning of the season, they might have centered on Miles Mikolas and especially Adam Wainwright. Mikolas had been brilliant (18-4) in 2018, but in some ways he kind of came out of nowhere – and baseball history is full of these kind of one-year wonders. They have a brilliant year, and the league makes an adjustment to them.
Wainwright, of course, has been in a perpetual battle against injuries and father time for the last several seasons. Now 37, there were serious concerns whether there was anything left in Waino’s tank.
Fast-forward to the end of the first quarter of the 2019 season, and the Cardinals are enjoying (if that is the correct word) their first off day in the month of May. They are coming off a brutal 1-3 series against the Pittsburgh Pirates that closed out a disappointing 2-5 homestand – which, in turn – was the centerpiece in a 2-9 stretch that dropped St Louis from being in first place, three games ahead of the pack, down now to fourth place, 3.5 games behind the surging Cubs.
The offense and bullpen – though hitting an inconsistent patch of late – have proven to be mostly capable. But that rotation. The spring pride of the Midwest, the Cardinal starting five have fallen to fifteenth out of baseball’s 30 teams with a 4.35 ERA. The struggles have been general, except for Mikolas and Wainwright.
One of the highlight’s of course, of the recently concluded Pittsburgh series was the 17 runs the Cards scored in the Thursday contest (their only win of the series). Immediately after that outburst, the Birds lost consecutive 2-1 games (box score 1, box score 2), in which they wasted consecutive excellent starts from the twin lynchpins of the rotation. Mikolas has tossed 5 quality starts out of his 9 starts. Waino also has 5 in 8 starts. The rest of the team, in 24 starts, has 6.
Six pitches into the Friday night game, Waino trailed 1-0, courtesy of Adam Frazier’s leadoff home run. That would be all the damage surrendered by the great Cardinal veteran. He would leave after 7 innings, allowing just that single run on 5 hits. He walked no one and struck out 8.
Of the 8 strikeouts, 5 were called third strikes. It’s the curveball, of course – a nasty thing to contend with when you’ve got two strikes on you. But it’s more than that. All year, Adam has been confidently throwing that cutter to the corners of the zone.
To this point of the season, Waino leads the team in called strikeouts with 17 and in percentage of strikeouts coming on called third strikes (45.9%). The team average is 24.6% of their strikeouts being called third strikes.
Of Waino’s 92 pitches on Friday, the Pirates only offered at 35 of them (38%). This has been another benchmark of Waino’s renaissance season, as opposing batters only offer at 39.5% of his pitches this season – also the lowest percentage on the team.
The afternoon after Wainwright tossed his gem, Mikolas answered with one of his own – 7 innings, 2 runs, 3 hits, 1 walk, 7 strikeouts and no home runs. The result was similar as well.
Miles actually staggered a bit out of the gate. His first 6 starts were less than encouraging. Over his first 34 innings, Miles allowed 21 runs (20 earned) on 34 hits – including 8 home runs. He was 2-2 at that point, with 5.29 ERA. He was only getting ground balls from 48% of the batters who put the ball in play against him, while those same batters missed on only 14% of their swings against him.
Over his last three starts, though, Miles has fully resembled the pitcher that took the league by surprise last year. Over his last 20 innings, there have been only 3 runs scored on 13 hits and 2 walks (and no home runs). He is 2-1 with a 1.35 ERA his last 3 times to the mound. Batters are now hitting .183/.205/.225 against him, hitting the ball on the ground 58% of the time and missing on 20% of their swings.
Slowly but surely, Dakota Hudson seems to be turning the corner. He had some early-season difficulties, but he is 2-1 with a 3.57 ERA over his last 4 starts. Granted, those numbers include 6 un-earned runs scored against him two outings ago. Dakota – who didn’t allow a home run all last season – gave up 8 in his first 18.1 innings this season. There has only been 1 hit against him over his last 22.2 innings.
Even though he allowed 3 first inning runs on Sunday, Dakota still finished 6 innings giving up no more runs. In so doing, he gave the Cards their third consecutive quality starts for only the second time all season (Waino, Mikolas and Hudson had earlier turned the trick in Washington from April 30 through May 2).
When he’s right – and Dakota has been closer to that recently – he is as severe a ground ball pitcher as the Cardinals have. Over his last 2 games, batters are hitting ground balls 72% of the time. On Sunday, he was able to make it through 6 in spite of allowing 9 hits, walking 2 and hitting another batter because he didn’t nibble with the batter at the plate. He faced 28 batters throwing just 84 pitches – 3.00 per plate appearances. Opposing hitters missed on only 9.1% of their swings, and put the ball in play 52.4% of the time they swung at Dakota’s pitches.
This month, he is averaging just 3.35 pitches per plate appearance – the lowest of any Cardinal starter.
The date was April 6. It was opening weekend against San Diego. After Flaherty had started the home opener, it was Michael Wacha’s turn in the second game. But Michael found himself in a bit of first-inning difficulty. After an RBI double from Hunter Renfroe put San Diego up 1-0, Wacha found himself facing Wil Myers with the bases loaded and one out. Michael got out of it, when Myers grounded the first pitch to Paul DeJong, starting a 6-4-3 double play.
That was the last time this season that Michael Wacha has induced that double-play ground ball. Wacha has now pitched to 26 consecutive batters with an opportunity to get a double play, and has been unable to get a ground ball. (One of those opportunities, by the way, came against the Cubs’ Taylor Davis in his last start in Chicago.) He faced 8 batters in his 5.2 inning struggle against Pittsburgh on Thursday who could have eased his labor by grounding into a double play. He got none of them.
Wacha – who throws that heavy sinking fastball – was helped last year by only 4 double-play grounders in 65 such opportunities. If Michael could figure out a way to get the occasional ground ball, it could make a noticeable difference in his season.
John Gant – who earlier this season pitched a relief no-hitter – has now gone 7 straight appearances and 6.1 innings without being scored on – although he has surrendered all of 3 hits in those innings. He has struck out 11 in those innings. Gant – who hasn’t walked a batter in his last 11 games – covering 11.2 innings – is throwing 72% strikes over his last 174 pitches.
He worked in two of the Pirate games – tossing 1.1 innings. In those innings, the 5 Pirate batters he faced swung at 11 of his pitches – missing 5. In the month of May, John has the team’s highest swing-and-miss percentage – 44.0%.
Andrew Miller also pitched in two of the Pirate games – earning the game two loss. Very different with Miller in May is that everything he is throwing either is a strike or looks enough like one to compel the batter to swing.
He threw 22 pitches to the 8 Pittsburgh batters he saw this weekend. They swung at 14 (63.6%). Of the 8 that they didn’t swing at, 5 were called strikes. Only 3 of his 22 pitches ended up being called balls.
For the month of May, Miller has thrown 31 pitches to 11 batters, getting 17 swings (54.8% – the highest on the team), and getting 9 of the 14 taken pitches called strikes (64.3% – best, again, by far on the team).
It’s kind of two steps forward, one step back, but there is some evidence of Miller returning to form.
After allowing just 1 run over his first 18.1 innings, John Brebbia has given up runs in 2 of his last 4 games – losing both. The damage is 4 runs in 4.1 innings – including 2 crushing home runs. The last 21 batters to face him have a line of .316/.381/.737.
In losing three of four to Pittsburgh, the offense turned in their most Jekyll and Hyde performance of the season. After a 17-run eruption on Thursday, they totaled 2 runs in the next two games combined. Sunday they scored 6 times in the first two innings and then nothing after that (on their way to a 10-6 defeat). They finished outscoring Pittsburgh for the series 25-18 – for all the good that did them.
Still, there are positive signs for some hitters who have been struggling recently.
One of the most encouraging signs to come out of the otherwise lost weekend were the hits off the bat of Paul Goldschmidt. It’s no secret that he has been frustrated with his contributions so far. In the Pirate series, he hit safely in all four games – getting multiple hits in three of them. He finished the series 9-for-17 (.529) with a double a home run and 4 runs batted in – pushing him to .298 for the month.
A big part of the team the last few years, Jedd Gyorko is finding it hard to get at bats. He did get a few against Pittsburgh, going 3-for-6. Jedd is now 5-for-14 (.357) for the month.
Yairo Munoz is another of the bench players who gets infrequent opportunities that had some moments in the Pittsburgh series. He went 3 for 9 in the four games, and is 9 for his last 19 (.474).
The defensive limitations of Jose Martinez showed up again a few times over the weekend. Pretty much any line drive hit to right field is going to be an adventure.
But Jose continues to hit. After his three-hit game on Sunday, Martinez has started 24 of the last 25 games, hitting .365 (31 for 85) in those games.