On Sunday, Manager Mike Matheny named Joe Kelly his fifth starter, rounding out the St. Louis Cardinals rotation. Kelly, who gained as much fame for his staring contest with Scott Van Slyke as he did for his 2.67 ERA in 2013, rounds out one of the National League’s finest rotations.
But from the outside, the rotation seems pretty predictable. All five starters are right-handed, they all throw hard (90+ MPH) and they all have conventional deliveries. With the loss of Jamie Garcia for at least the beginning of the season, the Cardinals will have no lefties in the rotation.
Michael Wacha showed how important a change of pace can be for one pitcher – essentially using two pitches to become the sensation of the playoffs in the NL – but do the Cardinals need a change-up in their rotation, or do they already have one?
To answer that question, you must go player by player to find out.
Wainwright is the best known starter for St. Louis, due largely in part to his outstanding performance, and in 2013 he returned to the top of his game. Two years after Tommy John surgery, Wainwright finished second in the Cy Young voting for the second time in his career. He finished the regular season with 241.2 innings pitched and five complete games, both of which led the NL.
To pile up these numbers, Wainwright features an above average four-seam fastball that he controls well. This is a quality pitch, but not the fastball he uses most often. The cutter – which was valued as 12.3 runs above average by Fangraphs – is his primary pitch which he used nearly 30 percent of the time in 2013.
The cutter may be his most commonly used pitch, but his best is the curveball.
This nasty 12-to-6 hammer is the signature pitch that ended the NLCS and World Series in 2006, and it has only gotten sharper since then. Rated at 17 runs above average by Fangraphs, is the top pitch on the entire team, and is one that only Wainwright offers to the rotation.
2. Michael Wacha
In addition to naming Joe Kelly the number-five starter, Matheny gave Michael Wacha the start in game number two of the season. After making his debut in May, Wacha made a lasting impact in the final month of the season.
After two solid starts against division rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Wacha made his most profound mark in his final start of the regular season. He went 8.2 innings allowing just one hit, a high chopping infield hit, to the final batter he faced in the game against Washington. He followed that up with an incredible playoff run. Wacha was 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA in his first fours starts in the playoffs, but got burned by the Red Sox in the World Series-clinching game 6.
He accomplished all of this with essentially a two pitch mix. He throws his fastball about 70 percent of the time, his change-up about 25 of the time and his curveball just five percent of the time.
His fastball differs from Wainwright’s in a couple of ways. Wacha has the ability to turn up the heat, but it is almost always a four-seam fastball. His repertoire is drastically different from Wainwrights, which is important considering they look the same in their windup.
Before Wacha took over as the top young pitcher in the system, Shelby Miller held that distinction. Miller, a first round draft pick in 2009, made the starting rotation for the first time in 2013. He jumped out to an incredible start – a 2.08 ERA through his first 14 starts – but fell off at the end of the season. He didn’t pitch a single inning last season but will be expected to increase his workload in 2014.
To survive this larger responsibility, Miller will rely on his own two pitch mix. Miller relies heavily on his explosive four-seam fastball, which Fangraphs rated nine runs above average. He throws that fastball about 74 percent of the time. He supplements a strong fastball with a slightly above-average curveball, and a below average change-up. He throws the curveball 18 percent of the time, and the change-up only 6 percent.
Visually, Miller is a little bit different from Wainwright and Wacha. Miller is 6’3″, three inches shorter than Wacha and four inches shorter than Wainwright, but throws from the same arm slot.
4. Lance Lynn
In 2013 Lynn pitched a career-high 201.2 innings, and will be expected to eat up innings in 2014 with so many young pitchers in the rotation. Luckily, Lynn has a perfect body for eating innings. Lynn is listed at 6’5″ and 240 pounds. His weight has been up and down in the last few years, but if spring training is any implication Lynn has found a sweet-spot.
Whether its striking out 10 in a spring training game (including 8 in a row) or impressing in his final start of the playoffs, Lynn always has one thing going when he’s on, his fastball. According to Fangraphs, the four seam fastball is Lynn’s only above average pitch. Because of this, and because he threw nearly all fastballs in his World Series start, Lynn left the Cardinals with a sweet taste in their mouths.
In addition to the even more increased reliance on the fastball, Lynn has a delivery that differs from the rest as well. Lynn drops down to three-quarters during his delivery, changing the eye level of the hitter, and offering a different look from the top three starters. His side-winding style and added size makes him a definite change.
5. Joe Kelly
The final place now belongs to Joe Kelly. Kelly filled the fifth spot in the rotation last year after Jake Westbrook hit the DL, and he
thrived in the role. After joining the rotation, Kelly took off. In his 15 appearances from that point on, Kelly was 10-5 with a 2.18 ERA.
He accomplished all of this with one simple idea, don’ throw it straight. In his 124 innings he threw a four-seam fastball just 1 percent of the time. To fill the other 99 percent Kelly relied on four different pitches. Two-thirds of the time, Kelly threw a sinking two seam fastball. This pitch was key in Kelly’s 51 percent ground ball rate. He uses a slider, curveball and change-up to fill the rest of the time.
His stature and stuff make him different from the other four, and make the Cardinals starting rotation very well-rounded.
If you are only looking for similarities, there are plenty to be found, but when you look at the pitchers individually, the Cardinals have all the diversity they need without having a lefty.