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St. Louis Cardinals: Projecting the starting rotation

Lance Lynn could be a part of the St. Louis Cardinals trades

Projecting performance of starting pitchers is always tricky business. Injuries lurk around every corner. When I took a look at each of the Cardinals starters, I assumed a full season’s worth of work. It’s likely that one or more of them won’t reach the games or innings totals I based my projections on.

My projections are based heavily on walk and strikeout rate, two stats pitchers have the most control over. However, I based my projected BB% and K% on expected walk rate and expected strikeout rate (xK% and xBB%) based on the types of strikes thrown — swinging, looking, or fouled off. Additionally, I used past expected batting average on balls in play (xBABIP) to try to catch flukes in actual BABIP, and based my projected BABIP on xBABIP. Wins and losses are based on the Pythagorean Win Expectancy formula, and the rest is based on career rates.

Carlos Martinez

Martinez enters 2017 with a new contract and a new role: ace of the Cardinals’ staff. Matheny tabbed Tsunami to start Opening Day opposite Jon Lester, and it was the right call. In his first two years as a starter, Martinez was remarkably consistent. He pitched 175 innings in 2015, but was limited at the end of the season by a shoulder injury. Fully recovered, he approached 200 innings last season, with a 3.01 ERA. Martinez’s combination of high K% and GB% suggest a true number one for years to come.

One area I see regression is BABIP. Last year, opponents hit .286 off Martinez on balls put in play, but xBABIP suggests he was rather lucky, and suggests a .306 BABIP would be more indicative of contact quality. An improved defense could aid in offsetting regression in that area. If you ignore the wins and losses in the projection and look at innings, ERA, xK% and xBB%, you can see that Martinez is a front line starter, deserving of both his contract extension and Opening Day assignment.

Adam Wainwright

The longtime Cardinals ace entered 2016 fully recovered from a torn achilles that robbed him of his 2015. Hopes were high that he could return to form. He didn’t. His strike percentage dropped 3%, which may not seem like much. Over  roughly 3,000 pitches, however, a 3% drop in STR% is a difference of 100 strikes. His posted a career high BB% and career low K% in a full season. Hitters worked Waino for a .330 BABIP, and he stranded 10% fewer runners than at any other time in his career. He failed to reach 200 innings for the first time since 2012, when he was recovering from Tommy John.

There’s no arguing that 2016 was a career low for Wainwright. The only question was whether the regression was due to missing a season, or age. 210 innings might be a little on the high-end, but he threw 198 last season, and an improved defense should help. Here’s the bad news for Cardinals fans: Wainwright is 35 years old, and the decline was going to come eventually. His achilles injury may have accelerated the inevitable, but its unlikely he ever returns to his 2013 or 2014 form.

Mike Leake

Most people expect a huge bounce back season for Leake, and there’s evidence to support that. He set career marks in K% and FIP (fielding independent pitching). As we know, the Cardinals defense was atrocious last year, and the narrative has been that with an improved defense, Leake can be a steady member of the rotation. It’s not just Cardinals fans buying in, either. Baseball Prospectus said:

The longtime command-and-control specialist posted one of his lowest FIPs and best walk rate and ground ball rate, upped his strikeout rate, and generally pitched as well or better than he ever has. All that good was undone by a sky-high BABIP, however, and since Statcast didn’t show him giving up more screamers than usual, a lot of that was due to the Cardinals’ woeful infield defense.

There’s one problem with that analysis. While Leake’s BABIP skyrocketed, his xBABIP was right in line with his career numbers. In each of the last three season, Leake’s xBABIP was above .314. 2016 was simply the first time that manifested itself in his overall numbers.

Lance Lynn

Projecting pitchers returning from Tommy John is not easy. Lynn says he’ll reach the 200 inning threshold once again, but I’m skeptical. Even though he’s 18 months removed from the procedure, it’s simply unwise to bank on 200 innings from the Ole’ Miss product. That being said, there’s no reason Lynn can’t be a reliable member of the rotation. While I expect some regression, Lynn’s projected xK% of 18 is healthy, and he should generate his fair share of ground balls.

Lance used to be the guy who had a 4.50 ERA but would win 15 games a year, because the offense would score a half dozen runs each time out. However, in his last two healthy seasons, his combined ERA has been under 3.00. If Lynn can prove me wrong and return to his 2014 or 2015 form, the Cardinals rotation could be quite formidable.

Michael Wacha

Here’s the thing about projecting Michael Wacha: nobody knows how much he’ll pitch. Not Mike Matheny. Not John Mozeliak. Not even Michael Wacha. The other thing we know about Michael Wacha is that he can be downright nasty. His throws 95+ downhill, with an excellent changeup. He looks like an ace; if only his shoulder would cooperate.

For my projection, I assumed Wacha will pitch a full season, because its easier than guessing if/when he gets hurt. Same with innings. I honestly have no idea, because nobody does. What stands out, though, is superb xBB rate. Since most attribute his lack of success even when healthy in 2016 to lack of command, suppressing walks could cascade over other parts of his performance. The stat that tells all for Wacha this year will be the one in the first column: games started.

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Colin Garner
Colin is a catcher at Drury University who's a big fan of pitch calling, bullpenning, and Game of Thrones. Gets very frustrated with nonsense from people around him while attending games.
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