The Cardinals are fighting for a playoff spot. That’s not a surprise -- they usually do. How they do it is kind of a discouraging tradition. The rest of the baseball world scrambles around to find starting pitching. The rest of the world gives out ill-advised deals to free agents, and empties the farm system in trades.
The Cardinals will take a guy you heard of that one time and make him an above-average starter. His strikeout rate will be boring, and he’ll probably fade into the sunset in a season or two. But when the Cardinals need a guy to fill a rotation spot with gobs of quality innings, he’s there. It’s discouraging because you want your team to do the same danged thing, but they never can.
It’s also equal parts annoying and mesmerizing. Mostly the latter. The Cardinals fill out their rotations with three types of pitchers: talented young pitchers, fringe pitchers that have their best seasons for Dave Duncan before blowing away like a dandelion spore, and crafty veterans who post their best seasons for Dave Duncan. A sampling from the past decade:
|Talented young pitchers||Fringers who (briefly) unfringe||Crafty wily veterans|
|Matt Morris||Garrett Stephenson||Woody Williams|
|Rick Ankiel||Kent Bottenfield||Jeff Suppan (twice!)|
|Bud Smith||Jason Simontacchi||Jeff Weaver|
|Jason Marquis||Todd Wellemeyer||Joel Pineiro|
|Adam Wainwright||Braden Looper||Kyle Lohse|
Pick one from columns a, b, and c, and -- Frank Violà! -- you have a strong rotation. If the young pitchers break, they get another one. This year is no different. Jaime Garcia comes from the talented young pitcher category, and he’s exploding this season:
|2011 - Jaime Garcia||4-0||7||7||2||2||0||0||45.1||33||15||10||2||11||44||1.99||.97|
Sinkerballers who get strikeouts should be illegal. They’re the aluminum bats of the pitching world. Either they can get hitters to pound pitches into the dirt, or they can get them to look foolish on swings and misses. Pick one and stick with it. Garcia has been unreal. And probably unfair. The Commissioner should get a Blue Ribbon Committee to look into it.
Kyle McClellan comes from the fringe pitcher category. Well, that’s probably not fair -- he did have 217 innings before this season with a 3.23 ERA -- but he was at least an unknown quantity when it came to starting. His minor-league career was very neatly split into two halves: his time as a starter (awful) and his time as a reliever (fantastic).
So it’s happening again. Adam Wainwright goes down, and they’re able to get wainwrightian production from Garcia, and McClellan is giving them something akin to what they were hoping from Garcia. The carousel continues to spin. Oh, and Kyle Lohse has cut his ERA by 300% just because.
This isn’t to insinuate that Dave Duncan is infallible. He has his share of misses. Duncan is a couple of starts away from locking Jake Westbrook up under his restaurant, feeding him Baby Ruths, and trying to convince the world that he never existed. And even Duncan couldn’t fix Brett Tomko -- if Tomko were the star of Good Will Hunting, the movie would have ended with him filling out a job application at Best Buy.
But if you’re going to take away his misses, you have to give him credit for his magical transformations. Duncan saw a pitcher with this statistical profile and a history of shoulder problems, and helped turn him into a Cy Young winner. Before Darryl Kile (rest in peace) came to the Cardinals, he seemed completely and utterly broken by the old Coors Field. Under Duncan, he cut his walk rate in half.
Maybe it’s all Duncan. Maybe it’s just our confirmation bias acting up; we expect Duncan to find the diamonds in the rough, so we pay more attention to those than we do to similar stories around the league. Whatever the case, it’s happening again. The Cardinals are contending again, and they’re doing it with pitching that few predicted. Again. I look forward to watching Pat Rapp’s 19-win season next year.