According to ERA, the Cardinals had the sixth best starting staff in 2014. But according to both WAR and xFIP, they were only the 17th best staff in the league. Every starter who threw at least 100 innings for the Cardinals had an ERA that was much lower than their xFIP/SIERA. Combined, the gap between the staff’s ERA and xFIP was -0.36, the third largest negative gap in the league. And our depth charts/projections don’t have any have any Cardinal starter significantly outperforming his peripherals again.
Let’s start with the ace of the staff, Adam Wainwright. It’s not hard to find cause for concern with Wainwright. His xFIP (3.52) was more than full run higher than his ERA (2.38), which was due in large part to his strikeout rate falling three full percentage points, which, in turn, was due in large part to decreased velocity. Since returning from a missed 2011 season, Wainwright’s peripherals have gone as his velocity has gone. In 2013 he averaged just over 91 mph on his fastball, and his SIERA was a shade under three. Last year and in 2012, he averaged less than 91 mph on his fastball, and his SIERA was in the mid-threes.
He got away with the reduced velocity last year thanks to the lowest batting average on balls in play and lowest home run rate of his career. When he didn’t have his best velocity in 2012, he wasn’t so lucky. That year he had the highest BABIP and highest home run rate of his career, and his ERA was half a run higher than his mid-threes xFIP/SIERA.
The long story short is that Wainwright doesn’t have an established history of outperforming his peripherals upon which you can rely. You have to assume his ERA will closely follow his peripherals absent significant fortune or misfortune. You can’t rely on that. And given that he had surgery on his elbow in October because he was previously unable to “support the weight of a Sprite can,” you can’t rely on his velocity and strikeout rate to bounce back. If the surgery really did make him whole, then maybe he can repeat as a top five fantasy starter. But that’s a risky proposition, and you’ll have to pay a borderline SP1 price to acquire him. There’s admittedly some value potential there, but there is also quite a bit of downside. Probably too much downside.
At least according to ADP, Lance Lynn is the second most valuable St. Louis starter going 33rd among starters. He also finished 2014 as the second most valuable fantasy starter in St. Louis, finishing 25th overall at the position. As is the established theme, Lynn had an ERA that was much lower than his peripherals with an ERA that, like Wainwright’s, was more than a full run lower than his SIERA.
Nicholas Minnix looked at Lynn earlier this offseason and cautioned that we shouldn’t just look at the ERA-SIERA gap and assume Lynn was the benefactor of good fortune. Minnix rightly pointed out that Lynn has improved against lefties, a common bugaboo for right-handed pitchers, in consecutive seasons. Minnix pointed to a change in pitch mix against lefties that mitigated the weakness but ultimately admitted that these changes weren’t enough to account for the ERA-SIERA gap.
But any gains Lynn has made against lefties, he may have given away against righties. While he has improved against lefties in consecutive years, he has also declined against righties in consecutive years. His K-BB% against righties is almost ten percentage points lower than it was in 2012. It’s possible that the reason for the decline is the same as the reason for his improvement against lefties: pitch mix. Minnix noted that Lynn is throwing more sinkers to lefties and fewer curves/changes. But it’s not just against lefties. He’s doing it against righties, too, and it’s not really working.
For that reason, I’m inclined to think the easy analysis is correct in this case. I do believe the main reason for Lynn’s success last year was fortune on factors primarily out of his control. I also believe he may have figured out a way to better handle lefties, but there are mitigating factors that render those improvements moot. If his ERA had been closer to his SIERA last year, his numbers would have been slightly better than what John Lackey produced, and Lackey was the 61st most valuable fantasy starter. Given that Lynn is going in the top 40 among starters, the risk of regression easily outweighs the potential he can repeat what he did last year.
Speaking of Lackey, he’s going 73rd among starters, but Steamer projects him to be better than he was last year. Given that we just discussed him finishing 61st among starters, it stands to reason that if he improves he’ll finish better than 61st at the position, and 61 was lower than 73 to being with. So maybe we’ve finally got some value potential here. And that departure from the theme would make sense because Lackey wasn’t with St. Louis for most of 2014 and thus wasn’t one of the Cardinals with the wonky ERA-SIERA relationship.
It seems that Steamer simply likes Lackey to do better with a full season in his new digs. It didn’t exactly work out like that last year as Lackey’s ten starts with the Cards were quite a bit worse than his 21 starts with the Red Sox. But it was ten games. Grain of salt and all that. As Paul Sporer has pointed out a couple of times since joining the RG team, NL starters had a .09 ERA and .03 WHIP advantage last year. St. Louis is also a much more pitcher-friendly park than Fenway as the basic park factor in St. Louis last year was 98 compared to 104 in Boston. A full season with the more advantageous conditions is likely to bear out the improvements Steamer projects.
There are no projected improvements to Lackey’s strikeout and walk rates, just the same slightly above average strikeout rate and well above average walk rate that Lackey has been sporting for a couple of years now. It’s just moderate projected improvements in ERA and WHIP. If the projection comes through, Lackey should be a top 50 fantasy starter with a chance to crack the top 40. Given that you can get him in the last couple of rounds of a 12-team mixed league, Lackey looks like a value.
We’re over 1,000 words here and I haven’t even discussed the team’s fourth starter, much less the issue of the unsettled fifth spot. So let me quickly address Michael Wacha.
Wacha was limited to just over 100 innings last year due to injury, but he followed up his impressive 2013 debut pretty well with a 3.20 ERA. The problem was that his strikeout rate was four percent lower than it was in his debut despite no loss of velocity.
The reason was probably the result of Wacha throwing more cutters and fewer changeups. According to our pitch values, the cutter was above average but not as effective as the changeup. Per the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards, Wacha’s cutter ranked 62nd in whiff rate among the 74 starters who threw at least 100 cutters and 48th in ground ball rate. By comparison his change ranked 56th of 85 in whiff rate and 13th of 85 in ground ball rate. The change wasn’t elite, but it was decidedly better than the cutter. I’m not sure what the reason for the mix up was, but it didn’t make him better.
With an ADP that is past the midway point in 12-team mixed leagues, I’m willing to gamble on Wacha a) staying healthy and b) finding the right pitch mix. He has still yet to throw 200 big league innings, so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to develop as a pitcher, and he’s already displayed plenty of talent as a thrower. That gives him upside well beyond being a borderline top 40 pitcher, and it won’t kill you if he doesn’t realize his upside.
OK, about that fifth spot. Unlike the other rotations I’ve discussed so far this offseason, the Cards actually have fifth starter candidates that might be viable fantasy options.
We have Carlos Martinez throwing the most innings as a starter of any of the candidates, and there is plenty of love for the kid. Check out his FG+ profile on his player page. The most relevant portion is this: “The indicators for a true breakout season are present.” Eno’s research loves his arsenal. If he figures out how to combat his platoon issues, Pod might fall in love with him. His current ADP is 295 overall, which equals a last round pick in 12-team mixed leagues. Other pitchers going right around there include Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta and Ervin Santana. Martinez unquestionably has more upside than all of them. I doubt his ADP stays that low, but if it does or stays anywhere close to it, take a shot on one of the few upside guys left at that point.
After Martinez there is Marco Gonzales who tore up AA last year and held his own in stints at AAA and the big league level. He’s nowhere near as exciting as Martinez, but Steamer likes him for an ERA in the mid-threes between the bullpen and the rotation. There’s also Tyler Lyons who has posted an above average strikeout rate in just under 100 big league innings. But he’s really only had success against lefties and is likely a LOOGY and spot starter at best. And then there is Jamie Garcia. Garcia was actually much better than his ERA would indicate in his short stretch of health in 2014. But the health is a huge issue. He has thrown less than 100 innings in the last two seasons combined. If he gets healthy at some point, our waiver wire writers will alert you to his potential relevance.