The Cardinals are in the midst of perhaps the most important series left on their schedule. With three pitchers scheduled to start who are either untrustworthy or unproven, it’s time to mix things up.
This just in: there is no rule that says you need to have five starting pitchers. There is also no rule that says you must have your starting pitcher throw until he reaches 90 pitches. Mike Matheny took advantage of that second statement when he yanked Jaime Garcia before the second inning was over. If the Cardinals want to make their best run at a playoff spot, they will need some more of that.
When looking at the team’s starting pitchers, there is really only one guy you wouldn’t want to change. Carlos Martinez is the team ace and should stick to his normal schedule. The rest of that rotation is no sure thing. Throughout the season, a starter must pitch a lot of innings to ensure a rested bullpen. Right now, the Cardinals have 17 pitchers on their major league roster and they need to start using all of them.
When I say the Cardinals need to get creative, here is what I mean: the three pitchers starting the remainder of this series are Luke Weaver, Mike Leake, and Alex Reyes. Weaver and Reyes are exciting young pitchers, but they are both unproven to this point. Mike Leake is steady but unspectacular. Rather than run them out there until they get into too much trouble, Matheny should use the entire group of Weaver, Leake, Reyes, Jaime Garcia, and Michael Wacha over those three days. Oh, and that’s for every three days that someone not named Martinez or Wainwright pitches.
Alex Reyes will start Sunday instead of Jaime Garcia.
— STLCardinalBaseball (@STLCardinals01) September 16, 2016
Those five can all pitch for multiple innings at a time, and they can still use the other ten relievers for help when needed. The key is that the Cardinals have the flexibility to remove pitchers whenever they want to. Why not use it? Nobody should have to face the leadoff batter three times. Nobody should have to eke out one more inning to save a 17-man bullpen. The starters that fans don’t trust are usually effective the first time through the order, so use them for three innings.
So what will the results be like? We can’t know for sure, but here are the career slash lines against Leake, Garcia, and Wacha, ordered by time through the order.
After looking at that, I would probably cap all three of those guys at four innings apiece. We don’t fully know what Weaver and Reyes can do, but there is no reason to find out yet. Besides, Reyes walks enough guys that it might be smart to get him out on the early side anyway. Weaver also tends to give up homers as he gets to the middle innings. These guys will be great in the future. Right now, it’s time to win games.
Michael Wacha pitching hasn't changed much since August 8th. Still finding a lot of bats with those offerings. #STLCards
— Dan Buffa (@buffa82) September 14, 2016
In order to do that, the Cardinals need to avoid those innings where a pitcher can implode. That is unlikely to happen with Carlos Martinez, but any other pitcher is subject to one. In a perfect world, Adam Wainwright would probably join the 3-day, 5-man rotation as well, but that might be too taxing on the bullpen. I feel comfortable that this can work with three days, but not four.
The bullpen will still be used heavily. This strategy will likely require over ten innings of bullpen work for those three days. At the same time, Matheny will be able to match his lesser relievers against the bottom of the order. When you put in your starter for an undetermined amount of time, then you don’t know when you will have to use your first reliever. Here, the Cardinals can choose which reliever will face the best and the worst hitters. Mixing and matching doesn’t have to be just lefty-righty.
This won’t actually happen, of course. At least not fully. I have no doubt that Matheny has a short leash on his starters from here on out. However, I do think it will still be too long. Now is not the time to stick to the rationale “that is the way we’ve always done it.”
Maybe my idea would end up falling flat on its face in practice. Maybe it would be too taxing on the bullpen. All I am sure of is that it gives this team a better chance to make the playoffs. We know that Leake’s home run rate increases in the later innings. We know that Jaime Garcia struggles mightily after the first time through the order. And we know that Alex Reyes will walk more batters the longer he is left in. An early hook can help all of that.
— Patrick Mooney (@CSNMooney) September 14, 2016
The road to the playoffs may well be unconventional. The Cardinals are in a position where it makes sense to be just that. When a pitcher doesn’t have it, he must be yanked early. When a pitcher looks good, he must be yanked before he loses it. Sometimes, it will be too early, but that doesn’t matter. It only matters when it’s too late.
Matheny made an intelligent decision by taking out Garcia early. Cardinals fans need to hope that it was a sign of things to come.
Photo credit: Jeff Curry – USA TODAY Sports