ST. LOUIS (Baseball STL) — The Cardinals opened the season with expectations that, this time, the team would get over the hump. This whole missing the playoffs thing wasn’t going to become a thing—the string of postseason absences would need to cease at two. To accomplish this goal, the Cardinals beefed up the offense with Marcell Ozuna, added or anticipated at least a handful of new faces for the bullpen and signed Miles Mikolas as a stabilizer for a starting rotation still transitioning between last year—which saw Lance Lynn and Mike Leake depart—and next year, before which Adam Wainwright may well do the same.
Through seven games on the new season, it feels as though the handiwork applied to the offense and bullpen should reap dividends this summer. St. Louis seems to have some thunder in its bats, giving the lineup a deeper look than it’s had the past couple years. Early returns on some of the bullpen’s newbies, like Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks, have been encouraging. There have been some warts, but a baseball season isn’t a sprint, and there have been plenty of promising signs from both groups already.
The rotation, too, has flashed promise mixed with some disappointment over the season’s first week and a half. But one important element from the starters’ performances thus far has struck a note more tenuous than anything seen from the bats or bullpen.
It’s their efficiency—or, rather, their lack of it.
Cardinal fans have seen six different starting pitchers take the ball this season, with only Carlos Martinez doing so twice. The six that have made starts include basically every pitcher you might’ve considered likely to appear in such a role this season, with the exception of Alex Reyes, who could be conditioned as a starter when he is eligible to return from the 60-day DL.
The only game this season in which a starter has completed six full innings was Martinez’s second outing, his near-complete game against Milwaukee. Otherwise, Cardinal pitchers have generally struggled to establish rhythm early in starts, leading to high pitch counts and long innings, regardless of whether the pitcher was effective in keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
For a staff that intends to rely heavily on young arms, the veteran starters have to do better logging innings.
“It’s very important,” Wainwright said. “I think (Michael) Wacha’s getting to a point now where we’re going to be looking to him to get into that 200-inning limit, too. Carlos will do that, I’m going to do that. I think Mikolas has a chance to do that, for sure. I don’t know what they’ll let Weaver do, but he’s got the potential to do that.”
As Wainwright alluded to, Weaver’s inning total will likely face some sort of artificial cap by management; the 24-year-old set his career high in innings last year with 138 between Memphis and St. Louis. Everyone else—besides Jack Flaherty, who’s with Memphis now—will surely be welcomed to shoot for the moon, for that magical 200-innings mark. Considering the numbers the first time through the rotation, though, it will require a considerable improvement in efficiency for many of them to get close to knocking on that threshold.
Carlos Martinez's second start was obviously much better than his first, perhaps serving as a reminder that awareness of early trends doesn't have to incite panic over them, not yet. Beyond the ace, young hurlers Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty both fit the anticipated description for their respective early-season starts: impressive, yet inefficient. Subbing for Wainwright, Flaherty fanned nine Brewers with the help of his nasty slider. But he went only five innings and ranked 106th for pitches per inning (18.20) of the 144 MLB pitchers to make a start this season. In his start, Weaver also pitched just five frames. His 18.40 P/IP ranks 111th. But again, for the two rookies with sky-high potential, you can live with that.
What you can’t live with: while displaying mediocre efficiency numbers, Flaherty and Weaver rank 3rd and 4th respectively in the category among the six starters on their own team. That’s ahead of two of the veterans Wainwright believes should be around 200 innings this year: Wacha and himself.
Wacha’s 20.36 P/IP in his one start ranks 125th of MLB starters so far. Wainwright threw 24.27 pitches per innings in his home opener start, which ranks 141st out of 144. This should come as no surprise for anyone who watched his start, as Wainwright worked full counts on five of the first seven batters he faced, and didn’t improve efficiency-wise from there. He threw 89 pitches and didn’t get through the fourth.
His struggles offered a glimpse into how starters’ inefficiencies can burden a bullpen. The procession of Matt Bowman, Ryan Sherriff, Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons and Jordan Hicks paraded to the mound hoping to keep the game close for St. Louis. Several high profile relievers later, the Cardinals still lost the game.
In this case, Mike Matheny could afford to be aggressive with his best relievers, thanks to an off-day Friday. During the long season, he won’t always have that luxury. For those times, it will be important that Matheny trust the full arsenal in his bullpen, not just a select few night after night.
If the manager can’t trust everyone in his bullpen—Mike Mayers hasn’t pitched since March 29 and the hook has been quick on Sam Tuivailala—then the Cardinals may need to begin their reliever shuffle from Memphis sooner than later. Especially if the early returns on the starters’ collective inability to provide ample effective innings proves indicative of a problem that could persist for St. Louis this season.