With a 46-26 record, the St. Louis Cardinals currently have the best record in baseball. They have a very balanced team, but have thrived with their pitching, second in baseball with a 3.23 ERA. Let’s take a look at the two pitchers leading their rotation, Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller.
Wainwright currently ranks 9th in the majors with a 2.37 ERA, which is a career best for him. After missing 2011 with Tommy John surgery, Wainwright returned last year and was very productive, posting a 3.94 ERA with strikeout and walk rates in line with his career averages. This year, he has improved on that effort and returned to stardom by posting a sparkling 0.74 BB/9 rate, which leads baseball. If he can finish the season with a BB/9 under 1.00, he would be the first pitcher to do so since Cliff Lee walked 0.76 per nine innings in 2010.
While he is walking far less batters this year than in the past, he is actually throwing less pitches in the strike zone. However, he is throwing more first pitch strikes.
Although he is throwing less pitches in the strike zone overall this year, he is completely bearing down in three ball counts, throwing almost three quarters of pitches in the strike zone when he finds himself in this situation, the highest percentage in baseball of any pitcher who has thrown at least 50 pitches in three ball counts. While he is throwing a lot more pitches in the strike zone in these situations, he has not been getting hit harder.
Interestingly, he has managed to hold hitters to a .182 batting average in 3 ball counts while also throwing a much higher percentage of pitches over the middle of the plate.
While in three ball counts, he is clearly throwing a lot more pitches in the middle of the plate this year than in year’s past, which is how he has been able to throw so many more pitches in the strike zone when faced with three balls. However, these pitches in the middle of the plate have been much more effective. Let’s see what pitches he is throwing in the middle of the plate with three balls.
It seems like Wainwright has made a philosophical change in three ball counts this year; instead of using his fastball more often to try to hit the edges of the plate, he is throwing the ball over the middle of the plate to ensure it is a strike, and using a breaking ball to try to “steal” a strike from the hitter on a pitch he won’t be expecting. This strategy is working well for him. As we’ve already discovered, he has been able to keep these pitches in the strike zone, and he is barely walking anyone. When he throws a pitch in the middle of the plate with three balls, batters have swung at every cutter, and 80% of fastballs. However, they’ve only swung at 70% of curveballs and 66.7% of sliders. This is because they are most likely sitting on a fastball in a three ball count. When they do swing at the curveballs and sliders, they are yet to get a hit on the season. Again, we are talking only about pitches thrown in the middle of the plate with three balls. This sounds like a situation where hitters would crush pitches, but Wainwright knows they are waiting for fastballs, and he is using effective, get-me-over breaking balls instead.
Another key to Wainwright’s ridiculous walk rate is getting batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone. He ranks 5th of all pitchers who have thrown at least 1,000 pitches in chase rate, at 35.7%. This is a significant rise over his previous seasons (28.5% in 2010, 29.5% in 2012). Incredibly, his chase rate has increased from last year to this year on all five of the pitches he throws.
Although Wainwright’s chase rate on fastballs is below league average, it has been steadily rising since 2010. He began throwing a cutter as well in 2012 after his surgery, and immediately got many more chases on it than league average. He is getting even more chases on it this year, and is throwing it a lot more (16% of pitches in 2013 compared to just 4% in 2012). He has managed to maintain his well above average chase rate on his dominant curveball, and has turned his slider from a pitch that got less chases than average to the third highest slider chase rate in baseball, behind just Mat Latos and Andy Pettitte (among pitchers who have thrown at least 200 sliders this year). He is also throwing the slider harder this year, increasing in average velocity from 85.7 mph in 2010 and 85.4 mph last year to 86.7 mph this year.
Now we’ll move on to Shelby Miller, who was featured in our rookie report as one of this year’s crop of rookies who has been as good (or better) than advertised. Miller has been off to a great start, with a 2.08 ERA, 10.01 K/9, and 1.98 BB/9. He features a power fastball, a curveball, and a changeup as his primary pitches.
The fastball has been Miller’s best weapon this year. He seems to realize this as he throws it almost three quarters of the time. His fastball velocity ranks 10th among pitchers who have thrown at least 500 fastballs, and his fastball whiff rate trails only Yu Darvish. His batting average against his fastball ranks 9th, and his slugging against the pitch ranks 6th. He has done a great job of throwing the pitch where he has the most success with it, which is the high heat.
His curveball has been another weapon, although it hasn’t been as dominant as the fastball compared to league average. Although Miller’s curveball gets better results than the league average this year of a .215 average and .331 slugging against curveballs, his whiff rate on the pitch ranks 6th worst in baseball among pitchers who have thrown at least 200 curveballs, and is much lower than the 30% league average whiff rate on the pitch.
He has managed to keep his curveball as an effective pitch because of the chases he gets on it being above the league average 29%, and by getting ground balls on the pitch. His curveball gets a much higher percentage of ground balls than any of his other pitches, which has prevented batters from hitting it hard. He is doing this by keeping the ball down, where it is very effective and gets a lot of ground balls.
On the other hand, Shelby Miller’s changeup has been awful. The league average against changeups this year is a .242 average, .384 slugging, 38% chases, and 31% whiffs. Miller’s numbers on his changeup are significantly worse than this across the board. Thankfully for the Cardinals, he has only used his changeup 3.2% of the time.
The St. Louis Cardinals have shown no signs of slowing down. In addition to their terrific starting pitching, they’ve been powered by a lineup that has scored the third most runs in baseball. But their biggest strength is having two stars at the front of their rotation who are two of just nine current starting pitchers sporting a K/BB ratio of at least 5.