The Cardinals are in first place in what is currently a very competitive NL Central. After uncharacteristically missing the playoffs in two consecutive seasons, the Cardinals are looking to snap that streak. Their offense has been solid, though comparable with the Cubs and Pirates. That is not where they are differentiating themselves.
The Cardinals’ starting pitching is what has been the difference maker early in the season. The rotation’s collective 3.44 RA9 ranks second in the majors only to the Astros.
Carlos Martínez is leading the group with a tremendous 1.60 RA9, and he is doing that despite a ~25 percent increase in walk rate over last year, and an average pitch velocity that is roughly 1 MPH lower as well. It should come as no surprise that he is benefiting from some batted ball luck. He has a .241 BABIP and has allowed only one home run so far thanks to a 3.4 percent HR/FB. He is fortunate to be stranding about 88 percent of runners, too.
As discussed by The Athletic’s Joe Schwarz, the biggest change in Martínez’s repertoire is an addition of a cutter. Last year he threw a four-seamer about 27 percent of the time, per Brooks Baseball. Now that frequency is barely over 15 percent, and the difference is his cutter. Also at The Athletic, Eno Sarris wrote about why that pitch would be a natural compliment to a sinker, which is one of Martínez’s main pitches.
Martínez has struggled against left-handed hitting in his career, allowing a .327 wOBA against 1,557 lefties. The cutter has allowed him to make progress in that area. This is an extremely small sample size, but he has held lefties to a .245 wOBA. They are hitting only .158 against his cutter without any extra base hits.
Obviously, Martínez is not going to continue to maintain a run average that is less than half of his career rate. It seems quite likely that the development of his cutter has made him better. It will be exciting to see just how much better as the season progresses.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the starting rotation is Miles Mikolas. He has a 2.93 RA9 and a microscopic 1.2 percent walk rate. Yes, that walk rate is the best in the league among qualified pitchers. He has walked only two of the 161 hitters he has faced.
You might be wondering the same thing I did when I saw Mikolas’s name on a stat sheet. I thought to myself, “Who the heck is Miles Mikolas?” I actually wrote his name as “Mike Mikolas” twice before catching the mistake. The reason why you might not be familiar with him is because he spent the last three seasons in Japan. He was outstanding there and was considered one of the best pitchers in the league, turning in a 2.59 RA9 during his time there. Before he went overseas, he made ten starts for the Rangers in 2014. His 6.75 RA9 was probably a big reason why he had to try his luck in Japan.
Mikolas signed a two-year, $15.5 million deal with the Cardinals this past offseason. It should come as no surprise that Mikolas has changed a thing or two since his last experience in the major leagues. Once again, Schwarz discusses those changes here. His strikeout rate is sub par, and though it is hard to say what he is since he has not pitched in the majors since 2014, his talent is probably that of a back-end starter. There is nothing wrong with that, and it makes him a steal at $7.25 million a year. It is Cardinals devil magic at work again.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.