2015 was both a standout year and an unusual year for the St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation.
The bottom line is that in aggregate, the nine men who started for St. Louis this season (down from 12 the year before) were the top group in Major League Baseball. They won 72 games and logged an ERA of 2.99, which was a quarter of a run per nine innings better than the next-best staff. The team ERA of 2.94 was the lowest in the game in 27 years.
That was accomplished after ace Adam Wainwright made just four starts due a foot injury that ruined his season.
To perform at such a high level over a 162-game schedule means that multiple performers stepped up. So it was that Jaime Garcia, John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha combined to make 143 starts. Each finished with double-digits in wins and ERAs at 3.38 or less.
At various points in the season, Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales also stepped in, but along with Wainwright, their mound time was not enough to compete for The Cardinal Nation St. Louis Starting Pitcher of the Year.
Coming into the selection process and before looking at numbers, I had a suspicion that Lackey might win this award in a close race. The 36-year-old helped fill the veteran leadership role and remained very consistent all season long.
When healthy, Garcia was fantastic. Lynn was what we expected him to be – durable and dependable. Wacha could have won this award had he been able to maintain his stellar first half performance.
That leaves our winner, Carlos Martinez.
It was an unusual ride. Between a prove-yourself beginning and a season-ending shoulder injury in late September, the 23-year-old with so much promise finally earned his chance to show it – and did.
Spring training uncertainty
Flashing back to this spring, the rotation had questions. Garcia was coming off his thoracic outlet surgery recovery and Wacha had continued to rehab the stress fissure in his shoulder that slowed him for the latter half of 2014 and led to his odd final-game appearance in the NLCS.
Wainwright, Lackey, Lynn and Wacha were penciled into the starting five, with Garcia, Martinez and Gonzales battling for the final spot. Through three spring outings, Garcia was pitching well enough to seemingly take the lead in the competition. Then the club decided to push him in an 80-pitch simulated game on March 24th. The lefty felt discomfort afterward and was placed on the disabled list to open the season.
While Gonzales had better spring numbers, Martinez also pitched well enough to claim the rotation spot, with Marco sent to Memphis. For Martinez, it was the reverse of the prior spring, when he out-pitched Joe Kelly, but had to take a back seat to the more experienced starter.
Had Garcia been ready to start the season, Martinez would likely have opened in the bullpen, where he spent the majority of 2014. If Jaime had been able to make 30-plus starts instead of a solid 20-start campaign that did not officially begin until May 21st, he could have been our 2015 winner instead. As the numbers shown below indicate, Garcia would have a strong case.
Martinez’ regular season
At the time of his season-ending injury on September 25, Martinez ranked among the National League leaders in wins (14, tied for seventh), winning percentage (67%, eighth) and quality starts (20, tied for 11th). The quality start string included 11 in a row from May 20-July 25, fourth-longest in the NL in 2015.
While Martinez is known for strikeouts (9.23/9 IP, eighth in the NL), his ability to keep the ball on the ground was a key factor in his success. He induced a career-best 19 double plays (0.95 GDP/ 9 IP, 10th in the NL) and his 55.3% ground ball rate was fifth in the league.
When the going got tough, Martinez was up for the challenge. He was second among NL pitchers with a .182 opponent batting average with runners in scoring position (29-for-159).
Martinez led all NL starters with a 28.6 percent stolen base rate. Only seven baserunners tried and just two were successful all season long in a measure of success that he shares with catcher Yadier Molina.
Like Wacha, Martinez was a first-time National League All-Star, with Carlos the winner of the “Final Vote” fan balloting.
Let’s look into the numbers for the entire rotation this season. Though each starter has his areas of leadership, I summarize how I ultimately selected Martinez.
In terms of quality starts, those of at least six innings with three or fewer runs allowed, Lackey led the way at 79 percent. He also had the second-lowest ERA after Garcia, though looking at Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), Martinez moves past Lackey into the second spot.
In Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Lackey and Martinez are at the top, framing the two top candidates. Garcia’s lower workload level pulled him down as did Wacha’s second half slide.
Martinez had the highest strikeout rate, Garcia the lowest walk rate and Lackey the best strikeout to walk ratio. On the other side of the coin, Garcia struck out batters least often with Lynn issuing the most walks, leading to the lowest K/BB rate among the starting five.
|Starter||Avg IP||Run Spt||W-L||WL%||Team||Tm%|
Though all five were within three outs of one another, Lackey pitched deepest into games on average (6 2/3 innings), with Lynn bowing out the fastest (5 2/3). Wacha was the beneficiary of the most run support among the starters (5.1 runs on average), with Garcia and Lynn receiving the least (3.1).
Wacha and Martinez logged the best individual winning percentages, but we know that pitcher wins is a debatable category. It is worth noting that Martinez’ offensive support was a full run less than Wacha’s. However, no one should argue against the point that a starter’s job is to put his team in a position to win the game.
When Martinez took the mound, St. Louis won 76 percent of the time, best among the starters. Ultimately that is what helped push him across the finish line first in a close race for The Cardinal Nation St. Louis Starting Pitcher of the Year for 2015.
Link to master article with all 2015 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. That includes our St. Louis Player of the Year, up next.
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