2008 St. Louis Cardinals: Dodging Enemy Aces

Had a feeling that the 2008 Cardinals have missed out on facing many of their opponents' top starting pitchers this season? You are right!

The identities of starting pitchers number one through five – we've all considered them and sometimes agonized over them. It seems a requisite part of every off-season includes the fixations of writers and fans alike regarding which pitchers on a given club should be on the line and most importantly, which one(s) should be at the front of that line.


In reality, over the long haul the actual daily sequence in which they take the mound is mildly interesting to begin the season, seemingly insignificant for the ensuing six months but certainly becomes relevant in the playoffs.


The most important ongoing question for any club is whether they have five pitchers with the talent and skills to hold down those rotation spots, remain healthy and excel in the role.


One overriding consideration is the identity of the top pitcher, the number one guy, the "ace", the "stopper". Surely every club would like to have a pitcher who when he takes the mound, the chances a win will ensue are maximized. In other words, this is someone who could "stop" a losing streak.


That is the focus of this article.




Every club has their number one. It could be argued that some clubs have two of them. More on that in a moment.


To make this exercise as objective as possible, I began with team depth charts as documented on MLB.com. The pitcher listed first on their club depth charts is the man I call the "past ace".


Generally speaking, this pitcher has experienced considerable past success. As a result, coming into this season, he was anointed as the top dog, either officially or informally. The latter is often confirmed by the ace having received the opening day start.


Yet not every one of these aces on paper has delivered the goods on the mound here in 2008, at least not to the extent as another member of that same staff. I use the label "2008 ace" for these emerging pitchers – without the history and track record of the "past ace", but with better results so far this season.


To identify the 2008 aces, I looked at ERA, WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), strikeouts and other stats to determine if the past ace has been at least temporarily unseated.


The opponents


The just-completed series against the Mets was the Cardinals' 28th of the 2008 season. They have faced 16 different clubs to date, with multiple series against Houston (four), Milwaukee and Pittsburgh (three each) and two with Cincinnati, Colorado, Kansas City, San Francisco and Washington.


Of those 16 unique pitching rotations, I was surprised that only six of the "past aces" are also coming through as the "2008 ace" on the mound this season. They are Houston's Roy Oswalt, Milwaukee's Ben Sheets, James Shields of Tampa Bay, Josh Beckett of Boston, Detroit's Justin Verlander and the Mets' Johan Santana.


Notice anything about those players? Through the draw of the schedule, the Cardinals did not face any of the three from American League teams during interleague play.


In the NL, they also missed Santana during the Mets series. The Brewers' Sheets did not oppose the Cardinals in two of the three sets between the clubs to date. Oswalt did start in two of the Astros' four series vs. St. Louis so far in 2008.


The numbers


Given the wide disparity between the identities of the "past aces" and "2008 aces", I looked at two factors for both groups. First, I determined the frequency at which these aces drew the Cardinals as an opponent, then I documented which team won the game started by the enemy ace ("win" = a win for St. Louis). 


With a five-man rotation, it stands to reason that in any given game, the odds are 20% (one in five) that the Cardinals would face their opponent's ace. Having played 87 games in 2008 through Thursday means we should have expected about 17 ace games (20% of 87) to date.


Another way to look at it is to consider that in a typical series of three games, the chances of facing any particular starter are three in five (60%). With the Cards having played in 28 series, the approximate expected answer is still 17 (28 times 60%).


So far this season, the Cardinals have met 15 "past aces", not far off from 17, but only 11 of the real "2008 aces". This clearly denotes the Cards have been fortunate in the draw of the schedule to avoid the hottest, currently best pitchers of their opponents.


Furthermore and a bit surprisingly, the St. Louisans have beaten up on the reputation guys, with a stellar 11-4 (.733) record in the games started by past aces. On the other hand, they have a losing record, 5-6 (.455) in those contests started by their opponents' 2008 aces.


Going from fact to speculation, had the Cardinals faced 17 "2008 aces" instead of 11, and assuming the same .455 success rate, they might have been saddled with three additional losses (an expected 8-9 record in "2008 ace" games).  And that doesn't even take into account the likelihood that they would have opposed fewer "past aces", pitchers that have been easier to defeat this season, as a result.


2008 Cards Total 20% Past Ace W-L 2008 Ace W-L
Games 87 17 15 11-4 11 5-6
Series 28 17


The details


Further, look at the list below. It is organized by series over time, from the start of the season. Specifically, focus on the most recent series.


In an amazing seven of their most recent eight series, the Cardinals have missed facing the best 2008 pitcher on their opponent's staff. In the lone exception, they were defeated by Zach Greinke of Kansas City on June 19 during the Royals' series in St. Louis.


In only two of their eight most recent series did the Cards even have to face the ace on paper. They split those two contests, defeating the (since demoted) Brett Myers-led Phillies, while prevailing over $55 million-man Gil Meche's Royals this past weekend.


Ser Opp Past Ace PA face Result 2008 Ace 08 face Result
1 Col Francis no Cook yes   win
2 Was Od Perez yes   win Redding no
3 Hou Oswalt no Oswalt no
4 SF Cain yes   win Lincecum yes   loss
5 Mil Sheets no Sheets no
6 SF Cain yes   win Lincecum yes   loss
7 Mil Sheets no Sheets no
8 Pit Snell yes   loss Maholm no
9 Hou Oswalt yes   win Oswalt yes   win
10 Cin Harang yes   win Volquez no
11 ChC Zambrano no Dempster no
12 Col Francis yes   loss Cook no
13 Mil Sheets yes   win Sheets yes   win
14 Pit Snell yes   loss Maholm yes   win
15 TB Shields no Shields no
16 SD Peavy no Maddux yes   loss
17 LAD Lowe yes   win Billingsley no
18 Hou Oswalt yes   win Oswalt yes   win
19 Pit Snell yes   win Maholm yes   loss
20 Was Od Perez yes   win Redding yes   loss
21 Hou Oswalt no Oswalt no
22 Cin Harang no Volquez no
23 Phi Myers yes   win Hamels no
24 KC Meche no Greinke yes   loss
25 Bos Beckett no Beckett no
26 Det Verlander no Verlander no
27 KC Meche yes   loss Greinke no
28 NYM Santana no Santana no


The future


Who knows what will happen the rest of the way? Could it be that the fates will turn and the Cardinals will face a tougher brand of starting pitching in the second half? Or perhaps they will continue to dodge enemy bullets all the way into post-season play this October.


Past championship teams often seem to have featured just the right mixture of having been lucky and good. So far, it seems the 2008 Cardinals have been both.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net


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