Pitching Development is Moving Too Fast for the Cardinals

The world of pitching development is fast-paced.

After a weekend in which the Cardinals saw Miles Mikolas, Zack Thompson, Lance Lynn, and Steven Matz take the mound against the Dodgers, it reflects an underwhelming “rehaul” of the pitching staff. Yes, Sonny Gray is on the injured list and near a return, but it’s an underwhelming rotation that seems solidified sans Thompson once Gray returns. Contrast that with this weekend’s opponent, the Dodgers, who addressed their pitching needs with two high-end arms, depth additions, and steps forward for a handful of rookie pitchers.

Watching Bobby Miller easily deposit Cardinal bats makes Cardinal fans wonder, “Why don’t we ever have young pitchers like that?”

Miller, the 29th pick in the 2020 draft, was on the board when the Cardinals made their selection but is the type of player seldom on the Cardinals’ radar these days (they also drafted Jordan Walker, who you may have heard of).

The Cardinals used to be a model organization for developing pitchers, but the rapid changes in pitching development have put them behind. The adjustment is slow, and it may be a fatal flaw in their roster construction. The Cardinals must catch up with pitching trends from draft classes to big league acquisitions to maintain their consistent winning ways.


Homegrown Talent


The Cardinals have not struggled to produce homegrown talent, especially on the pitching side. Since 2012, the Cardinals have led baseball in innings pitched for drafted and signed pitchers (excluding 2024) with 6998 IP, 1356 IP more than the next closest team (Padres). From Michael Wacha to Luke Weaver to Jack Flaherty, there are many former Cardinals across baseball. The issue lies in the types of arms they produce that can reach the big league level.

They have generally targeted high-floor, low-ceiling pitchers who can make the majors but never appear to be top-of-the-line starters. Since 2013, they have selected nine first-round pitchers. There are three high schoolers: Rob Kaminsky, Jack Flaherty, and Jake Woodford. The other six are college pitchers: Marco Gonzales, Luke Weaver, Dakota Hudson, Zack Thompson, Michael McGreevy, and Cooper Hjerpe. Only 50% of these college pitchers’ seasons have more than a strikeout per inning, and Zack Thompson & Cooper Hjerpe are responsible for five of the seven.

There is minimal publicly available college batted ball data for these pitchers, but most have become professional groundball pitchers. Jack Flaherty is the lone outlier of the group. Taking these lower-ceiling pitchers, especially with the new shift rules, limits the potential of finding a young ace. It’s nearly impossible to trade for an ace, let alone a young, dynamic arm with team control. The Cardinals could go without one or two of these AAAA arms in favor of a slightly riskier pitcher with upside.

When you trust your pitching development, like the Dodgers, it’s easy to see the path for those like Bobby Miller.


Big League Pitching Philosophy


The organization lacks ace potential and turns to those who can become serviceable big-league arms. Most of these pitchers are geared toward generating ground balls rather than missing bats, which has propelled the Cardinals to lead all teams in groundball rate since 2012. Their 47.1% groundball rate is 0.5% ahead of the next team, the Rockies, who must adapt to the thin Colorado air.

The Cardinals have relied on groundballs as their primary defensive strategy; they bring in pitchers who can generate groundballs and utilize strong defenders to maximize the value of groundballs. Their 260 defensive runs saved since 2012 rank fifth in baseball behind the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Brewers, and Astros. The Cardinals have effectively traded in whiffs for groundballs.

The Cardinals’ fall-off in strikeouts is a rather recent development. While strikeouts have been rising year over year, the Cardinals largely matched the increase until 2019. From there, the Cardinals have cut their strikeout rate while holding a slightly below-average walk rate, a suboptimal combination.

However, the good defense allowed Cardinals pitchers to maintain strong results despite poor peripherals: they ranked third in FIP-ERA, which suggests ERA overperformance. Even though they didn’t shift as much as others, the shift ban and personnel changes in 2023 hurt the Cardinals’ defense. They ranked last in FIP-ERA in 2023.

When the Cardinals decided to sell at the trade deadline last year, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak outright stated that the team needed to make a philosophical change. In an interview, Mozeliak stated that he wanted to target pitchers with swing-and-miss.

An organization, especially one as successful as the Cardinals, shouldn’t need to declare this. Baseball has been trending increasingly towards strikeouts, yet the Cardinals believed they could buck the trend and find a different way to succeed. Contrast this with the Rays, one of the better pitching development organizations.

Although they made immediate improvements in this regard with Tekoah Roby as part of the Jordan Montgomery trade, their offseason plans suggest they are unprepared to develop swing-and-miss.


Paying for Previous Performance


High-end free agents often don’t need tinkering. They’ve been great and don’t need to see a mechanical, usage, or mental change. The lower-tier free agents, however, have an opportunity to come to a new organization that can provide useful changes that will make them worth more than their new contract. Classic examples include Tyler Anderson to the Dodgers or Zach Eflin to the Rays in free agency but is also seen in trades. More forward-thinking organizations can acquire a pitcher they see something in, unbeknownst to the player’s original team.

While we haven’t seen what Sonny Gray or Kyle Gibson have to offer yet, there have been minimal changes to incoming pitchers. Steven Matz didn’t see significant usage changes until year two with the Cardinals, and Jose Quintana didn’t see any changes in his lone year.

They aren’t looking for upside in signing Lynn and Gibson as mid-rotation pitchers. They’re looking for serviceable innings that are just good enough. Sonny Gray can provide high-quality innings, but he’s a notch behind most contending teams’ ace-quality arm.

Mozeliak stated they wanted to add sweepers to the big league team, and they did by acquiring Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson, and other relievers. This comes almost three years after the “Dodger slider” was discovered, effectively beginning the sweeper era.

The Cardinals have indicated they won’t take risks on the pitching side by passing on trades for Glasnow, Cease, or even entering the Yamamoto sweepstakes. Instead, they’re trusting their changes in development: pitchers have previously successfully developed in the organization, and they are trusting that the development pipeline will continue. If they can’t get up to speed with other successful organizations, the Cardinals could find themselves in a world where 2023 was not just an aberration.

Nate Schwartz

Nate is currently writing for the Going Deep team at Pitcher List. He is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals, devil magic, and Matt Carpenter salsa supporter. You can follow him on Twitter/X/whatever @_nateschwartz. Left-handed pitchers make him happy.

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