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Bird Bytes: Lynn, Miller are key to rotation

2014-04-16T15:30:00Z 2014-04-17T00:01:13Z Bird Bytes: Lynn, Miller are key to rotationBernie Miklasz bjmiklasz@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

The pitching performances of Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller in Milwaukee were an encouraging development for the Cardinals early on in the 2014 season.

To put it simply: the Cardinals have a good rotation. But if Lynn and Miller can be consistent in dispensing their dominant stuff to hitters, then the Cardinals will have a great rotation.

Not factoring in the potential for injuries — the X Factor that can come into play when you least expect it — this is the broad-strokes look at the rotation:

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Adam Wainwright: One of the best starting pitchers in baseball. The entire package. Innings, strikeouts, precious few walks, talent, consistency, intelligence, intense competitiveness, leadership, mental toughness.

Michael Wacha: One of the most special young starting pitchers in the majors. In 17 major-league starts ('13 postseason included) he's 9-2 with a 2.60 ERA, is averaging 8.42 strikeouts per nine innings, and has allowed an opponents' combined onbase-slugging percentage of only .588. And now Wacha is refining his other pitches to go with that downhill fastball and inscrutable changeup. The only question (other than pitching health) for Wacha is reaffirming his potential greatness by doing this over a long period of time. 

Joe Kelly: In 37 career starts (including postseason) the old skateboard sensation has a 3.02 ERA and has allowed three earned runs or fewer 32 times. The Cardinals are a +5 in the won/lost differential in his starts. No, Kelly hasn't gone deep enough into games, but I think that will change soon. And we've talked about how Kelly's peripherals – the strikeout-walk ratio in particular – make him vulnerable over the long run. But Kelly does a great job of battling his way out of tough spots. He does his job well. And the best thing Kelly brings is consistency. The Cardinals know that he'll give them a solid chance to win virtually every time out. How many teams can say that about their so-called No. 5 starter?

That leaves Lynn and Miller.

We'll have a different discussion here because it's more complex and nuanced with Lynn and Miller. We'll talk about what Lynn and Miller must do to be more complete pitchers. 

Lynn: I'm going to pass on engaging in the tired, redundant obsession over his run-support levels and bulk-win totals and sabermetrics and intangibles and all of the related caterwauling that comes with it. Here are the three keys to Lynn's overall profile: (1) pitching better on the road; (2) avoiding that problematic early inning; (3) being more effective against lefthanded hitters. Do those three things, and no one has to recycle the worn-out debate points. Milwaukee was a step forward. The Brewers' LH bats went 1 for 7 in Monday's start. In Lynn's first two starts, both against Cincinnati, the Reds' LH hitters went 9 for 18. 

Miller: By putting together so many eye-opening starts during a rookie season that ended with a third-place finish in the league's Rookie of the Year voting, Miller appeared to be on track to a rise to elite-pitcher status. But then his four-seam fastball lost a little something, and he suddenly became less overpowering late in the 2013 season. I've reviewed all of this before, on multiple occasions, but let's update and do it again.

In this breakdown – with data provided by Brooks Baseball Net – I include the numbers and rates from Miller's first 25 MLB starts followed by stats and his rates from his last 9 starts. Here is the “before and after” snapshot:

Strikeout Rate

Before … 9.73 per 9 IP

After … 5.65 per 9 IP

Walk Rate

Before … 2.64 per 9

After … 4.41 per 9

Strikeout/Walk Ratio

Before ... 3.68

After … 1.28

Opponents' slugging percentage

Before … .361

After … .460

Percentage of strikeouts with four-seam fastball

Before, 402 plate appearances … 28.3 percent.

After, 133 plate appearances … 15 percent

Swing/whiff rate, four-seam fastball

Before … 25.4 percent

After … 16.1 percent

Opponents' batting average and slugging % vs. four-seam fastball

Before … .229 BA, .387 SLG

After … .291 BA, .513 SLG

So, what's going on here? Much of this has to do with Miller's ongoing project to develop an effective offspeed pitch to get hitters from dialing in on his fastball. He's making progress. Some of this has to do with hitters laying off high four-seam fastballs; through much of his rookie year he got them to chase it. Hitters learn a lot from scouting video, and many are very self-aware. They didn't have to be Tony Gwynn to conclude that they had to be more disciplined against Miller.

One of the reasons Miller has had success against Milwaukee – as was the case again Tuesday – is their hitters' aggressive approach and enthusiasm for attacking fastballs up in the zone. That plays directly into a prime Miller strength. This is the proverbial cat-chase-mouse competition.

Here's a quick stat that illustrates the point. According to chart data from STATS, when Miller cranked a four-seam fastball high and out of the strike zone last season, righthanded hitters hacked at it 43.5 percent of the time, and did not get a single hit. In his first two starts this season, the RH hitters on the Pirates and Reds chased that high, out-of-zone fastball only 16.7 percent of the time. (There wasn't as much variation with LH batters... and yes, this is a small sample. But you already knew that.) 

With his walk rate on the rise, it's more important than ever for Miller to control the counts. All pitchers enhance their chances of success when they get ahead of the hitters; this is no revelation. But it seems to be a more urgent priority with Miller.

Last season, here were the batting averages against him on hitter-friendly counts:

On 1-0 counts, .275

On 2-0 counts, .500

On 2-1 counts, .440

On 3-1 counts, .444

There's no real mystery here. Miller is a young pitcher in transition. He's not hurt, he hasn't lost confidence, he isn't a head case, etc. With hitters being more disciplined in their approach against Miller, he has to find other ways to get them out. And he has to really zone in on controlling those counts.

Sure, Miller can still pump the four-seam fastballs by batters that go up there to grip-and-rip against him. (He didn't need to throw many curves or cutters at Milwaukee last night – only four of each.) But to prevail over the more patient and astute hitters, Miller has to keep getting better with the curve. His problem is failing the curve for strikes more consistently. If he can throw it for strikes, hitters can't ignore it and wait for the fastball. And Miller's cutter also shows signs of becoming a more effective pitch; Miller should probably utilize it more.

When a young starter is in transition – when he's altering his patterns and pitching profile – the good ones emerge from the process as more complete pitchers. But there will be pain – and more walks, and line drives and big flies – while they're adjusting and adapting and getting through a cycle that should bring long-term benefit.

I know these deep numbers bore some people, but I prefer offering them up to explain what's going on in a player's performance rather than take wild, speculative guesses. So for those who appreciate this, thanks for your support. I truly appreciate it. 

— Bernie

Bernie Miklasz has been covering St. Louis sports since 1989. 

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