With last night’s loss to the New York Mets, a Milwaukee Brewers franchise now doomed to be cursed by their non-tendering of first baseman Daniel Vogelbach, who drove in a run for the Mets last night, fell eight games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the National League Central division. As of this morning, FanGraphs gives the Cardinals a 99.7% chance of winning the National League Central and a 0.3% chance of winning one of the National League’s three Wild Card slots, which means their playoff odds come out to a crisp *squints closely at playoff odds*
Look, I understand on a very fundamental level what happened here–it’s a rounding error. Maybe the Cardinals’ division odds are actually 99.66%, rounding up to 99.7%, and their Wild Card odds are 0.28%, rounding up to 0.3%, and add these together and you’re at 99.94%, which rounds down to 99.9%. Or I could interpret this as the elitist technocratic media establishment hating the St. Louis Cardinals and everything that we wholesome Midwesterners stand for.
Anyway, the Cardinals are almost certainly going to make the playoffs, and although they are not mathematically eliminated from avoiding it, the Cardinals are almost certainly going to play in the new-fangled Wild Card round, a three-game series from October 7 through October 9 which is played at one location, and if the Cardinals win the NL Central, the location for them will be at 700 Clark Avenue, St. Louis, MO, 63102. I, for one, am pumped. Bought tickets for all three games and for way less combined than it would cost me to buy tickets to the likely-meaningless October 2 regular season home finale. Already ready to run through a wall head-first like I’m Gus Frerotte and need to temper my expectations given the distinct possibility that the Cardinals end up facing Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom in three of five games in the next round even if they do get there.
When it came to deciding last year’s Wild Card starter, the choice was simple, or at least the nature of the decision was–you have one game to decide your postseason future, so you can’t afford to plan for tomorrow. Step one, start your best starter–the Cardinals started Adam Wainwright, correctly, and rattle off your best relievers once he’s done pitching. The Cardinals ultimately lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but since they recorded the first 26 outs of the game while surrendering just one run, it’s hard to aggressively blame the pitching primarily for the loss. Shoutout to Tommy Edman, Paul Goldschmidt, and Harrison Bader’s willingness to get hit by pitches and no other Cardinals position players.
This year is a little bit more complicated. For the postseason at large, the Cardinals will need four starting pitchers, but for the Wild Card round, they will need just three. But based on when the games are, they are multiple tiers of starting pitcher that the Cardinals will need to establish for October.
Game 1 of the NLDS is scheduled for October 11, just four days after Game 1 of the Wild Card round, which means that whoever starts Game 1 of the Wild Card round would be unavailable, unless the Cardinals wanted to pitch him on short rest. He would be available for Game 2 of the NLDS, but unlike in previous seasons, when there was inevitably an off-day between Games 4 and 5, the lone NLDS off-day is between Games 2 and 3, which means that the Game 2 Wild Card pitcher would not be available on full rest until Game 3 of the NLDS.
The Cardinals should line up their best pitcher for Game 3 of the Wild Card Round. While this spits in the face of a lot of conventional wisdom about treating every game like a must-win, this is simply a matter of shuffling the order of the Wild Card starting rotation. If you split the first two games and leave your best guy for Game 3, you’re giving your best guy the same number of starts (one) in the NLDS that you were anyway. If you lose the first two games while leaving your best guy for Game 3, you may have lost the series more quickly but the end result was certainly going to be the same. If you win the first two games while leaving your best guy for Game 3, you get to then pitch your best guy in Games 1 and (if necessary) 5 of the NLDS.
There would be a strong argument for pitching guys on short rest last season, when the Cardinals’ starting rotation was being patched together by duct tape and JA Happ. But the gap between #1 and #4 (maybe even #5, you could maybe even convince me of #6) is as small as it has been for the Cardinals since 2015. The Cardinals will not need to throw their starters into unconventional usage due to scarcity of resources anymore.
So here’s how the rotation should be structured:
- Wild Card Game 1: #2 starter
- Wild Card Game 2: #3 starter
- Wild Card Game 3 (if necessary): #1 starter
- NLDS Game 1: #4 starter if WC goes three, #1 starter if WC goes two
- NLDS Game 2: #2 starter
- NLDS Game 3: #1 starter if WC goes three, #3 starter if WC goes two
- NLDS Game 4 (if necessary): #3 starter if WC goes three, #4 starter if WC goes two
- NLDS Game 5 (if necessary): #4 starter if WC goes three, #1 starter if WC goes two
This is a lot of numbers, so here’s the overall breakdown: If you operate under the assumption that you want pitchers to get full rest (which, if you think there isn’t a seismic gap between your pitchers, you probably should), all four of your postseason pitchers would start two games apiece between the Wild Card and NLDS rounds if the Wild Card round goes three games, with the #4 guy getting two starts in the NLDS, no matter how you order one through three. One need not differentiate too much between your #2 and #3–in any event, he will get two total starts. But #1 and #4 are tiers of their own.
For the purposes of assigning designations to the Cardinals, I will first acknowledge that Adam Wainwright, barring a total collapse down the stretch of the season, will almost certainly be regarded as the ace for reasons which go beyond on-field performance, though it’s not as though his 3.29 ERA and 3.48 FIP are not worthy of such an honor purely on their merits. But this is about what the Cardinals should do. I suspect Adam Wainwright will pitch Game 1 of the Wild Card round, too, though…I mean, we’ll see.
The four leading candidates for postseason rotation spots are a couple of guys who have been on the Cardinals all season, and for years before that: Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright; as well as two guys who joined the Cardinals right before the trade deadline: Jordan Montgomery and José Quintana. Mikolas and Wainwright, the righties, have been solid contributors to the Cardinals all season, while the lefty newbies have been spectacular, albeit in more abbreviated stints with the Cardinals.
Both Montgomery and Quintana have sub-three ERAs and FIPs in St. Louis, but evaluating them based solely on a month and a half or so of production is unfair (but don’t worry–I’ll get back to that version of analysis in a minute). So for now, let’s look at their full-season numbers side-by-side with the full-season numbers for Mikolas and Wainwright.
|Miles Mikolas||3.46||3.97||187 1/3|
|Jordan Montgomery||3.26||3.46||168 1/3|
I like looking at the new guys under these terms, even though it makes their season numbers look a little bit worse, because the innings demonstrate that while they’ve pitched a little bit less than Mikolas and Wainwright, it’s not like they came out of absolutely nowhere. It’s fair to note that José Quintana had a horrid 2021 season after several years of decline, but he was also a former All-Star. Jordan Montgomery was a sub-4 ERA/FIP pitcher in 2021 and was pretty good in 2017, his last full-blown 162-game MLB season. These are not guys who came out of nowhere and got lucky–they were likely going to be a part of the postseason rotation, if one was needed, the day they arrived in St. Louis.
Since Montgomery and Quintana arrived in St. Louis, they have improved dramatically. Whether one attributes this to play in front of The Greatest Baseball Fans Ever Put On God’s Green Earth (or a really good defense) or luck in a relatively small sample size, it makes some sense to give extra weight to recency. Below are the stats of the four pitchers since August 2, the trade deadline day.
|Jordan Montgomery||2.35||2.53||53 2/3|
|Adam Wainwright||3.29||2.78||54 2/3|
One of these pitchers stands out as the worst of the quartet–Miles Mikolas, who also has the worst ERA and FIP for the full season, albeit by a much smaller margin. There is a case to be made that Mikolas has been by far the most unlucky of the four in terms of home run luck–he is allowing home runs on over one-sixth of fly balls he allows, in contrast to Montgomery on 7.1% or Quintana and Wainwright on comically low 2.6% or 1.6% of fly balls. But even by xFIP, his 3.90 mark, while better, is a lower mark than Montgomery or Quintana.
Matchups do play some role in the decision-making process here. The Philadelphia Phillies, currently in line to face the Cardinals in the Wild Card round, have tough righties like J.T. Realmuto and Rhys Hoskins, but between Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, and to a somewhat lesser extent Brandon Marsh, I think I’d rather have a lefty pitching all things considered. The San Diego Padres, currently a half-game ahead of the Phillies, have a primarily right-handed lineup, but two of the three strongest bats in their lineup, Jake Cronenworth and especially Juan Soto, are lefties. The Milwaukee Brewers have a fairly balanced lineup, but having a lefty on the mound against the likes of Christian Yelich or Rowdy Tellez would be nice, too.
I’m going with Jordan Montgomery as my ace. Even after getting BABIPed to death in his last two starts, his numbers as a Cardinal are the best of any pitcher since he joined the team, and with his full-season numbers eclipsing those of Adam Wainwright. And since I expect there to be plenty of fury around the possibility of not having Adam Wainwright pitch in the Wild Card round, I’ll take that as a convenient little upside to my plan.
Looking at numbers both recent and long-term, it’s hard not to view José Quintana and Adam Wainwright as two and three, in some order. I would lean towards Wainwright, as I still have some apprehension about Quintana’s sudden bounce-back to respectability in 2022, though I’d also be happy to roll with Quintana-Wainwright-Montgomery in the Wild Card round just to alternate handedness, though that may also be a bit of superstition on my end.
As far as Mikolas, the odd man out, I do still think the Cardinals should avoid getting too cute and leave him in the playoff rotation. Yes, Jack Flaherty has had moments since coming back, and I am becoming increasingly comfortable with him in a potential bullpen role (potentially since his performance has seemingly declined as his starts have continued deeper), but I’d rather reserve his few innings of lockdown potential for specific situations rather than counting on him for a start as he recovers from injuries. Yes, Dakota Hudson and Steven Matz looked solid on Saturday in their returns to St. Louis, but hardly enough to make me forget how rock-solid Miles Mikolas has been throughout the season. Sure, Mikolas should be given a short leash, but that’s true of every starting pitcher come postseason time.
So, as any fan could have anticipated during the All-Star Game, the Cardinals starter who appeared in it is pushed aside and the top starter in the playoff rotation was on the Yankees.