Player Profiles 2020: St. Louis Cardinals Starting Pitchers

Nick Pollack analyzes the St. Louis Cardinals rotation for 2020 with in-depth player profiles.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.

 

Cardinals At A Glance

It’s a top-heavy crew in St. Louis, with Jack Flaherty‘s unreal second half of the season doing its best to keep everyone else afloat. Miles Mikolas regressed a bit too far last season, Adam Wainwright is surprisingly still expected to serve innings on the regular, Dakota Hudson may not be able to survive so well with his heavy ground ball tendencies, and hopefully Carlos Martinez can step back into the role he was so relied upon a few years ago.

There are a few questions about depth, with arms like Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Genesis Cabrera, and the newly signed Kwang-hyun Kim likely to grab starts this summer, and they’ll need some surprises if this rotation aims to keep the Cardinals in the playoff hunt.

 

Jack FlahertyLocked Starter

Nickname: The Captain

 

2019 In Review

At first he was a disappointment. Sitting with a 4.90 ERA and 1.29 WHIP through his first seventeen starts, surprisingly failing to get into a rhythm with his slider without a secondary pitch to save him. Then, Flaherty went on a tear, the likes of which we very rarely see — a 0.93 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, and a 33% strikeout rate backed by a 2.32 FIP is mind-blowing to say the least. It all added up to a sub-3.00 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP … is that the real Jack? Or was he just locked in for half a season, only to fall back into good-but-not-elite in 2020?

 

Fastball (58% usage)

You may think Flaherty’s slider is his best offering, but surprise, surprise, it’s his four-seamer … with a touch of his sinker as well.

Even before the huge run, Flaherty’s four-seamer was the pitch carrying him along, then exploding once his slider and sinker started working properly. Overall, this four-seamer was remarkable — a .192 BAA (!!!) fueled by a .232 BABIP, while he countlessly pounded the zone with over 1,450 four-seamers at a 58.5% zone rate. I’m not sure I buy into the same success next season with his heater, but it will still be a solid pitch with its 10% SwStr rate.

The real unsung hero, though, was Flaherty’s sinker, which returned an incredible 9.8 pVal despite a sub 12% usage rate. It returned a higher O-Swing than zone rate (the dream for sinkers!), held batters to just a .151 BAA, and even returned a better swinging-strike rate than his four-seamer. It doesn’t seem quite sustainable, but Flaherty deserved at least some success from the pitch, as he effectively jammed the pitch inside to right-handers.

There will be a step back, but the question is how much, and what if he doesn’t …

 

Slider (27% usage)

Surprisingly, Flaherty’s slider didn’t click until July, allowing for the pitch to fall short of a Money Pitch (36.5% zone rate), but it was glorious when locked in. Flaherty confidently featured the pitch right below the zone, turning to it in any count and relied on an excellent 43% whiff rate to get the job done.

Seeing a neutral pVal in the first half is a bit concerning, though. It raises questions of volatility and consistency that you wouldn’t expect following a sub-3.00 ERA season. But hey, an overall 23.5% SwStr last year (and his career on the nose!) dictates a pitch that should always help, right?

 

Curveball (12% usage)

We often talk about a pitcher needing three pitches in his repertoire, and it’s not entirely true. In essence, a pitcher really just needs two — one he throws confidently in and around the zone, and one to dance off the plate to keep batters honest.

The necessity of a third pitch comes from scenarios when one of his first two options are not working well that day. Despite playing at the highest level, this happens all. The. Time. Very few starters can perform exceptionally with just two bullets in the chamber.

And we saw that last year. This curveball is the third option from Flaherty, and as his slider failed often in the first half, Flaherty needed the hook to step up its game. It didn’t, and we saw an ERA hovering around 5.00. His second-half swing wasn’t on the back of this curveball figuring itself out, but rather not even needing it, as his 2.5 pitch mix of four-seamers, sinkers, and sliders was incredible and very rarely fell out of sync.

It’s possible Flaherty finds himself with the same feel of September right out of the gate, but this curveball with its 33% zone rate, 28% O-Swing, and 11% swinging-strike rate is a bit too mediocre to carry any sort of heavy load. It’s a major weakness and shouldn’t be overlooked. This is a poor backup plan.

 

Changeup (2% usage)

Wait, Flaherty has a changeup? Really? Why?

 

2020 Outlook

You can look at Flaherty through many lenses, and it’s going to create plenty of gaps in rankings come March. You can take the approach of “he has the upside of second-half 2019, and at worst, the entirety of 2019, which was still a top-10 SP season,” or you can say, “the second half was unsustainable and unlikely to show up again, with a poor third pitch that will make him an unstable commodity.”

I’m more inclined to lean toward the latter, but overall, it’s hard to imagine Flaherty falling much further than his 2018 season where he posted a 3.40 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. And, hey, maybe that curveball gets even better and we’ve hit a wonderful plateau.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 3.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 27% K rate in 180 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 2.75 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 30% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Jack Flaherty 2020 projection:

3.40 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 30% K rate in 190 IP

 

 

Miles MikolasLocked Starter

Nickname: 8-Miles

 

2019 In Review

We saw an overperforming Mikolas in 2018, but we didn’t quite think a 4.16 ERA would follow last season. His HR/FB rate nearly doubled to 16.1%, while he failed to gain any skills in swinging-strike rate or hard contact mitigation.

Without any growth in strikeouts and a pitch-to-contact approach, Mikolas wasn’t well suited for the home run explosion and it hit him hard. Let’s see if he can adjust in 2020, particularly with his slider.

 

Fastball (51% usage)

Mikolas splits his time between four-seamers and sinkers and it’s a bit odd to see him underwhelm. Four-seamers should perform better than mediocrity with their 10%+ SwStr, 29% O-Swing and 94 mph velocity, but he gives in to batters a bit too often. It fuels his sub 5% walk rates, but allows for a .352 BABIP off the pitch and a .813 OPS. An approach focused more on elevation and nibbling would suit him well.

His sinker performed a bit better as he elected to get closer to the edges of the plate and fuel a .250 BABIP. I’m not a believer that he can sustain that weaker contact and his four-seamer should out-perform it with an approach tweak, but there may still be room for the sinker among the mix as it hinted a 30% O-Swing.

 

Slider (24% usage)

Here’s the true reason for Mikolas’ decline last season. The pitch was dominant in 2018, returning a 31 wRC+ as it found the zone half the time while inducing close to a 40% O-Swing.

In 2019, it lost a tick and a half of its velocity, dropped to a 41% zone rate, and saw a three-point drop in swinging-strike rate. Blegh. There was something off with the pitch — possibly the velocity loss reduced its drop a bit; maybe he didn’t have quite the same confidence or feel with it — and it forced Mikolas to do more with his curveball and heater.

There’s upside in Mikolas to have a strong season if he can regain this slider and wield it as a strikeout offering. It doesn’t need to be a 40%+ zone rate, especially if batters are comfortable in the box given his history of a sub-5% walk rate. Abuse their comfort.

 

Curveball (21% usage)

Between his curveball and slider, I think the sweeper can be used more as a chase pitch and this curveball as the steady-eddy in the zone offering … despite this hook having a better O-Swing last season.

It’s a strong hook, with a ton of vertical drop, but there were times that batters felt confident in the box due to the endlessly pumping of strikes, that they were able to stay locked in and poke it around the diamond, leading to a .304 BABIP.

I wonder if Mikolas could benefit from leaning on this pitch a bit more at the cost of heaters — it certainly performs well, and held batters to just a .086 ISO.

 

Changeup (4% usage)

Mikolas has toyed with a split-changeup for a bit, but the feel isn’t there, and it’s on the back-burner save for rare at-bats once a game.

 

2020 Outlook

I think we’re going to be in the dark on this one. If it’s more of the same, it’ll be Toby-esque, with a solid WHIP floor as he keeps a sub-5% walk rate, but at the cost of a 20% strikeout rate.

The skill set is there for a riskier, but upside heavy strikeout/ratio arm, but it’ll take a legit shift in approach to get there, one that’s hard to bank on.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.50 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 18% K rate in 170 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.60 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 22% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Miles Mikolas 2020 projection:

4.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 19% K rate in 190 IP

 

 

Dakota HudsonLikely Starter

Nickname: Fanning Less

 

2019 In Review

Oh the wonder of Dakota Hudsonthe man the fantasy community absolutely adored entering the preseason and has since … nearly forgotten about entirely. It was a remarkable 2019, carrying a 3.35 ERA and 1.41 WHIP, creating a ghastly 5.08 SIERA, fueled by an incessant need for grounders, a horrific walk rate, and neglect for the K.

That last part may not be fair. Among his many starts of two or fewer strikeouts, he sprinkled in four games of seven strikeouts or more across his final eight starts. The other four games combined earned seven strikeouts.

So, who is Hudson? Is there a chance that he can make those strikeout explosions consistent, or will he be a headache as we watch the BABIP gods control his fate?

 

Fastball (62% usage)

The man is a sinkerballer, featuring it nearly 50% of the time with the occasional four-seamer mix-up pitch. And it’s not a great idea. Across 1,300+ sinkers, Hudson returned a .288 BAA with the pitch, even with its surprisingly above-average .297 BABIP. He didn’t get enough strikes with sinkers with a low 24% O-Swing and barely crossing a 50% zone rate. There’s a reason we see few pitchers act as true sinkerballers these days, and if you lean fully into it, you’d want to see an O-Swing roughly ten points higher.

His four-seamer performed plenty better, albeit across just 400 pitches. Nearly the same O-Swing and zone rates, but its .190 BAA and 46 wRC+ were incredibly welcome. I imagine its .205 BABIP will come back in a terrible way, and you’re left with an overall fastball approach that really shouldn’t be so keen on inducing contact.

 

Cutter (26% usage)

Okay, so here’s the thing. This slider/cutter is actually really good: Maybe one of the underrated pitches out there. Its 20% swinging-strike rate, paired with a nearly 40% O-Swing, suggests plenty of upside that could be twirled into a legit strikeout rate. A 36% zone rate can certainly work if he keeps focusing the pitch as a whiff-getter instead (40%+ whiff rate!), and its .253 BABIP from last year is digestible, if not leaving room for lower this year.

It comes down to approach. If Hudson elects to feature more cutters and fewer “please hit this” fastballs, there could be a shift into earning more strikes via this cutter and less reliance on grounders in play. After all, his heavy fastball usage failed to create a low walk rate, a la Mikolas, given his poor sinker zone/chase rates. This cutter could be the answer to the problem.

 

Slider (10% usage)

It may be a curveball instead of a slider, but either way, it’s Hudson’s breaker and it’s … not good at all. Just an 8.3% swinging-strike rate and low 22% O-Swing make for a poor wipe-out pitch, while a low 34% zone rate isn’t enough for what Hudson needs — help getting strikes that isn’t his sinker (and even that struggles!).

There’s clear room for improvement, though, and it’s not out of the question for Hudson to experiment a bit to make this a more serviceable third option.

 

Changeup (3% usage)

What is it with Cardinals pitches failing to feature a changeup that is in any way significant to their repertoire? CarMart, please return and set the record straight.

Maybe there’s a chance Hudson embraces this changeup next season over his breaker, but it sure needs to take a step forward from its 18% O-Swing and 23% zone rate from last year. Yuck.

 

2020 Outlook

Hudson is a bit of a mystery. Pushing the same buttons as last year is sure to return a worse, if not detrimental, season for fantasy owners, with an inflated walk rate fueled by an over-extension of his poor sinker.

An embrace of four-seamers paired with heavy reliance on his solid cutter could return value at his near-free current price, while there’s room in between for a steady Toby in quality start leagues.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.80 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 17% K rate in 170 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.80 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 22% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Dakota Hudson 2020 projection:

4.20 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 20% K rate in 180 IP

 

 

Adam WainwrightLikely Starter

Nickname: Waino

 

2019 In Review

Despite all we say about Wainwright being a shadow of his former self, Waino still wasn’t terrible last season. A 4.19 ERA and 4.70 SIERA could have been much worse, though a 1.43 WHIP definitely left a bad taste in many mouths.

He’s managed to find a few more strikeouts since he’s lowered his fastball usage dramatically as he’s upped his famous curveball, but it does seem Wainwright is on the last leg of his tour. This could be it.

 

Fastball (39% usage)

As most pitchers do when their velocity declines, Wainwright leaned more on sinkers than four-seamers, hoping its movement could do enough to keep pitches off barrels. Sadly, this sinker wasn’t great at doing so. We generally aim for a 30% O-Swing on sinkers, as it means they’re jamming batters effectively or getting chases off their drop below the zone. Wainwright’s sinker? A 13.2% O-Swing last season. That won’t cut it. No wonder it held a .374 BABIP and .331 BAA.

His four-seamer fared better — .327 BAA — but it was still harmful to Wainwright’s outings with an OPS over .800. Wisely dropping his overall heater usage helped, but this seems like a lost cause.

 

Curveball (37% usage)

Since his heaters weren’t getting the job done, Wainwright evenly mixed in curveballs, confidently featuring it inside the strike zone 49% of the time. It was everything for Wainwright, and the reason he’s been given another shot to start this season. Its .241 BAA isn’t incredible for a curveball, but for one thrown over 1,000 times and covering up a poor heater, it can go far.

There’s a touch of strikeout ability still left in the big hook, though a sub-40% O-Swing and 25% contact rate showcases a closing window of success for a famous breaker.

 

Cutter (23% usage)

In his grand effort to find strikes outside of his heater, Wainwright also leans on this cutter to find the zone over 45% of the time. It’s not nearly as effective as his curveball, but it does give batters a much-needed different look. It’s a decent third option, but Wainwright needs a stronger complement to his fastball/curveball if he’s going to get by for another full season.

 

Changeup (2% usage)

Oh look, another forgotten and untouched changeup to mention. Can we just get to CarMart already?

 

2020 Outlook

With a declining fastball and a curveball/cutter combination that is hanging by a thread, Wainwright seems destined for an early blowup, followed by a mid-season bounce from the rotation. It’s possible he figures out how to tiptoe edges with heaters and perfect his secondary pitch mix, but all signs point to a steady decline.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 18% K rate in 80 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 4.20 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 20% K rate in 170 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Adam Wainwright 2020 projection:

4.80 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 18% K rate in 100 IP

 

 

Carlos MartinezLikely Starter

Nickname: CarMart

 

2019 In Review

We were presented with haze this time last year about the status of Martinez, and what we eventually got were 48.1 frames out of the bullpen, often used as their closer. Now that Martinez is likely back in the Cardinals staff, it’s hard to seize exactly how his 26.5% K rate and two-tick increase in velocity would translate to a year back in the rotation. Can he return to the workhorse arm of old?

 

Fastball (50% usage)

It was wonderful seeing Martinez flex 95/96 mph once again after watching its dramatic dip to 93/94 in 2018, though we traditionally see increased average velocity when pitchers transition to the pen — they can go 100% on all their pitches instead of saving fuel in the tank — and to see Martinez sit at the same average of 2017 instead of a tick above makes me wonder if it’ll be 94 mph in 2020 as a starter.

It’ll be odd talking about Martinez’s approach for 2020, as we often see differences between pitching in relief and out of the pen, but a near 50% fastball focus seems about right. Neither his sinker or four-seamer are all that special, though his extra four-seamer velocity and generally better performance makes me wonder if a heavy 2:1 focus (if not more so!) can help Martinez moving forward.

 

Slider (29% usage)

This slider can be something special. Martinez uses it in all counts, converting strikeouts plenty (45% career strikeout rate), while finding the zone a good deal more than getting chases (49% zone vs. just 35% O-Swing). If Martinez can find another pitch to trust for strikes, there could be a bit more to squeeze out of this slider as a wipe-out focused pitch, but until then, it’ll do just fine being a jack-of-all-trades offering.

 

Changeup (16% usage)

Finally! A serviceable changeup on the Cardinals! Martinez struggled in both 2018 and 2019 with the pitch, but it’s possible a healthy spring geared for the rotation can return the days of a 40%+ O-Swing clip. With his slider earning strikes and this slow ball acting as a chase offering, there’s a ton of hope for 25%+ strikeout upside and solid ratios. It really comes down to his approach — even at its performance peak in 2016/2017, the pitch returned a sub-25% strikeout rate. Maybe his time as a reliever (43% strikeout rate!) will carry over into 2020.

 

Cutter (3% usage)

In 2018, Martinez introduced this cutter, throwing it 17% of the time, and I expect we’ll see a usage rate closer to that than the 3% above if CarMart is starting. Used to nullify his fastball, this cutter has promise to push his slider into more of an out-of-zone whiff machine and keep hitters at bay. Its 56% zone rate and low .240 BAA is exactly what Martinez wanted, and I’m curious how it plays across a larger sample in 2020.

 

2020 Outlook

If Martinez earns a rotation spot out of the spring, there’s a lot to be excited about. Three strong secondary pitches complement a 95+ four-seamer that hopefully gets a larger spotlight at the cost of his sinker.

There are questions about his overall velocity and volume as a starter given his recent injuries and usage, capping his ceiling at the moment. Still, it’s hard to imagine a complete flop across the full 2020 season if Martinez is in the rotation.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.00 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 22% K rate in 70 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.30 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 27% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Carlos Martinez 2020 projection:

3.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 25% K rate in 160 IP

 

 

Kwang-hyun Kim – Fringe Starter

Nickname: Kenobi

 

2020 Outlook

We don’t know a whole lot about Kim, and he may be slotted straight into the bullpen without a single pitch as a starter. It’s a low-to-mid 90s heater paired mostly with a slider, then a complementary curveball and forkball on top. It profiles out to a hopeful Toby with possible strikeout upside if given the chance as a starter, but I’m inclined to see him as a reliever out of the gate.

 

 

Daniel Ponce de Leon – Fringe Starter

Nickname: King of Red Lions

 

2020 Outlook

We’ve seen a few starts from Ponce de Leon so far, and I’m not a huge fan. I like that he features four-seamers up in the zone aplenty, but his secondary stuff is too far behind to present a true Blake Snell Blueprint that we strive for. Unless there’s a major step forward somewhere (maybe his cutter? Changeup?), I see Ponce de Leon as a low IP starter who will be highly volatile in the innings he gets.

 

 

Austin GomberFringe Starter

Nickname: Pyle

2020 Outlook

Gomber is a little more refined than Ponce de Leon, but there isn’t a whole lot of upside. It’s an average 92/93 mph heater with a huge hook that gets strikes but not whiffs, though there is a chance his slider can become a larger whiff pitch with its 15% SwStr rate and 34% O-Swing. If he gets a share of starts this season, I’m inclined to look elsewhere.

 

 

Genesis CabreraFringe Starter

Nickname: Domino

 

2020 Outlook

It’s hard to resist an arm that goes upstairs with 96/97 often, but Cabrera is as volatile as they come. Cabrera struggles to put his heater where he wants to, while neither his changeup or curveball are able to find the strike zone constantly, nor earn consistent whiffs. It’s simply too raw of a package to endorse.

 

Nickname explanations:

Jack FlahertyThe Captain. Even Flaherty sounds like a pirate’s name.

Miles Mikolas8-Miles. MM = Eminem, who starred in the movie 8 Mile.

Dakota HudsonFanning Less. He’s not striking out enough batters, and Dakota Fanning is a thing.

Adam WainwrightWaino. Because, yeah.

Carlos MartinezCarMart. Like Waino, it’s just what we say.

Kwang-hyun Kim: Kenobi. Obi-Kwang Kenobi, of course.

Daniel Ponce De Leon: King of Red Lions. I know Ponce doesn’t mean lion, but I really want it to. KoRL is from Zelda.

Austin GomberPyle. Gomber = Gomer —> Pyle from The Andy Griffith Show.

Genesis CabreraDomino. It’s one of Genesis’ famous songs.

Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Nick Pollack

Founder of PitcherList.com. Rotographs and Washington Post contributor. Worked with CBS Sports, Grantland, and SB Nation. Former pitching coach and Brandeis alum.

  • Avatar Chris in The ICT says:

    Is Alex Reyes just a reliever option at this point and will always be viewed as ‘What could have been’? Do you think he ends up at the back end of the bully with save chances?

    P.S. Gomer Pyle was not on M.A.S.H. He had his own show as a spinoff of the Andy Griffith Show.

    • Nick Pollack Nick Pollack says:

      Oof, thanks for the Gomer Pyle catch! Fixed.

      I think Reyes could transition to be a starter next year, but it could be a Joba Chamberlin situation and find himself sticking in the bullpen if he performs well this season.

      As far aas 2020 goes, the Cardinals have made it clear they want him out of the pen. He hasn’t thrown enough innings in recent years to consider giving him the volume as a starter (which I imagine you already know!). I’d like to think Gallegos is the closer, but there may be an interesting spring battle in our near future!

    • Avatar theKraken says:

      If it makes you feel any better literally everyone could have been better. Reyes always had poor command as well as injury problems. There was always a good chance he was going to end up in the bullpen if he could maintain health. The way STL handled Reyes was absurd rushing him back like they did. Someone should have been the adult and said get off that mound until the all star break at the earliest. I find it interesting that Michael Kopech is basically the same guy but viewed quite differently. I imagine there is no harm in trying to properly build up Reyes and trying the starter thing. I think it is important to look at the timelines on Reyes injury and how they brought him back so more pitchers don’t end up tossing away huge chunks of their careers in similar fashion. Look at how differently they handed Lance Lynn who has lapped him twice by starting with less and taking it slow. Granted, it is apples and oranges to some extent but Reyes demise was too predictable.

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