Baseball

Cardinals Spotlight: Doing What They Wouldn’t

While this series doesn’t have to serve as an execution in the public square, it’s hard for Cubs fans to feel otherwise given the whiskey-dick nature of the entire season. Should it go that way, the epitaphs will range far and wide, even though it will mostly do with what the Cubs didn’t (or wouldn’t) do in the offseason. There will be articles about “Cardinals Way” or “Magic,” and you’ll customarily vomit up your ankle joints. Some will speculate whether this signals a tectonic shift in the NL Central, back to the way things were forever, or whether this was just a one-off. We’re sure you’re very excited.

But one thing to focus on, if the Cardinals should hang on, is that they’ve done what the Cubs refused to do. Because this isn’t a great lineup, the Cardinals have had to pitch their way through. And they’ve done it behind a couple of first-round picks and developed relievers. We know, it sounds illegal, but it turns out teams can actually do that.

The Cardinals spent 1st round picks in recent years on Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson. The Cubs will see both this series. You’ll recall the Cubs policy has been to spend high picks on hitters, because they’re more of a sure-thing (and boy don’t Happ and Almora and Russell look like sure-things!), and they would either develop the pitching in bulk in later rounds or simply buy it on the open market. And it worked there for a minute.

But they’ve been passed by a team led by Flaherty and Hudson. Flaherty is the unquestioned ace of the staff, sporting a 4-to-1 K/BB ratio while striking out over 10 hitters per nine innings and keeping his ERA right around 3.00. He’s been otherworldly of late, as he had an ERA of 0.71 in August and 1.23 in September so far. His K/BB ratio is nearly six in that time.

Flaherty of late has been throwing what is a plus-fastball less in favor of a two-seam or sinker. It’s gotten him a ton of grounders, as over half of his sinkers end up killing worms, and this month it’s been near 75%. His slider has been the real weapon, as it had been generating over half whiffs on swings taken against it. Of late though, it’s been losing some tilt and some of those whiffs, and that might be one concern the Cards have closing out the season. Flaherty has already thrown 23 more innings than he did last year, and perhaps fatigue is showing in the finish on that slider.

Hudson isn’t as explosive, but he’s been no less effective during this Cardinals charge/plague. He carried a 2.38 ERA in August and a 1.89 so far in September. He doesn’t have near the strikeout power that Flaherty does, but he does his work by getting an obscene number of ground-balls. And for once, the Cardinals infield isn’t a collection of generally bewildered carnies. They catch everything thanks to Wong and DeJong.

Hudson gets there through the use of a power sinker that averages about 94 MPH but doesn’t get a lot of swings-and-misses. It’s meant for hitter to pound into the ground, and that’s precisely what they do. Hudson will feature a cutter more often to righties, and that’s another meant to generate ground-balls.

Given that Hudson is 25 and Flaherty 23, it feels like the top of the rotation down there in Mos Eisley for the foreseeable future. Wouldn’t that be nice instead of wondering what might fall off Hamels tomorrow or if Lester is finished?

In the pen, the Cards have been able to convert Carlos Martinez from a occasional boob of a starter into an effective reliever. John Brebbia and Giovanny Gallegos were brought into their minor league system either via Rule 5 or trade and turned into effective relievers. That’s another thing the Cubs haven’t done in a while.

Now, the pen is hardly long-term fixed, and given the volatile nature of any pen could turn back into a suck factory next year. Still, St. Louis was able to fashion a successful one for a season out of spare parts and leftovers, which the Cubs have been angling for for a couple season. They’ve had to solve that with established free agents, which has had a mixed record. Then again, Andrew Miller is essentially a scarecrow these days as well.

Even with that, Flaherty and Hudson will anchor whatever the Cardinals are for the next few years. They’ve led the Cardinals to a three-game lead with 10 to go. Meanwhile, first-round flameouts like Happ and Almora and a half-season of meh (followed by one of greatness, to be fair) from Schwarber are a big reason the Cubs are where they are.

Maybe all policies on the draft shouldn’t be so ironclad.

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