Cardinals pitchers sink and win
ST. LOUIS – Weaved somewhere into Tony La Russa's DNA is a mistrust of everything he can't control. It manifests itself in the funniest ways, like the middle of last week, when the St. Louis Cardinals' manager assessed his team's early success accordingly: "There's a good chance that outside St. Louis, they think we win every game because Albert drives in six or something."
He was looking for neither sympathy nor credit. La Russa just loves to give his teams a reason to rally against the world. He turns Albert Pujols'(notes) bat-swinging godliness into a slight against his pitching staff. One thing is certain: Being out of practice for 30 years hasn't beaten the lawyer out of La Russa.
So about that pitching staff. Actually, it's been rather good, even with Chris Carpenter(notes) making his annual hajj to the disabled list. Decent walk rates. High ground-ball rates. And in April, the Cardinals' starting rotation was freakishly good at preventing home runs, and they finished the month with a baseball-best 17-7 record.
OK, so prevent might be the wrong word. Not even the rotation mates can agree on the real nature of home runs.
"You can prevent them, no question," said one starter, Joel Pineiro(notes).
"You try to keep the ball down," said another, Kyle Lohse(notes), "but sometimes, it really doesn't matter."
"Total, absolute, chaotic randomness," said Todd Wellemeyer(notes), winning the hearts of the statistically minded. "All we do is try to keep the ball down. Sometimes you give up home runs. Sometimes they hit line drives. Sometimes they go right at people. Sometimes they get underneath the line drives and they're home runs. That's all there is to it."
Whether the home run is an escapable phenomenon or simply a fact of life for every pitcher could well determine whether the Cardinals' run atop the National League Central Division is legitimate. Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan noted that last year's Cardinals started in the same fashion, aided by a fluky home run rate that evened out over the course of the season.
So if 14 home runs in 177 1/3 April innings last season were considered good, what, then, does that make of the four homers Cardinals starters yielded in 135 1/3 innings this season?
"That it's going to catch up and bite us in the ass?" Wellemeyer said.
Probably, unless the Cardinals plan on bucking history. Odder things have happened. Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan inherited a brand-new rotation last season, with Lohse and Pineiro the newbies joining Wellemeyer, who had spent the end of 2007 with St. Louis. To each, he said the same thing: Trust your sinker. And then, in case they didn't hear, he said it again. And he hasn't stopped saying it since.
The implication is obvious. Sinkers stay low in the strike zone. Balls that stay lower in the strike zone are more difficult to drive. The fewer balls driven, the fewer go over the fence. Home runs are evil.
"You're not out there trying to not give up home runs," Lohse said. "You're trying to force them to hit it on the ground. Because you're not going to get hurt as badly when the ball is on the ground."
While the numbers vary by source, most estimates have between 10.5 percent and 13 percent of fly balls going for home runs. Pitchers that yield eight or nine fly balls a game, then, are in danger of allowing at least one home run. Duncan, who in St. Louis and Oakland has helped turn around the careers of countless pitchers, isn't a mechanical master so much as a philosophical shaman, a sinking fastball his secret medicine.
"You need to throw it and throw it and throw it," Pineiro said. "Because when we came here, we didn't really throw sinkers. You become a completely different pitcher. I guess I was ignorant. I thought I could strike out everybody, and I had a different mindset."
Pineiro almost totally abandoned his four-seam fastball – except, he said, for purpose pitches – and his ground-ball rate this season has spiked to 55.1 percent, nearly 10 percent above his career average, according to numbers provided by Baseball Info Solutions. Going in the opposite direction is his home run-to-fly-ball rate – only 5.6 percent of them landing over the fence, as opposed to his career average of 11.6 percent.
Unknown – and often argued among sabermetricians – is whether ground-ball pitchers' home run rates are actually higher than fly-ball pitchers', because a fly ball generally indicates a mistake for sinkerballers. Either way, the likelihood of Pineiro keeping up his early home run rate is negligible.
It's even more so for Wellemeyer. In 37 April innings last season, he gave up six home runs. He went 22 innings this April without giving up a homer. Lohse, Pineiro, Adam Wainwright(notes) and Mitchell Boggs(notes) each yielded just one, all significantly below their career averages.
"It's something we address," La Russa said, "and it does come down to execution. If they can execute, we'll do well at it. If they make mistakes, somebody's going to punch us."
It's May now. The mistakes have arrived. Black eyes, too.
Nine games into the month, the Cardinals' starters have given up 10 home runs. Cincinnati blitzed Wainwright for two Sunday. With three more off their relievers, the Cardinals now have given up 14 home runs this month – the second most in the major leagues, behind the Yankees, who play in a new $1.5 billion (launching) pad. The Cardinals are 4-5 in May and now rank 17th in baseball in home runs allowed, a middle-of-the-pack team in that category even if they still do lead the NL Central and sport the game's third-best record.
The Cardinals wanted to believe their fortune – or skill – could last. They're the same pitchers they were in April.
"Could just be one of those years, good or bad," Wellemeyer said. "I can't say for sure, though. As pitchers, we complicate the [expletive] out of everything anyway, so who knows?"
Not Wellemeyer. Not Lohse. Not Pineiro. Not even La Russa. Preventing home runs isn't an art. It's just too totally, absolutely, chaotically random.