After revealing the strengths and weaknesses of the Cardinals lineup yesterday, I will now focus on their single-most important player of the game, starting pitcher Kyle Lohse. Riding the momentum of a career year, Lohse looks to knock the Braves out of the playoffs for the second straight season.
Overall, his traditional numbers are stellar. His 16-3 record is the highest winning percentage in the majors, and his 2.89 ERA is over 25% below league average. He has done this over a career-high 211 innings, making him around a 4 WAR pitcher on the season. Coming into the season, the Cardinals would have probably been content with a repeat of last year’s 2-2.5 WAR season, somewhat of a liability with his $12M salary. Now he is viewed, over Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia, as the best option in a do-or-die game.
His biggest strength is his control. He has walked a career-low 4.3% hitters this year, a top 5 mark on the season, greatly aided by his 69% first-pitch strikes. One would think that swinging early might work, but the 97 hitters who put the first pitch in play managed a .274/.268/.421 slashline, just over half the league-average OPS. He’s actually thrown his offspeed pitches for strikes more often than his fastballs.
He has also been able to keep the ball in the park at a decent rate, though he is doing it Matt Cain style. He allowed 35% flyballs this season, right around league average, but only 8.2% of those flyballs left the park, well below the league average of 11%. Over a single season, this could just be some random variation, but he has done this five of the last six seasons. St. Louis is a bit pitcher-friendly with homers, which explains a bit of it, but the other normal link, infield popups, have been fairly low over that span. He also allowed a 24% line drive rate, extremely high for a .262 BABIP allowed. This is the biggest area the Braves can exploit.
Strikeouts are not a common weapon of choice for Lohse. His 16.6% K rate this year, while well below average, is the second highest of his career. At 90 MPH, he won’t blow hitters away, and he doesn’t have the sharpest offspeed stuff. The Braves should be able to put plenty of balls in play, something that’s not always the case for this club.
As far as his repertoire goes, he mixes in five pitches, though he’s mainly a two-seam, slider, and changeup pitcher. His four-seam is 90-91 with a bit of life, but he only throws it 7-8% of the time, equally to lefties and righties. The movement on his two-seam is actually quite benign, neither tailing or sinking much. He only gets 36% groundballs off of it, a poor mark for such a pitch.
His best offspeed pitch is his changeup. He got batters to miss the pitch on almost 30% of their swings, by far the highest number of any pitch. It doesn’t have great fade, but it has some depth at 80-82. He uses it 27% of the time against lefties and only 12% against righties. His complement pitch is the slider, a very average pitch around 84-85. He throws it over 30% of the time against righties no matter the count. Against lefties, he uses it as a putaway pitch about 20% of the time. He’ll also drop in an occasional curve, mostly to lefties on first pitches, but it’s been horribly ineffective this season.
A lot of people have been saying that this is a matchup of two very similar pitchers. While Kris Medlen does not walk many, he excels in the other two FIP components more than Lohse. He has struck out 27% of hitters and only allowed 28% flyballs and 17% line drives as a starter. Lohse has a FIP around 3.50 and an xFIP around 4.00, so he should not dominate this Braves lineup.
The Cardinals bullpen had a much better 2012 than 2011, as roles were defined from Day 1. Jason Motte picked up every save for St. Louis this season, harnessing his control and striking out more than one an inning. His weakness was the gopher ball, allowing nine in 72 innings. Mitchell Boggs is the setup man, also improving his control while throwing 96 MPH bowling balls to the plate. Edward Mujica posted a 1.03 ERA since coming from Florida, getting groundballs and walking no one. Marc Rzepczynski (SCRABBLE) is basically a lower-velocity version of Jonny Venters, a lefty with a power sinker and hard slurve. They each allowed around 25% of their flyballs to leave the park, over twice the expected rate, something most pitchers couldn’t do if they tried. Lance Lynn, after starting 29 games this year, is also lurking in the bullpen, another power arm available if Lohse falters.
The Cards will have two lefties in the bullpen, SCRABBLE and rookie Sam Freeman. It is somewhat of a surprise Garcia was left completely off the roster, as he could have come in to face Heyward/Jones/Freeman. Much like the Braves or any other team, if you can get the starter out before the 7th, the weak side of the bullpen can turn a game sour or sweet in a hurry. Leads after seven innings will likely be safe with the back-end guys, which likely makes the sixth and seventh innings the most pivotal of the game. However, as I’ve learned this year, predicting a single game is a waste of time, and anything can happen, good or bad.