The best starting rotation in baseball resides in St. Louis

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

LOS ANGELES — There’s enough bad news about pitching. Elbows fail. Shoulders fail. Fastballs get old and weary. Hitters find new ways. It’s all pretty fragile out there, even for the good ones.

So let’s take a moment to acknowledge when it goes right, even for a couple months, in a place such as St. Louis, which lost 22-year-old Alex Reyes to Tommy John surgery before any of it even began.

First off, the Cardinals are one of just four teams (the Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees are the others) to reach the fourth week of May with the same five starters. (The Seattle Mariners, by means of comparison, have run through an alarming 11.) Generally that’s a good thing. Then, the rotation arrived at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night with the lowest ERA in the game, by a lot. More, that means Lance Lynn is back from TJ surgery and effective too, that Michael Wacha seems over from his shoulder issues, and Mike Leake has moved on from whatever ailed him last season, his first in St. Louis.

If ERA is your thing, Leake is second in the NL, Lynn is third, Wacha is fifth, and Carlos Martinez is 10th. That left the veteran Adam Wainwright, who wobbled a bit early but in his most recent starts dominated the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants.

So, everybody has been healthy, everybody has been good, and for a ballclub that started 3-9, whose offense is average, whose bullpen hasn’t found its way, whose defense has improved but still isn’t high end, it’s the reason the Cardinals are 19-10 since and relevant again.

“Health certainly helps,” Wainwright said. “But if you’ve got five pitchers that aren’t very good, that doesn’t help much.”

It’s a fair point.

“Execution,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny explained.

“I think you’re seeing guys who are better. Mike Leake is a better pitcher than he was a year ago.”

For whatever reasons, he said, Leake’s pitches are sharper, the late life on his fastball is better and, “He’s making very few mistakes.”

St. Louis starter Mike Leake’s 2.03 ERA is second in the National League. (Getty Images)

Getting back to the defense, he added, “I think he felt like he had to do it on his own last season.”

Sure enough, Leake’s broad improvement does not include his strikeouts per nine, which are down a touch. If soft contact is going to turn into outs in St. Louis again, well, hitting a few bats and saving a few pitches isn’t such a bad idea. He’s thrown a few more cutters, a pitch that is becoming more dangerous for him, the more he learns about it.

“I guess I’m still creating the perfect shape of it,” Leake said, “and the intent of how I’m trying to use it.

“Success will help to an extent. I do take pleasure in the process of getting better.”

Works for the Cardinals, ripe for some good news.

***

Spring training is generally about everybody standing around waiting for pitchers to get ready, and to that end Arizona Diamondbacks pitching coach Mike Butcher floated this:

Allow for starting pitcher re-entry during spring exhibition games. It’s not a new idea, but one Butcher has championed for years.

“I think it’s worth the conversation on many levels,” he said. “First, the health of the pitchers. Then, better evaluation of relievers. And fans get to see more of the stars.”

Let’s say a starter has progressed to where the club wants him to reach 60 pitches and to do it over four innings. The third inning goes haywire, however, whether for imprecision or leaky defense or whatever. The pitch count is rising, and no one wants the pitcher to throw 30 of those pitches in a single inning of early March, so he must leave the game after 46 pitches and without the benefit of a fourth inning.

Butcher’s idea is to alter the rules to allow a reliever to finish the third inning. The starter then returns in the fourth in order to reach that day’s goal. The reliever gets his work in, perhaps with inherited runners, so he gets a regular-season feel. The starter gets his work in, so he progresses on schedule toward April.

It’s the sort of B-game flexibility that managers presumably would prefer, only without the roll-over innings that maybe wouldn’t sit well with fans.

“Errors and such play into account of not progressing and obtaining goals during spring,” Butcher said. “So I think it is the right thing to do in our game moving forward. It’s the solution to keeping guys healthier and making better evaluations.”

A league official said the change likely would have to come from the general managers meetings in the fall, passing through approval of the teams. And the players’ union would have to approve it as well.

At a time when pitchers’ health is among the game’s highest priorities, it’s worth the conversation.

***
WHAT ELSE:

Let’s check in on the back end of the bullpen in D.C.: 12 saves spread among five men – Blake Treinen, Enny Romero, Matt Albers, Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover. Eight blown saves spread among six men. A league-worst 5.53 ERA over the seven through ninth innings, a 5.55 ERA in the ninth inning alone, and a 5.03 ERA in save situations. Let’s check in on everything else in D.C.: The Nationals are burying the rest of the division, and bullpens are fixable.

Pretty good year for the Dutch. The Netherlands reached the semis of the WBC, Derek Holland has four wins and a 2.47 ERA in nine starts for the White Sox and Greg Holland has 19 saves and a 0.96 ERA for the Rockies.

So, the Diamondbacks and, among other things, Zack Greinke. Following a crummy first season in Phoenix and an uneven spring training that couldn’t have been particularly comforting for D-backs brass, Greinke has a 2.82 ERA and is outpitching his career averages in WHIP, hits per nine, walks per nine and strikeouts per nine. His last seven starts: 50 1/3 innings, 34 hits, seven walks, 64 strikeouts. Why? We asked around: For reasons maybe only Greinke know, all of his pitches — fastball, slider, curve, changeup — are coming from the same release point. He’s getting consistent tilt on his slider. His changeup has been effective as usual, but the downward action is more consistent. He’s hitting spots up, down, arm side, glove side. It’s all about execution, and Greinke clearly is feeling it again. So there you go.

What we’re reading this week: “If These Walls Could Talk; Stories from the San Francisco Giants Dugout, Locker Room and Press Box,” by Chris Haft. With forewards by Mike Krukow and Brandon Crawford, this is a fun and expert perusal of three championship seasons, along with chapters on Willie Mays, Barry Bonds and Juan Marichal. Giants fans will love it. So will everyone else.

***
INCOMING:

Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers left off after six games in the fourth week of last October. The Dodgers went home again. The Cubs, you may have heard, wrangled four more wins.

They’ll play three this weekend in Los Angeles. The Cubs seek traction from a roster plenty good enough to repeat in October. Among the early shortcomings: team OPS is way down, starters’ cumulative ERA is a run-and-a-half larger than last year’s, and the defense has been at best inconsistent.

The Chicago Cubs return to Dodger Stadium this weekend for the first time since last October. (Getty Images)

On the bright side, that leaves a lot of room for improvement, and with more than four months to get there. The Cubs don’t yet seem too concerned.

Game 1 gets Jake Arrieta and Alex Wood. It’s interesting because Wood, through 43 innings, has posted Arrieta-type numbers: 1.88 ERA, 52 strikeouts, 13 walks, one home run allowed. He’s healthy again and as a result is throwing harder. He’s also throwing more changeups. If FIP (fielding independent pitching) is your thing, Wood is second behind Chris Sale among pitchers with at least 40 innings.

Arrieta pitched admirably in his last start, Sunday against the Milwaukee Brewers, but otherwise has been one of the things that has gone wrong with the Cubs for the better part of a month. Two summers ago Arrieta no-hit the Dodgers in L.A.

The probables:

Friday: Jake Arrieta vs. Alex Wood

Saturday: John Lackey vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu

Sunday: Kyle Hendricks vs. Brandon McCarthy

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