Barring a massive change in the playoff winds, the St. Louis Cardinals will be taking their repeat tour down to Atlanta to kick off the National League playoffs next Friday. Atlanta enters the final stretch week with a Wild Card spot already clinched, whereas St. Louis’ magic number is down to just 4 and their 3.5 game lead over Milwaukee and Los Angeles appears to be held with an iron grip. So, with the do-or-die game just over a week away, which pitchers should both franchises be looking at to make the pivotal, playoff-opening start?
Atlanta has a couple of options to make the play-in game start, but one stands out above the rest: Kris Medlen. Rumor has it the Braves are already planning on giving him the start, and for good reason. The young right-hander has been the best pitcher in baseball since the All-Star break, putting up a 1.01 ERA while posting an absurdly good 7-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s allowed just 10 earned runs (11 total) in the 89.1 innings he’s thrown over the time span, and the Braves are 11-0 in the games Medlen has started this season. In fact, Atlanta has won the last 22 starts in a row made by Medlen, which is tied for the longest streak in baseball history with Whitey Ford and Carl Hubbell.
The reason for his success? His fantastic control, which has garned the youngster some comparisons to former Atlanta Brave Greg Maddux. He’s able to locate all of his pitches well, and he’s absolutely dominant with his change-up. According to Brooks Baseball, opposing batters hit just .110 off of Medlen’s change, and he uses to great effect in 2-strike counts, throwing it nearly half the time. Batters have been baffled thus far by the pitch as well, as Medlen has racked up 38 strikeouts using his change. The Braves also won’t have to do any rotation tinkering to pitch Medlen in the play-in game, because his final scheduled start is Sunday, which means he’d start on 4 days rest like normal.
Medlen has only thrown 5 total innings of relief against the Cardinals this year (5 K’s, 6 hits allowed, 3 runs allowed) and only 9.2 total innings in his career, which just isn’t enough to make a fair judgment on a potential match-up with the high-octane offense. The only red flag in Medlen’s case is the fact that during most of the 2nd half he’s frequently faced the worst offensive ball clubs in the National League. Over the course of his 11 starts he’s faced the Mets twice, the Padres twice, and the Marlins on three separate occasions. None of those franchises are adept at swinging the lumber, although Medlen has made 3 very excellent starts against Colorado and Washington, both of whom rank top-5 in the NL in offense.
Atlanta’s only other viable option would have to be Tim Hudson, who will probably make his final start this Friday. Hudson has been very good this season, posting a 3.61 ERA in 27 starts, but at age-36 his strikeout ability is starting to disappear, evidenced by his 5.7 K/9 rate, the 2nd lowest of his career. The rest of the Atlanta rotation, while solid, isn’t quite up to snuff compared to Hudson or Medlen, ruling them out. My pick to start the game would be Medlen, and it appears that’s the direction Atlanta is headed as well.
St. Louis Cardinals
Things are a little less cut and dry over in St. Louis, where the Cardinals have a buffet of above-average options to choose from. Do they go with this year’s best pitcher, Kyle Lohse? Do they try to recapture the 2011 magic one more time by handing the ball to known big-game slayer Chris Carpenter? Or do they select the pitcher with the best raw stuff, Adam Wainwright? The choice lies in the hands of Mike Matheny and the Cardinals front office, but I have a few ideas.
First things first, if the Cardinals plan on scheduling either Carpenter or Wainwright to pitch in the Wild Card round, they’re going to have to make an adjustment to their rotation for the rest of the regular season. because both aces are scheduled to pitch in the final series of the year against Cincinnati. That shouldn’t be too much of an issue though, because as long as the Cardinals clinch sometime over the weekend, long-man/spot starter extraordinaire Joe Kelly can fill in in a pinch. If things get dicey down the stretch, I would imagine that the Cardinals use both Carpenter and Wainwright against the Reds if the situation calls for it, which would make Lohse the nominal starter.
And that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, in fact it could work out quite nicely. Lohse has somewhat quietly been the best pitcher in St. Louis this season, posting a 16-3 record with a 2.77 ERA (140 ERA+). He’s never been much of a strikeout pitcher and still isn’t, but when you walk a career-low 1.6 batters per 9 innings and allow fewer hits per 9 than ever before, good things tend to happen.
Lohse was roughed up in his one outing against Atlanta this season, but again, that’s just too small of a sample size to be relevant. Lohse has been roughed up by some of the Atlanta hitters over the course of his career however, with guys like Chipper Jones (.462, 1 HR, 20 plate appearances), Dan Uggla (.333, 1 HR, 12 plate appearances), and Martin Prado (.429, 12 plate appearances) all having some success. Those numbers don’t exactly sway me against using Lohse, but it doesn’t instill too much confidence either.
I personally wouldn’t adjust Chris Carpenter’s throwing schedule either. Carpenter should probably be allowed to make his next start, regardless of whether the Cardinals have clinched or not, if only to get some more innings under his belt. Carpenter may be a gamer, but even he could use more than 11 total innings of work against two of the worst teams in baseball before the playoffs start. It also allows manager Mike Matheny to set up Carpenter as the Game 1 starter in any potential NLDS series, should St. Louis advance.
Using Adam Wainwright in the opening game is also in play as well. Wainwright has had some struggles this season, posting the highest ERA of his career at 4.02, after missing all of 2011 after having Tommy John surgery in Spring Training. He’s been a bit up and down this season, having a terrible April followed by a brilliant stretch over the summer, that has then given way to a mediocre September. Some of his issues this month may be due to tiredness, which usually happens at the tail end of a season for a pitcher recovering from Tommy John, but it’s a little troubling nonetheless. Over the course of his career Wainwright has been very solid in 48.1 career innings against the Braves, posting a 2.98 ERA, while holding Atlanta hitters to a .251 batting average, which may strengthen his case for to get the ball.
Still, during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Wainwright ranked among the 3-5 best pitchers in baseball, and his curveball is still as devastating as ever, so the potential to put together one dominant start is there. It’s just a question of what Matheny wants. Does the Cardinal manager choose the pitcher who relies a little more on his defense but is having a better year, or does he take the pitcher with a more dominant repertoire, even though he’s struggling a little right now? I’d personally go with the latter. Wainwright has the best pure stuff out of this trio of pitchers, possessing a curveball that pulls the rug out from right underneath hitters as well as an above-average fastball. If he can keep the ball down in the strike zone and hit his spots, Wainwright has the highest upside, plain and simple, which gives you the best chance at winning a coin-flip game.