Eighty-seven, eighty-eight, eighty-nine…

For the Cardinals, the victories these days come as easily as bad ideas to the unfortunate coconut of Michael Bay. As much as I’m relishing my favorite team’s historic season, I’m also growing increasingly nervous about the forthcoming postseason.

At this writing, the Cardinals are on pace to win 108 games–the most in franchise history and the highest figure in the National League since the ’86 Mets won 108. Of course, with every new tick in the “W” column, the expectations trampoline higher and higher. And I can’t stop wringing my hands at the thought of the Cardinals going Hindenburg in the playoffs.

There’s some of this same sentiment abroad, as well. Many pundits have openly wondered whether the Cardinals rotation has the wherewithal to ferry the team through the playoffs. After all, the Cards have peopled their starting five with a retread, a defrocked Brave, a bum wing, an old guy and … a rogue agent with nothing left to lose.

My particular worries are more sample-size related than anything else (i.e., the best-of-five NLDS gives me night sweats on my team’s behalf), but it’s worth examining just how much of a liability the Cardinal rotation might be.

First, when analysts indulge in playoff-speak, there’s at times a tendency to conflate “rotation” with “pitching staff.” While the Cardinal rotation is certainly pregnable, the relief corps has been one of the best in baseball this year. While the loss of Steve Kline to a groin injury would certainly hurt, he should be back in time for the postseason, and, one never knows, Rick Ankiel might be a high-leverage contributor a month from now. On a more holistic level, the Cards rank second only to the Dodgers in fewest runs allowed, but, of course, that brings the bullpen and the defense into the calculus. And the rotation is the matter at hand.

The Cardinals’ starters rank sixth in the NL in ERA, sixth in K/BB ratio, 11th in strikeout rate and 10th in homer rate. The first two are solid rankings for a 16-team circuit, but the rotation as a unit strikes out too few and gives up too many fan mementos.

If the season ended today, the NL playoff fray would include the Cardinals, Braves, Dodgers and Cubs. Let’s see how the Cardinal rotation stacks up against them. Teams that make it past the Division Series generally wind up using four starters in the postseason, so assume that the weakest starter will be dropped from the mix.

            ERA    K/BB    K/9    HR/9

Braves      3.89   1.72    6.01   0.93
Cardinals   4.07   2.28    6.06   1.24
Cubs        3.75   2.64    8.14   1.10
Dodgers     4.27   1.95    5.54   1.22

The Cubs are the clear class of this group, but the Cardinals compare favorably to the Braves and Dodgers in many measures.

Now let’s focus on the Cardinal rotation in particular and take a look at a few more evocative pitcher-by-pitcher measures. “ADJ R/G” is park-adjusted runs per game, and “BABIP” is the pitcher’s batting average allowed on balls in play:

Pitcher         ADJ R/G     BABIP     GB/FB     HR/9

C. Carpenter       3.78     .279       3.06      1.3
J. Marquis         3.81     .303       3.06      1.1
W. Williams        4.48     .289       1.49      1.0
J. Suppan          4.50     .274       2.11      1.2
M. Morris          5.25     .287       2.59      1.5

There aren’t any clear patterns in the relationship between BABIP and groundball/flyball tendencies. This season, the league BABIP is hovering around .300, so everyone but Jason Marquis appears to be benefitting from good defense and good fortune, probably in that order. Normally when you see GB/FB ratios and BABIPs skew hither and dither within the same staff, you can isolate which pitchers are throwing to the strength or weakness of the team defense, but there’s little indication of that in this case.

One thing I can say with assurance is that Matt Morris doesn’t belong in the postseason rotation. My fear is that Tony La Russa will say numbers be damned and put the humbled facsimile of a staff ace in there anyway. Maybe a road start at Dodger Stadium would be defensible, but otherwise his gopheritis will be a problem.

As previously mentioned, the Cardinal rotation as a unit doesn’t fare well in terms of home runs allowed. What’s interesting–and I’m not sure what to make of it other than sample-size foolishness–is that Woody Williams has both the lowest GB/FB ratio and the lowest homer rate of any starter. It’s also a bit unusual that Chris Carpenter has the fourth-highest GB/FB mark in the NL and is on pace to give up 28 shots. In any event, it’s one of the rotation’s most apparent weaknesses.

And here is how their potential opponents are poised to exploit it:

Team         ADJ HR/PA    R/G vs. STL

Braves         .027          3.83
Cubs           .035          4.95
Dodgers        .033          -
League         .029          4.00

The Cards and Dodgers have yet to play each other this season, so there’s nothing to be drawn from head-to-head data. One of the six whacks the Braves took against St. Louis came in a quasi-implosive Dan Haren outing, and he likely won’t see a single high-leverage postseason frame. I already feared the Cubs, but their homer proclivities and relative success against the Cardinal pitching staff is further reason to fret. Still, the fact that the Cardinals can’t face the Cubs in the truncated Division Series is in their favor.

In Chicago, there’s already some giddy anticipation of a Cards/Cubs NLCS. The Cubs have hit Cardinal pitching this season, and the Cardinals have cut a swath through every staff they’ve faced. The series may come down to whether Matt Morris‘ good half shows up. (It’s tempting to resort to a shopworn “Jeckyll vs. Hyde” remark when talking about the 2004 Morris model, but that doesn’t really capture it. Instead, I’ll go with a “Zell Miller who delivered the keynote convention address on behalf of Bill Clinton in ’92 vs. the Zell Miller who delivered the keynote address on behalf of George W. Bush in ’04” metaphor when talking about Morris’ wild-ass mound vacillations this season.) Another key will be whether Mark Prior is pitching like Mark Prior by then or whether he remains the foundering echo of Andy Hawkins that he’s been for much of the season.

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