The Cardinals don’t want to name-drop – what other teams choose to do with their young, cherished arms is, after all, their business – but one pitcher is on the tip of the tongue when exploring how they preserved rookies Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and others this season.
That’s because when the Cardinals played Washington in the first round of the playoffs last October, they didn’t have to face Stephen Strasburg. The Cardinals didn’t want to give an opponent the same luxury.
As the first-place Cardinals enter the final sprint toward October they have a lead in the National League Central Division, 19 games remaining (16 against losing teams), and a full complement of available rookie pitchers.
A year after Washington engaged in a National debate by shutting down Strasburg weeks before the postseason started, the Cardinals adopted a different plan. They were going to limit the innings for Wacha, Miller and others, but do so throughout the season – so they wouldn’t be a spectator in September or, if possible, October.
“I think you try to watch and learn, right?” Cards manager Mike Matheny asked. “Every situation is different. But we don’t want to put a kid in that tough situation where they’re watching. We explained (to Wacha) where we are and what the thought process is. The league learns new things every year. Some of these young guys all over baseball are coming up and making a splash in September. How do we protect them and at the same time get the best from them?”
Wacha (3-0) pitched seven scoreless innings against division contender Pittsburgh on Sunday and in two starts against the two closest teams to the Cardinals in the standings the rookie has thrown 13 consecutive shutout innings.
Miller (12-9), who starts tonight at Busch Stadium against Milwaukee, is looking for footing after a few stumbles in August. He will be making his 28th start of the season, matching his total from last season. At this point in the season, Wacha and Miller have thrown fewer innings in 2013 than they did in 2012.
The same is true as October approaches for rookies Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and Tyler Lyons.
If anything, an official said, Wacha and Martinez are short of initial projections.
“Right now, you can’t ignore the program that was put in place and how it worked,” Matheny said. “It’s one of those impossible things to measure, though. You’ll never know how it would have been if you just went right along throwing them into the fire. ... We looked at where we would have to draw the line and the longer we delayed that, the more they could compete.”
When it came to Wacha, the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2012, the club estimated that he would come to the majors around Aug. 1, general manager John Mozeliak said. The club worked his schedule back from there, inserting ways to get him a break and save innings. The team didn’t go into the season with a hard innings or pitch limit, choosing instead to set a range, based in part on studies and other young pitchers.
The goal was to avoid having Wacha, who pitched 113 1/3 innings for Texas A&M in 2012 and 134 1/3 innings total, push too far beyond 150 innings. Miller, who pitched 150 1/3 innings last season, could target 175-180 innings or so. A lot depended on how strong they looked, how many pitches they’d thrown in individual starts, and, of course, their health. The Cardinals track what they call “stress” innings and wanted to react to those, especially with Wacha in Class AAA.
Mozeliak, his front office staff, minor-league officials Gary LaRocque and Brent Strom outlined a schedule for Wacha’s April, May, June and July that would keep him available for the majors starting in August.
“The only fly in the ointment was when we brought him up,” Mozeliak said.
Mostly because of injuries, the Cardinals needed a starter in late May and promoted Wacha, less than 365 days removed from college ball, to make his debut.
Mozeliak and his staff adjusted Wacha’s schedule with the same intent – avoid the September shutdown.
“I wanted to keep everything flexible,” Mozeliak said. “The only downside with our strategy would be if he ended up not pitching enough this year. We thought that was a very low probability. The exercise came down to, Were we willing to risk him coming up short?’’
Mozeliak and the Cardinals discussed publicly a preservation plan during spring training, but the club purposefully avoided specifics. That’s never been Mozeliak’s style – “Don’t speak in absolutes,” he said, “because you never know” – and they saw what happened in Washington.
The Nationals entered 2012 talking about the Great Strasburg Shutdown. On Feb. 20, 2012, general manager Mike Rizzo told reporters that Strasburg, who was already more than a year removed from elbow surgery, was going to pitch “until his innings are gone and then stop” for the benefit of his future.
In early September, Strasburg’s season ended, voluntarily at 159 1/3 innings and he did not pitch against the Cardinals in the National League division series, which the Nats lost. One of the reasons mentioned by manager Davey Johnson for the shutdown was the media coverage had become a distraction.
So, talk of the shutdown helped beget the shutdown.
The Cardinals had no interest in creating the same storyline, just learning from it.
“You don’t want to sit your horses in the playoffs,” Cards ace Adam Wainwright said. “Our team is enjoying (Wacha’s) huge arm that he has right now. He’s pitching his tail off. He deserves the chance to be pitching right now. Experience for him in this playoff race is just invaluable.”
To control Wacha’s innings during the season, the Cardinals used a six-man rotation at Triple-A Memphis for a stretch and scheduled breaks. Miller had two hiatus during the summer, one around the All-Star break and another when he took a line drive off his elbow in the first inning of a start. The Cardinals planned to give him a second extended break, but the recovery from the bruised elbow did the same thing without upsetting the rotation.
Martinez’s season started later than the other pitchers, but he and Lyons also benefited from the controlled innings that came in a six-man rotation.
Asked this past weekend if the schedule meant the Cardinals were willing to have a “revolving door” or unsettled rotation through August in order to have the young arms available in September, Mozeliak said the team “never faced that sacrifice for our decision.”
“The tendency is to jump on the hot hand,” Matheny said. “There is no magic formula once you choose to do this. It is tough to balance because we’re all about winning here. We’re not about developing. So how can we still go about winning while not trying to compromise these young pitchers?”
Wacha is his answer.
With 131 1/3 innings this season on his arm and more to give, Wacha is in position the Cardinals believe to contribute in the present and the playoffs without risking his future. But it wasn’t just the schedule that put him in the rotation this September. He had to do his part.
“I still had to pitch well in order to come back,” Wacha said. “They were like, ‘We don’t want to get into a Strasburg-type deal where we might need you making a little run and you’re at your innings limit.’ It was kind of implied: Would you rather throw innings now or later?”
Later it is.