How the St. Louis Cardinals can fix their pitching drought

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 18: St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux #35 looks on before a game against the New York Mets at Citi Field on May 18, 2022 in New York City. The Mets defeated the Cardinals 11-4. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 18: St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux #35 looks on before a game against the New York Mets at Citi Field on May 18, 2022 in New York City. The Mets defeated the Cardinals 11-4. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /
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The St. Louis Cardinals haven’t developed a top pitcher in a while. A philosophy change and a generational talent could change that.

In the early 2010s, the St. Louis Cardinals were a pitching development factory. Every year, they seemed to churn out elite pitchers who would find spots in the rotation. Sometimes there was such a glut of talent that pitchers who would usually start would be placed in the bullpen because of a lack of space.

Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Marco Gonzales, Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Sandy Alcantara and Dakota Hudson are all starting pitchers the Cardinals drafted and developed from 2011 to 2018 who have had varying degrees of success in the major leagues. Since about 2019, though, that well has dried up. The Cardinals have had to look outside the organization for rotation help, bringing in pitchers such as Steven Matz, Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery.

It’s hard to pinpoint a reason for the Cardinals’ struggles in developing pitchers lately, but one possible contributor is the organization’s philosophy of turning everyone into a ground-ball pitcher and deemphasizing strikeouts. This is the opposite direction most of the major leagues is going, where strikeouts rule. With the Cardinals knowingly sacrificing their formerly elite defense for offense, they can’t afford to put the ball in play as much as they have been.

One of the Cardinals’ pitching ratings, their “stuff grade,” has declined nearly every year since 2015 and reached its lowest level in 2022. The explanation for how stuff grade is calculated can be found here.

The Cardinals need to change their pitching philosophy, and it’s imperative that they don’t mess with success in their latest phenom, right-hander Tink Hence.

The 63rd overall pick in the 2020 draft, Hence was incredible with Single-A Palm Beach in 2022, striking out a stunning 81 batters in 52.1 innings and pitching to an ERA of 1.38. His fastball has an astounding vertical angle, and while he’s only 19 and isn’t nearly ready for big-league action, the Cardinals need to notice what they have on their hands here and restrain themselves from trying to mold him into something he’s not.

Another pitcher making waves in the Cardinals’ system is Gordon Graceffo, who doesn’t have quite as much to dream on as Hence does but is closer to the major leagues and could contribute as early as next season. His development is also worth watching.

Sometimes the best tactic is “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” and the Cardinals’ pitching coaches should probably try assimilate the team into the strikeout-heavy league of today. It’s been a while since the Cardinals have had a homegrown pitcher who delivered more than spotty results, but if the team is smart enough to use more of a hands-off approach for Hence and Graceffo, the rewards could be rich.

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