Why the back-end of the Cardinals rotation is far superior than last year's group

While Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn were far from exciting moves, on paper, they should give the Cardinals a much better back-end of the rotation in 2024.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles
Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles / Rob Carr/GettyImages

The St. Louis Cardinals began the 2023 season 10-19 from their Opening Day game on March 30th through the end of April. During that stretch of time, the Cardinals received just six quality starts (six or more innings while allowing three or less runs) in those 29 outings.

There were a lot of issues that derailed the Cardinals' season last year, but the lack of quality starts issue is one I cannot overstate the negative impact it had on the club. Throughout the first month of the season, the Cardinals bullpen was being relied upon beginning in the fourth or fifth inning of many games while the offense attempted to scratch and claw their way back into the game. And whenever the Cardinals did regain the lead, the bullpen felt the pressure not to "blow it", since it felt like those winning opportunities were few and far between.

There were no reinforcements coming. They hoped Adam Wainwright would be part of the solution, but he posted a 7.40 ERA in the 21 starts he made in 2023. It's wild to think with how bad Jake Woodford was to begin the year, things would get much worse when Wainwright joined the rotation again.

In 2023, the Cardinals were 24th in all of baseball with just 48 quality starts. Jordan Montgomery was a huge part of that number, but once you got past him, the rest of the rotation was in shambles. While I've already written about the Cardinals' biggest hole on the roster (the lack of a second front-line starter) and believe they would benefit greatly from adding one, I also believe the additions of Gibson and Lynn can go a long way toward fixing one of their greatest issues from last year.

I did a larger breakdown on the quality starts issue a few months ago, but to review, look at just how awful of production the Cardinals received from the number four and five starters last year.

Adam Wainwright, Drew Rom, Dakota Hudson, Matthew Liberatore, and Jake Woodford combined for 60 starts in 2023, and only 10 of those were quality starts (17%). That means in 50 of their starts, they gave the Cardinals less than six innings of work and/or allowed more than three runs. If you go look at the game logs, there were quite a bit of outings from that group that lasted four or fewer innings while allowing five or more runs. You cannot win games like that.

Not only is it difficult to win games when your starters drop the ball that badly, but it also has a compounding impact on the rest of the team. The offense is playing from behind constantly and the bullpen is being taxed daily.

So, how do Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn make that better? Weren't their ERAs not great either? Well, the pair combined for 65 starts last season, and 30 of those were quality (46%).

See the difference here?

To drive the point home further, check out this wild stat that Brandon Kiley of 101 ESPN showed a while back.

When the Cardinals got quality starts, they won games at the same rate as the Baltimore Orioles last year, the best team in baseball during the regular season. When the Cardinals were not getting quality starts, they lost games at the same rate as the Coloardo Rockies, who had the worst record in baseball last season.

No, the Cardinals are not going to go and win 100+ games by bringing in innings eaters like Lynn and Gibson, but they can pick up a lot more wins because of the way those guys can keep them in ball games. The Cardinals offense should be one of the best in baseball in 2024, and although they can go off for 8+ runs any given night, it's helpful when that's not required of them most days.

I've seen a lot of criticism about Lynn and Gibson's ERAs, saying that it's proof that they are not any better than what the Cardinals had. I just don't agree with that take. First of all, Wainwright was perhaps the worst pitcher in baseball last year. One of Lynn or Gibson is a huge upgrade over those 21 Wainwright starts, and there is no debating that. Second, in the other 39 starts the Cardinals got from Rom, Liberatore, Hudson, and Woodford covered just 181.1 innings of work, an average of about 4.2 innings per start, and their respective ERAs were 8.02, 5.88, 5.26, and 6.95. 39 starts from guys who couldn't get through the fifth inning on average and were posting ERAs between 5.26-8.02.

Lynn had a 5.73 ERA in 183.2 innings of work and Gibson had a 4.73 ERA in 192 innings. Not all ERAs are created equal. If you asked Rom, Liberatore, Hudson, or Woodford to give you the number of innings that Gibson or Lynn were giving, they'd have ERAs two or three runs higher than their already awful numbers. No, Lynn and Gibson were not setting the world on fire, but the majority of their starts kept their teams in games. The same can not be said of the Cardinals back-end starters last year.

FanGraphs currently projects Gibson and Lynn to throw 175 innings in 2024 with 4.41 and 4.40 ERAs, respectively. Again, those numbers are not flashy, and they are not good enough for a playoff rotation, but you'll feel the difference during the season if they are able to give the Cardinals that kind of production or better this coming season.

The Cardinals rotation still has question marks. Sonny Gray getting injured or underperforming would be a huge problem. The health of Steven Matz is a huge question. While you feel pretty good about Zack Thompson filling in for guys when needed, after that, it's a big unknown right now. But on paper, this rotation should be much better in 2024 and closer to the middle of the pack, rather than the dumpster fire that it was in 2023.