Matheny’s NLCS Gamble
Once the Cardinals were forced to use Adam Wainwright to secure Game Five of the NLDS, the next huge question involved how Matheny would align his rotation to tackle the Dodgers. Would Matheny release Shelby Miller (unused since September 25th) from his unwarranted imprisonment in the doghouse? Would Matheny dare use a tightly-puckered Lance Lynn? Can Wainwright pitch every game?
Matheny finally gave everyone a peek at the rotation for the first three games, and it looks like not much has changed. Joe Kelly takes Game One tonight, followed by Michael Wacha on Saturday for Game Two and Wainwright (on normal rest) on Monday for Game Three. Although unstated, it’s assumed that Game Four would be handled by either Miller or Lynn.
Despite Kelly’s exceptional performance in the second half (on the mound and on the dance floor), this set-up feels like a tremendous gamble. When asked about the use of Kelly in a critical, tone-setting Game One, Matheny replied that Kelly has “earned it.” There’s no doubt about that. Without Kelly, the Cardinals do not achieve the best record in the National League. Hell, they might’ve missed the playoffs altogether without him. Kelly was the only starter holding the rotation together during a late June/ early August meltdown that nearly shipwrecked the season.
But should honoring Kelly’s in-season performance be Matheny’s primary concern in the playoffs?
I love Kelly — I’ve been giving him erotic literary massages on this website since his debut — but he’s probably the wrong guy for tonight’s game. Here are a few reasons:
1. Kelly has a terrifying WHIP of 1.383, second only to Jake Westbrook among starters. That means Kelly is averaging nearly 1.5 runners (via hit or walk) for every inning he’s pitched. That’s like having sex with 1.5 hookers every hour and thinking you’ll never get gonorrhea. Except that you WILL get gonorrhea eventually. So far, Kelly has dodged trouble despite tempting the Baseball Gods, but those can be fickle deities, indeed.
2. The Dodgers are not the Pirates. Kelly did okay in Game Three against the Pirates (5.1 innings, 2 earned runs, 5 hits, 4 walks), but the Pirates had one of the worst batting averages in the NL in 2013. The Dodgers had the third-best batting average in the NL. Unlike the Pirates, the Dodgers have multiple star-caliber power hitters capable of turning a two-on situation into a three-run advantage. If Kelly’s luck continues, he might be able to samba his way around trouble. But if the luck runs out, we could see much wailing on Clark Street tonight.
3. Kelly’s ERA at Busch Stadium is more than one run higher at home than it is on the road. At Busch, Kelly has an ERA of 3.29. On the road, Kelly’s ERA is just 2.07. I can’t account for the huge difference, but it exists nonetheless. Starting Kelly in Game One at home gives the Cardinals a home DISadvantage.
I wanted the NLCS rotation to look like this:
- Game One (home): Shelby Miller
- Game Two (home): Michael Wacha
- Game Three (road): Adam Wainwright
- Game Four (road): Joe Kelly
- Game Five (road): Miller or Lance Lynn
- Game Six (home): Wacha
- Game Seven (home): Wainwright
There are a couple of reasons for this:
1. Unlike the rest of the rotation, Miller is completely rested.
2. Miller’s home ERA is a phenomenal 1.75 with a 0.971 WHIP in 16 starts at Busch Stadium.
3. Miller has strikeout stuff. Like I said, the Dodgers are a much more dangerous offensive threat, and the chance to use a strikeout pitcher against them should not be overlooked.
4. Using Miller early gets his start out of the way if he falters. In the scenario employed by Matheny, Miller (or possibly Lynn) would take Game Four. That might be fine if the series is 2-1 at that point. However, if the Dodgers are winning the series 3-0, the Cardinals would be forced to depend on Miller (who has not been great on the road) or Lynn (who could emotionally fracture at any moment regardless of his location) to save the season. That’s dangerous.
None of this conjecture matters, of course, because Matheny has his NLCS rotation set. I just wish more strategy has been employed when setting it, rather than simply honoring the in-season contributions of individual players. Managing the season and managing the playoffs are different things. Individual achievements are meaningless now; the only goal should be winning and moving to the next round. I fear that, by honoring Kelly’s contributions, Matheny could be setting the entire team up for disappointment. I certainly hope I’m wrong.