Back the Cardinals to Win Pitching Duel with the Slumping Phillies

St. Louis Cardinals

Thursday, June 22, 2017 1:30 PM GMT

After another extra-inning heartbreaker Wednesday night, The Phillies have now lost 5 in a row against the Cardinals and 13 of their last 14 overall. Cardinals’ ace Carlos Martinez will show no mercy as he looks to help his team complete a rare road sweep

St. Louis Cardinals vs Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies can’t figure out how to win. They even took a 5-0 lead in Tuesday’s game against the Cardinals due largely to third baseman Greg Garcia’s error with the bases loaded. And they blew the game.  Their bullpen is one of the worst, as measured by FIP (this is like ERA, but factors out luck), their starters are struggling to find consistency and their lineup has not been productive. They’ve repeatedly been blown out, but their last three losses have come in extra innings. The Cardinals’ lineup entered into a rhythm after they replaced Dexter Fowler with Matt Carpenter in the leadoff spot. Fowler’s batting average has been rising since the switch in the lineup order, but most impressive has been his slugging.  He is the active Cardinal with the most success historically against Phillies’ starter Aaron Nola: in just five at-bats he has a double and two home runs in his career against him. The Phillies’ lineup has little to counter with as they have yet to figure out Cardinals’ starter Carlos Martinez. In 40 at-bats, current Phillies’ batters have managed just seven hits, (.175 BA) only one of which was a double, and no home runs. 

Carlos Martinez (6-5 2.86 ERA) is in great form.  He produced an FIP of 2.00 or less in his last four outings, including a complete game four-hit shutout (1.01 FIP) against the Phillies on June 10th in St. Louis. The Phillies’ ballpark is more conducive to home runs because it is less spacious, but Martinez is a ground ball pitcher who does not allow opposing batters to elevate his pitches and therefore does not give up a lot of home runs—he has given up zero in his last four starts. Martinez is enjoying a breakout season as his ERA is down from 3.04 last season to 2.86 this season and his FIP is down from 3.61 last season to 3.07 this season.  The reason for his giving up fewer runs is the improvement of his stuff. His K/9 rate is up from 8.02 last season to 10.21 this season because he has added a slider to his pitching arsenal, with which he has already struck out 63 batters this season. His slider is one of his most frequently thrown pitches and opponents have yet to figure it out, as they are batting just .139 against it. His slider is also a major reason that he has struck out eight or more batters in five consecutive outings, including eleven against the Phillies. Martinez has become an even more dominant pitcher this season and his recent outings show him to be in great form 

Aaron Nola (3-5 4.76 ERA) counters for the Phillies.  He has been having a disappointing season so far. On April 20th, he went on the DL after he got shelled by the Mets in an outing in which he walked four, struck out only two, and saw the velocity of his pitches dip to a concerning degree. He has gotten hit hard in four of five outings since returning from the DL. The one positive outing was in Atlanta, where he pitched 8 innings of one-run ball (2.00 FIP). He seems healthy, as his K:BB rate has been approximately 3:1 since returning from the DL. The key for Nola is to stay fresh. In his worst outings, he pitched on 4 days’ rest. But in Atlanta, he pitched on five days’ rest. The significance of this discrepancy is demonstrated by his career statistics: with 4 days’ rest Nola is 8-10 with a 6.31 ERA. But with 5 days’ rest Nola is 6-4 with a 3.22 ERA.  Six times in his career Nola has pitched on 5 days’ rest after pitching consecutive games on four days’ rest and in five of those games, his FIP was 3.13 or under. The one exception was July 2016 against the Royals (3.55 FIP), immediately after which he was placed on the 15-day DL because of the drop in his velocity indicating injury. Nola is normally a better pitcher when he gets extra rest. 

 

The Verdict

I expect both starters to do well. Nola has a strong history against the Cardinals—even on only four days’ rest. Last year in May he pitched seven innings and allowed only two hits and zero runs (1.58 FIP). This season he pitched five innings in St. Louis, allowing four hits and a three-run home run (4.52 FIP).  I will not let one mistake—that Fowler made him pay for—deter me from backing Nola on five days’ rest against a team that he has proven to do well against. Nola can do well against the Cardinals as a pitcher who primarily relies on the sinker. The Cards are one of the worst teams at hitting this pitch as measured by wOBA (this is like OPS, which is slugging plus on-base, but factors in run-scoring potential). The key for Nola is the effectivity of all of his breaking pitches, not just the sinker. He relies on deception. In his dominant performance against the Cardinals last season, the vertical and horizontal release points of his sinker and curve were nearly identical, meaning that batters were struggling to discern whether his pitch would sink or curve. In his recent performance against Atlanta, he produced the same deception between his fastball and his curve. He is more able to produce this deception and so have better stuff when he gets a boost of freshness thanks to an extra day of rest. Look for Nola to replicate his recent performance against Atlanta and his gem against the Cardinals in 2016.

Carlos Martinez has yet to be figured out. And the Phillies haven’t been hitting any pitcher well at all; they didn’t so much produce many runs last night as three errors committed by St. Louis fielders helped them score and their OPS is a paltry .581 in their past seven days, which is .150 lower than average. As for figuring out Martinez’ lethal slider, the Phillies are one of the worst teams against the slider. They are fifth-to-last against this pitch as measured by wOBA, and so they recently struggled against the likes of Martinez and Chris Sale, both of whom throw powerful sliders. Martinez matches up optimally well against the Phillies as a power ground ball pitcher. Against power, the Phillies’ OPS is only .668. Against ground ball pitching the Phillies’ OPS is .652. The Phillies really struggle against the kind of pitcher that Martinez is, and against the kind of pitches that Martinez relies on. And yet Martinez is one of the strongest examples of a power ground ball pitcher who relies on a blazing slider. Martinez will also benefit by coming into this outing fresh: with four days’ of rest Martinez’ career ERA is 3.48 but with five days’ of rest it is 2.66. He will pitch tomorrow with five days’ rest.

The Phillies also have one of the most atrocious bullpens: it’s third-to-last with a 4.81 FIP, .81 higher than that of the Cardinals, whose pen is statistically average. The Phillies’ bullpen has been consistently outperformed by that of the Cardinals; the Phillies lost three one-run games to the Cardinals and lost two games to them in extra innings, including a rare seven-run loss in 11 innings on Monday night. So, even though I expect Nola to pitch well, I think that the Phillies’ bullpen will ensure a sixth straight Phillies’ loss to St. Louis on our MLB Picks. The Phillies will look to avoid a rare road sweep. But their performance has been so embarrassing, that they are probably more excited to leave Philadelphia. The team with the better starter, the hotter lineup, and the more reliable bullpen should win.

Free MLB Picks: Cardinals -138 & Under 4.5 1hBest Line Offered: at 5Dimes

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