Dr. Jeckyll, meet Mr. Hyde.
Such has been the state of the St. Louis Cardinals’ starting pitching the first two months of the season.
Two pitchers started well in April – Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha – and have been every-bit-of-awful in May. Two pitchers struggled in April – Adam Wainwright and Mike Leake – and have been far better this month.
Wacha went 2-1 with a 3.07 ERA in the season’s first month, only to go 0-5 with a 7.27 ERA this month, including three runs in six innings of a 10-2 loss to Washington on Sunday.
Ditto Martinez: 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA in April, then 0-4 with a 6.84 ERA in May.
The flip side of the coin: Leake started the year 1-4 with a 9.00 ERA in April, and 4-1 with a 2.18 ERA since then.
Wairwright redux: He started the year 1-3 with a 7.16 ERA in April, but is 4-0 with a 4.62 ERA in May.
Even their most consistent starter, Jaime Garcia, has experienced dramatic peaks and valleys – he’s 4-4 overall, with a 3.47 ERA – allowing two runs in seven innings of a 6-2 win over Washington on Friday, after giving up up five runs on 10 hits in 2 1/3 innings of a 7-2 loss to Arizona his last start.
It’s enough to drive a Cardinal fan to distraction. So imagine what it’s like for the guy on the mound.
“It’s very hard not to know where you’re at,” Wainwright said. “Because in the middle of going, ‘I’m not looking at the stats, I’m not looking at the stats,’ somebody will text you your whole stat line.”
Wainwright has been on the upswing, tinkering with tiny changes to his mechanics as he returns from a mostly lost 2015 due to a ruptured Achilles tendon.
If the Cardinals were worried by Wainwright’s wretched April, they’ve been buoyed by his bounceback May. He’s allowed just seven runs his last three outings – in 25 2/3 innings in that span, he has an ERA of 2.45 – and the Cardinals have won his last seven starts dating to April 27.
“I think that’s the importance of having veteran leadership,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “We make a big deal about an ace and his responsibilities, and most of that has to come down to the experience of struggles, the experience of success, the experience of the ups and downs you have in this game, especially in that position.
“You need someone who’s been through those wars.”
That mettle will be required of the starters struggling at this point, particularly Wacha. He has lasted four innings in each of his last three starts before Sunday, with his ERA jumping a run and a half in that span. He was better Sunday, but gave up three runs in the fourth inning of the loss to the Nationals.
“I feel ... like I’m on time for an inning, two innings. Then something gets out of whack,” Wacha said after losing 12-3 to the Cubs on Tuesday. “I don’t know if I’m trying too hard, but I have to stay within myself and continue working down in the zone.”
Matheny doesn’t want to make it more complicated than that.
“He’s just got to continue to make the changes he needs to make,” Matheny said. “You just have to work through it. Let’s just see what he does next start without starting to map what he has to fix.
“Timelines, that’s not fair. He just has to go out and make a good start next time out. I think you’re going to see much better stuff.”
Inconsistency can be the hallmark of any young pitcher, and Matheny is quick to note that Wacha and Martinez are relative newcomers to the rotation.
“He’s still a young player. I think we forget about all that,” Matheny said of Wacha, who was 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA as he won MVP honors in the 2013 National League Championship Series as a rookie. “He jumps on the scene in the postseason and had all that success, and we throw him right into a category like he’s got all this figured out or seen enough bumps to know how to sort through it.
“But he’s a young player. Sometimes, it takes a little while to get out of it.”
The same is true of Martinez, a second-year starter who gave up six runs in the second inning of a 9-8 loss to the Chicago Cubs Wednesday.
Six runs in the first against Wacha Tuesday, six in the second against Martinez Wednesday. That’s no way for a baseball team to live day to day, and a far cry from a starting rotation that led the major leagues with a 2.99 ERA in 2015. So far this year, it’s 4.49.
“Our pitchers have been our go-to the past few years, and it’s time for us to step up,” second baseman Kolten Wong said. “They always have our backs, and it’s time for us to have their backs.”
Like hitters, pitchers fall into slumps, and climb out of them. Leake is proof of that, allowing just four earned runs in his last four starts, spanning 28 innings. That’s an ERA of 1.29.
“I guess six or seven games in a row of not producing will do something (to you), but you’ve got to keep moving forward and learning,” Leake said earlier this month, even as he discounted the notion he was trying to live up to the five-year, $80 million contract he signed with St. Louis over the winter.
“I don’t know if there was good or bad talk about it. My mindset was just, ‘Keep going and keep learning and get over it. It will take care of itself.’”
If the immediate future is murky – what to do with Wacha and Martinez, and will Wainwright and Leake stay right? – the long-term picture is crystal-clear:
If the Cardinals don’t get better starting pitching, nothing else will matter – not the batting order or the bullpen or the return of Jhonny Peralta or the sensation that is Aledmys Diaz or how Matheny parses playing time for all the outfielders and first baseman at hand.
“For us to have sustained success as a club, (that) starts with our starting pitching,” Matheny said. “You’ve got to have defensive support. That hasn’t been where we need it to be at this point, so it’s a combination of things.
“But we’ve always put a premium on those quality starts and guys giving us a chance right from the beginning.”