Adam Wainwright is the standard bearer of the St. Louis Cardinals rotation. Even in 2021. Even at age 39 (until Trade Deadline Day, and then he'll be 40). Even in his 16th season pitching in the majors. Even though he's been in professional baseball since the calendar flipped to the year 2000.
Adam Wainwright has 6.25 innings pitched per start this year and the only time he's missed (or pushed back) a start this season was because he's a better family man than a baseball player. The dude is the standard bearer.
However, there's another older starter on the Cardinals, Kwang-Hyun Kim. Last night, he pitched against the Chicago Cubs on his 33rd birthday, going 6 innings himself. KK, as he's affectionately called to his liking, is only in his second season in the majors, but has been in professional ball since the 2007 season, when Wainwright was still celebrating his first World Series Championship with the Cardinals. KK was pitching in Korea at the time, and did so from 2007-2019. KK averaged about 6 innings per start for 12 seasons in Korea before coming to the United States to pitch for our Cardinals.
While Kwang-Hyun Kim will never have the cache with Cardinals fans that Adam Wainwright has, something has popped up that is very interesting to me. Daniel Shoptaw and Allen Medlock talked about it on Meet Me At Musial today (I was told and will listen soon). KK is averaging just 80.6 pitches per contest this season. Part of that could be that he was coming back from soreness and injury earlier in the season. However, even in July, he's averaging just 87.8 pitches per outing, despite allowing just 2 runs and 19 base runners in 25 innings pitched in the month. KK is not being pushed late into games like Adam Wainwright.
Prior to moving on, let's look at this in a different light. Let's go starter by starter real quick, just to see how they are being used. Knowing what we know from watching the games, you can mentally decide how each pitcher's effectiveness affects what we'll be discussing below:
Adam Wainwright has 19 GS this season. He's pitched to the opposition for a 3rd time through the order in 18 of those 19 games and faced batters for a fourth time on 4 occasions. The third time through, he's faced 78% of the batters that he'd seen twice already.
John Gant has 14 GS this season. He's pitched to the opposition for a 3rd time through the order in 12 of those 14 games. The third time through, he's faced just 40% of the batters that he'd seen twice already. Much quicker hook and rightfully so.
Johan Oviedo has 12 GS this season. He's pitched to the opposition for a 3rd time through the order in just 8 of those 12 games. The third time through, he's faced 34% of the batters that he'd seen twice already. EVEN QUICKER hook.
Jack Flaherty has 11 GS this season. He's pitched to the opposition for a 3rd time through the order in 10 of those 11 games. The third time through, he's faced 58% of the batters that he'd seen twice already.
Wade LeBlanc has 5 GS this season (includes one not with STL). He's pitched to the opposition for a 3rd time through the order in just 3 of those 5 games. The third time through, he's faced only 20% of the batters that he'd seen twice already. VERY QUICK HOOK!
Kwang-Hyun Kim has 17 GS this season. He's pitched to the opposition for a 3rd time through the order in just 12 of those 17 games. The third time through, he's faced only 38% of the batters that he'd seen twice already.
Now that you've seen that information, let's dig deeper. Here are stats for Cardinals pitchers as starters (only with the Cardinals) this year:
Thanks to Fangraphs, you can see above that KK has the second most innings (and starts) on the club. He is tied for the highest fWAR, has the second lowest walk rate per 9 innings of anyone with 4+ starts - essentially tied with Flaherty. He has the lowest ERA besides Wade LeBlanc's 18 innings of work as a starter. His FIP is the best on the club of people with 4+ starts. He strands runners at a great rate and doesn't allow homers.
There's an argument to be made that Kim is the best pitcher on the Cardinals in 2021! Not only that, but it's a darn good one. Kim might very well be the standard bearer at the moment. But why is he not being allowed to pitch deeper into games? All signs point to KK being pushed deeper into games.
The bullpen has been taxed mightily this year. As you can see in the above bulleted section, very few Cardinals starters face an entire third time through an order. Only Wainwright has pitched to a fourth time through the order.
Only Johan Oviedo and Wade LeBlanc, who have both transitioned from starter to reliever and back this year, have thrown to a lower percentage of batters the third time through the order than KK Kim.
Maybe it's KK's effectiveness? Is he getting beat around that third time through? BEN! You've argued for a piggyback for years now. Get KK out after 2 times through the order, right?
In the third time through the order, Kwang-Hyun Kim has allowed just a .167/.224/.315/.539 line.
That average of .167 is better than the first or second time through the order. That OBP of .224 is better than the first or second time through the order. That OPS of .539 is tied with the first time through the order and nearly 200 points better than the second time through the order. He's even got a 2.75 K:BB in that third time through the order - which is worse than his 3.40 K:BB the first time through, but loads better than the 1.57 K:BB his second time through.
If you look at it as pitch counts, on pitches 1-25, 26-50, and 51-75 KK has allowed an OPS against him between .606 and .663. His pitches 51-75 are typically better than his pitches 26-50. On pitches 76+, he's allowed just 8 hits and 2 walks to 47 batters, striking out 9 of them and allowing just 5 runs, keeping batters to an OPS below .500!
Now, if you're a disgruntled fan, you might even look at it in a more pessimistic route. I wouldn't really take this into account, but here it is anyway. Kwang-Hyun Kim is an upcoming free agent. Unless the Cardinals re-sign him (or plan to), they have no reason to be saving a 33-year old's arm for future use.
So there you go. Several reasons why the Cardinals should be allowing KK to pitch deeper into games. Now, Mike Shildt and Mike Maddux and the other coaches in the offices and on the field are privy to a lot more information than myself. I understand that. This is my pitch to have KK pitch more (ha!, pun totally intended), and I think it's a darn good one.
Thanks again to Nicholas Childress on the cover art.