The times, they are a-changin'.
Given that the only Bob Dylan song I can name without the use of Google is "Like a Rolling Stone," it should be criminal for me to use that as an opening line of a piece. But alas, the times, they are undeniably a-changin'.
Along with a new manager, a new right fielder, a new (old) first baseman and a new Cardinals.com beat writer, the St. Louis Cardinals will also have a new pitching coach in 2012. Derek Lilliquist, a former minor league pitching coach turned Cardinals bullpen coach in 2011, was promoted to pitching coach when long-time pitching coach Dave Duncan took an indefinite leave of absence earlier this offseason.
Duncan's pitching philosophy is well-known in these parts, focusing primarily on pitching to contact while putting less emphasis on strikeouts. His reputation as the pitcher whisperer is known around baseball, and his successes far outweigh his failures. So when it came out that he was taking a leave of absence, the first reaction was to be disappointed.
The second reaction, though, was to wonder what a Duncan-less pitching staff would look like. More specifically, would we see a departure from the pitch-to-contact method? Would the starters, or any starter in particular, become more strikeout-happy? And would that be such a bad thing?
As far as I can tell there are two possible ways this can go.
The first, and probably the odds-on favorite, is that little will change. Even in Duncan's absence, the philosophy has still been an overarching organizational philosophy for 16 years. Nature usually wins, but a whole lot of nurture has been going on since these guys became Cardinals. And although new pitching coach Derek Lilliquist has only been part of the big club for a year, two of the staff's leaders and Duncan disciples are still around in Carpenter and Wainwright. What's more, the field general, Yadier Molina, is still going to be calling the games.
It should also be noted that Lilliquist doesn't represent much of a departure from Duncan philosophically. Lilliquist was a pitching coach in the minor leagues before becoming the bullpen coach, so he's been part of the bigger scheme for a while. One needs to look no further than this excerpt from a Joe Strauss article earlier this year:
Lilliquist remains a devotee of Duncan's theories about pitch efficiency, the "pitch-to-contact" philosophy that meshes well with sinkerball pitchers who command the strike zone.
"'Dunc' had a successful formula that worked for a long time," Lilliquist said. "You'd be foolish to come in and try to change philosophies."
So that answers that.
The second option, though, is at least a possibility. And I see one interesting case study, one pitcher who may just take this as an opportunity to cut loose: Jaime Garcia.
Like I said, three-fifths of the staff is veterans who have had success in Duncan's Method and one is a groundball pitcher by nature. Garcia is the only one I can see who is young enough to not have that mindset fully ingrained and who is capable of seeing an uptick in strikeouts due to his stuff.
A pertinent question at this point is whether strikeout rate is actually affected by the Duncan Method. In 2011, the Cardinals had 1,098 strikeouts, 52 below the league average and 234 behind the league-leading Braves; in 2009, when Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter were both Cy Young Award candidates, the Cardinals were 89 below the average and 253 behind the league-leading Giants. Although this takes the entire pitching staff, and not just starters, into account, the point remains: strikeouts were devalued in Duncan's theology.
Individual examples are necessary, too. Joel Piniero is an easy argument for the pro side. He had two seasons with K/9 below 5 in his two years with the Cards. He's only had two other seasons with 10+ starts and a K/9 below 5. (Sidenote: that dip in K/9 coincided with an increase in GB/FB rate. In a conversation on the subject, Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold attributed that rise in ground ball rate to Piniero's last start of the 2007 season. Frustrated with the season, Piniero decided to throw a modified sinker, what Goold called a "one-seamer." That day against the Mets, Piniero went eight scoreless innings, allowing just three hits while inducing 15 ground ball outs to just three fly ball outs. The next spring, Duncan challenged Piniero to throw all sinkers in his first start. Piniero needed just 10 pitches to get through three innings. The rest, as they say, is history.) In Mark Mulder's fantastic 2005, his K/9 was 4.87; it was above 6.00 in three of the four previous seasons.
Conversely, some interesting counterpoints exist. Woody Williams, arguably Duncan's greatest achievement, had K/9 rates of 6.62, 6.24 and 6.22 in his three full years with the Cards; his K/9 was lower in previous years and in the years following his departure (although age shouldn't be discredited). Darryl Kile's 2000-01 K/9 rates were both above 7, a substantial increase from his previous two years in Colorado (although the Coors Effect shouldn't be discredited). And Carpenter's numbers as a Cardinal are downright contrarian. The common thread with those pitchers, though, is natural ability. With better physical tools comes a higher ability to make batters miss, intentional or not. So, if only for the sake of the discussion, lets assume all those pitchers could have been even more effective had they not been under Duncan's tutelage.
The final question is whether Garcia possesses that same ability. The best way to attempt to answer that question is to look at his propensity to get swinging strikes. Using Brooks Baseball's awesome new information, we can see that Garcia's best pitches in terms of swings and misses are his cutter, his changeup and his curveball. His cutter is most notable, registering a 40.5% whiff per swing percentage. Incidentally that cutter, which Garcia has thrown 18 percent of the time thus far in his career, is a pitch he learned from Lilliquist while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Arguably Garcia's best pitch, the curveball, is the one he throws the least, just 11 percent of the time.
Under Duncan, he instead opted to stick primarily with his two-seam and four-seam fastballs. And he's had success - perhaps the most surprising (to me, at least) statistic from 2011 was Garcia's GB/FB rate, which registered at 1.92. That put him 10th among major league starters and second among lefties, behind only John Lannan. A subscriber to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" adage would suggest Garcia would be best-served to continue pounding fastballs down in the zone.
Still, it stands to reason that there is room for strikeout growth if he was so inclined. FanGraphs' Michael Barr recently attempted to identify pitchers who performed under their ability to register strikeouts and listed Garcia as one pitcher who had the potential to see an increase in strikeouts in the coming year. For his modest strikeout rate, Garcia was actually 14th in baseball among starters in swinging strike percentage, on par with strikeout artists like Justin Verlander, Josh Beckett and Bud Norris.
Consider this as well: in 2011, Garcia's K/9 stayed almost perfectly static at 7.21 compared to 7.27 in 2010, while his BB/9 dropped from 3.53 to 2.31. That may be explained by looking at his plate discipline numbers - 30.8% out of zone swings in 2010 rose to 31.8% in 2011, while out of zone contact dropped from 59.1% to 55.3%. The ability to get batters to swing at pitches out of the zone is a plus. The ability to get them to miss those pitches is even better.
Speaking in certainties about Garcia's 2012 would be foolish. If anything, it will be an interesting number to monitor throughout the season. As Dylan warned, making predictions about these types of things (it was a song about baseball, right?) can be dangerous:
Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide the chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.