The St. Louis Cardinals don't have the best record in the National League, but by one measure -- perhaps one even more important than win-loss record this early in a season -- they've easily been the most dominant team.
The Cardinals own a run differential of plus-62 runs -- that's greater than the sum of the Nationals (+14), Dodgers (+12), Braves (+27), Reds (+5) and Giants (+3). St. Louis is second in runs scored (to Atlanta) and second in runs allowed (to Washington). The Cardinals have done this despite the spring training injury to Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright's slow start coming back from Tommy John surgery (a strong effort on Sunday lowered his ERA to 5.61), Lance Berkman's DL stint (he's missed 21 games) and Allen Craig's late return from offseason knee surgery (he just returned last week).
The accolades run deep -- Jon Jay leads the league with a .392 average, David Freese is fifth with 24 RBIs, Rafael Furcal has a .402 on-base percentage -- but credit for the hot start has to begin with Lance Lynn and Kyle Lohse. The two are a combined 9-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 11 starts. Lynn, who starts Monday night against the Diamondbacks, ranks fifth in the NL with a 1.60 ERA; Lohse ranks 11th with 2.11 ERA.
When pitching coach Dave Duncan resigned from his post in January to spend more time with his wife Jeanine (who had a brain tumor removed last August), there were concerns the pitching staff would suffer without Tony La Russa's right-hand man. The early returns under Derek Lilliquist are positive as the Cardinals have a 3.08 ERA and have walked just 58 batters, fewest in the NL. Last year's staff posted a 3.74 ERA and also relied on throwing strikes -- the Cardinals walked the fourth-fewest hitters in the league -- but that staff also featured Carpenter as rotation anchor.
That's what makes the first months for Lynn and Lohse so important (Jake Westbrook is also 3-2 with a 2.19 ERA). Lynn's numbers may be the most surprising since he pitched out of the bullpen as a rookie last season after getting called up from Triple-A (he still qualifies as a rookie). He pitched so well in relief -- 40 strikeouts in 32.1 innings, plus a dominant 5.2 scoreless innings against the Brewers in the NLCS after missing more than a month with a strained oblique -- that many forgot that he was groomed as a starter in the minor leagues. The 39th overall pick in 2008 out of the University of Mississippi, Lynn threw hard but never posted dominant numbers as a starter in the minors. When Carpenter went down, there was speculation the Cardinals would move to sign free agent Roy Oswalt. Instead, they promoted Lynn to the rotation
All he's done in winning his first five starts is allow six runs and hold opponents to a .167 batting average. Two things stand out for the burly right-hander: He's maintained his velocity (after averaging 93.2 mph on his fastball in relief, it's held at 92.4 so far as a starter) and he's thrown strikes. He's cut his walk rate from 2.9 per nine innings as a reliever to 1.9 as a starter (he averaged three walks per nine in 12 starts in Triple-A in 2011). Lynn relies on three different fastballs: a four-seamer that touches 95, a two-seam sinker and an occasional cutter. He mixes in a curve and an infrequent changeup that he uses against left-handers, but relies primarily on his various fastballs, which he throws about 70 percent of the time. In the minors, he relied a lot on his sinker, but he used his four-seamer more out of the pen last year, when he would crank it up to 97-98 mph at times. He seems to have taken that philosophy with him when he starts a game.
Looking at his heat map for 2012, you can see his game plan: feed left-handers on the outside corner, while throwing a lot of fastballs up and away to right-handers.
This is where we have point out that four of Lynn's five starts have come against the Cubs and Pirates. Nonetheless, right now this is a confident pitcher who trusts his stuff. If he continues to pound that outside corner against left-handers, I don't see why Lynn's success can't continue. After his last win, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny praised his pitcher's mental toughness, telling MLB.com, "I think he was just following along what we've been preaching, and that is one pitch at a time." Cubs manager Dale Sveum described Lynn's fastball as a heavy fastball and praised his ability to move it around the strike zone. What you have is a young starter with a power pitcher's body starting to pitching like a power potential. His upside is clearly much higher than a year ago, maybe who can slot in as a No. 2 starter.
Lohse is a little more difficult to analyze, since his raw stuff is nowhere near impressive as Lynn's. His average fastball clocks in at 89 mph. After the journeyman right-hander posted a 5.54 ERA with the Cardinals in 2009-10, his career appeared to be in jeopardy, especially after forearm surgery in May of 2010. He had something called "compartment syndrome," in which a sheath covering a muscle in the forearm doesn't allow it expand. The injury is apparently extremely rare in baseball. When Giants pitcher Noah Lowry suffered the same injury in 2008, the Giants failed to find another pitcher who had had the same injury. Lowry never returned to the majors.
Lohse ended up returning in August and then went 14-8, 3.39 last year, the lowest ERA of his career. In 2012, he's been even better, as opponents are hitting .209 against him. Always a guy who relied on control, he's cut down on his walks to two per nine innings.
So what's been the difference for Lohse in 2011-12 as compared to 2009-10, besides better health? Since his fastball is hardly overpowering, it's all about location and keeping hitters off-balance with his two-seam sinking fastball, slider, changeup and occasional curve. Look at the heat map below and you can see the fine line between Lohse succeeding and Lohse getting hammered. On the left, Lohse's pitch location in 2009-10; on the right, Lohse's location in 2011-12.
The differences are slight but noticeable; he's catching more of the inside corner against lefties/outside corner against righties and less of the center of the plate. He's also pitching down in the zone a little more.
Lohse doesn't throw as many groundballs as Lynn, so a key for him is keeping the ball in the park. After not allowing a home run in his first four starts, he gave up two against the Brewers on April 28 and a three-run shot to Houston's Jose Altuve in his only loss on May 4. Like Lynn, Lohse has benefited from a low BABIP so far and also high strand rates, so we can obviously expect both pitchers to regress from their hot starts. That may be true of the St. Louis staff as a whole: Despite its early success, it ranks just 15th in the NL strikeouts.
So, yes, maybe regression will happen, but it's also true that Lynn and Lohse make the Cardinals' rotation a lot stronger than it appeared when the club left Florida at the end of spring training.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.